I Thought My Marriage Was a Huge Mistake (It Wasn’t)

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Nichole Forbes -Hardest Good Work3

Our shame is the enemy of someone else’s success.

I scribbled this sentence on the back of an old Taco Bell receipt and stuck it on our fridge the night of our first counseling session. We had been married less than six months and I felt like I had ruined both our lives when I said yes to marrying him.

We met at a church event. I was 19 and adulthood wasn’t sitting well with me. I was restless, disappointed and in the process of being found. I had spent an intense summer working at a wilderness camp that left me entirely out-of-sync with my peers, all the kids I had grown up with in the church. I was asking questions no one had answers for and saying things no one wanted to hear.

He was 25 and returning to church for the first time in years. He was coming out of a disastrous relationship. He was at odds with his parents and his best friends had recently moved out of province. He felt alone and apart from the world around him. He was messy and deep and creative. And I thought he was beautiful.

We became fast friends and a year later we were engaged. We became engaged without ever going on a date or sharing one romantic moment. We were friends who desperately loved each other and felt compelled to be a safe place for each other. We had the most fantastic friendship and marriage could only make it better, right?

I seriously just laughed as I typed that. How naïve were we? We were entirely unprepared for a marriage relationship. Like entirely! We sat through a series of marriage preparation videos at our church but I struggled to find any relevant information. These were older people with very traditional views on marriage. The videos were more than 20 years old when we watched them and the only clear memory I have of those videos is thinking that the very old man on screen was probably long dead by the time we sat down to watch these. I also remember that our pastor slept through the videos.

So, we blissfully marched down the aisle toward our doomed marriage. Within ten days of saying “I do” we both secretly felt as though we’d made the biggest mistake of our lives. Within four months we were drowning in misunderstandings, misconceptions and missed opportunities. We were mostly silent because words hurt too much. And really, what words could you say when you’re living a lie?

I was a Good Church Girl and he was The Prodigal Son returned. Ours was the stuff of church fairy tales. We were youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, choir members and the go-to volunteers for just about every ministry in the church. I grew up in this church and I felt the pressure to live up to the expectations of a hashtag-blessed life. He was welcomed back into the fold, but felt all eyes on him lest he screw up again. So, every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday we put on our church faces and dove into our duties as the poster-children for second generation Christians.

We dove and we sank.

By the time we hit our six-month anniversary, he had asked me if I wanted to move back to my parents’ place and I was mentally preparing to manage the damage-control for when we inevitably separated. And look, it wasn’t that we didn’t love each other or respect each other. And it wasn’t that we didn’t take marriage seriously. When we decided to get married we never imagined for one hot minute that we wouldn’t love each other forever. It’s just that we also never imagined that Every Single Thing would be so difficult. We never realized that our own expectations could strangle us. We never dreamed that love wouldn’t be enough to save us from ourselves. But it wasn’t.

We were drowning but someone offered us a lifeline and we grabbed hold with both hands. A colleague of mine recognized my heartache and invited Brad and I to her house to meet her husband. He was an associate pastor at another church in town and he was willing to help us.

We went to their house that first night and poured out our broken hearts to them. I cried the entire time. Brad cried too. As we talked, my tears turned from tears of heartbreak to tears of relief. Someone sees us. Someone sees us drowning and they are going to help us! We left that night with no answers, only a promise to wade in with us and to help us learn how to be married. We felt saved.

On our way home that night we didn’t talk very much. We just agreed to be honest and to keep showing up for each other. We also agreed that if we made it through this we had to pay it forward, we had to be honest with others about our struggles because we knew we couldn’t be the only newlyweds to feel this way, to feel the pressure to be perfect while we were so deeply imperfect. We made a pact to share our story whenever we had the opportunity so others would be courageous enough to offer help and receive help.

Our shame is the enemy of someone else’s success.

These are our words. This is at the core of how we live. Ask us anything. We’ll be honest with you. God didn’t do all of this in our lives for us to keep it to ourselves. If I know anything about God, I know that God is all about lavishly loving his kids. God is about abundance and doesn’t play favorites. God is about hope.

Brad and I have been married for twenty years now. We have weathered a lot of storms. We have faced near-death accidents, cancer, miscarriages, job loss, depression, Autism, financial lack, loss and heartbreak. We have also experienced hope and joy and love. Friendship, dreams come true, unimaginable blessings and belly-aching laughter have all been ours. We live this life with open hands and open hearts.

We show up.
We never give up.
We believe the best.
We smile at the future.
We dream.
We laugh.
We love–dangerously.
We serve.
We hold hands and hold each other’s hearts.
We are an unstoppable team.

After our year of counseling, we didn’t magically get a Happily Ever After. There’s no magic here; there’s only choices. We still have to keep showing up and doing the hard work of forgiving and loving. But we both want it bad enough to keep at it. From a distance, we may look like we have the perfect marriage and we do. Perfect for us. But we are still deeply imperfect people who annoy each other and disappoint each other and are occasionally inconsiderate of each other. But we are also two deeply imperfect people who are choosing to be present every day.

