Jayma Anne Montgomery
A MISEDUCATION IN LOVE UNDER FIRE
A friend asked me recently when I fell in love with my husband. I honestly didn’t know how to answer. Our courtship was hardly conventional and his emotional walls were nearly impossible to scale in the beginning. Add to that the fact that we have been in a rather long post-baby intimacy slump exacerbated by my ever-growing list of chronic medical problems. I told my friend about how we met, hoping that this would lead me to a good answer at some point. I told her about getting a job at a halfway house (apparently the PC term is now a societal re-entry program) in early 2007 as a computer lab instructor. My husband was tasked with training me for about six weeks which was a very convenient, mandatory set up for us to get to know each other gradually over a forty-hour per week period. He hadn’t made it back from lunch yet when I arrived on my first day. There were artistic renderings of him completed in the old school computer application Paintbrush; some renderings could only be described as grotesque but many more of them were surprisingly good. I remember asking myself with some amusement, ‘What kind of guy gets former inmates to draw computer portraits of him?’ I was intrigued.
My first impression when he walked through the door was that he was standoffish and very difficult to read. He was polished, well-mannered, and very attractive for a rather skinny guy. I would come to know him as a fascinating study of paradoxical traits. He looked like a nerd but had just enough swag that the gentlemen in the room (many much older than he was) treated him with respect and admiration. He was clearly a brilliant guy but socially awkward and had a strange way of missing strong hints and social cues. He was a black, Christian man raised just 20 minutes from where I grew up but didn’t fit the stereotypes I was accustomed to coming across in such circles. I was prepared to deal with a rebellious preacher’s kid, straight-up gang banger, womanizer, or an unrelatable zealot blood-thirsty for a title and a pulpit. He was none of the above. I invited myself to lunch with him regularly, actually refreshed by his determination not to show interest in me or be flirtatious.
After a few weeks, I could see him start to lose ground in the battle to keep his emotions in check and I was encouraged to press a little bit harder. The truth was that my dating history prior to that was abysmal. In high school, I was the token blackie who took classes with the white kids. I had friends but had a strong sense of otherness that clung to me like tightly wound layers of saran wrap. I behaved too ‘white’ to be accepted by the black kids and looked too ‘black’ to be fully accepted by even my white friends. I didn’t know what it was to truly be seen and heard, so I dated anyone who would even give me a passing glance of interest, which was a pretty rare occurrence back then. This pattern only got worse in college. In Newark, NJ I was fresh bait for random men on the street, college boys from other cultural backgrounds, and even a few predators. My judgment was so poor that I dated men who would quickly reveal themselves to be philanderers, emotional abusers, drug dealers, or on parole. I had a very serious relationship during my senior year with a Jamaican man that I fell for hard. He was my first love, albeit in an immature and pathological way. He decimated my heart not once but three different times leaving me cynical and deeply depressed.
When I finally met Immanuel at twenty-three years old, the Lord had begun to heal my heart from all that pain and renew my spirit. I was practicing abstinence and learning to live earnestly and faithfully before the Lord that I professed to love. For the first time in my post-pubertal life, I was not hunting for a man because I was fully satisfied by the cleansing, captivating love of GOD. It was actually a relief to find a man who knew how to exhibit restraint and knew how to do more than just play games or make empty gestures with the express goal of getting in my pants as quickly as possible. He challenged me on every level and it made me come alive in ways I never had before. By the end of that six-weeks of training, we both knew without ever admitting it out loud that we were well on our way to becoming a couple. I don’t think there was a specific moment where we ‘fell in love’ and I don’t think it happened exactly at the same time.
