The Stranger in My Bed: Who You Married Isn’t Who You’re Married To

Note from Shelly: From time-to-time, I’m sharing some of the best thoughts from writers/friends that I’ve come across on the web. This guest post is from my friend Amber Johnson, who writes Weddedness, a marriage blog with her husband, Cliff. I regularly follow Amber’s blog because she and her husband have some wise perspectives on marriage after the “I do” part…and well, they’re just funny writers to boot. Read this, and then visit her blog as well.

Who are you again?

Ten  years ago, when Cliff and I got married, he had hair and I had thighs that would have fit into skinny jeans, had they been stylish then. I was shy in groups and reticent to ever express a strong opinion; Cliff was more brash. He was headed for a career in social work. I wanted to be a writer.

Cliff was thinking about converting to Catholicism. I thought women shouldn’t be pastors. We weren’t positive we wanted kids. Everything we cared about could fit in the trunk of our car.

Now, Cliff has moved past Catholicism: our pastor’s name is Laura. I’ve learned to share my opinion, and occasionally cross the line to brash; Cliff has softened his voice. He’s left social work behind and is now in non-profit management. I’m on the same career path. We own a house full of stuff, though the things we care about mostly still fit in the back of our car: safely buckled in two car seats. And the hair and thighs, well, time changes things.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: who I married on September 8, 2001, isn’t quite the same person in my bed tonight. The change has been gradual, but the differences are stark. In fact, our son recently looked at a picture from our wedding day, and asked, “Where are you guys?” Good question.

We’ve been lucky: we’ve changed roughly in step with each other. Many of the changes have been for the better (I’ve learned to be more direct; Cliff has learned to listen more). And we’ve developed the thick skin it takes to tolerate the changes that are a bit tougher to stomach.

Not everyone is so lucky: some changes take more adapting. Think of the career woman who decides to be a stay-at-home mom. Or the stay-at-home mom who finds herself yearning for a career. Either occupation is respectable, but a sudden and passionate swing from one to the other can unsettle a relationship, especially for a husband who thought he was married to one and finds himself working out weekly schedules and budgets with the other.

I know of other families where one partner has suddenly become a serious runner, requiring hours of Saturday morning training runs and changed diets for the whole family.

And what if your husband becomes more brash? Your wife more bossy? What if illness or parenthood or unemployment changes something fundamental about your partner’s personality? Even if only temporary, the result can be feeling like you’re in bed with a stranger.

Ethicist Lewis Smedes says of his marriage, after 25 years, “My wife has lived with at least five different men since we were wed – and each of them has been me.”

What do we do about this? The answer isn’t to avoid change. The answer is to somehow respect the changes in each other, change in step when you can, and give your spouse space to be who he or she needs to be when you can’t. I think the answer also lies, somehow, in the promises we make to each other.

Smedes writes that “when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me.” Essentially, you have to rise above who you are and who you see yourself with to be open to who your partner is becoming. Let the promises you made be the through-thread of your relationship, when other things seem less certain. Find unlimited potential in who you could become together. Find excitement in being in bed with someone new.

Tim Keller, in his book The Meaning of Marriage, quotes Smedes (above) and then offers this wisdom: ”Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.”

Amber Johnson works at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership in Chicago, IL. She and her husband, Cliff, are the proud parents of Sam and Maggie. 

Reading Our Way to Christmas

I love traditions. Maybe it’s because unlike flossing your teeth or doing stomach crunches, traditions seem like fun habits to create.

Every Thursday evening, we have Backward Dinner night at our house, where we start with dessert and work our way backward through our meal: dessert, entrées, and then onto salads or starters if I’ve managed something that elaborate for dinner.

Mostly, my kids love to observe Backward Dinner Night when their friends come over to our house. Or, if we’re eating out, they get to explain to our server why we need our desserts first.

Another more recent tradition is to plan a tourist day in our own city on Veterans’ Day, which we’ll be doing again this Monday. We’ve taken the elevators to the observation deck of the Columbia Tower; had lunch at the Fairmont Olympic; gone glass blowing or cupcake tasting. In the evening, we set up our artificial Christmas tree and decorate it. No sense in waiting until December to enjoy the lights and ornaments. (Yeah, sometimes the kids talk me into a real tree as well in December.)

On Veteran’s day, we’ll also wrap our advent Christmas books. Starting on Dec. 1, we open one wrapped book (the kids rotate who gets to choose which present to unwrap) and read a Christmas bedtime story each night. The stories range from silly (Santa’s Eleven Months Off) to sweet (Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story); Sentimental (The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story) to iconic (How the Grinch Stole Christmas).

On Christmas Eve, we read the Nativity story.

I’ve change out a few books each year as the kids have advanced from infants to toddlers to grade school and middle school. The scratch and sniff book, The Sweet Smell of Christmas gave way to Pearl Buck’s, Christmas Day in the Morning. And the list is a blend of Christian and secular.

It’s been years of scouring bookstores and book lists and libraries to find some favorites. In case you need to purchase holiday presents for small people or want to start your own Advent book tradition, I thought I’d share my list with you—25 because it’s a nice number even if it means you’ll have to figure out which book you’ll exclude leading up to Christmas!

