On Marriage, Music & the Fire Escape

photo copy 8Aaron and I just celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary. We met when we were 22, and we fell in love while we were working together in high school ministry, at rehearsals and retreats and standing in the church parking lot between our cars long after everyone else went home, at a summer camp on Lake Geneva and Cubs games, over gin and tonics at the House of Blues.

I don’t write about Aaron often, partially because he’s so much more private than I am. Poor Aaron, to end up married to a person who tells our stories as a job. But every once in a while, it feels right to spend a little time telling the good stories of these years we’ve built, and an anniversary seems like just the time.

Ours is not, to the outside observer, a marriage of similarities: He’s an introvert—big time. I’m an extrovert—big time. He wants to eat dinner at about 4:30pm—big hunk of meat, pile of vegetables, mound of rice. I want to eat at 8 at the earliest: wine, cheese, bread.

While I’m reading Ruth Reichl, Anne Lamott, and John Updike, he’s reading the Book of Common Prayer and a book about peace-making in Israel & Palestine.

While I’m listening to Damien Rice, Indigo Girls, Need to Breathe, Brandi Carlile, Lone Bellow, Civil Wars—singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars and a dash of Southern heartbreak, he’s listening to Sigur Ros, Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Elbow, the Beatles—big sounds, big drama, innovative rhythms & instrumentation, and always a little edge of darkness.

I generally look like I just came from the yacht club. He generally looks like he’s on his way to a rock show. I’m a Paris girl—that classic city, rich with history and largely untouched by time. He loves London: a million miles an hour, wild fashion and music and art pushing toward the future.

All those years ago, part of what drew me to him so deeply was how much he surprised me. He wasn’t like me at all. He wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met. And all these years later, I still feel that. In some ways, I know every last thing there is to know about him, but at the same time, he still surprises me, and I love that.

He loves John Lennon and cashews and grapes, especially when they’re really crunchy and cold. He loves to laugh, and he always wants ice cream.

He’s intense and idealistic, passionate and articulate about the church and the world and who God is, about peace-making and liturgy and progressive theology.

He’s the best father to our boys that I could even imagine–always ready to play, to make an adventure, to teach them something about how to live in this big world.

Happy Anniversary, Aaron.

This season is one of such sweetness for us—lots of laughter, lots of dancing in the kitchen, lots of space and grace and holding hands. Lots of dreaming—that’s important, I think. When we stop dreaming together, we’re off track. Dreaming together is always a good sign for us.

Like every couple, we have our ups and downs, and we’ve had our sweet seasons and our dark ones.  Sometimes it’s hard to get a handle on what causes what, but I’m paying close attention these days, because I want to learn how to live for longer stretches in this kind of season. How can we keep this sweetness alive in our home and in our marriage?

And as I look more closely, I think some of the hard choices we’ve made in the last year have cleared a path for this season.

Please, please don’t read this as self-congratulation, but instead as gratitude. And please don’t read it as advice from an expert, but as a hand holding out from a fellow traveler.

I’m so deeply thankful to be standing with Aaron in a spot of light and love and richness in our marriage these days, and these are the things I’m going to keep doing, hoping that they keep yielding this loveliness…

We’re slowing down. I suspect that I’ll be talking and writing about this issue for the rest of my life, because it’s so easy for me to get too busy, and for the fallout of that to have negative effects on the rest of my life. This is what I know: my life works better a little slower. Our family life works better a little slower. And our marriage works better a little slower, when there’s space to listen and laugh, when we read together on the couch after the kids are in bed, when we don’t have to be fast-paced business partners and just get to be us.

We’re creating experiences and memories alone together. Our schedules don’t allow for a set date night every week, but we’re doing a better job this year of grabbing date nights whenever we can get them—driving to the city for dinner, going for a run together, staying in for a movie.

And this may sound silly, but really I love it so much: one of my favorite bloggers A Cup of Jo posted ages ago about how now that they have kids, sometimes instead of getting a sitter and going out, they have a drink together on their fire escape, a mini-date looking over Manhattan.

That idea stuck with me, and even though what we have is a front step looking out onto our quiet suburban street, some nights when the kids are in bed, instead of watching tv or working on our computers, one of us will say to the other, “Fire escape?”

We open a bottle of wine or brew a pot of tea, and we sit on that step together for a while, talking and listening. It’s not a fire escape looking over all of Manhattan, but it’s our spot where we sit shoulder to shoulder looking out at our view—the moon rising, the trees, the airplanes to and from O’hare zigzagging across the sky.

