It's Not War
Someone asked me recently what I would pass on to my daughter regarding the lessons I have learned about marriage in the last two decades. I thought about it quite a bit, and boiled it down to one simple principle, and I think it applies not only to marriage but to any relationship worth having with another human being.
For me to explain, I have to take you back a bit, and I have to admit to one of my weird hidden obsessions: war history. You see, there was a time when men who waged war marched into a field and faced each other, weapons drawn, battleground firm, resolution clear. An army was a multitude of human beings standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for the same ideal; together they faced their opponents as they waited for the anticipated charge and ensuing battle. In the aftermath, bodies were counted and one side generally advanced and claimed the blood-soaked land for its cause and ultimate victory.
Fast forward a few hundred years, to what war looks like now. Vietnam represented one of the first times in history where lines of occupation were not so clearly drawn; where the enemy dared to stalk its target and the element of surprise became an efficient weapon of war. Men no longer gave the honor of acknowledgement to their enemy before attacking, and acts of war spread into civilian populations.
And now, terrorism IS the war, the enemy is often unclear, and the objective is no longer to take over strategic ports or tracts of land for control but is instead to anticipate who’s trying to destroy what, and for the nation with more money and manpower to destroy them before they get that chance.
What does the history lesson have to do with marriage advice?
A few things.
I read all the books when I was young wife. I listened to Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, joined Bible study groups, and named my first LLC after the Proverbs 31 woman… And the advice the women around me at the time gave was all about boundaries and picking your battles.
Maybe that worked for them when they got married, because people were still arguing face to face like the old days instead of planting landmines and waiting in trees to garner strategic position in order to win said “chosen battles”.
“Establish boundaries. Pick your battles!”
This will not be the advice I give my daughter.
First of all, your marriage will not be a battleground. You’re not picking an opponent so you can spend a lifetime drawing lines, choosing sides and proposing peace treaties that stink of compromise. Not that compromise shouldn’t be had- absolutely, being able to come to an agreement is a cornerstone in any functional relationship- but not at the expense of self. If you’re constantly being asked to compromise who you are, or you constantly expect your ‘opponent’ to bend to your will with their compromise, you’re just living in the tension between outbreaks of war.
Additionally, you are not a castle in need of a moat. Unless you can point to a time in history when building a wall was a good thing that brought people together, I’m going to go against all current conventional self-love wisdom and tell you that carefully crafted boundaries are bound to leave you isolated. Don’t spend your valuable time here on earth deciding what offends you and what you’re entitled to and what the consequences will be if your wall gets breached. If there’s anything you can learn from a history of human beings who try desperately to keep other people out, it’s that walls crumble. They create division and disrupt the harmony of spirit intended for a true partnership. They take away your ability to give and receive unconditional love, because they come with a set of rules that dictate what you’ll accept from other people, as if you actually have ANY control over the way they treat you.
I’ve talked a lot about battles and boundaries with people this year, and was convinced for a while by someone that I should have more boundaries. That I was ‘too easy’ in a sense, because I overlooked immaterial arguments, forgave things quickly, and held no grudges. This person convinced me that my ability to love was flawed and that there was something wrong with me for the way I was. And so I spent this year trying to create the kind of boundaries prescribed by pastor’s wives and psychologists and you know what I discovered? I don’t need boundaries. I hate boundaries.
I don’t want someone to adhere to a set of rules of engagement so that I can have a stronghold on the battlefield when we go to war. I don’t want to pick my battles and I don’t want to wonder if the battle I picked is going to be fought eyes to eyes and nose to nose or with passive-aggressive guerrilla warfare. In fact, I don’t want my relationship with any other soul on earth to be described in any manner synonymous with conflict. Refusal to construct boundaries doesn’t make me weak or ripe for an attack; it does quite the opposite. Some of the greatest moments in the Bible and in history come from the destruction of a wall. (See: Jericho and Berlin.)
Maybe our marriages would last longer if we weren’t all adhering to the human evolution that self-preservation means you ought to build a wall, stand ready to guard it, then shoot at anything you don’t like because in this age of terrorism, it’s kill or be killed.
So, daughter, exchange the combat boots for a comfortable pair of walking shoes, and never, ever think of your marriage as picking your battles and setting boundaries.
Because you see, what I want- and what I want for you- is to pick your path. If and when you get married, I want your husband to be your partner, not your ally or your adversary. Let your marriage be a journey, not a battlefield.
That journey will no doubt encounter rough weather, bumpy terrain, and hungry beasts attacking along the way. One of you will get ahead of the other at some point, and you’ll count on the other one to catch up. Sometimes, you’ll be the one in need of a rest, and your partner will have to decide to come back to where you are so you can continue the journey together. You will argue about directions and provisions and where to stop along the way. Other people will join you on your journey; they have their part in supporting you. You don’t have to abandon self-respect, so if you get some hecklers or a sojourner who wants to derail your progress, you can invite them to leave your path. And if you come to a fork in the road, and the person you started with is compelled to go a different direction than you, you know what? It’s okay. There are parts of your journey that belong to you alone, and you should respect the fact that there are parts of their journey that they must experience alone, too.
I hope for you to find people along the way who will give you the safe space along your walk to be exactly who you are; to run and skip and twirl; to talk about things that matter and things that don’t. It’s in these walks and talks where the work is done; where the need for harsh barriers and war tactics dissolves because you’ve realized you don’t own the land and there’s nothing to defend. We are all merely traversing it in the best way we know how.
And while you’re on this path, dear daughter, I encourage you to love fiercely, even when people don’t love you back. When the trail ends, you can look back at what you left behind and know that no matter how your heart may have broken along the way, you never hoarded what you had to offer. Fault no one for the part they played, your paths converged for a reason. Forgive quickly, because anger is heavy and will slow you down. I encourage you to say what you need to say and do what you need to do without imposing your will on others. You’re too busy walking to construct boundaries, so if you get taken advantage of along the way, remember that what people do is on them. It’s not a flaw to trust and to love people, or to invite them on your journey. Conversely, don’t beg people to join you. There’s no sense in dragging people with you who clearly are not for you. Take what you are offered along the way, but the journey will never be about what you can accumulate. So walk lightly with only as much as you need. Be grateful for the times when you stumble and fall on your face, and for times when the path gets arduously steep and seemingly impossible- those are the trails that elevate you and lead to the best views.
And, if someone- anyone- joins your journey and tries to convince you to stop where you are, stake your claim and build a wall around it, remind them who you are and keep walking. There’s too much to see and no time to build a castle, much less figure out how you’re going to defend it.
Don’t pick your battles, daughter. Pick your path. Let people come. Let people go. Keep walking.