In random order:

  1. Redheaded Robbie’s Christmas Story, by Bill Luttrell
  2. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg
  3. Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry
  4. Snowmen at Night, by Mark Buehner
  5. Auntie Claus, by Elise Primavera (The three Auntie Claus books are my kids’ favorites at the moment!)
  6. Auntie Claus and the Key to Christmas, by Elise Primavera
  7. Auntie Claus, Home for the Holidays, by Elise Primavera
  8. Penny’s Christmas Jar, by Jason F. Wright
  9. How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss
  10. Merry UnChristmas, by Mike Reiss
  11. Olive, the Other Reindeer, by J. Otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh
  12. Mooseltoe, by Margie Palatini
  13. Christmas Day in the Morning, by Pearl S. Buck
  14. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree: An Appalachian Story, by Gloria Houston
  15. Legend of the Christmas Stocking*, by Rick Osborne
  16. A Wish to be a Christmas Tree, by Colleen Monroe
  17. The Legend of the Candy Cane*, by Lori Walburg VandenBosch
  18. A Wish for Wings That Work: An Opus Christmas Story, by Berkeley Breathed
  19. Santa’s Eleven Months Off, by Mike Reiss
  20. How Santa Got His Job, by Stephen Krensky
  21. There Was a Cold Lady Who Swallowed Some Snow, by Lucille Colandro
  22. The Little Shepherd Girl: A Christmas Story*, by Julianne Henry, Jim Madsen
  23. Humphrey’s First Christmas*, by Carol Heyer
  24. My Dad Cancelled Christmas, by Sean Casey
  25. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss

(I’ve noted specific Christian-themed books with an ‘*‘ so you can tailor your list in case you want to focus on or avoid the religious books suggested. I’ve also bolded my own personal favorites!)

Our Town Revisited

On March 22, 2009, a private plane crashed into a cemetery in Butte, Mont. Three couples, along with their 7 children, died in that crash, including my high school friend Vanessa and her sister Amy.

Vanessa and her husband, Mike, were absolutely wonderful at gathering friends for adventures: marathons, weekend get togethers, excursions on their family’s boat. Since the crash, friends of the Jacobson’s and Pullen’s are continuing the adventures in their honor. Every time we travel to unique places, run in half or full marathons, or whenever we’re doing something they would eagerly participate in, we’re wearing Jacobson/Pullen shirts in their memory.

In January, Megan and I will be doing the Tinkerbell half marathon in California in Vanessa’s honor. Whenever it’s rainy and cold, (and let’s face it, it’s cold and rainy a lot here in Seattle) and I don’t feel like getting out there to walk/run, I think about Vanessa’s ability to just dive in and do things. And I miss my friend.

[April 2009]

I must have been around 12 when I saw Our Town for the first time and fell in love with the minimalist sets, Thornton Wilder’s gentle, ironic humor and his astute observations of “the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

There’s a specific delight in introducing your kids to some of your favorite things and watching them discover it anew. Last summer, Megan and I drove to the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore. to see Our Town. I loved watching her watch the play…getting teary-eyed through some of the same scenes that struck me when I was her age.

My clearest memory of the play is the third act, where rows of chairs line the stage as graves. Emily, escorted to death through childbirth, is struggling to rest in peace. When she discovers that the dead can revisit scenes from life, she decides to go back to her twelfth birthday, despite stern warnings from her fellow deceased souls.

And the dead souls are right. You can’t go back. You can’t bear to watch people walking blithely through their days never noticing that the ordinary is what makes life extraordinary. Emily observes her birthday and realizes that everyone in her family was moving through their daily routine never pausing to really look and see and savor what was contained in those moments.

“Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” Emily asks the stage manager who narrates the play. Hardly anyone save the “saints and poets, maybe” ever realizes life, the stage manager replies.

Wilder was right that death provides us all with special lenses through which to see our lives for a time. It’s the stark reminder to prioritize well and savor the ordinary moments that grow into some of our best memories.

Even though we were in Northern California for my friend Vanessa’s memorial service today, the friends and the memories were all from “our town” in Southern California. The town of haystacks and veggie burgers. Sunday mail service. Ultimate games in Ford park. Beach vespers in Corona del Mar. And crazy drives through the canyon between Redlands and Loma Linda. Friday evenings making homemade ice cream and hot-tubbing at each other’s homes.

I loved the memories friends shared of Vanessa. They were utterly consistent with the Vanessa that I knew. She was genuine and kind and intelligent. Organized without being rigid. Generous and unflappable. An amazing hostess who was never pretentious or unnatural. It’s no surprise to me that she instigated an annual appreciation brunch for her kids’ teachers and the administration at Lodi Elementary—it’s just the kind of thing Vanessa would think to do…and be able to pull off beautifully.

When I think about Vanessa, it seems to me that one of her finest gifts was her ability to live graciously in each moment. Was she one of Wilder’s saints or poets? I don’t know. But her life certainly reminds me to realize life as we live it. Every, every minute.

Vanessa and Mike with their children, Sydney and Christopher.

High school graduation with Vanessa, center
Vanessa’s sister Amy, with her husband Erin Jacobson, and their children Jude, Taylor and Ava. Erin’s older brother was Eric’s best man at our wedding.

Brent and Kristen Ching with Caleb and Hailey. Before the trip, Kristen had just loaded ultrasound photos onto her laptop; they were expecting their third child, a boy. Brent’s parents are long-time friends of my family.