ix. A Sense of ‘Should’

If there was ever a word to be banished from the English language due to its disservice to mankind, it’s ‘should’.

‘Should’ is a little menace that sits on your shoulder and pipes up every now and then to tell you what you ought to be doing, who you ought to be, and whether or not you are on-track with life. I’m pretty sure half the reason I frequently feel exhausted is down to my sense of “I should…”. Mine likes to tell me that I should have achieved more by now. I should be more interesting and knowledgeable as a person. And I should definitely say yes to hundreds of things, even if I’m running myself ragged, rather than say no and give myself time to rest.

Sound familiar? ‘Should’ is basically a big emotional stick that we beat ourselves over the head with. And beyond the worldly pressures it piles on us, the sense of ‘should’ can also sneak into our thoughts and feelings about relationships; “I should feel chemistry with my partner every day”, “I should feel happy and in love all the time”, or, in my experience, “I should never be doubting my feelings this much”.

Where does all this ‘should’ pressure come from?!

What this sense of ‘should’ is really evoking in us, in all of these scenarios, is the belief that there is one right path to take – or otherwise lots of potential wrong paths. It makes us feel that a decision is either a right decision or a wrong decision, and someone is either a right partner (THE right partner) or a wrong partner; and you should, apparently, have no doubts at all if you’ve chosen correctly.

But the truth is that ‘should’, in this pressurising, black and white, right or wrong context, is utterly draining. When it comes to relationships, it’s also really incredibly unhelpful; there simply isn’t one ‘right’ person for each of us, and questioning your feelings does not make something ‘wrong’. The thinking of ‘should’ shackles us in the spiral of uncertainty and anxiety – the complete opposite of Jesus.

Jesus came to free us, and so I reckon he is pretty keen that we shed those shackles. John 8 verse 36 tells us “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” and Psalm 119 verse 54 reminds us “I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.

That’s freedom to be following where God leads us, rather than the ‘should’-versions of our own worldly plans, and free to choose a partner without needing to worry that they are definitely Mr or Mrs Right.

Freedom, not pressure. Peace, not fear. That’s his light yolk – let’s swap our ‘shoulds’ for that.

viii. Climate Change

“Today’s forecast is sunshine and showers”.

I often think my day-to-day married life is a bit like the weather. Sometimes the sun is shining – HF and I are gelling happily, marriage is fun and we feel like serving and make sacrifices for each other.

And then sometimes, often without warning, it rains. In fact sometimes the clouds part and it absolutely lobs it down, and all I can see ahead is the rumbles of thunderstorms and sudden strikes of disagreement-fuelled lightening.

Like the climate, my feelings – and subsequently the forecast ahead – fluctuate throughout the day and can change from one extreme to the other, often seemingly for little or no reason. I’m constantly astonished at how things can be going so swimmingly one moment and turn so easily to frustration or resentment the next.

This, a quick poll of my friends tells me, appears to be a pretty normal experience of married life. Daily stresses, strains, worries and – I’m sorry to say it, ladies – hormones, coupled with the closeness of marriage can create the perfect environment for an unintended marital storm.

For those of us more anxious-inclined, the stormy weathers that marriage can bring can be particularly distressing. If you’re already struggling with intrusive thoughts and anxious wonderings, the less sunny times are likely to be seriously spikey moments.

So, what do you with feelings like that? How do we ride the waves of marriage through both the calm and turbulent times?

As a marriage-amateur, this is something I’m still learning. But I think the key might lie in the way we respond to the inevitable good and bad times. When HF is driving me up the wall, I could fall down the rabbit-hole and interpret it as a sign that my anxieties were correct – that maybe we weren’t meant to be after all. OR, I can insist on banishing those lies from my mind and acknowledge that all marriages have ups and down, sunshine and clouds. I could get angry and rack up a mental list of things that annoy me about my husband, or I can decide to forgive and to ask for forgiveness. I can follow Jesus’s example: grace.

So even when the storms brew, which they inevitably will, I’m thankful that God’s grace is sufficient – enough for me, and enough for my marriage.

vii. Greener Grass

The other day I had a small epiphany – that I am a chronic sufferer of Greener Grass Syndrome.

‘GGS’ is one of those sneaky conditions, so subtle in its symptoms that you don’t even know you have it until something knocks you off course. That something happened to me a couple of weeks ago; we had guests staying, and I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with HF. Being quieter in character than me, I started to get annoyed at his shyness around them; why was he being so reserved? Couldn’t he make an effort and show more interest in them? Didn’t he know I wanted to be part of a fun, chatty, popular couple?! Before I knew it, this little thought had crept into my mind: “I should’ve married someone more outgoing”.

The instant I thought it, I’d let GGS creep in. Forget about all the special things HF and I have in common, all the ways I’m daily blessed by him, and all the beautiful things in The Love List – that very second, Greener Grass Syndrome displaced my joy with the desire for more.

How easy it is to fall into this trap! The snare of GGS had once again lured me into thinking that something else, someone else, a different path, would be better than God’s choices for me.

It’s not just relationships and marriages that fall victim to this crafty syndrome. Jobs, friendships, things we see of the lives of others; in all of these areas and beyond, we can find ourselves feeling dissatisfied with the current blessings in our lives.