I often go back to a great conversation that we had on the final day of my training. We were eating at this cafeteria-style banquet hall that we had eaten at several times over the preceding weeks. His facial expression was unusually warm and inviting. He wore a dark purple button-down shirt with an artsy tie that looked like bright brush strokes in gold, green, black, and purple. I remember thinking how much more handsome he looked with an easy smile and a stray hand that absently brushed against mine as we mostly ignored our lunch. It was the most open and easy conversation we had ever had and became the beginning of epic all-night phone conversations where we would eventually fall asleep. If I awakened first, I would listen to the gentle cadence of his breath caressing my ear, longing to know what it would be like to wake up in his arms. It was where we learned many of the ways in which we were the same and began to cement our bond. He told me about his college years, his parents, his sister, his seven nieces and nephews, and the birth of his church ministry. He told me of his goals, dreams, and aspirations. He didn’t avert his eyes from mine as our laughter would trail off into synchronized, restorative sighs. It felt so easy and right; not quite perfection, but cozy and promising.
He was the first to say the words. It was after our first official date on the doorstep outside of my parent’s house as we were saying goodnight. I thought I had misheard him and that must have been clear because he repeated himself. I don’t remember exactly what I said but I didn’t say it back. I was far too confused and alarmed. It felt too soon. I was his first girlfriend. He had never even kissed another woman. How could he possibly know what he was saying? He called me on his drive back to his parent’s house and we talked through it. I was honest about my concerns. He was pretty gracious about it but I could tell he was a bit frustrated. We agreed to slow things down and let the words for what we felt growing between us evolve naturally and spontaneously at some point in the future. And they did. Just under two years later we were married.
I’m writing this, in part, because I have come to realize how the cares of this world can choke out our love for our spouses. I need to remind myself that there was a time when he would steal my breath away just by looking at me with wonder. There were moments when the lightest touch was electric and just being in the same room together stirred us to the heights of emotional ecstasy before we ever knew each other in the Biblical sense. When alopecia, weight gain, chronic pain, a disfiguring rash that distorts your facial features, and chronic illness steal your confidence and you can barely stand the sight of yourself in the mirror, a husband who isn’t a relentless pursuer by nature will struggle with how best to support you through it. When you are raised in an environment of strong opinions and playful putdowns, your husband who was not raised that way may come to dislike your personality more and more over time. When your family wounds you and your spouse in a profound way years before but are resistant to open discussion and closure, it erodes away at your foundation in ways you can’t predict. When you have a special needs child you weren’t expecting to have, six or seven relocations in ten years, the stress of being a military family with a spouse in the medical field for most of your marriage, and dizzying job turnover in less than three years, it impairs your ability to bounce back without any bruises or scars.
Perhaps in the face of the complete upending of my career plans and a cruel betrayal from two male physician mentors in less than a year has overly sensitized me to criticism of any kind. The knowledge that this criticism was somehow well-intended somehow makes the harshness of the critique cut that much deeper. My ability to roll with the punches life never hesitates to throw at me and make a plan that comes together while I’m on the run has completely desensitized my husband to the fact that I am in an incredibly fragile emotional state pretty much all of the time and still in active recovery from these rapid succession of blows.
There is so much more I could say. There is still so much that we are working through individually and leaning on the good friends and trusted family in our lives to help us through it has been such a blessing. We will be entering our fourth round of marital counseling as well as individual counseling. I thought we were a stronger couple than we are. I was content and he hasn’t been for almost a decade. The ways in which I have shielded myself from him, to be my own protector and pursuer have caused problems that I was blind to. The ways in which I have never fully trusted him out of fear of disappointment have done him a disservice and likely contributed to my declining physical condition over the years. Despite many cautionary tales and my best efforts, I have unknowingly repeated many of the mistakes of the matriarchal culture of my family and my Caribbean heritage. But our life together has been a testament to the impossible; seasoned love and devotion to the GOD we have served side by side for nearly 13 years remains in abundance. There are things that are hard to forgive but not impossible. And ultimately, if we can survive infertility, eight miscarriages, and my open rebellion from GOD twice over the course of our marriage, then we can and will overcome this.
Hey You by Doe and Jonathan McReynolds
A beautiful duet by two of my favorite Christian artists that captures one of the biggest recurring issues in our relationship...poor communication.