Tolstoy summed it up best at the beginning of Anna Karenina. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
I was quite indignant with that when I first attempted Tolstoy in ninth grade (I went through a sincere Russophilia stage in high school). My family was happy. Idyllic even. And we were not like the other happy families we knew.
Seventeen years and seven wedding anniversaries later, I'm finally able to wrap my head around the Anna Karenina principle: what makes a family happy is universally the same, but a family can be unhappy in an infinite number of ways.
In fairness to my angst-filled young self, happy families are complicated. What makes Tolstoy's line resonate century after century, is that it is really all that can be written about happy families.
Marriage is impossibly intricate. My dad once said "there's a reason so many stories end with 'and they lived happily ever after.'" I think there is something to that. It's not that life ends after the wedding, it's just that life after the wedding is too complicated for fairy tales.
My marriage is complicated. I have lived happily, and I pray that continues ever after. Yet so many cliches come to mind: we've had our ups and downs, its not perfect, it's not without its challenges. They are all inadequate at describing the tremendous difficulty, pain, joy, healing and growth of being joined with another human being as flawed as I am.
This weekend, a friend sent me a link from Pinterest of 30 text message suggestions for spouses. She wrote: "I laughed through them so much I was almost crying. Mainly because I was envisioning myself sending them to [my husband], or the other way around." Reading them, I too choked back laughter imagining myself texting Matt, "no one wears a suit like you do." The authors of the affectionate, affirming texts are sincere. I have no doubt that these texts work in their marriage like the building blocks they are meant to be.
But what builds up one marriage, can be useless or even detrimental in another. And I've finally learned: there is nothing wrong with that.
Two months after we got married, I went away overnight to a woman's conference with our church. Before I left, I bought heart shaped sticky notes, covered them with my impassioned, heartfelt sentiments, and left them throughout the house for Matthew to find. When I got back, I asked him "Did you find my sticky notes?'
He said absently, "It took me almost ten minutes to clean all those up."
I wasn't crushed or surprised. It's not like I had married a complete stranger. But what I did (and sometimes still) find discouraging, was how little I relate to perfectly summed up blog advice. Or Pins with heart balloon graphics giving me 50 date ideas.
Date ideas and affectionate text messages are important. But I worry that they're often Band-Aides for a gunshot wound. No one can hurt my husband like I can; and I do more often than I ever thought I would. The only way to be restored is for me to see my own sins (usually a stinging cocktail of selfishness, anger, and pride) and to love him sacrificially. This means giving up things I want to do to clean the house - rather than littering the house with sticky notes. It means asking him what he wants to do and actually listening - even if our "dates" wouldn't appear charming on the world wide web.
Real marriages struggle. And happy marriages struggle and restore and struggle and heal. In this way, all happy families are alike.
But healthy relationships that struggle and heal do not fit tidily in a pin.
By all means, use the internet for inspiration! But if you, like me, fail to find yourself, your husband and your relationship reflected in "5 things to always say" or "10 things I stopped saying" or "100 ways to fold napkins for your husband's lunchbox" remember that we are to find our reflection in Christ's relationship with the church: a searing example of sacrifice, love and redemption.
* because no blog post on relationships is complete without some kind of chalk writing and a bird graphic *