Three Little Words

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When I answered the phone recently and simply heard sobbing, I knew immediately who it was Susan, my close friend whose marriage is hanging in a precarious balance between a long road to recovery from her husband's emotional affair and ending altogether in divorce.

Over the past few months I've listened to her, cried with her, prayed my guts out for her, played with her, and held her in those moments of desperation when none of the above would even come close to touching the depth of her pain and heartache. It's been a grueling and surprisingly precious time. In moments of raw emotion, we've had conversations about love and life that have knocked my socks off. We've had honest and vulnerable talks about growing up as people pleasers, fears of doing life alone, being groomed by society for a wedding instead of a marriage, and feeling the need to have a spouse to fit into Christian circles. It's been strange and somewhat liberating to have a friendship this messy.

In the midst of this mess, it's been easier to see God's fingerprints, to feel his love for Susan flowing through me when I ache for her in a way that almost hurts physically and when I offer words of wisdom that I know are not my own. I sometimes wonder why he picked unmarried me to minister to someone who needs such marriage expertise right now. But I'm beginning to see his "mysterious ways" at work as our contrasting perspectives have taught us both some important life lessons.

Susan thinks I'm brave for doing life alone and I think she's brave for doing all she can to mend her broken marriage when so many would bolt from such a tough situation. At the same time, Susan's seeing that if it comes down to separation or divorce, she can make it alone because if I can, anyone can! And I'm learning through her struggles the vital importance of making wise marriage choices. Susan's also mentioned how much she appreciates the fact that, unlike her married friends and family members, I'm available almost anytime to talk on the phone or meet for coffee if she needs some spur-of-the-moment support. I like this new positive spin on my "available" status.

During this difficult time for Susan of Christian counseling sessions, arguments and anger, good days and tearful days, two steps forward and three steps back she's been told by nearly all the handful of friends she's shared her struggles with to take good care of herself, to take time to do things that make her happy. It's her response to this good advice that's broken my heart most. With tearful eyes and a defeated look, she whispered to me one day, "I don't know what makes me happy. I'm beginning to realize I don't really know who I am."

I was surprised by this admission. I'd always seen Susan as put together, friendly, responsible, and outgoing. But when she explained that she spent most of her and her husband's three-year dating relationship investing in his life and dreams, how since then they've decided to let him pursue a degree while she's put her work aspirations on hold, and how he's called the shots for everything from dinner decisions to money matters, I realized Susan had fallen into the common trap of losing herself for the sake of love. A trap I've nearly fallen into a few times myself.

I've watched friends get married because it was easier to walk down the aisle than to chart life's path or to dig deep and figure out just who it is God made them to be. And I've fretted for some who married so young, becoming a "we" before they had much of a chance to figure out "me." I think about my own Mr. Close Enough, who I begrudgingly walked away from in my early twenties, and wonder who I'd be now if I hadn't had to do the hard work of making some life decisions of my own over the past years.

I'm not saying all who marry young are doomed or that all who marry at all are avoiding reality. Most assuredly, there are healthy, happy marriages in abundance. But there are also a lot of people getting hitched because it seems easier to become Wife or Husband and soon after Mom or Dad than doing the difficult work of growing up and growing into the specific roles, ministries, paths, and professions to which God calls each of us. I'll admit it, at times marriage has seemed like an escape when it becomes too tough, too personal, too scary to mine the talents, abilities, purpose, and passions God's planted in my heart.

It's also tempting for us single people to put our life on hold until we can assume the easy-to-define, everyone's-doing-it role of Wife or Husband. But in talking with Susan, I've realized afresh that the three little words many of us long to hear most "I love you" can be robbed of much of their richness and meaning when we haven't first asked ourselves a different but just as vital three little words "who am I?"

Susan's figuring out the hard way that two half-people don't make a whole, healthy marriage. And I'm still learning the hard way, too, that one half-person makes for a miserable single life. And anyway, God doesn't make half-people and his promises don't come packaged for pairs. God completes us. Each of us. And it's only when we allow him to do so that we find true joy and the abundant life to which he's called us.

As for Susan, she's now taking some classes to help figure out what gives her and God joy. And me, I'm learning through our friendship that I'm an encourager a spiritual gift I hope to allow God to use and grow in me. Thanks to Susan, I'm getting a lot of practice. I love cheering her on as she comes into her own more and more. I hope someday in the future to be joined in this joy by her husband, as he realizes what a gem he's married to. Until then, I know God is guiding this caterpillar as she spins a cocoon, and I eagerly anticipate the day when she'll emerge a beautiful butterfly whole, confident in God's love for her, and free to fly in the direction he beckons her.


Camerin Courtney
June 13, 2001

2002 Christianity Today. Used by permission.