The Story of Us

The way we tell our past story reflects how we feel about our present marriage relationship.

During our second year of marriage, my wife, Erin, and I got into an argument early one morning while I was pulling together our laundry. Our disagreement made her late for work, so right before she slammed the door on her way out she offered one final, sarcastic comment.

It really ticked me off that she got the last word, but what could I do about it as I stood there all alone holding our mesh laundry bag?

We lived on the third floor of our apartment complex, right above the first-floor laundry room, so I normally dropped the laundry bag, bombardier style, so I wouldn’t have to haul the massive thing down three flights of stairs. As I stood there holding the laundry bag, a spectacularly unwise plan formed in my disgruntled mind. I decided that I could actually get the final word in our argument by dropping the bag as near as possible to Erin as she walked to her car. I didn’t want to hit her, just startle her. Then I’d pretend to apologize for dropping the laundry.

An idiotic plan? Of course it was. But remember, I had only seconds to think it through. As I saw my wife angrily bounding up the stairs and hurtling toward her car, I impulsively grabbed the laundry bag, carefully gauged her speed and let it go.

Unfortunately, my “dumb bomb” clipped her. It didn’t crush her or anything so disastrous, but it did launch her off her feet and knock her to the ground. As she lay sprawled out on the turf, she looked up — and saw me staring over our balcony.

It was in that moment that it dawned on me: I’m in huge trouble!

I knew my wife ran track in college, but I hadn’t fully realized how fast she could climb stairs. And now I had only seconds to decide what to do.

So I did what any real man would do: I hastily retreated into our apartment and quickly locked the door behind me.

Seconds later Erin was banging furiously on the apartment door. I slinked back against the wall, careful not to make a sound, hoping she might think I wasn’t there. The only thing I knew for certain in that moment was that whatever happened, I was not going to open that door. I may have been an idiot, but I wasn’t stupid!

This is the story of us — Greg and Erin Smalley — the laundry debacle representing just one of the many crazy stories that have happened during our 24 years of marriage. I love this story because it so perfectly characterizes the early years of our marriage: unbelievable, passionate, funny, wild, conflicted, idiotic, depressing, miraculous, etc.

At a recent marriage enrichment event, Erin and I shared this story. Later, a woman approached me and with a half-smile said, “That’s a terrible story — I can’t believe Erin stayed married to you!”

But that’s what makes this story so amazing —Erin did stay with me! The laundry story represents the good, the bad and the ugly of our marriage, and we’re able to laugh about it now. We love telling this story because it represents God’s grace, my craziness and Erin’s forgiveness.

I wouldn’t trade this story, or any of the other 400 that I keep on my computer, because collectively they define my marriage adventure with Erin: We’ve been through some very difficult seasons in our marriage, but with God’s love and mercy, we have been more than conquerors. I love thinking about our marriage through the lens of Romans 8:37 that says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” I now see how God used those early years to shape Erin and me as individuals and as a couple. They clearly influenced the marriage we have today.

Why we tell our story

I believe that telling our story is one of the most powerful ways we can keep a marriage strong. Marriage researcher and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, Dr. John Gottman, claims he can predict with 94 percent accuracy if a couple will be successful in their marriage — based solely on how they tell their story. In Gottman’s study, couples that had a positive view of their history together were more likely to stay together. Happy couples talked about their relationship in a very positive way and filtered the early days through a rose-colored lens. They saw their relationship as one filled with good times, referencing their challenges as both painful and as experiences that helped them grow as a couple. Unhappy couples, however, focused more on the difficult times — the pain and the struggles. Sadly, they edited out the good times or defined them as anomalies and altered their history to reflect their current state of unhappiness.

In his book Marriage Matters, Winston T. Smith makes a great point about the importance of how couples tell their story when he says: “Understand that your history isn’t just a collection of dates and facts. It is a story. When you reflect on your history, you actively interpret it, highlighting some parts, downplaying others, and choosing words and images that provide a framework of meaning, purpose and direction.”

Thus, the way we tell our past story reflects how we feel about our present relationship. How we tell our story will either bring us closer together or it will drive us further apart.

