Photo by mac.rj
I was reading a post the other day by a woman lamenting the number of older couples in her life who felt obligated to tell her how difficult marriage was going to be. In the author’s experience, none of the forewarned trials had come to pass. In fact, she calls the first year of her marriage “wonderful.”
As I read the post, reflecting back on my 22-year-old self, I couldn’t relate. In fact, I was thinking just the opposite: No one warned me how difficult marriage would be! No one planted just enough fear in me to make me step back and ask if marriage was really something I was really ready for! Instead, society and the church seemed to present marriage as an ideal—the route to a life of happiness (not to mention the best way to avoid the sin of premarital sex).
Just as I was contemplating the best way to cement the “marriage is so difficult” message into the minds of as many 20-year-olds as possible, I realized the irony inherent in my reaction: In the process of protesting against someone’s slanted “marriage is wonderful” message, I wanted to proclaim my own slanted message, to the contrary.
Then I realized what’s really wrong with this whole scenario: the word “message.” I want to pretend, somehow, that my very subjective story can be spun into a universal message. In the midst of our fear and confusion about life, we want to believe there is a one-size-fits-all slogan or jingle to apply to any common life experience, whether it be getting married, having children, or making a living as a freelance writer. These may be experiences that many people have, but no two experiences are the same. There are no tidy blanket statements we can wrap them up in, there are only subjective stories.
And stories do need to be told. But think about it—what makes a story a great story? Not sweeping generalizations about universal themes, but the details, the specifics around those themes. Without an openness to sharing and claiming those specifics, our stories become something else, and that something else can be harmful. Our broad messages have the potential to shape someone’s expectations, to amplify their experiences, and to exaggerate their response.
If we want to talk about something like marriage, the only story we can share is our own—as honestly as possible, without making broad statements or generalizations. Our stories should not carry loud morals or prescriptive advice. They should simply share what we’ve experienced. They will fall on the ears of people who need to feel less alone, or need to see their own situation from a different perspective. If we tell our stories in truth, they will do the work they need to do.
And as I respect my own story for what it is, I also need to have great respect for the stories of others—especially those that seem to fly in the face of my own experiences. As someone who got a divorce after a decade of struggle and pain and counseling, I can assure you there’s nothing more hurtful than having people dismiss your experience by telling you, “Marriage is really hard—you obviously didn’t work hard enough,” or “We’ve had some really tough times, too, but we’re committed to staying married.”
Each story is valid. Yours is the only one you get to speak truth into.