I met Lisa Bartelt, today’s guest blogger, at a local writers’ group. Our love of the written word was, in itself, enough to generate kinship, but a five-minute conversation revealed far more common ground than just our art. In person, as in her beautiful writing, Lisa goes deep, fast. She wrestles with weighty thoughts, proclaims hope in the midst of suffering, and stands against the injustices of our broken world. Lisa is a brave truth-teller, as you will see today. I am honored to call her a friend, and proud to be entrusted with Lisa’s story of redemption through brokenness.
When the Vow Breaks
Guest Post by Lisa Bartelt
We stood at the altar, him and me, making promises, pledging our troth, nodding in agreement as our pastor and friend counseled us to lean not on our own understanding.
I was 29. It had been a decade of watching most of my friends get married and begin to have babies, wondering when it would be my turn. Ten years earlier I had given my life to Christ, and I had expected him to find me a prince worthy of a happily ever after. I had waited what felt like a very long time, but when I met Phil, I knew from the start something was happening. It took us both a while to figure it out and let God do His work in us, but we did and He did, and that’s how we ended up in a church on a cloudy day in May, me wearing white, him wearing pink, our families and friends dressed to the nines, supporting our decision to become man and wife.
The service itself was carefully planned to honor God and express how sacred we considered this moment. The music had a message. Our pastor spoke a sermon. The ceremony was close to an hour long. Because in my mind, a hastily planned, quicky wedding meant we weren’t taking this seriously.
And we were serious.
In a culture where marriages were crumbling after only a handful of years, or some after decades, I was convinced that our marriage would be different. Starting with day 1. We believed divorce was not an option for us. And I was sure we’d never have reason to think of that anyway.
This was the attitude that became the foundation of our marriage.
We weren’t like other couples.
Marriage wasn’t going to be hard for us.
Nothing could shake our love for each other.
Happily ever after.
The Words I’ll Never Forget
In our first three years of marriage, we had two kids and moved twice (once from Illinois to Pennsylvania). My husband finished his undergrad and started seminary. I went from working full-time to staying at home full-time. Our income dropped to the point that we qualified for government assistance.
In short, everything changed, and nothing was as I expected. Including our marriage.
By year three, we were burnt out but didn’t know it. Or we were in denial. Our marriage was … eh. We weren’t unhappy necessarily, but we certainly weren’t living the blissful married life I’d imagined. I wondered if this was as good as it would ever get. I was a busy, tired mom of two kids under the age of 3. My goal most days was to live through it. I didn’t have time or energy to work on my marriage. I wasn’t even sure it needed work. I knew things weren’t right between my husband and me, but did that mean they were wrong?
One summer night answered that question before I could ask it.
The kids were in bed, sound asleep, and my husband said he needed to talk. And then he said them. The words I’ll never forget.
“I cheated on you.”
The rest of that night is a blur of tears, heartache and screaming that probably made the neighbors talk.
Betrayal isn’t something anyone dreams about, and here I was, in the middle of a nightmare.
But even in the midst of it, God was present. I don’t know how, but I told my husband that same night that I forgave him and wasn’t going to leave him.
Three years later, I’m still telling myself the same thing, and I’m learning that forgiveness and commitment are often daily choices, seldom one-time acts.
All the King’s Horses
Our son is almost four and relishing his time as an “only child” during the day while his sister attends kindergarten. Occasionally we attend a local library storytime together. One recent theme was nursery rhymes and for weeks, Corban and Isabelle would recite Humpty Dumpty—or their version of it–while we were driving.
Phil and I were a lot like Humpty Dumpty. Fragile, yet confidently sitting high above everyone else. Then the fall happened and the marriage we’d been building shattered. And while it would be easy for me to blame it all on his infidelity, the truth is that both of us were to blame. I was consumed with the kids and their needs, giving all my time and energy to them. I was too proud to ask for help with babysitting so Phil and I could go on dates. We were eager to be in ministry, and we stretched ourselves too thin.
But unlike Humpty Dumpty, who couldn’t be put back together again by anyone, our marriage wasn’t beyond repair. We began a long, hard, never-ending road to rebuild from the ground up.
When Breaking Isn’t Bad
When I worked as a newspaper reporter, I attended my fair share of ribbon cuttings for new businesses or expanding ones. Most were called “groundbreaking” ceremonies, where someone of note would hold a shovel and pose with a picture, then turn over a clump of dirt. It was symbolic—a sign of what was about to happen.
The same term—groundbreaking—is also used for a new discovery or advancement in technology or medicine. It signals a change from the way things have been understood and done before.
And, as we all know, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
In each case, “breaking” is a good and necessary thing.
So it was with us. God allowed the brokenness to begin something new. In us, individually. And in our marriage. Our view of marriage shifted. Our understanding of the work that needed to go into it changed.
We are now three years post-affair and are just beginning to tell our story beyond our closest circles. And though it isn’t easy to relive it or to talk about it (sometimes it’s downright terrifying!) we’re doing it because we believe in the theme of this blog: There is nothing so broken that God cannot redeem it.
Our marriage was broken, and God has redeemed it. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect; it’s not. But it’s better. We’re better.
A final note: If your marriage has hit rock bottom, for whatever reason, can I encourage you to seek help? I never thought I’d go to marriage counseling, but we did and I’m grateful for how it helped us. If not counseling, talk to someone. One of the lies I believed was that everyone else’s marriage was perfect and mine wasn’t, so I must have been doing something wrong. The truth is that all marriages have their own problems. All of us need help now and then. All. Of. Us. There is no shame in asking for help.
Not all stories end the same way, and I would feel guilty if I’ve left the impression that the only way God redeems a broken marriage is the way He did it for us. It could happen that way, but it might not. Neither do I believe God caused our brokenness. But He did use it.
One of my favorite song lyrics about redemption says this: “All things that happen aren’t meant to be, but all things that happen can be redeemed.”
Amen. And amen.
We might not get the happy ending we envisioned. We might find that we get something better.
Lisa Bartelt is a child of the flatlands fulfilling her dream of living near the mountains. She loves reading, writing and listening to stories—true ones, made-up ones and the ones in between— preferably with a cup of coffee in hand. Wife, mom of two, writer, ordinary girl, Lisa blogs about books, faith, family and the unexpected turns of life at Living Echoes (http://lmbartelt.wordpress.com). You can also find her work in The One Year Devotional of Joy and Laughter (Tyndale), Thriving Family magazine, and Prayer Connect magazine.