All the while, the Bible tells us that God already has us on his pre-plotted path; he has individually tailored everything in our lives to our unique needs and personalities: “For from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11, verse 36). All we have is from above, and he has already given us everything we need.

There is, therefore, no ‘better’ waiting for us on the other side of the fence.

A few days after our guests left, I went round to a friend’s to tell her about my latest GGS encounter. As her husband is particularly extroverted, I told her about how I’d wished HF could have more of his outgoing nature. She smiled, and then told me about how she often wished her husband was better at DIY and more interested in fixing things around the house; “like yours does”, she added.

We laughed together. Perhaps that other grass isn’t much greener after all. And thank the Lord for our different, individual, hand-picked plots.

ii. “What if” & “If only”

“If”. Such a little word, yet such an epic menace.

Anxiety loves to start sentences with “What if” or “If only”. In the height of my marriage-related anxiety, thoughts like “What if I’m making a mistake” and “If only I had a sign from God, then I’d know it’s going to be ok”, played on repeat. Even now, I can find myself coaxed into worrying about a never-ending list of potential upcoming disasters. I worry about what might happen if I get sick before an important event or whilst away on holiday, and I let my mind wander to anxious thoughts about the security I could’ve had if only I’d married an investment banker instead of my lovely, non-investment banker husband.

The trouble with the tiny but mighty word “if”, is that it lives in the future. And the future is a massive unknown. Irrespective of how much I worry about it, I cannot control whether any of my loved ones develop a terminal illness. I also cannot control suddenly being made redundant. Really, I even have a limited amount of control over the future of my marriage, because I do not control HF. Despite all my best wifely efforts, I don’t know for sure that he isn’t going to run off with someone else down the line, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have a long and/or happy marriage.

No wonder this little word has so much power over us; in the fallen world in which we live, there is a lot that could go wrong.

But the Bible has a pretty awesome antidote to “if”-syndrome. Jesus offers us an alternative to the endless worrying and wondering about how things are going to pan out. He promises that he has a plan for our lives, and that – unlike us – he really is in control.

Apparently God tells us “Do not be afraid” more than three hundred times in the Bible. Crikey. That’s a lot of reassurance, and from a good source – God, being in control of everything, doesn’t just want us to give up our addictions to hypothetical worrying. He wants us to lean on him fully, to stop trying to control things ourselves and then turning to jelly when we realise that we can’t. He asks us to trust him and his perfect plans.

So even “if” my life turns into a disaster, and that strange pain in my leg turns out to be an incurable disease, and HF decides he’s had enough of me and leaves for someone far more interesting and a million times more beautiful, Jesus tells me he’s with me for the long-haul.

Nothing is a surprise to God – he doesn’t deal in “if”s. He knew I’d type these words before I even thought of them, and he knew you’d read them exactly where you are, right now. We don’t have to live trapped by fear of the unknown, because all things are known to him.

So I don’t need to be afraid of the ‘what ifs’ – if only I trust him.

i. Lessons from a List

For our first year anniversary, I gave my husband a big piece of paper with a list of a hundred things I love about him written on it. “The Love List” seemed fitting, since paper is meant to be the theme for first year gifts, but also because it marked a significant turning point; I’d finally stopped worrying that I’d made the most colossal mistake of my life.

What plagued me through our first year of marriage, and most of our engagement too, was this haunting & relentless question: how can you be sure you’ve chosen the right person? In short; how do you know you really love someone?

Even though I knew my HF (Husband-Friend) was a great match for me, and the type of good, kind, gentle godly man I’d always hoped to marry, those questions niggled at the back of my mind throughout a year of dating. By the time we’d gotten engaged, my mind was in overdrive; analysing my feelings every second of the day and constantly questioning whether he was “The One”. I asked my friends, my family, and prayed and prayed for a sign from God, desperate to be absolutely sure. When I still found myself questioning after 3 months of marriage, it confirmed my worst nightmare; I must have married the wrong person.

But here’s the thing. While I was fixating obsessively about how I was feeling, and how fulfilled our marriage was making me, I totally missed the main point. Marriage, it turns out, is not for me – and it’s not designed to fill me up. Contrary to what we’ve been conditioned to believe (thanks, Disney!), HF is not supposed to be my knight in shining armour, who swoops in to “complete” me. That’s a big God-shaped hole right there, that no marriage could ever fill.

And whilst I was so busy trying to work out if HF was my “soulmate”, I didn’t see all the amazing blessings of our marriage in the day-to-day of doing life together. Not the Hollywood version of love, not the butterflies and rainbows, but the real thing; the friendship, the companionship, the laughs and the cries, and the silly little things that make us “us”. The real life version; the God-planned version.

That’s where The Love List started; a year’s worth of things to be grateful for, along with a big lesson – I suspect a lifelong one – about what real love is about.

If I could sum up what I’ve learned so far, it would be this: love is not just a feeling. Love is an action, and a choice. Love is preceded by commitment, not the other way around. And the measure of real love – the thing I’d prayed for so many times – turns out to be how much you give of it; no matter how you feel. All part of God’s perfect plan.

Here’s to another hundred.