Erin and I are constantly telling our story. Certainly we use these anecdotes for the seminars that we teach, but we also tell them to our children. Jerry Jenkins, in his book Hedges, makes a wonderful point about sharing your story with others when he advises:

Tell your [marital] story. Tell it to your kids, your friends, your brothers and sisters, but especially to each other. The more your story is implanted in your brain, the more it serves as a hedge against the myriad of forces that seek to destroy your marriage. Make your story so familiar that it becomes part of the fabric of your being. It should become a legend that is shared through the generations as you grow a family tree that defies all odds and boasts marriage after marriage of stability, strength and longevity.

I want our story to inspire our children. I want to create a marriage worth repeating! Our kids need to hear us talk about the fun times, the good times, the hard times — all of it — from a positive viewpoint. We need to constantly remind them that God has brought Erin and me so very far in our relationship.

Why and how to tell your story

When you tell your story, it can do two very critical things:

  • It can motivate you to re-evaluate the world and how you fit into it.
  • It can serve as a change agent that ultimately leads to personal transformation.

In order to better understand how to tell your own story, I want to offer some practical steps to follow:

1. View your story as part of a larger narrative.

Your marriage is much more than just an assemblage of dates, facts and anecdotes. There is a bigger purpose behind your marriage story — your marriage is a part of God’s story line.

In John 13:34-35 (NIV), Christ lays out your purpose here on earth when He articulates His mandate to love: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

The larger narrative for your marriage is that your love for each other should be the evidence that you are followers of Christ. Others should see that Christ makes a difference in a marriage — your marriage — and that your relationship shines bright for Him.

2. Reminisce about your past.

Talking about special moments or recalling memorable events allows you to celebrate how far you have come as a couple. It also provides hope through the anticipation of similar enjoyable times in the future, the remembrance of happier times and the reminder of qualities that first attracted you to each other. Reminiscing can actually cause you to realize that you are quite good together.

I want to encourage you to reminisce by discussing the following questions:

  • What first attracted you to me?
  • What is the best gift I’ve ever given you? Why was it so special?
  • What is your favorite tradition that we’ve started? Why?
  • What are some of the best vacations we’ve taken together? Why?
  • What are some things I’ve done for you that really made you feel loved?
  • What’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever done for you?

Now make a list of three of the happiest moments you can recall in your marriage and then spend a few minutes each day briefly reliving those moments in your mind. Again, this will help you to focus on positive times rather than getting stuck perseverating on the difficulties you’ve faced.

3. Recognize God’s constant presence and help.

When you are going through hard times, it can be easy to forget about God’s help during previous difficult times. As you remember God’s help in the past, trusting Him for the present will be easier.

God promises that He will use the hard times in your life for your benefit. Remembering this truth is what I like to call “treasure hunting” — digging for the treasure of every trial we face both individually and in our marriage.

James challenges early believers to find the good that God is doing in the midst of the hard times in their lives when he writes: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

Further encouragement to hunt for treasure in your marriage can be found in 1 Peter 5:10 when the author writes: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

4. Dream together as a couple.

Focusing on the future you have together and all that God wants to do in and through you can be powerful in cultivating intimacy in your marriage. You need to be dream makers for each other as well as dream pursuers with each other in a united fashion.

Pastor Brad Hambrick writes, “Your marriage story is not just about where the two of you have been, but also about where you are going. God created our temporal lives with a glorious suspense called ‘the future.’ When we fail to appreciate this God-given suspense, we either surrender to anxiety or apathy. A shared dream for the future is a vital part of unity and romance in the present.”

Every marriage tells a story

Every marriage has a story to tell. Teaching and counseling pastor Brett Legg builds on this reality by challenging couples with the following questions:

What kind of story are you telling with your marriage? When people read the story of your marriage, do they find a comedy that makes them smile or a tragedy that makes them sad? Is the story of your marriage a mystery that makes people question, or is it a love story that makes them sigh romantically? What will your kids and grandkids say about your marriage long after you’re gone? The story of your marriage will be a big part of the legacy you leave.”

Each married couple gets to decide how they will tell their story. Erin and I choose to recall many different stories from our 24 years together. We regularly choose to celebrate just how far we’ve come, laughing together as we recall the idiotic things we did in the early years of our relationship. This definitely doesn’t mean it has been easy in our marriage, it simply means we have decided to continue working and growing as individuals and as a couple. We’ve decided to continue writing the Smalley story that is ours — the unique story of us.

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author of Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage.

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