Hope for Hopeless Marriages
- Monday, February 02, 2009
A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers. Ruth Bell Graham
Ever since she was a little girl, Tracey had dreamed of this day. And now it was finally here! Her dress . . . a long classic-style princess dress of beautiful white silk . . . and she was marrying her prince––her best friend, Mark. All that was missing were the horses and carriage. She couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than this treasured day!
Since they both loved the ocean, and her groom was an avid windsurfer, their wedding reception overlooked Key Biscayne’s beautiful beach and featured lots of conch shells and white orchids. For their first dance, they affectionately embraced as they slowly swayed to the lyrics, “When I give my heart, it will be forever . . .” Oh, how wonderful to be Mrs. Mark Russell!
Tracey was still shaking rice from her hair and veil as they drove away from their picture-perfect wedding when she playfully turned toward the driver’s seat with a beaming smile for her new husband; she caught the vestiges of a bewildered expression on his face before he turned his attention back to the road.
Mark hadn’t returned her smile, and as she watched him covertly for the next several minutes, she sensed that something wasn’t right. It must be newlywed jitters, she thought, and inwardly shook her head.
She and Mark had met at their church youth group in ninth grade. Mark had immediately liked her, but they didn’t officially start dating until they were seniors in high school. After going separate ways to attend college, they were drawn back together after Mark graduated with a degree in engineering.
Though Tracey had experienced many good and bad relationships before, out of all the other relationships she had experienced, Mark was exactly the kind of man she had hoped to marry. She knew there are always some ups and downs in a marriage, but she had expected theirs to be full of intimacy and passion. Their honeymoon turned out to be a far cry from her expectation. Instead, Tracey felt like she was trapped in a room with a total stranger their first night together. She couldn’t believe it when he sat down on the opposite couch instead of cozying up to her like he normally did.
Tracey’s wedding night was one of the loneliest of her life. As Mark pulled away from her in bed, she mentally searched the events of the day to see if she could have said or done something to offend her new groom. But nothing came to mind. She finally fell asleep with the thought, He’s probably just exhausted from the wedding and will be back to himself in the morning.
The next morning, the awkward silence of the night before continued to build as she and Mark packed to leave their hotel suite for their long-anticipated Caribbean cruise. On ship, in their cabin suite, Tracey finally mustered enough courage to ask, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
Mark’s long pause before replying didn’t prepare her to hear, “Tracey, I don’t think we should have gotten married.”
“What?” Tracey said instinctively. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. The walls of the cabin seemed to be closing in on her.
“I think we made a mistake,” Mark said matter-of-factly.
Tracey couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Was this just his idea of a poorly timed joke?! Feeling like a freight train had just run over her heart, Tracey couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. She ran outside to the ship’s deck and grasped the rail. In two short, thoughtless sentences, her prince had shattered her dreams.
She turned her head to the right and to the left and saw happy couples everywhere. Nowhere to run . . . After a long time, she returned to the cabin, not wanting to face Mark. He offered her an apology: “Tracey, I’m sorry you feel like that.” But instead of fondly caressing her and reassuring her, he picked up a book and started reading as if nothing had happened, making it clear that he didn’t want to be interrupted. In one day, her romantic dream of a lifetime had turned into her worst nightmare.
By day, they dutifully masqueraded as loving honeymooners, publicly kissing and holding hands. Everyone congratulated them, thinking they were the perfect newlyweds struck by the love bug. But in the privacy of their cabin, it was anything but the “Love Boat.” Instead of enjoying each other at night, Tracey experienced a cold Artic air between them. She was actually relieved when the farce of their honeymoon was finally over.
Although she definitely had grounds to annul the marriage, Tracey wasn’t a quitter. She took seriously her vows recited in front of God and their 250 family members and friends. She had made a lifetime commitment to Mark. Maybe if she just did everything right, her prince charming would return to rescue her and love her forever. Then they could finally start the happily-ever-after part.
After they returned home from their cruise and tried to settle in, nothing seemed to improve, despite the sacrifices Tracey made. The wall between them continued to grow. Three months later, when Tracey had started to think about annulment, she discovered that she was pregnant. It should have been a joyful moment celebrated together. Instead, the news was another shattered dream. Knowing that the Russells’ marriage hung by a thread, some of her family and friends verbally expressed that the timing of the pregnancy couldn’t be worse. But Tracey stayed optimistic and prayed that God would use their child to bring them back together.
When their son, Chase, was born, the tension and emotional abuse only escalated. If possible, Mark resented Tracey even more. On the day that Tracey and baby Chase were discharged from the hospital, Mark chose work over coming home from the hospital with them. Now Tracey was alone not only as a wife, but also as a first-time mom. Mark’s rejection of their son hurt Tracey even more than his continual shunning of her affections.
They had both grown up in church but Mark had drifted away from God during their marital problems. In desperation, Tracey finally turned to a Christian counselor for advice. After hearing her nightmare story, the counselor commented, “Tracey, Mark will always be like a black mark on your wedding dress. You can try scrubbing it, but you’ll never get rid of it.” Tracey walked out of that session feeling hopeless.
On Valentine’s Day, Mark confessed to more devastating secrets. It was the last straw for Tracey. Totally numb, she asked her husband to pack his bags.
