Every marriage has ups and downs.

Last week I was talking about the patterns we get ourselves into in marriage, and comparing it to knitting. Sometimes we’re in a good pattern, and you know it, and you memorize it, and you can just keep going, and it makes something beautiful.

But sometimes you make a mistake, and things get messed up, and the only thing to do is to rip back a few rows and uncover the problem, and start again. You need to identify what’s wrong.

In the comments, I talked about how at different stages in our lives we’ve had to “rip out rows”, so to speak, and it’s been painful. But it usually brought about another good phase. People asked me to share what this was like, so I thought today I’d provide a timeline of our marriage, and then a bit of a commentary.

All of this is very vague in my memory of course. How do you know what triggered a good season or a bad season, or when that season was? But I’m going to try to take a stab at it here:

The Ups and Downs of Marriage: Understanding the Different Stages of Marriage

Years 1-3: DOWN. Getting used to each other

The Ups and Downs of Marriage: Newlywed Years

Our first few years were really rough, and as I’ve shared in my books, a lot of that had to do with sex. I found it awkward and uncomfortable; Keith wanted it all the time.

What we did right: We truly did love each other and we wanted to work through the issues. We sought help with counsellors; we kept trying to do fun things together; and we talked about the issues.

What we did wrong: I can’t speak for Keith, but I think I was so desperate for the marriage to be great that I rushed healing in all sorts of ways, and I tried to make things look good from the outside. Instead of really dealing with the root, I made it so that we could each feel happy, at least temporarily. And we were.

Years 4-9: UP. Loving our babies and establishing our life

The Ups and Downs of Marriage--with the Kids

These  years started out in a tiny apartment in downtown Toronto where Keith was completing his residency in pediatrics. They ended in our house in Belleville, where he started a busy practice. In between we had three babies, one of whom passed away at a month of age. They were years of sleeplessness and grief; diapers and endless laundry–but I think they were still good ones.

What we did right: We just plain enjoyed having our babies, and we made sure that we did things all together as often as possible. Keith was working ridiculous hours, and so I tried to do all of the housework so that when he was home he could either sleep or spend time with the kids. We explored Toronto, we went for walks with strollers, we had a lot of fun. When Christopher died, we didn’t grow apart, because we knew we needed each other even more.

What we did wrong: We didn’t take enough time separately to get some rest. It was such a busy time for both of us, and we didn’t get into good patterns of finding some outlets and relaxation when we needed it. That did lead to a lot of burn out.

What triggered the next low stage? Just getting tired, and having it all catch up with you.

Years 10-12: DOWN. Homeschooling and Busy with Work

Ups and Downs of Marriage: Life with small kids

We settled in in Belleville, enjoyed our church, made some friends, and I began homeschooling the girls. I loved homeschooling, and we had a ton of fun together. But Keith was just so busy. We had a lot of tension of both of us realizing that life was becoming unmanageable. I wanted some time to write, and Keith wanted some time just to himself (he was often on call 2-3 times a week, plus he had a 5-day full clinic).

What we did right: We tried to take fun vacations in the summer, but daily life was busy. We had a ton of fun with the children, and were very involved in church, and had great friends, but we didn’t have a lot of time to just be US, either individually or as a couple.

What we did wrong: When we were individually frustrated and tired, we tended to blame the other person instead of seeking a different solution. And so it became a bit of a one-upmanship: who is worse off?

Years 13-17: UP. Getting in a new groove

Ups and Downs of Marriage: Getting Busy

Keith made a major change in his work–he closed his practice and decided to only do call. So he ended up being on call 10-12 times a month, but then the rest of the time he was home. We took our first two trips to Africa as a family, and they were wonderful and really bonding.

What we did right: We created so many family memories with the kids at this stage. I know they say you’re supposed to have time, just the two of us, but we managed to get that even with the girls around. Keith cut back on his work when it just got unmanageable, and it freed up a lot of time for me to start my ministry as well.

What we did wrong: We did become a little too kid-focused and church-focused, and then, when church went wrong, it hurt me a lot.

Years 18-19: DOWN. Lots of transitions and realizations about yourself

Two years of upheavals. We moved and switched churches after many run-ins about whether it was okay for me to be a praise team leader since I was a woman (and, as a woman, was I allowed to say things like, “no matter what you’re dealing with this morning, let’s leave it at the feet of Jesus. Look to Him as you sing this song”–because that may be preaching. The deacons board debated this for a year, and Keith was on that deacon’s board, and it was very painful for everyone).

