When people share their “I knew I loved him when …” stories, I often imagine violin music in the background. Possibly bouquets of flowers. Often some bold, public display. Swooning. Definitely swooning.
My own “I know I loved him when” story is uglier. Private. The sound track (if it had one) would definitely not be soothing. Perhaps something more like Hitchcock’s infamous shower scene: notes attacking the ears in shrill stabs.
The scene was the kitchen of the first place we called home together: a granny flat attached to someone else’s house—all we could afford. We had been married less than three months, and the stress of our first year was already mounting. I did what I do when I’m insecure and worried: I used my words like weapons. He did what he does when he’s unsure and feeling harassed: he retreated into silence.
One night, after enduring another of my impassioned (and hurting and no doubt self-righteous) speeches, he withdrew to the bedroom. I followed him, and he—horrified that marriage had deprived him of the right to post a “keep out of my room!” sign on the door— walked out the house and into the dark night.
I rehearsed all sorts of imaginary conversations we might have when he walked through the door again: an apology. An invitation to talk. A kiss n’ make up session. As it turned out, none of these happened. He came home silent, and I, in the face of so-much-fear and panic-that-I-couldn’t-fix-this and not-being-able-to-breathe because was-our-marriage-failing-already, just stood there.
This, dear friends, is the inglorious moment when I knew I loved him. The words rose up in me as clearly as anything I’d ever thought: I know I love you because I’m. Not. Leaving. It had been easy to stand by his side when he’d slipped a sparkly ring onto my finger as we overlooked the ocean. It was easy to love him when he’d swooped into rescue me from an overbearing friend. It was swooningly easy to love him on our wedding day: all dapper in a tux, cheered on by a sea of supportive faces.
But that moment, I felt love’s cost. Swamped by fear and the most primal instinct to Run! Cut my losses! I stayed. And I knew—knew in a deep, gutsy, hope-building way that makes no sense until you’re in the eye of the storm—I knew I loved him then.
That love should look a lot like staying power for me is not very surprising, I suppose. By the time I was 16, I had seen three marriages dissolve close up.
The first were soul mates: finishing one another’s sentences, so close they could have been brother and sister. But their marriage was blind-sided by betrayal, and they never could correct the course and steer their way into forgiveness and trust again.
The next had more practical expectations, perhaps: companions, co-parents, deeply sympathetic and supportive mutual friendship. But addictions make nasty bedfellows, and since we can’t change others no matter how much we love them, they parted, too.
The third seemed to have spiritual compatibility going for them: Jesus, shared interests, and a partnership … or so it seemed. What should have been a recipe for success somehow still made for a very cold home, and I was not sad when they found their differences to be “irreconcilable.”
None of these marriages were mine, and I don’t know if I could have stayed in any of those situations myself either, but one sad result of having seen those marriages crumble was that, on the cusp of adulthood, I realized with a shock: I have never seen a couple hit an obstacle and actually make it through.
If relationship habits are nurtured at home, I felt thoroughly ill-equipped to enter the world of dating myself. How would I ever learn how to make it through the other side of a fight? If finding a soul mate was no guarantee of marital success, nor finding a Christian, nor even lowering your expectations and finding a kind and sympathetic friend … if none of these things could ensure love would last, how would I know? Or was any relationship I entered into a ticking time bomb, counting away the hours before the inevitable something exploded?
I spent ten years looking for hope: sniffing out couple’s survival stories like a truffle-hunter. I was desperate for tales of extracting treasures from the muck. I sought out couples who looked like they’d lived long enough to weather a season or two, and brazenly invited myself over. Secretly, I’d hope they’d fight while I was there, and sometimes, I got lucky. Being allowed to witness others loving for better and for worse did much to kindle hope in this trembling girl’s heart.
But nothing—nothing!—could compare with the adrenalin shot to the heart the night when I , trembling I, stood my ground on our kitchen floor and Did. Not. Run. Even though I wanted to. Even though I was afraid. Even though I didn’t know what would happen next.
I stayed. And I knew I loved him then.