During their separation, Mark finally snapped out of his selfishness and began to realize what he was about to lose. He tried apologizing and attempted to reach out to Tracey and Chase. But Tracey’s wounds from his emotional neglect were too deep, and she no longer cared, and even doubted his sincerity. A bitter thought floated through her mind: Too little too late . . . After two years of heartbreak, he had finally “convinced” her that their marriage was beyond reconciliation, and she filed for divorce.
Ironically, it was at this point that Mark turned back to God and began to want their marriage, while Tracey had given up.
After the divorce, Tracey continued to believe that nothing could restore her broken heart. She blamed Mark for having the power to ruin her happiness. She further imprisoned herself by becoming a victim of bitterness and anger.
Because of their baby, they had been forced to see each other during weekend drop-offs. About eight months after their divorce, Mark stopped by to write a check to Tracey for child support. When he opened his wallet, Tracey noticed that he was still carrying their wedding picture. Just seeing herself in that white dress instantly brought back the memory of all her tarnished dreams. She vividly remembered the permanent black spot, and spat out, “Why in the world are you keeping that stupid picture?”
“Tracey, you have every right to hate me,” Mark responded, “but I’m still praying that God will give me a second chance with you and Chase. I’m going to Washington, DC, with some men from my church, for the Promise Keepers rally,” he said.
“That’s ironic,” she replied, “since you’re definitely very skilled at promise breaking.” She added, “You can just forget any chance of us ever getting back together, because I’ll never trust you again.”
The next day, as Tracey drove out of town for a wedding, she ended up listening to some praise music on the radio. After the music, a speaker talked about bitterness and repentance. It was exactly what she needed to hear. The speaker shared from the Bible about how the church in Ephesus turned their back on their first love (see Revelation 2:1-4).
Tracey had never before heard the Lord described as her first love, and in that moment, she realized that she had turned her back on God, because she was hurt and angry that He hadn’t saved her marriage. Right there in the car, she asked God to forgive her for forgetting Him and harboring bitterness toward Him and toward Mark.
After she repented, the radio station host announced that the broadcast was coming live from the Promise Keepers rally in Washington, DC. Was it just a coincidence that she and Mark were listening to the same speaker at the same time, hundreds of miles apart?
Tracey started listening intently as the speaker’s words shifted to repentance for marital sins. He asked each man to get out a picture of his wife or family and hold it up.
She envisioned Mark holding up the picture she had seen in his wallet the night before. The speaker prayed for miraculous restoration of families. He reinstated the men as the servant leaders and protectors of their families.
Tracey listened as thousands of men corporately begged God to forgive them for the sins they had committed against their wives and children. Slowly, her emotional barricade started to come down.
That night, Mark called his ex-wife from a friend’s house in Washington. “Tracey,” he said, “I’ve never understood why I kept our wedding picture until now. We need to talk when I get back.”
The next evening, Mark came straight from the airport to his former house and got down on his knees by her bedside as he confessed, “Tracey, I’ve done this all wrong. I’ve been so selfish. I want to be the godly husband you deserve and a godly father to our son.”
As the tears streamed down his face, he said, “Don’t trust me, but trust Christ in me.”
That night was the start of a miraculous reconciliation. Six weeks after Promise Keepers, Tracey and Mark were remarried. This time there was no glitz or fanfare. They called Tracey’s uncle, who had married them the first time and they had to scramble just to get their marriage license. They drove straight from the courthouse to Tracey’s uncle’s home to perform the ceremony.
Dressed in shorts and casual attire, wearing flip-flops, they picked up the plastic flowers from the coffee table for a makeshift bouquet before they repeated their vows. Only the presence of God mattered. They knew that He was giving them a second chance and reuniting their lives forever for a greater purpose.
A few weeks after their remarriage, Tracey was listening to the radio while driving. The story being told immediately captured her attention. It was about an heirloom handkerchief that had been spoiled by a black stain. The stain had ruined the pristine white hanky, devastating the owner. She was so distraught that she took her hanky to a skillful artist who literally transformed the spotted hanky into a cherished masterpiece. When she died, that handkerchief was the most prized possession of her entire estate.
As Tracey listened, she couldn’t help but think of the permanent black spot on her wedding dress. “God, I know that my hearing this was a message and confirmation from You. I’m giving You my black spot. Could You please make something beautiful out of the disappointment and mistakes of our first marriage?”
Over time, Tracey’s worst nightmare of that permanent black spot became a beautiful picture of the power of God’s amazing redemption. Today the Russells are a blessed family of six. As they share their testimony at churches and retreats, other couples continually tell how Tracey and Mark’s story gives them hope that they, too, can trust God to restore their troubled marriages.
I first met my friend Tracey Russell at a retreat after she shared part of her testimony. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Seeing the depth of their love today, it’s hard to believe that Tracey and Mark ever experienced such a dark season in their marriage. Every day, Tracey thanks God for the good and perfect gift of her husband, Mark, and their children, Chase, Holt, Trey and Faith. Their family testifies to the power of God’s love that goes much deeper than romance. They know that only God gives them the power to truly love for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death they do part.
Every day offers a chance to choose anger or understanding, bitterness or acceptance, darkness or light. And the choices we make reveal the stuff we’re made of. ––Robin McGraw
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