Grace Under Duress
The night before our wedding, after rehearsal dinner and party, Stacey and I asked a Holy Cross priest to celebrate a vigil Mass with us in a small log chapel at Notre Dame. I’ll always remember his words to us during the homily.
He said that we should be on the lookout for transforming grace that will come with the Sacrament of Marriage. He said that before being ordained a priest, he was not a good public speaker. After his ordination, he said he received grace that transformed him into an effective priest who could lead prayer and preach the Word to large groups.
Because sacraments are an encounter with the risen Lord, he said, we should be on the lookout for ways in which that encounter changes us.
Now, it would be naïve to think that this transformation would lead to a total shift in personality. If someone is a heavy drinker during an engagement, for example, they will be a heavy drinker after the wedding. Grace doesn’t strike out of the blue—it builds on and perfects what is already there. A person can’t get engaged to a Lindsey Lohan and expect her to become a Faith Hill when married.
At the same time, we have found ways in which we’ve been transformed by the grace of the sacrament of marriage.
I grew up in a family of strong, silent, tall Norwegians. I got the Irish genes in my family physically, but I like to think that I inherited the strong, silent aspects of the Norwegian personality. When we were dating, I was not easily perturbed, and found it easy to be patient in conflict. I felt like I would always work out misunderstandings with Stacey.
Looking back, I can see that this patience came from confidence that we’d come to an understanding of what was going wrong. I’m a thinker more than a feeler, so to me, conflict was primarily about figuring something out.
In the early years of marriage, as we came to know each other with greater depth, I realized that Stacey is a feeler more than a thinker, and therefore needed more engagement and participation in conflict. She needed to feel like I was emotionally invested in the problem, not just committed to thinking it through and understanding it. Where I was inclined to dive below the turbulent surface of troubled waters, she needed me to stand with her in the rocking boat.
The more I did that, the more I felt like I was losing the tranquil and patient part of my personality. I was losing a sense of depth and stillness; I was more easily angered and perturbed. I felt like I was losing the ability to dive below troubled waters, and that felt like I was losing a piece of who I was.
One grace of marriage is that the gift of patience and depth is returning to me, transformed.
In the past year, I’ve seen Stacey applying herself to improve her communication with me and the children, especially in conflict. I see her, in moments of frustration, take a deep breath and intentionally communicate clearly and honestly without assigning blame or calling names. It is a discipline, and I see her working hard at it.
Seeing her efforts gave me courage and inspiration to contribute what I could to improve communication. What I have to offer in our relationship is that sense of depth and patience that I cultivated in my youth, but transformed by a willingness to engage a problem with intellect AND emotions.
Now, I feel like I am able to stand with Stacey in the rocking boat, and, without getting disturbed myself, I can help her identify and feel the emotions the conflict raises. I have a reserve of patience that allows me to put myself aside and stand in her shoes, without getting defensive or angry. I feel like I am a veteran sailor who knows how to weather a storm without getting panicked.
Stacey has expressed gratitude to me for offering that capacity for patience in conflict, and though it is not easy and feels like a sacrifice, it feels good to be helpful. It feels like I’m reclaiming a part of who I am, that I’m living up to my Norwegian family heritage, and that I’m becoming a better version of myself. It feels like grace.