Marriage is messy and the hardest good work we’ve ever done. For us, it’s been holy work. But it’s all for naught if we gloss over the tough bits and only showcase the shiny moments because it’s in the tough moments that our two lives have become intertwined and fused together. It’s in those tough conversations that we have become the best versions of ourselves. It’s in those tough times that we’ve seen God do his best work in us when we have surrendered to him and allowed him to go to work on us.

We aren’t anything special. We’re really not. We just decided to try one more time all those years ago. And we keep choosing to try one more time. We keep choosing each other. We keep choosing to love.

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Nichole Forbes
Nichole is just a regular gal loved by an extraordinary God. She believes in community, justice and freedom. She tries to live brave everyday and to say the kind words that need to be heard. She raises her three Not-So-Wee-Ones in the middle of the Canadian prairies with her favorite person ever, her husband, Brad. On an average day you can find her running errands in her really rad mini-van while sipping coffee and rocking out to The BeeGees. She blogs and is the author of Finding Me in Him: One Woman’s Journey to Discovering Her Identity in Christ.
Nichole Forbes
Nichole Forbes

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Nichole Forbes
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  • Melissa Kullman

    Thank you for this! I still think about your honest, wise words back in February when you shared a piece of your heart with me, and allowed me to know others have waded through the muckiness of life and have come out the other side ok. This article tonight did that again. With a new baby and new other kids, marriage has been tougher than it has ever before. I will hold your words close to my heart.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Thank you Melissa. I think of you and pray for you and your precious family often. 💙 Any time ‘newness’ is introduced into a family chaos ensues for a bit. Just stay the course, Lovely!

  • “it’s in the tough moments that our two lives have become intertwined and fused together…” O, so true! Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for keeping on choosing each other. Xo

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Thank for your words of encouragement, Olive!

  • Nichole, your story sounds like an invitation as I read it. It’s so easy to keep believing everyone else has the perfect marriage but us. Thank you for sharing your story so honestly and beautifully x

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Right?! I sometimes look at a friends’ relationship and wonder how they have it so good but then I remind myself my marriage will only be as good as we both choose to make it. We often remind ourselves, in our toughest moments, that we were friends first so if we can’t handle being married to each other in this moment then we’ll respond to our ‘friend’ instead. Somehow that helps.

  • Funny how often the things that are messy and hard (I’m thinking about parenting here in particular) end up being the things that knock our socks off when God shows up.
    Nichole, you are living the truth of “beauty from ashes.”

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Thank you, Michele 💙

  • Helene Burns

    I love this… I think it should be required reading for everyone considering marriage – it is messy & holy and filled with daily decisions to choose life. But is it SO worth it! You and Brad are truly inspiring!

    (Perhaps one of the greatest pieces of your story is that you were willing to invite someone into your mess and help you see that a better way and a better day was possible)

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Thank you Helen ❤️
      I’m so grateful for those who were willing to talk about the ‘realness’ of everyday married life and walk us into a healthier way of relating to each other. We’ve learned (and continue to learn) so much from those who have gone before us.

  • Robin Baldwin

    Nichole, thanks for sharing what the inside of a marriage looks like. And, congratulations on 20 years!

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Thank you, Robin! ❤️

  • We just celebrated our 8th anniversary this week. Such a good reminder that marriage takes work. There are certainly easy moments and we’ve found some easy rhythms but those have come through trial and error and tears and lots of conversations. And what works today is rethought tomorrow. Thanks for this encouragement, Nichole!

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Happy Anniversary Annie! ❤️

  • Bravo, Nichole. This is the kind of writing young couples need to read before they say, “I give up.” My husband and I are heading toward 31 years and it’s the same with us. Marriage isn’t a Disney cruise. It’s waking up every day next to the person you turned your back on you last night. It’s a daily grind of sameness that brews bitterness and resentment. It’s saying “I do” and “I will” every day of your life to your spouse’s flaws, the faults you once thought so endearing that now drive you mad. But when your heart is committed to marriage, to sticking through the harsh times no matter what, you’ll also have moments of unutterable bliss, indescribable joy, and pure contentment.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Lol. Marriage is most definitely NOT a Disney Cruise! I love the wisdom here … saying yes everyday does lead to all sorts of beautiful moments!

  • Anna

    I’m in a serious dating relationship right now, and this is such a good reminder for me that marriage isn’t all happily ever after. It’s work and sacrifice. That’s so easy to ignore when marriage looks like the perfect answer to everything.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      True story! Just go in to marriage with open hands, bucket loads of grace and reasonable expectations. Also, let people in. Find a couple you respect and ask them to journey with you – when the time comes 💙

  • Justine Hwang

    This vulnerable sharing of truth and what love is, and the power of God, is a such a needed Light in contrast to the world’s mantra of, “If it’s not making you happy or it’s hard or they’re draining you, walk away.” The courage to show up and keep making the choice to love, over and over again, is so powerful… It breaks my heart right now to see some friends who are choosing to retreat in isolation and stop showing up, giving in to their struggles and shame. Thank you for sharing your story of hope.

    • Nichole Bilcowski Forbes

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment 💙