On the third Wednesday of each month I set up camp in a conference room at the hospital where I work. I set out water bottles, a tray of cookies, and boxes of tissue. I post signs throughout the hallway, and then sit down and wait. As the clock nears 6:00 pm they start to arrive – the surviving spouses of the hospice patients I have served. Sometimes they smile when they see me, other times they make it through the door just barely, a bewildered and tired look in their eyes.
It seems odd that I, a 29 year old with less than 5 years of marriage under my belt, would be tasked with running a support group for bereaved spouses. In reality I do very little to ease the burden of grief. I give group members permission to talk about their loved ones and their loss. I sit and bear witness; sometimes I have to tell myself to stay and be present, and other times I am captivated and drink in their stories.
The latter was the case with a man who attended my group in March. He was old enough to be my parent and then some, but by far the youngest person in the group. He was also the most reserved. He coughed and cleared his throat, staring at his water bottle all the while, and then said this:
Most of our marriage, we were in a foxhole. We were fighting — not each other — we had seven kids and life was chaotic. But that was a part of our togetherness. We were a team and we faced so many challenges together. Sometimes she faced a challenge and I supported her, and sometimes I had a challenge and she supported me.”
He went on to share about how he and his wife had lost their first baby, well over 40 years ago, and commented on it and said,
That was something that we went through together. We went through that loss together, and we shared that grief. And we did that with all sorts of things. We survived them together, because we had each other. But now that she is gone, who do I do that with? How do I go through those things without her?”
The other people in the group nodded, offered affirmation and validation of his experience, and the conversation shifted as others began to share their own accounts of marriage and loss. I listened, but also replayed his words in my head on a loop, memorized them, and wrote them down as soon as the group ended.
It was the first and only time that I have heard someone explain their marriage in a way that fully captures the essence of Genesis 2:18: “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”’
Like many of you, I’ve spend hours reading commentaries and articles about this single passage and the implications that it has for men and women in marriage. Like many of you, I’ve come to understand that the word “helper” is a poor translation of the original Hebrew, and that what word really means is a “a strength that is equal and corresponding to”.
The challenge lies in actually living out this beautiful image of marriage as egalitarians trying to figure out what works best for us, as we move together toward God. My husband and I try to figure out who does what chores, who gets to sleep and who gets up with the toddlers, and who gets to kill bugs. He asked me out, and proposed, and offered to take my last name, but I took his because I wanted to.
We’ve figured out a balance of sex that keeps us both content. We pray together when we aren’t too tired, and someday, when we aren’t playing one-on-one defense with the children maybe we will get to read through scripture together. We go through a marriage book or attend a retreat every other year or so.
We are doing all of the things that good egalitarians do, right?
Ben and I, like many of our peers navigating the early parts of marriage, have spent so much time looking at marriage from the front end of things, with the idea that figuring out a plan that works will set us up for success. The big picture of marriage is often neglected.
When I look at marriage from the other end, from the perspective that the man in my grief group shared of marriage that had reached completion, I see something so much richer than an equal division of roles and labor.
A marriage that truly reflects God’s intentions in Genesis 2:18 is one in which both partners stand with and for one another, growing together in an intimate camaraderie as followers of Christ.
This makes the most sense to me. The marriage relationships that I most admire seem to reflect this dynamic. My parents, friends in my church community, and this man who came to my grief group all have relationships with their spouse that are mutually strengthening and build up one another.
The truth is that I actually have this in my marriage. Underneath the nitty gritty logistics of raising kids, managing a house, figuring out finances, and navigating our in-laws, Ben and I have a deep and abiding sense that we are on the same team. We’ve fostered this dynamic since the day we got married, when we said yes to one another. As we’ve continued in our marriage, we’ve found that creating our Togetherness is best achieved by continuing to say “yes” each day and choosing one another each day.