And NYC. We heart NYC. We travel so much for our jobs and with my family that sometimes we forget how important it is for us to travel alone together and just for fun. The last two years, we’ve taken a 2 night trip to New York City for our anniversary—just us, no kids, no work, no coffees with friends who live there or work people that it would be smart to connect with.

I can’t even tell you what these days have done in us. For all our differences, we both love being in cities, and nothing knits us together faster than busy city streets, lights and subways and museums, discovering together, wandering together. I hope this is a tradition we hold till we’re stooped and slow, still holding hands on the Brooklyn Bridge or in the library at the NoMad hotel.

We’re going to counseling, together and separately. I’m such a huge fan of counseling, as you know. We go to the same counselor, and it’s such a gift to have a long-term relationship with someone who knows us well, together and separately, and can help us when things get rough around the edges.

We’re talking about our marriage with close friends, together and separately. When Annette and I catch up on the phone, she always asks me about my marriage, and I always ask about hers. I stood in their wedding and she stood in ours, and I’m so thankful to be a part of a community that takes that ongoing role seriously—Annette didn’t just support me on the day of our wedding, but she continues to support our marriage all these years later, and I’m honored to do that for her, too. Our small group and the Cooking Club girls and a few other friends are always ready to listen and help when we get stuck, and their voices of encouragement and honesty are such gifts. Secret-keeping takes its own toll, so even when things are hard, we tell the truth to our community.

We’re working hard to be healthy individuals—spiritually, emotionally, all of the above. A mentor of ours says that healthy marriages can only be made between two healthy people. And to be perfectly honest, looking back, we’ve never had a sustained difficult season between us when we were both at our best personally. Another way to say it: personal pain or brokenness or struggle leads to pain and brokenness and struggle in our marriage.

We’re learning that one of the best things we can do to build our marriage is to build our own healthy selves, whether that’s making rest and sleep a priority, or seeing a counselor or spiritual director or meeting with a mentor, or going for a run or saying no to something.

When Aaron and I can bring our best selves to our partnership, the partnership thrives. And, of course, the opposite is true: when all I bring is fear and fragments and exhaustion and anxiety, there’s not a lot to build on. I’m so committed to bringing my best self to our marriage in the year to come.

Happy 12 years, Aaron. You’re my person. I love you. 

We’re in the bloom of a good season, rich and strong, easy to laugh, easy to let the little things go. We haven’t always been there, but we’re on-our-knees thankful to be here now, and learning all we can about how to get better at this wild, hard, beautiful dance of marriage.


37 thoughts on “On Marriage, Music & the Fire Escape

  1. This is really beautiful. I love that you put it not in terms of expert advice but of gratitude and things you want to keep doing–not that I’d have minded if you gave it in the form of advice, but I thought gratitude was a lovely way to express it.

    We are coming up fast on our ten year anniversary, which falls in perhaps the worst year of our lives. But I am grateful to be living it, dreadful as it is, with this man. I like your description of marriage as a wild, hard, beautiful dance–for so it is.

    Happy Anniversary!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing the wonderful words about your marriage. I love being married (almost for a year now) and I love continuing to work on our marriage and live in the blissful season we are in right now. I appreciate these tips as they seem wonderful for my husband and myself right now! Plus we are opposites too!

  3. Oh Shauna. Always so inspiring. This makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside about my hubby! Thanks for sharing this.

    My husband and I also just took a short two day excursion just the two of us. It was the first time that it had been just the two of us playing together with no other agenda (meeting people, etc) in many, many months. I didn’t realize how much just two days could do for our marriage! If only we were close enough to take those two days in NYC…

  4. This is so beautiful. This ESTJ sent it to my INFP husband- the love of my life- whom I will never stop being utterly surprised by.

    Thanks, once again, for your words.

  5. Shauna,
    I feel like I know you so much better than I do – I’m sure you get this a lot. I’ve been faithfully reading, but felt like this was the day to leave a comment. :) We just celebrated our 12th anniversary too (Aug 31). We have had various highs and lows this year and I resonate so much with the gratitude of “doing life” with an amazing man and daddy to our 3 McBabies. Because we travel for a living too as worship leaders, this was a special reminder to not just travel because it’s “work” and we can vacay along the way, but to carve out intentional time/space/spots to just be us. Your words are a constant encouragement – honest and inspiring. I’ve loved your books. I also loved the way you introduced Bob Goff at the Summit btw. Keep on keeping on…

  6. Happy anniversary! Here’s to many more years filled with beautiful moments :)

    …and I *love* the fire escape concept. I’m definitely going to incorporate that into our marriage, too.

