Bagpipes resounded “Amazing Grace” as the June rain pounded the roof of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church. After the bridesmaids processed in pale pink tea dresses to the tune of “Canon in D,” the large wooden doors shut. Thunder clapped, marking the redemption of this day, the many dark chapters of our stories now expanding and opening to light, safety, and hope.
As the doors flung open, I scanned the room, breathing in gratitude for the faces who had fought for us. Then I found Michael’s deep brown eyes filled with tears, his body beginning to shake at the quaking grace undergirding this day. As I stood there in white, his eyes beheld me in a way my feminine heart had not known. This was holy.
It wasn’t more than two months later when those same brown eyes peered at me and were seething with contempt. We married between the first and second years of our graduate program in counseling. One evening I had been eyeing him during a group session—prompting him to share about an argument we had. The night before, he had told me that the goodness of my love provoked him to want to sabotage it by looking for a cheaper substitute. Marriage had stirred in him a feeling of unworthiness, and the demons of his sexual brokenness were rearing their heads. Terror filled my body, and I was desperate not to hold his confession alone. That night in the group, he refused to share, feeling controlled by me. As we left that night, I saw the fear and hatred in his eyes toward me for trying to expose him.
While I didn’t do it perfectly, I know that I wanted good for him and for us. The tentacles of his shame and misogyny, rooted in his past abuse, had infiltrated our safe haven. We were in over our heads, and the kindness of our wedding day felt distant.
In the months before our engagement, I renounced the vow I had made in my soul that men couldn’t be trusted. Our wedding day felt like the ultimate vulnerability. My white dress symbolized purity and newness, proclaiming that my heart could be esteemed and not exploited, and affirmed that I was capable of offering my body to another human being. As I sat in the car on our way home from our group, something of my innocence felt stained. I felt angry at my body for trusting.
As I look back on that day, I wish that I had allowed my heart to feel grief, fear, and loneliness without turning against myself or my body.
I am struck by the irony that “Amazing Grace” is traditionally played at funerals. We had no idea when we walked down that aisle how much our wedding would bring both life and death, burial and resurrection. We couldn’t have known the ways our past traumas would embed themselves in our relating, some days in ways that felt so subtle and nuanced and other days more overtly.
The work of Dr. Jana Pressley on Adult Attachment Relationships reminds us that “for many, and especially for trauma survivors, the deepening stages of a romantic relationship are as painful as they are blissful (or much more painful) as attachment desires are felt and/or defended against.” As I read that, it brought a new level of compassion for the pain that emerges as couples begin to rewire their brains towards safety, attunement, and connection. This is often an excruciating process. I see this often in my clients. After a moment where they feel honored or beheld, they often find a way to self-sabotage by exploiting themselves or another.
The realization that we were in over our heads was a grace to us both. Today as I look at that white dress hanging in a garment bag in my closet, I see its beauty as well as the stains of smashed wedding cake and a few drops of faded red wine. Like the white dress, marriage has felt like a co-mingling between joy and sorrow, beauty and blemishes.
I am also aware of the ways that I have outgrown the dress. My body and soul have grown richer and stronger over the years. My hips have born babies and my shoulders carry more grit and wisdom. Today, as I look into Michael’s eyes I hold a deeper reality of the man that I married. I see eyes that have fought for life and goodness, a face that has known the power of forgiving and being forgiven. While our innocence has faded, I see that Michael can be trusted even though he is an imperfect man who can wound me. While his misogyny was apparent that day, I see more of my own today. I have turned on my body and my feminine heart as a way to manage my needs and desires. While the white dress is a symbol of the holiness of marriage, it is only white because like any stains, they have to be persistently worked on to get out. In the same way, I am thankful to be in a marriage where we have consistently worked, by God’s grace and the goodness of our community, so our love can become purer and more resilient.
Rachel Blackston loves all things beautiful…rich conversations over a hot cup of lemon ginger tea, watching her three little girls twirl around in tutus, and Florida sunrises on her morning walks. She resides in Orlando with her lanky, marathon running husband and her precious daughters, priceless gifts after several years of infertility. Rachel and her husband Michael cofounded Redeemer Counseling. As a therapist, Rachel considers it an honor to walk with women in their stories of harm, beauty, and redemption.