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. 

The Write Stuff

We all have our thing. Some women appreciate men in military uniforms. Others fawn over firemen, sports heroes, movie stars, or go crazy at rock concerts. I develop crushes on men with keyboard-calloused fingers. Not music keyboards. Computer keyboards.

Wit and intellect, a way with words, and I get weak in the knees. It’s no surprise, really, that I think Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, should be voted “Sexiest Man Alive.” In my mind, best-selling author Don Miller could easily be a first runner-up to wear the SMA satin sash. Or maybe the “Sexiest Man Alive” title is etched on a leather tool belt. I don’t know.

For my birthday, my girlfriend Debbie bought tickets for us to hear Don Miller talk about his latest book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I felt like a recipient of the Make a Wish Foundation except I wasn’t going to Disneyland. And I’m not terminally ill that I know of.

I had to promise Debbie that I wasn’t going to rush the platform and throw underwear on the stage. Don was, after all, speaking at the Eastside Foursquare Church. Worshipful conduct was in order. Maybe an alabaster jar and some perfume…

Don spent an hour talking about the components of great stories: the narrative arc, the protagonist and antagonist, conflict, climax and denouement. Well, maybe Don didn’t say “denouement,” but there was a great section on story arcs. Story arcs may not sound humorous, but when Don’s narrating it, characters and conflict are seriously funny.

Turns out the upcoming film version of Don’s New York Times bestseller, Blue Like Jazz strays a bit from reality because Don’s actual life writ large is too boring for the big screen. (That’s not my opinion. I think men in front of computer monitors are studs.) The filmmakers decided Don’s life needed some gentle embellishment.

As Don explains it, great stories–in movies or in real life–are all about a series of events. It’s what someone is actually doing more than what a character thinks or feels. That’s not to say that a good film has to be an action movie—car chases and cool stunts—or that what a character thinks and feels is irrelevant. But no one can see what someone thinks unless it’s demonstrated through actions. You don’t know what someone feels unless he shows you.

To make a movie interesting, you have to a string together a series of events with a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it. More than that, what he wants has to matter.

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers…Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful,” Don writes. “The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.”

Don went on to talk about how assiduously we avoid pain and conflict in our lives. Yet grand stories are about the transformation of a character; and pain and conflict are the main tools that produce change in our lives.

Nobody changes because they have something happy happen to them, Don says. We change through hardship and pain and through the pressure of difficult experiences.

That’s a concept. Embrace challenges. Welcome pain as an element that’s going to produce a grand story in your life. I’m conflicted over the concept of conflict in my life, but when I’m thinking of lifelong wishes, it occurs to me that ultimately, we really are all terminally ill. Some of us just know the timing a bit better than others.

When the credits roll, it would be nice to have lived a grand narrative. It would be great to invest my time and energy into actions that make a difference in the end.

My life? It’s the stuff that movies are made of. I’ll tell you all about it while I’m folding the laundry…

What Do Women Want?

It’s almost impossible to ignore an article called, “What Do Women Want?” So it’s no surprise that Daniel Bergner’s piece of that said title is the second most e-mailed article this week from the New York Times magazine. (Bergner’s article was eclipsed in e-mail popularity by an article on road signs—a seriously important journalistic investigation into Great Britain’s towns with funny names: Crapstone; Spanker Lane, Penistone, Pratts Bottom and Wetwang to name a few. This from our nation’s Newspaper of Record.)

Bergner’s article is flying into e-mail boxes, and I suspect that the recipients will scan the first few paragraphs and give up reading. The droll reader will be thinking Chocolate? Money? Shoes? The humorless will be looking for serious answers like, “Respect.”

Turns out, the long, convoluted article is all about sexual response, and it essentially concludes that women don’t know what they want, and the researchers can’t figure out how to isolate the variables.

Meredith Chivers, scientist and member of the editorial board of the world’s leading journal of sexual research, has done extensive studies attempting to measure what triggers arousal and desire among men and women. In these studies, she invites men and women to watch footage of things like mating apes, people having sex or exercising, or walking nude on the beach. The participants are given a keypad to rate how aroused they felt as they watched each scene. Chivers, to get a more objective read, also connects a plethysmograph to the participants’ genitals to measure arousal and compares the plethysmographs results to the subjective keypad ratings. (Who signs up to participate in these kinds of studies?!!)

Men, Chivers found, were completely consistent: the ratings on the plethysmograph matched their keypad ratings of arousal. Women, however, had very different readings from what their bodies registered to what they recorded on their keypads.

Despite the compelling title and a subject matter that usually captures attention, the article was interminably long, veering off into discussions of the monogamy of prairie voles (I’ve always liked prairie voles) and attempts to better understand things like dyspareunia (no connection between prairie voles and dyspareunia, by the way).

Somewhere along what would likely have been 88 inches into the article, a professor of psychology, Marta Meana, starts to discuss a woman’s desire to be desired, to be chosen and wanted. In committed relationships, desire runs the risk of diminishing when women feel that their partners no longer choose them, but are there because they are trapped.

Women want to be cared for and protected, Meana says, but women also long to be ravished and the unique object of desire. Women are turned on by the notion that a man can hardly contain himself; that he would “transgress societal codes in order to seize her, and she, feeling herself to be the unique object of his desire, is electrified by her own reactive charge and surrenders.”

I know. It sounds like a very bad romance novel. Very anti-feminist and un-PC. And I’m not sure about that whole “transgress societal codes” to seize her thing. But honestly, something resonates here. I don’t know how other women think, but something in this female soul at least, wants to be cherished and chosen and desired.

I finished the NY Times piece (because I’m wired to read even insufferably long and convoluted articles all the way through) and turned on a sermon about money and the rich young ruler by Tim Keller, Sr. Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church (also in NYC).

Sex and money. It’s what makes the world go ’round, right? Oddly enough, it all connected. Keller, as he is wont to do, started talking about what Jesus gave up for us: the power of the universe; the riches of heaven; his relationship with his father; the glory and the praise—he abandoned it all in his desire for a relationship with us, with me. He so wanted me, that he came down to this earth in the most humble of forms and walked the path to a cross and death to ensure that I could be with him.

After my ex-husband left, a few Christians said to me, “The Bible promises that Jesus will be your husband.” Huh? I know it’s in the Bible, but that’s just weird. I never got that whole nuns-married-to-Jesus thing my Catholic friends talk about. Incomprehensible and odd, and I remember looking at my friends quoting the “your maker as your husband” verse as if they were kinda strange. But over time, it’s starting to make sense to me. The more that I reflect on and look at the story of Jesus on this earth, the more I realize that I really am the object of God’s desire; the prize that was set before him that took him to the cross. He cherishes me, is delighted by me. He would, and has, given up everything for me. He would break societal codes, traverse the universe, and vanquish demons for the intense pleasure of my company. It’s hard to resist falling in love with someone who loves you to that degree.