I watched my family fall apart when I was 22.
My parents had been married for 24 years, but I was under no illusions that they’d all been happy ones. I remember the arguments behind closed doors and a handful of shouting matches when they thought I was asleep. If I braved a knock, I’d hear this response: “Mommy and Daddy are talking. We’ll be out later.” I knew not to knock again.
I would picture them on the other side of that door, pacing and then sitting on the bed and then pacing again. Their brass headboard was the backdrop of their marriage, their fights, and even the Sunday mornings when all five of us would cuddle in bed and watch Bozo the clown.
After these fights, my mom would always walk out with a tear-marred face, and I’d try to pretend I didn’t see, feeling embarrassed and confused that my parents were capable of hurting each other so deeply.
Though I’d sensed that my parents’ marriage was not perfect, I also perceived it to be perfectly normal, since it was the only marriage I had witnessed up close. My dad’s father died when my dad was only five, and my mom’s parents divorced a few years before I was born.
For all I knew, my parents treated one another the way any other married couple would. I didn’t think twice about the way my mom spoke to my dad on the phone each night when he was traveling for work. She sounded exasperated and annoyed, and I remember asking her one time why she was always mad at him. It also never occurred to me that some men take their wives on dates more than once a year. My mom and dad were the two most constant forces in my life, and I believed with a childlike naivete that their marriage was unshakeable and their presence in my life unalterable.
As I grew into adulthood during college, I began to see evidence that my parents’ marriage was getting stronger. They became leaders at our church, went on vacation without us kids, and found community with other married couples. So it came as a blunt trauma that summer afternoon when they announced their divorce to my siblings and me. The words tumbled out of my dad’s mouth as he avoided our eyes while my mom wept quietly on the couch next to him—just a few feet away, but it might as well have been miles. I later learned that I’d been reading the signs wrong; they were not evidence of increasing strength but of a last-ditch effort to save their marriage.
The years that followed were marked by a gut-wrenching pain like I’d never experienced before, and through it all, I believed myself to be weak and overly sensitive. After all, young children experience this all the time—surely as an adult woman, I should be able to walk through this fire unscathed. What no one tells you about watching your parents divorce each other—whether you’re a five-year-old or a 25-year-old—is that it’s remarkably similar to experiencing a death. Both of my parents were still living, yes, but with the death of their marriage came the death of my security, my belief in love, and my deep trust in the goodness of God.
There was the vacuum of emptiness I felt on that first Christmas without my dad in the house, and the dissonance when my siblings and I awkwardly exchanged gifts with him in his new apartment.
There were times when my anxiety would become so debilitating that I’d throw up on my way to work and in the middle of my lunch break and at night before I went to bed.
There were many nights when I would weep uncontrollably, my sobs turning into hiccups until I fell into a fitful sleep.
There were countless moments when I couldn’t make anyone understand how badly I was bleeding, hemorrhaging memories and promises that we’d always be a family.
I met and married my husband just a few years after my parents’ divorce was finalized. As engaged couples do, we received endless amounts of well-intentioned advice from people who had walked the difficult road of marriage before us. Partially because I heard it remarkably often, and partially because I was more sensitive to it given my recent history, the advice that clattered around my head more than the rest was this: “Your marriage should always come first.”
My mom was the first to admit that this hadn’t been true for her and my dad, and she told me again and again how desperately she wanted things to be different in my marriage. In their own ways, each of my parents had elevated family above marriage and their bond with us kids over their relationship with each other. I naively assumed that a sincere belief in this platitude would be enough to protect me. After all, I’d seen firsthand the utter devastation that divorce causes; of course I would do everything in my power to make my marriage the strongest part of our family life.
And then I had my first child and realized the biological impossibility of always putting my spouse first. I couldn’t put him first when my newborn relied on me as her sole source of food every three hours. He couldn’t put me first when she wouldn’t sleep and would only be soothed by her daddy’s arms. I couldn’t put him first when I went back to work at three months postpartum, still sleep-deprived and physically broken and constantly attached to my breast pump.
But instead of feeling the relief of grace in this time of transition, I felt terror bubbling up in my heart: Could what happened to my parents happen to us, too?
We were too tired to work on our marriage, too overwhelmed to engage in healthy conversation, too busy with feeding schedules and nap schedules and work schedules to prioritize each other. I believed we would surface at some point, but how would another child, and then maybe even another, compound this struggle? Will I end up like my parents simply because I was too tired to do anything different?
On some level, divorce seems as random a tragedy as a car accident. If it can happen to my parents, to that well-known pastor, to those dear friends, then surely that disaster can strike my house. Paradoxically, it also feels too much within my control. Whenever I hear a story of another person’s divorce, I look for proof that that the signs were there, proof that those signs are not in my marriage, proof that it won’t—that it can’t possibly—happen to us, too. We go on dates and laugh together and dream about the future and affirm each other daily. But we also fight about stupid things and lose our patience too quickly and have less sex than we probably should. If marriage is built through our everyday actions, I worry that mine are not enough to keep us safe.
When I can’t seem to stop swinging on the pendulum from craving control to giving in to fatalistic thinking, I am reminded of this truth: God is in the business of breaking generational struggles and renewing all things and equipping us to love well. He doesn’t need me to always get it right, and ultimately, the health of my marriage doesn’t depend on a flawless performance from me (though, of course, I do bear the responsibility for my own actions). I can have confidence, after a long road of healing since my parents’ divorce, that God is good, he is for my marriage, and he is with my family in whatever comes.
So for today, my husband and I will gather with our daughter under our whitewashed wood headboard—a far cry from my parents’ 80s-esque brass set—as a collection of imperfect people just trying their best to love one another, failing sometimes, and then trying again. Maybe that’s where family is forged—not by always getting it right, but through the sacred work of trying one more time.
Guest post written by Brittany L. Bergman. Brittany L. Bergman is a writer and editor living in the suburbs of Chicago with her husband and her daughter. She is passionate about living a simple life marked by authenticity and gratitude. She is unashamedly incapable of pacing herself when it comes to reading mysteries and eating French toast. Brittany writes about living intentionally, savoring motherhood, and finding the sacred in the everyday at BrittanyLBergman.com. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook.