Four recent college graduates sat around my IKEA dining room table. A long crack ran down the center, Djibouti had long ago scarred the cheap wood. Humidity, heat, pressure, and later, scalding hot cookie sheets, kids finger-painting, and egg-dyeing projects would leave their marks.
“What has marriage brought to your life?” one of the young women asked.
They were in Djibouti for five weeks, part of a training program, and were nearing the end. We had talked through culture shock, poverty and justice, teaching English, developing relationships with their first-ever-Muslim friends, and now they wanted to talk about marriage. I didn’t know why they asked this particular question but I started talking.
Marriage brought laughter and comfort, a little bit of romance, someone to fix my broken toilets and change tires. Marriage brought a partner, someone to beat at Scrabble and someone to beat me at cribbage. It brought adventure – I have done things with or for my husband I would never have done alone – and with that adventure, courage and confidence. Marriage brought someone to be with me, who understands my wild history of low-income housing and Somalia and evacuation and giving birth to twins and Djibouti. Marriage brought spiritual depth and fresh insights into a faith almost too-familiar. Marriage brought three children. And sex.
Marriage brought anger and impatience and a man with an annoying tendency to tease just that much too far. It brought fights and stinky soccer clothes and revealed selfishness and pride. It brought the need to compromise and not seek after my own interests. Humility. The need to ask and offer forgiveness.
Before long, I noticed all of the girls were crying.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “What did I say?”
The girl who asked the question spoke. “I’ve been doing an informal study. I asked almost twenty couples this question, all of them believers.” She paused. “Yours is the only answer that makes me actually want to get married. The others said all negative things and I’ve started to lose hope that marriage is good.”
Now I felt like crying. I was sad for these girls who hadn’t heard the beautiful about marriage, had only heard the hard. And I was sad for these Christian couples who could only speak of the hard and not the beautiful. I still remember the advice of a man from our church to Tom, the week before we got married. He said, “You have seven days to run. Run.” He was married.
I’ve been married fourteen years and there are days I punch my pillow and think ‘who is this crazy stranger strutting around my house like he owns the place?’ Because yes, there are hard things about marriage. This other person has desires and needs. Deep ones, like what continent to live on and how to raise children. Lighter ones like ribs instead of salad for dinner and how to discard coffee grounds. These desires conflict with my own but I didn’t get married so I could always have my own way.
I don’t know what our marriage would look like if we had never moved to a Muslim country but I believe living overseas has fundamentally affected us. We were married three years in the US and now eleven in the Horn of Africa. We don’t hold hands or exhibit public displays of affections, not even at the airport. We don’t hang out with couple friends. We don’t volunteer together at church or school.
But we share inside jokes in Somali. We both remember the time our daughter pooped on the floor in a restaurant in Somalia. We know what it means if one of us rubs the other’s chin. I have seen Tom at his culture-shocked and jet-lagged worst. He has seen me. We know our specific, intimate heartaches.
And we know that someone has our back. Someone believes in us, even when we make no sense to anyone else. Even when we mess up the grammar and use our left hand and are taunted by street kids and receive a ‘no’ on a project proposal and a friend tells us to stop visiting. There is someone at home who will listen to me vent, pray for me and hold me and restore my sense of dignity and will make me laugh and then will wipe the slobber from the shoulder of his t-shirt.
Being married is hard and it is beautiful and married people become, whether they live overseas or not, like the scarred table with the crack down the center. The hard parts brought on by pressure and sin and personality leave their mark. But I don’t stare at the scar when I sit down to the table. I remember the holidays, the late-night conversations, the epic Settlers of Catan games, the Chinese takeout on Christmas, the people who have shared this table and then scattered all over the world. I remember the man who has shared this table and never scattered anywhere except with me.
Yes, the table is scarred but the table is beautiful because people have been together here, celebrating and loving and living. What has marriage brought to my life? Scars, beautiful and hard things. But even in the hard things, they are our hard things and Tom and I bear the marks together. Part of building a marriage is choosing to sit at the scarred table and see the beautiful.