  7. Shauna,
    You have such a knack at knitting words together, to paint an extraordinary picture of life in vibrant colors, of tastes and sounds, of little emotions like beads on a necklace added up to make an impression of life as it is.
    Indeed, when life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. When life is bitter, say thank you and grow.
    Thank you Shauna, for sharing a slice of life at a time with me -even though I know it’s not just me :)

  8. This is a beautiful way to honor your husband! I will keep it in mind for my 10th anniv, coming up early next year. (But I’m not really a blogger, so it will be more like a love letter probably. ha!) You got me at the very end: You’re my person. That’s what I used to say to Dan when we were dating! I’ve let that go. But I’ll have to try it on again and see if it’s fitting at this point in our marriage. Struggle. Prayer. Ugh. I can see how just writing something like this would be renewing.
    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Once again…. Thank u for your honesty. I so love that about your words. Happy Anniversary to you both. My husband and I just celebrated 29 . Seasons are so much apart of the journey. Thanks for the encouragement about healthy ways to sustain the good seasons. Fabulous words! Thank you

  10. Wow… Beautiful and inspiring. It is so easy to get busy with my own stuff and forget to reconnect with my husband. And as a counselor, I wholeheartedly agree that two healthy people make a healthier marriage!

  11. Love your post. So romantic and so real. An inspiration always! Love hearing your stories and you’ve inspired me to tell my own. From an empty nest point of view. Beauty and grace filling our lives to overflowing. Thanks for sharing!

  12. This is great. You’re one of my most favorites, Shauna. I come back to your words in sweet times and dark times and here again, I am renewed through encouraging words of what is possible when people work with each other in a marriage and really seem to look toward what is good. Thank you.

  13. So much good stuff here. Oh! – and we celebrated our 11th at the NoMad this year.
    AND have you had the brussel sprouts at Gramercy Tavern? They were life changing. xo

  14. What a lovely post. So pleased God is blessing your marriage. Just listened to your talk about re-writing the stories of our lives. Beyond helpful.Thankyou.x

  15. After reading your book, Bread & Wine and this post, some similarities are feeling a bit creepy! I completely agree, on all fronts, slowing down, counseling…escaping. From the tv, phone, to-do list simply to listen. Or be heard. so good. Thanks for posting. I am enjoying your blog thoroughly.

  16. Loved loved loved every word, thank you. Happy Anniversary.

    I’m a guy and I have been reading ‘Bread and Wine’. I have made the salad dressing numerous times adding maple syrup on occasion….YUMMY!

  17. how i would love to sit with you over bread, cheese and wine and talk about the ins and outs of this post. there’s a sound to it that resonates within my own life and marriage along with the ever-present reminder to slow down.

    there’s definite truth in the trust and safety that two healthy people can bring to a marriage. alas, this is less often the case with most. last night, a group of women in my church got together to plan the beginning stages of our upcoming christmas dinner and part of that meeting was hearing an excerpt from the chapter of your book, bread & wine, entitled “present over perfect”. i’m sure i don’t need to tell you how much the title alone echoed within the hearts of everyone there (hello mary and martha…).

    i was married to my first husband for 10 years before he passed away and while we loved each other and were, i believe for the most part, present neither one of us was emotionally available – especially for the hard and imperfect parts of not only our marriage but also of ourselves. looking back i put this down to the actual fear of those imperfections being received by the other.

    now, after 9 years of marriage to my second husband, i’m in a completely different place. this wasn’t always the case; to say that we’ve been through a lot is a massive understatement. in fact we almost didn’t make it. is it health? to a degree, certainly. maturity, experience, grace? perhaps various forms of all three separately and together. what i can tell you is that our commitment to be present has definitely become larger than being perfect. we looked for perfect. God…tried so hard to find it. you know…we didn’t get healthy until we stopped looking for it and what a miracle that has been in and of itself.

    there’s so much freedom to be found in letting go of what “A” HAS to be or look like in order for “B” to work. thank you, shauna, for the reminder.

  18. I dated a guy who liked the same movies, music, & activities but then I married a guy who always surprised me. I still love it (13 years later) when he says, “hey, you know what?” And I have absolutely no idea what he’ll say next :). Happy anniversary!

