October 24, 2019
A Beautiful Mess Part II
It Starts with You
Guest blog by Natalie Suarez
Have you ever gotten a plant as a gift? On arrival, it’s blooms and buds are at their most luscious, leaves their most green. It has been carefully tended to, watered, fertilized, gently pruned. Time has been invested daily to ensure that it thrives and blossoms. As a passionate gardener I love digging my hands in the dirt, sowing the smallest of seeds and seeing the wonder of a show stopping garden spring forth. But as any gardener understands, it truly is a labor of love — emphasis on LABOR. Let too many days go by, and that plant will begin to droop from lack of attention, blossoms will fall, leaves will wither. After several months of neglect, that once gorgeous plant is now a dried-up disappointment destined for the compost heap.
Relationships are not unlike that botanical beauty. Early on we are captivated by a new relationship; we marvel and wonder at its near perfection. We spend the initial weeks, months and maybe years, intentionally investing into that relationship. It is a joyful process; dates, flowers, and sweet texts, are an easy outflow of our active pursuit. However, as time goes by, the shiny wears off, nurturing takes a back seat and soon our attention drifts. We invest our time and energies elsewhere, perhaps its other activities, perhaps it’s our children or our friends. As our relationship starts to falter, sadly, we may even seek connection with someone else. Like gardening, relationships are hard work. They require intentionality, regular nurturing to keep them thriving and keep us connected on an intimate level. If we are not purposefully investing time and energy, then relationships suffer, and they will wither and die much like that plant we’ve forgotten to water, fertilize, or prune. Nothing can kill a relationship quicker than just plain old neglect.
After almost 12 plus years of marriage, my husband and I found ourselves in that place. It was an evolution of small, costly choices (and a few large ones) made over years that led us to a marriage that was collapsing. Unfortunately, we had to experience the pain of separation and divorce to teach us some very hard lessons about how to keep relationships alive and thriving. Being apart all those years gave us an opportunity. Yes, we were no longer in a marriage relationship, but we each realized in our own separate journeys that the beginning of healing in any relationship starts with the individual. Separately, we found healing in similar paths. The investments we made in ourselves created a strong foundation for our second marriage and provided much needed tools to nurture ourselves and our newly established relationship. We chose to do things differently. The important point here is that we were apart, not together. There was no working together to salvage the relationship. It was all about how we could as individuals change ourselves to be better partners in the future. We each found some requisite strategies that prepared us for the next season of relationship.
I have developed several of what my family would call ‘Bon Mots’ over the years that have become foundational truths. Though not my original ideas, they have become a constant internal chatter and shared axiom with others. They are precepts that have proved valuable in navigating life and relationships. One essential truth is that the only person you can control is yourself and the only person you can change is yourself. The most significant change we can make in your relationship is to look honestly at ourselves and ask, “What can I do that will make a difference in this relationship?” Look, we can’t change the past, but we can make a change today. It’s likely that your relationship didn’t come off the rails in one giant moment: more likely it unraveled slowly. The same is true for restoration. Reestablishing a healthy relationship takes time, with change executed in small increments. Below are three steps that you can do alone. They may not require herculean effort but will have herculean impacts on your marriage and yourself. I don’t know where you are in your season. You may be married, separated, newly divorced, single, engaged or in a state of ‘it’s complicated.’ Wherever you find yourself, I hope these strategies give you a path forward.
- Spend Time with God
“And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength. The second is equally important ‘Love you neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.…” Mark 12:30-31
Spending time with the One who loves us beyond all measure is time always well spent. It can be time reading His word, time in prayer or time spent just listening to hear His heart. Staying connected with God allows us to understand what His plans are for us in every area of our life. We learn who we are, and in who our identity is based. When we spend time with the One who loves us unconditionally, we can love ourselves and then in turn love others.
Before my marriage fell apart, I considered myself a good Christian. I attended church, served in the church, and even lead a small group. On the outside, I looked pretty spiritual, but on the inside, I was struggling. It was the second part of this verse that I wrestled with: Love your neighbor as yourself. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling the love -- from myself, from God or from my spouse. How can we love another, when we feel unloved, not sure we even like ourselves? We can’t give what we don’t have.