Both moves, to a new house and to a new church, ended up being good ones. But they took a lot out of us.

What we did right: We realized that our life wasn’t working, and so we made some important changes.

What we did wrong: With the upheaval, it seemed like EVERYTHING came out. And we tried to tackle too much at once, especially too much emotional stuff.

Years 20-22: UP. Loved the teenage years.

The teenage Years: Ups and Downs of Marriage

We did love the teenage years with our girls. We returned to Africa; we got involved in Bible quizzing with them; I had a great time meeting their friends. The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex came out, and that was a big celebration, and I won a huge award for that.

What we did right: We did a lot of celebrating together, and we tried to create a lot of memories for the girls before Rebecca left home.

What we did wrong: I’m not sure, but it strikes me that these were the years when I started getting very busy on the blog, and all of a sudden there was an area of my life that Keith didn’t know a whole lot about. At the same time, Keith took a job in Kingston, an hour away from us, and suddenly he wasn’t home as much anymore.

What triggered the next low period: When Rebecca left home, I started to realize my stage as a mother was ending. And was I happy with my life?

Years 23-25: DOWN. A lot of adjustments, and a lot of distance.

Ups and Downs of Marriage

Us speaking together–no idea what we were saying, but the expressions seemed right!

I’ve shared some of this in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, but there wasn’t a whole lot wrong with our marriage, and then everything seemed really bad. And I think it stemmed from the fact that we were distant from each other–Keith was working far away, and we just didn’t see each other as much.

What we did right:We talked about the problem and identified it pretty quickly.

What we did wrong: I stopped talking to Keith about my daily life. I started creating a life almost separate from his because he was gone so much. And soon you feel like  you don’t know each other.

NOW: UP, I think.

We’re still readjusting to having two girls married. Keith’s job is constantly in flux. We still haven’t figured out how we want to manage my speaking schedule. But it’s good.

As I look back over this timeline (and I’m not sure it’s really accurate; I think the bad periods were shorter than this, but it’s hard to pinpoint dates), what occurs to me is that most of our bad periods were precipitated by being very busy with work and with starting to live distant lives, but that was not the cause of it. That was the trigger. But as you feel distant, you start to wonder why. What’s the problem? And when you ask that question, you don’t just see the distance from work. You see all the other things that you’ve been bottling up, that have been bothering you. And those things become the problem.

So the real trigger isn’t really work distance; it’s honesty.

A good period in your marriage is almost always preceded by a more difficult period triggered by going to a deeper level of honesty–becoming more vulnerable, more authentic, more transparent.

These bad periods, you see, may feel bad, but often the catalyst for them is that you’re dealing with some hard stuff that has been hidden for a while. So while it feels bad, it’s actually very useful in your marrriage.

When we speak at FamilyLife Canada marriage conferences, we often speak alongside Neil and Sharol Josephson, the co-directors of the organization. They tell how the roughest year of their marriage was year 17. They dubbed it “The Year of Honesty”. Everything came out that year, and they realized there were a whole lot of conversations they had been putting off having. And so they decided that that year, they would stop putting them off. When something came up, they would talk about it. And it was painful. But sometimes you have to push through that to get to the next good cycle.

Something that trauma or abuse survivors find is that healing is ongoing, throughout one’s lifetime. You could think that you’ve been healed, and you could find fullness in life again, and then something will trigger the pain: getting married; having a child; having a child the same age you were when you were abused; having the abuser die. And at each stage, you will learn something new about how the abuse affected you. It wasn’t that the healing wasn’t real in between these triggers; it was just that the healing went as far as it was able to go until you learned more about yourself. And as you see parts of yourself that were previously closed off to you, and God slowly starts to pull the veil back, then the healing becomes ever more complete.

I think that’s what it’s like in marriage, too. Each of our downtimes was preceded by a good time (I suppose that’s a given, by the very definition?), and each was also triggered by a deeper level of honesty. But that doesn’t mean that we weren’t really being honest during those good years. I think it was that in those good years, we felt whole and healed after the previous revelations, to the extent that we were now able to see other things, deeper things. The good times laid the framework that more could be revealed.

The Ups and Downs of Marriage: Empty Nesting

Us on the day of Katie’s wedding

So that’s what our timeline looks like (and thanks for asking). I’d love to hear about yours. Did you have a good first few years, or bad ones? Do you feel like honesty has to do with triggering different phases? Let’s talk in the comments!

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