Early on in our marriage, Erin and I had our share of struggles. And when we’d argue, we sometimes slipped into dark humor. We thought we were joking. Except when we weren’t.
“If you’re so miserable, maybe you should just leave,” Erin might tell me with a smile. Or I’d say, “If I’m such a bad husband, then you should really find someone better!”
Just kidding. Or so we told ourselves.
Then one day a friend of Erin’s called our apartment.
“Is Erin home?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“Will she be home?”
I’m pretty sure the friend meant to ask, “When will she be home?” But I thought I’d use the odd phrasing as an opportunity for a joke.
“No, she finally left me.”
I expected laughter. Instead, the friend’s voice became sincere and sorrowful.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she told me. “I was worried that something like this might happen.”
There was dead quiet for several seconds. I didn’t know what to say. Finally, Erin’s friend broke the silence, asking me if Erin and I would like to meet and talk with her and her husband. Still stunned, I said yes.
Some nitty gritty
Why do so many marriages end in divorce? Why do so many husbands and wives simply give up? They lack grit.
What is grit? As defined by researchers in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, grit is simply retaining the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals despite significant obstacles and distractions.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth literally wrote the book on grit (Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance). Through her research, she found that cadets enrolled in West Point’s uber-rigorous summer training program were more likely to succeed if they had grit than if they scored high for intelligence, physical fitness or leadership ability. According to Duckworth, grit might be just as essential to high achievement as intelligence.
These gritty cadets succeed because they understand how to harness passion and perseverance, the main ingredients of grit. And couples who wish to succeed in marriage need those same two elements.
You could call passion the sort of zeal or drive that pushes us forward. The apostle Paul points to passion in Colossians 3:23 (NIV), when he writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”
Your marriage demands that all-encompassing passion, and that means committing to it for life. Divorce shouldn’t be an option.
When Erin and I joked about divorce, we were subconsciously leaving an exit open. If things got too bad, we could leave. And our friends apparently sensed that door was ajar, too.
That awkward telephone conversation with Erin’s friend eventually helped transform my relationship with Erin. We met with that couple regularly for more than a year, and they became valued mentors. But that transformation might have never happened if Erin and I hadn’t finally stopped joking about divorce.
If passion is the emotional why behind what we do, perseverance is the dogged how we do it. Ruth modeled perseverance: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Yet there’s more to perseverance than simply enduring what life throws at you. It’s also growth-focused — your ability to manage failure and learn from your mistakes. The grittiest people not only endure failures, they embrace them, recognizing that failing is part of the process. As we read in Proverbs 24:16, “The righteous falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble in times of calamity.”
Five years ago, Erin and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. During our party, our daughter Annie, who was 5 at the time, ran to our guests, telling them we’d just gotten married. I guess her 5-year-old brain couldn’t process the fact that we’d been married for 20 years.
It made me smile to think about our 20-year journey — the ups and downs, the laughter, the sadness, all of it. The most amazing part of our marriage isn’t how many years we’ve been married. It’s the journey itself that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Love is the journey — the fun times, the hard times, times of joy and times of pain — that grows and deepens our relationship with each other. All of the choices we’ve made — to keep our marriage strong and deal with the problems — have given us grit.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books.
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