Most people don’t deal with rejection very well, and it’s remarkable how avoiding rejection seems to be the great motivator for so many throughout their entire lives. The fear of being deemed less worthy inspires career choices, marriage proposals, name changes, pregnancies, criminal activity, and a whole host of other, dramatic life choices.
Early on, people learn to detect when they’re on the outs, and most people eventually learn how to diplomatically retreat from these situations prior to finding themselves completely rejected. It’s a survival skill, and it’s one that oftentimes proves very effective at keeping others at a safe and comfortable distance. I think it’s also probably the reason so many people struggle to survive in marriage.
All of our lives, we are fairly competent at keeping people at an arm’s length – just close enough for them to admire our toothy grin, but just far enough away that we’re pretty sure they don’t smell our halitosis (though they usually do). Then we get married to the one who appears to think so highly of us, we make a home with them, and we both get a little too comfortable.
Before you know it, someone else finally begins to discover what we’re really like first thing in the morning, how well we respond to others during times when we “need our space,” and just how much control we demand over our own lives. The ugly side of us eventually seeps (or gushes) out, and our spouses are usually the first to let us know. Having developed disproportionately high opinions of ourselves and also caring very much what our spouse thinks, we flinch at our spouse’s vivid description of our ugliness, assume they’re exaggerating, and naturally interpret the criticism as unfair rejection (of our financial responsibility, our social skills, our table manners, our spiritual life, etc.).
That feeling of rejection hits us like a cinderblock to the head, and we instantly presume we must respond to it as we always have: by (1) running away; or (2) hitting back. Running away is no longer an option (or at least it isn’t supposed to be), and, without that option available, we feel trapped and hit back at our spouse with our own, vivid descriptions of their weaknesses. In no time, the tiki torches from the honeymoon are smouldering and once-happy couples find themselves building resevoirs of resentment that, at best, lead to a tense or loveless marriage and, at worst, lead to bitter divorce.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Two years into marriage, I’m finding that married life is so much better the more I accept myself as a broken person and learn to receive criticism with humility, rather than as rejection (it’s a work in progress, let me tell you). I also find I’m a more happily married man when I accept my wife as an imperfect person and either confront her with kindness or – even better – just drop it and give her the same break I want most of the time.
In Sarah Groves’ song, “Loving a Person,” she says,
There’s a lot of pain in reaching out and trying
It’s a vulnerable place to be
Love and pride can’t occupy the same spaces, baby
And only one makes you free
So hold on to me, and I’ll hold on to you
Let’s find out the beauty of seeing things through
My wife and I are getting better at finding that beauty; and as we see things through, however imperfectly, the fear of rejection is losing its power in our lives. That is the grace of Christ manifesting itself in our marriage and, though it is a challenge at times, it is a freeing work in progress that has begun to show us both what real love looks like.