When my marriage ended there were too many losses to count; my identity was shattered. I had an even bigger size hole in my heart than before. Feeling loved was not my reality. It was a very painful place. Pain demanded relief and I sought that relief in some unhealthy things and people. In retrospect, that stripping away of my identity, and the revelation of who I was and wasn’t, drove me to a wonderful discovery. To quote Rick Warren, “You never know God is all you need until God is all you have.” When I was at the end of me, God was there. I truly lacked nothing.
It was not a quick process, but over time, God was able to peel away the lies I believed about myself and show me the way He saw me.
I am a beautiful masterpiece.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
He loves me with an everlasting love.
He will never leave me or forsake me.
I am the apple of his eye.
I am a daughter of the King
He takes great delight in me. He rejoices over me with singing.
He chose me.
As I read God’s word over myself daily, I saw the great love He had for me -- even at my most unlovable. I discovered that His grace was sufficient for me. I learned first-hand that the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than any two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, it exposes our innermost thoughts and desires (Hebrews 4:12). God literally cut out the lies my mind meditated on for so long and spoke to my spirit of His truth, love and design for me. I was a new creation. He wooed me, pursued me and I let him. He had chosen me and now I chose Him.
There is a joy, strength and hope that comes from knowing who God says we are and in learning to love what God loves in us. That joy is contagious. As I soaked in the love of my Father and received it, I was able to live in it and extend it to others. God’s love seemed to spill over me and through me onto others. I see this transformation; this miracle God did in me as instrumental in opening my eyes and heart to see my (ex)husband and my dead marriage with a different perspective. I finally realized that without God, without be fully plugged into the only true source of love, my marriage was doomed to fail. It also gave me the courage to hope for the future and a future relationship. I pray it gives you hope in your situation as well.
Let us not underestimate the importance of prayer in our pursuit of God. Praying is never time wasted. I was meeting with my mentor a few years after my divorce and she offered me a book, The Power of the Praying Wife. I laughed out loud! ‘You do know I am no longer married, right?’ She smiled and responded gently. ‘He is still the father of your children. Don’t you think that’s worth praying about?’ It was a pivotal moment for me on many levels. Prayer was an element of my faith walk that was sporadic and disorganized. I prayed for many things, but my ex-husband was not one of them. I was hurt and angry. Filled with shame and guilt. I didn’t want to think about him let alone pray for him. But the Bible is pretty clear, “Forgive us the wrongs we have done as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us”(Matthew 6: 12 TPT). I had forgiven myself; God had forgiven me and I needed to forgive. (Now I will talk much more about forgiveness in the next blog as it is a big topic). However, praying for my former husband, allowed me to walk in forgiveness towards him. It is almost impossible to pray and hold a grudge. Honestly, it wasn’t easy at first. My prayers were pretty heartless and rote in the beginning. But as I continued through that book, my heart softened and my prayers become more fervent. God did a work in me through that book that broke off a lot of junk that I had been holding onto. I encourage all of us to take on this mantle of prayer for our spouse. To come before our loving Father and ask for those things that we cannot change ourselves, but He can. Every moment we spend in relationship with the Lord, in prayer, in His Word is a priceless investment in ourselves and our relationships.
2. Find a Mentor
Another one of my ‘Bon Mots’ is if you are married, you WILL have marital problems. If you have kids, you WILL have kid problems. If you have in-laws you WILL have in-law problems. Any relationship you have will eventually develop conflict. As a wife or husband, one of the biggest lies we come to believe is that we are the only one who is experiencing difficulty. We then pretend all is well, isolate ourselves and preclude ourselves from getting the help we so desperately need.
As an introvert as well as conflict avoidant, sharing my hurts, worries, questions, concerns did not come easily even in the closest of relationships. I was talented at the ‘everything is great’ mask. Revealing weakness, that life was unraveling, was an anathema to me.
But God is not happy to let us be an island and go it alone. It was the week before my divorce hearing and I was dreading the actual day. I had to go to court. My (ex) husband was a lawyer, so a courtroom was a familiar place for him. For me it was being on stage, front and center, airing my dirty laundry. Dread blanketed me. A woman in my community group, an acquaintance even after several years of ‘sharing’ (I was the master of superficial relationships and keeping people at a safe emotional distance), approached me and asked if I would like for her to come with me to court. Moral support. Used to going it alone, it took me by surprise, but I also knew that I would be in that courtroom experiencing one of the greatest traumas of my life. Alone. I said “yes” and then instantly regretted it. She would hear. . . everything . . .all my secrets. . . I would be exposed. On instinct, I preempted this public shaming in the presence of my ‘friend’ and spilled my guts to her in a quiet place. She listened. She nodded. She said little. She hugged me. She was there. Period. Every worst fear I had fostered in my mind, was alleviated in that brief conversation. Relief engulfed me. And she DID NOT JUDGE ME. She just loved me where I was at. Truly Jesus in the flesh.