  19. Can I ask you a question Shauna?
    First of all, I’m so glad that you’re not afraid to tell the world that you and your hubby go to counseling. I’m a fan of it too. Married to a pastor for almost 12 years now, I find that many people in ministry need to make it a priority, so healthy.
    My question is this: how did you decide who would be the counselor for the two of you? It sounds like it’s someone you’ve known for a long time.
    I ask because my hubs and I are interested in getting involved with a counselor, and I’ve found it super hard to figure out who to go to. We pastor at a mega church and it’s tough for him to want to go to the resident marital counselor on staff because that’s one of his fellow pastors. And then when I look up counselors in the area, they all look a bit creepy and I have no clue if they have a happy marriage themselves.
    Your thoughts will be welcomed wholeheartedly! Happy Anniversary!
    Jules :)

  20. Oh, such beauty here, Shauna.
    Thank you for writing this!
    Speaking of counseling, I’m wading in for the first time and your words in Bittersweet (in Twenty-Five) helped me to have the courage to take that step.

    I love the way you write about marriage, about life, the good, the hard, the fast and the slow.
    Thank you for sharing, and thank Aaron for me, for allowing such encouragement to be shared.

  21. Hi Shauna – I wanted to drop a quick note as a new reader and say hello. I read Bread and Wine a couple of weeks ago and am now onto Bittersweet. I would just like to tell you that you are one of the most wonderful, calming writers whose work I have ever read. You have so much wisdom and write with a level of detail that we can all aspire to. I am so happy I stumbled across your blog! Thank you for your amazing work (and recipes)! Happy Anniversary!

  22. Thank you, Shawna. I know this is a non-book-writing season for you, and I applaud you for creating that margin even as it simultaneously pains me to know that there’s not currently another piece of bound Niequist brilliance in the works for me to read 3,000 times over. But when you do hear that siren call to return to writing, would you consider creating a book about relationships? I know that in many ways, your books are already about that in that there’s an undercurrent of relationships in how all of your stories are knit together, and the stories you tell are about people and family and community. But what I mean is a book that would bear resemblance to this post– some kind of storytelling way of describing the core what you have learned about relating to other people that has helped you in the journey. I imagine that such a book would be deeply personal and one would have to be outrageously courageous to even consider it… but I know you ARE. So I write this in the hope that *if* it resonates with you that you might then hear echoes of Brene inspiring you to that kind of ongoing courage and the Spirit empowering you to live into it. You have such incredible wisdom to share, and I am grateful that you offer it with generosity.

  23. Shauna, I tell all my friends that you are my new favorite author. I’ve read all three of your books twice and am thinking of going for a third round! You touch something very deep inside with your thoughtful, poetic prose. My husband and I have been married for 21 years and we just returned from our first real vacation in four years – to NYC! It was wonderful…every single second of our four days in the Big Apple. We too heart NYC! And that time away from home, from all the everyday stress, did us and our marriage a world of good. We agonized for months and debated the wisdom of taking such a vacation at such a time as this. It was something you wrote that finally inspired me to just do it. I’m so happy we did! Please keep writing, Shauna. Take care of yourself and your precious family, but please keep writing. You have such a gift.

  24. One you are very beautiful thought I would add love your pictures. I am new to your sight but look forward to reading more my husband and I just celebrated 4 years of marriage 2 days ago (23rd) and I love reading about other couples defeating odd and making marriage work with their complete opposite!

  25. This was just absolutely beautiful. My husband is an extrovert (but private online). I am in introvert (but very public online). It’s interesting how you were able to write about him in a way that would still make “private” husbands happy.

    Happy Anniversary!

  26. Thank you so much for your beautifully written and yet full of depth words about your marriage. This is such an encouragement to me as a “newly married” girl of just 2 years. This life together is a journey, and it is the most difficult and yet the most rewarding relationship; to be committed through it all. That is a gift we give each other on this earth, for a lifetime.

  27. This is really lovely. I have a similar matching so I really felt like I can relate. I think it is really important to take time to appreciate the good times and not feel guilty about it, or run ahead and worry about future bad times. Being matched with someone who is so different but brings things to the relationship that you don’t can be tough if you don’t stop to appreciate those differences and remember how they are what attracted and held you in the first place. We have also had ups and downs and are currently in a really wonderful phase and I have the same thoughts about observing how to keep this going and to make the rough patches fewer and farther between. Sure, there’s a season for everything but will be praying for an extended time of flourishing for you both!

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