One of my favorite movies of all time is Dan in Real Life. If you haven’t seen it, go do it. Seriously, it’s fantastic. Steve Carell and the entire cast are able to bring together aspects of love, grief, family dynamics, parenthood and life’s unexpected turns so deftly. Anyway, there’s a line in that movie that has always stood out to me: “Love is not a feeling. It’s an ability.”
I believe this with my entire being. I have always believed it. Even as a young child, I was brought up being as sure as can be that love is something you do, not something you feel. This core belief has played out in many ways throughout my life. As a teenager I would often give my heart too quickly and then semi-ignore red flags from guys I dated because I knew that love was a choice… Although it burnt me in some ways, I wouldn’t change a thing. As far as ideals go, choosing to love that way isn’t a bad one to live and die by.
When Toby and I got married back in 2006, we were babies. Ok… not babies, but looking back at our twenty-two year old selves, it’s amazing how far away that version of us seems. We were out of our minds in love… the passionate, enduring, compatible-on-so-many-levels kind of love. I remember being amazed at how little we disagreed with each other. We just seemed to know what life had in store and we were ready to face it together.
Then life… Kids. Cancer. The daily grind. And looking back I can see that somewhere along the way we stopped treating love like an ability. It had become something we were owed, not a way of acting towards each other.
When Toby and I separated, I was completely devastated. And I mean completely – emotionally, physically… in every possible way. I was totally unable to accept the reality of us not being together because for me, love had always been a choice. And marriage was a choice that in my mind had already been made. I felt as if the bedrock of what I knew about love was crumbling and I had no control over any part of it. Some of those things I still believe, but that part about me having no control was 110% wrong. I could write a book about the hours and hours of self-evaluation I spent and the changes I tried to make, but it was too late. I hadn’t shown Toby the type of selfless, unfailing, unconditional love that it was my job to show him. And I had to face that.
Those of you who have known me a long time know that when life is rough, I lean on my faith HARD. I read a ton of scripture, took the kids to our parish for mass, and found Crossroads – a community that allowed me to cultivate my personal relationship with God. As
luck God would have it, I was fortunate to be coming to Crossroads right before un unbelievable Easter service, right before their Brave journey began, and just in time for their first Woman Camp. I can’t even begin to tell you how much those experiences meant to me in terms of both my own emotional health and my faith life. “Invaluable” doesn’t even cover it. But even beyond those things, there was the Night of Prayer… I’ll be the first one to admit that the music was what drew me to Crossroads. I needed the praise and worship so badly and the music there is just phenomenal. I love a good Catholic hymn, but standing in a sea of people singing praise and worship with our hands raised to God… it moves me. So in many ways, going to the Night of Prayer began as just an opportunity for some acoustic guitar and losing myself in song.
At that point, I found that I had lost about 99.9% of my hope that our marriage would survive. I stood there singing Oceans with tears streaming down my face and when they explained the part of the service that allowed us to be prayed over by the prayer team, the shy little kid in me curled up like a pill bug and looked for the exit. But I believe that God touched my heart and I self-consciously walked over to the Family/Relationships area and asked the woman there if she could pray with me. I gave her a tiny bit of backstory and with some of the kindest eyes I’ve every seen, she asked me what exactly it was that I wanted. She didn’t mean ‘what did I think was right’ or ‘what did I think should happen’. She simply asked without any judgement or expectation what was in my heart. And in that moment I blinked my tears away, let my walls down 100%, and told her my prayer was that God would heal my marriage. Even as I spoke the words out loud, my head was telling me how silly I was. After all, the decision had already been made. Plans were in motion. Life was different. Emotions ran high and the idea of coming back from this level of brokenness was just about unthinkable. But my heart couldn’t let go of that last shred of hope. We prayed together. She prayed for me. What a blessing it was.
I remember sitting in that room thinking/praying that I know how God can do all things. Nothing is impossible through him. But each time I put that forward in my mind, my stomach dropped a little more and I felt even more hopeless. I felt my head telling me that this was out of God’s hands.
The next year and a half went by. Gosh… less than 10 words can hardly sum up the stress, difficulty, hurt, growth, and change that went down. During that time I felt as though I didn’t know Toby at all and that I barely knew myself. We both coped in our own ways and tried to stay as friendly as possible for the kids. It was incredibly hard, especially at first, but we got to a point where we found ourselves back at the roots of what brought us together: our friendship. We found ourselves staying to chat as we switched the kids back and forth. We laughed, joked, shared the goings-on in our lives. It was nice, but ultimately I let myself accept that we were on the path to divorce – one painful, legal, confusing step at a time.
The bottom line is, I gave up. I moved on. I stopped believing that our ability to love could ever heal what was so broken. And if our ability to love each other wasn’t ever going to be strong enough, then I could never allow for the opportunity of a second chance. I even articulated that to my friends, saying on more than one occasion that if Toby ever asked, I’d never be able to give him another shot. I’d follow it quickly with a “not that he would ever ask” because by that point I had completely convinced myself that all hope was gone. Life had become about how I needed to be loved instead of how I needed to love.
It was less than a week after the last time I spoke those words that I sat in Toby’s living room. It had been a rough few weeks for me emotionally. Exams had just ended. I’d had a tough day with the kids. The heaviness of losing my dad unexpectedly just weeks before was unbearable… That combined with some other things had me venting to my friend, Toby. He listened, I tried not to cry, I told him about my week in stories sprinkled with jokes, and we laughed.
Then he asked me to consider giving us another shot.
What I felt in that moment is hard to express. My emotions were strong and extremely varied, but they lasted for about 10 seconds before I felt peace. I can’t explain it in terms of logic or even anything that I myself understand. I just can’t. But I do believe with my entire heart and soul that I felt Philippians 4:7 come to life right then and there.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That peace allowed me to take a deep breath and listen to what was still there in the deepest parts of my heart: “Love is not a feeling. It’s an ability.”
That ability has, with God’s help, allowed Toby and I to heal each other and our marriage. Never in a million years would I have believed that we could get through such a horrible time and help each other come to terms with the residual effects. We communicate. We disagree. We hurt each other even though we try not to. But we choose love every single time. There is a depth and a lushness to our marriage that I never thought possible and I wake up every single day feeling blessed to share my life with my husband.
Two days ago Toby and I celebrated our anniversary. I can’t tell you how many people asked us what year we’d be celebrating. Honestly, it’s a question I never even considered. Without a doubt I’d assumed we’d be celebrating our 12th anniversary. Toby felt the same. I’d never wish a separation on anyone, but there’s no way that we would be where we are in our marriage without the time we spent apart. It may not be a pretty part of our marriage, but it’s an integral part just the same.
Tonight I’m heading back to Crossroads for a Night of Prayer. This time the music is a bonus. My heart is overflowing with joy at the thought that God saw fit to answer the prayer his unworthy daughter. I’ll sing out my praise, pray with thanksgiving, and trust… Because I know that no matter what happens in the next twelve years and beyond, I may not always have love the feeling, but I’ll always have love the ability.
Happy Anniversary, Toby. It’s been a crazy twelve years, but they’re ours. I love you and I can’t wait to spend all my tomorrows showing you how much.