That day was the start of one of the most influential relationships of my life. I had found my first mentor. My lifetime of superficial relationships was about to experience a season of transparency, fulfillment of lifetime heart desires for a true deep friendship and a hope and joy I never anticipated to come from this traumatic season. God was working. What was meant for evil He was changing for my good.
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.
Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, one person sharpens another.
We were not meant to walk life in isolation. We are meant to be in relationship with others. To have others hold us accountable, to provide us with Godly truth and call us on our bad decisions. We need wisdom from those who have walked the journey and can give us insight on how to navigate the mountains, the cliffs and the tsunamis. We need others to celebrate with us, cry with us, laugh with us and to pray with us. We need others because we are not objective going it alone. We lose perspective when we isolate ourselves and good mentors ease us back into facing reality, dispelling lies. They also help you move forward. They make us better people.
Finding a mentor may take some work. God may not plop one in your lap like he did with my first mentor. If you are a member of a church, approach your pastor and ask for recommendations. Look for those women in your church that you respect and look up to and just ask them if they are willing to meet with you. It may even be someone in your small group or social circle already. Mentoring can take many forms. It may be a formal program like The 7th Year by Alicia Chole which I participated in a few years back. It may be less structured, like meeting to do a bible study or reading a book together. Or it may only be meeting for coffee periodically to touch base and have real conversation, ask the hard questions and pray. Whatever it looks like to you, I encourage you to reach out and make that first step to find someone and stop going it alone.
3. Become a Student of Marriage
Marriage preparation seems to be more about planning the wedding and honeymoon than preparing for your life and relationship after. Seems upside down to me. Normally it’s a year of preparation for the ‘big day’, thousands of dollars invested and an army of people enlisted for just a few hours of celebration. Whereas there is little or no preparation for the lifetime afterwards. For my husband and I, our only instruction for the first 13 years of marriage was one 30-minute meeting with the priest of my parent’s church. Needless to say, its impact was non-existent as I recalled nothing that would help me later as my marriage began to struggle. After I was divorced I became a student on relationships. I’m a 5 on the enneagram (I guess that is a separate blog as well), so information is definitely my jam. I consumed articles, blogs, podcasts, books, seminars, conferences, whatever I could get my hands on. I educated myself on strategies for maintaining healthy relationships, conflict resolution, having a healthy (married) sex life, communication styles, boundaries, and understanding how men think and what they value. (Spoiler alert: It’s different than what women typically understand). I was shocked to discover how little I knew about God’s plan for marriage or about keeping a marriage healthy. I wasn’t married but I knew if I was ever going to walk that path again I wanted it to be different and I wanted to be prepared.
Here are a few resources that I utilize on a regular basis. There is an enormous array of resources out there that can help all of us navigate relationships and find solutions for what we are facing. Just start with one. . . Remember, small steps.
Marriage Today Jimmy Evans
Naked Marriage - Dave and Ashley Willis
Rise Together - Dave and Rachel Hollis
Family Life Today
Focus on the Family
Fierce Marriage — Ryan and Selena Frederick
It’s time to become a student again and take control of your situation by learning new approaches to strengthen your relationship. It doesn’t matter where you have been, it only matters where you are going. But most importantly, take what you are learning and put it into action. Remember, it starts with you. Ghandi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world” but in this case, be the change you want to see in your relationship.
We can’t go back, but we can go forward. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23). Let’s take the leap and trust God. Let’s walk forward with hope and great expectation. Yes, even joy, knowing that God has a bigger better plan for us and our relationships. It’s just going to take some work. I am not saying do all these things and our marriages will be bliss. But I am saying do something different. If what you are doing isn’t working, give it up. Take some steps in a different direction. Small steps. Out of your comfort zone steps. It’s time to step up and be the gardener of your relationship, to encourage growth. Time to nourish, pull some weeds, fertilize, prune and bring your relationship garden back to life and reap a bountiful harvest.
In my next blog I will focus on practical solutions that you and your spouse can work on together to heal and grow your relationship. Until next time, embrace those small steps!