How to Make the Magic Happen in a Marriage

Three words can make magic happen in a marriage. The three words aren’t “I love you.” The three words are I, am, and sorry.


Photo Credit: Christophe Verdier via Compfight cc

I went to college in the golden age of the computer lab—a sterile, windowless room in the basement of a dormitory where students wrote papers and saved them on floppy disks. I didn’t write my papers there. I wrote my papers on a legal pad in my dorm room and then went to the computer lab to transcribe them. The first draft was the final draft. No revisions.

I didn’t like making revisions.

The perfectionist in me liked to think I could get it right the first time, be done with it, and move on. Revisions seemed tedious and complicated and messy and unnecessary.

Sixteen years later, I started this blog, and every week I’d put my wife in an impossible position: I’d give her the first draft of a blog post and ask for feedback I didn’t really want. When she would return the document with suggestions, I’d bristle. My ego wanted a stamp of approval, and the perfectionist in me wanted nothing to do with the hard, messy work of revision.

Marriage is a lot like writing.

We become perfectionists in our marriages, too, and not in a good way. We like to think we’re getting it right the first time. And we certainly don’t want the person we love to suggest any revisions in us. We want them to love the first draft of who we are.

We want a stamp of approval.

Escaping the Messiness of Marriage

In marriage, there are three ways to escape the hard, messy work of revision.

First, we can choose to be editors only, spending our days demanding revisions from our partner. We focus on their typos and errors and logical inconsistencies and how they could word things more lovingly. Much of it is probably true, but when both spouses choose to be editors, no one is left to write a better story. These are high conflict marriages and they usually end in divorce.

Second, we can choose to be silent readers only, immediately forgiving every mistake and never expressing any concerns about the story being written by the one we love. Forgiveness is an essential thing, but immediate and compulsive forgiveness can also be a way to avoid the good but complicated work of revising our relationship and our selves. These are low conflict marriages, and partners usually end up bored and lonely.

Third, in some marriages, there is an always-editor and a constant-silent-reader and the roles never change. The dominant spouse suggests all the revisions, and the submissive spouse goes about trying to keep everyone happy by making the changes. These marriages are usually narcissistic and codependent and subtly abusive.

But there is another way. Instead of acting like editors and silent readers, we can begin to acknowledge that we are all first drafts in need of revision…

Choosing the Messiness of Marriage

My wife does research about the role of forgiveness in the spiritual formation of children, and she speaks to parent groups about how forgiveness transforms us as people and how it can be encouraged in children. Recently, she asked an audience to raise their hand if they had forgiven someone in the last month.

The room was full of elevated hands.

Then she asked, “How many of you have apologized in the last month?” Hands stayed in laps. Forgiveness is one thing, and it’s a beautiful thing. But apology is another thing altogether. Because when we apologize, we are volunteering to be revised.

What if we became marriages full of volunteers?

Trading apologies.

Mutually submitting ourselves for revision to the one we love.

Asking each other with courage and humility, “Show me how to become a more loving version of who I am.”

When the Magic Happens

Writing this blog for the last three years has taught me something essential about writing, and I think it’s true of marriage, as well: revision is where the magic happens.

These days, I’ve begun to trust: when I submit a rough draft of a blog post to my wife, and when she calls me out on my errors or lack of clarity, or when she sees something differently, or when she just flat out disagrees with how I’ve presented an idea, and when I roll up my sleeves to make it right, something magical and mysterious begins to happen.

My ego dissolves a little and what matters is not that I’m right, what matters is the Muse, calling me toward something better, clearer, more meaningful.

Something more beautiful.

As I revise, sections I thought were perfect get turned upside down. Paragraphs I’m impressed with get cut. Second thoughts become the main theme, and new words emerge that I didn’t even know I had in me. It’s a messy and complicated and sometimes frustrating process, but finding my way to the beauty matters more than defending my perfection.

Revision is where the magic happens. In writing. And in marriage.

I am sorry.

When we say we’re sorry, our egos dissolve and we put something else before ourselves: we put the Muse in front of us, and the Muse is our marriage and our love and this one person we’ve committed to above and beyond perfection or efficiency or ease or ego.

May we mutually and fully enter into the process of revising our small, stubborn egos for the sake of the one we love, and may we discover:

That’s where the magic happens.

That’s where the meaning is made.

And that’s where the beauty is born.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

31 thoughts on “How to Make the Magic Happen in a Marriage

  1. Ah, Kelly.

    You play such amazing chords with your words. Thank you for this post. Marriage is hard, and mine is a typical marriage 🙂 You have brought clarity to my world with this post, and I am grateful. Its funny, I always thought I was one role and my wife the other, but as I read your words I realised there are times when we swop roles from editor to silent-reader, and vice versa.

    I guess real humility is in not reading your words and saying “Look he is describing my spouse, I wish she/he would read this”, but in reading them and saying “Oh. There I am, and there, and there”

    Its hard to agree to change, and not to ask for a concomitant change in the other person. Its risky and not usually how we operate. We like to feel justified, or at least heard, and for me the challenge now is to receive your wisdom without demanding that my wife receive it too and recognise herself in your words.

    I certainly hope I can do your words justice and make them a game-changer in my world.

    Thank you

    • Thanks for this, Vaughan. It did occur to me that this would be an easy one to read and then forward on to a spouse as a “hint, hint.” Thanks for reading it in the spirit it was intended and dedicating yourself to living it out in that way!

      • Hi Kelly, I did forward to my husband, but honestly not as a “hint, hint” but because I thought it was a great article worth sharing! lol However, in all fairness, there have been other times when I have forwarded something with the idea that he would also get the “hint, hint”!

  2. My grandparents were married on October 1, 1937, and were married until Grandma passed away on November 7, 2001.
    Grandpa on 23 June 2002.64 years of marriage, 2 daughters, 4 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren … the key was, according to my grandmother, “negotiate” .She was raised in the city (theater, opera, dance society ), the grandfather in the field.
    And they had a commitment, lived in the city, but when Grandpa went to the country she was with him, but accompanied him seriously … she was plowing, cured animals beside him … and when there was a social commitment grandfather accompanied it, but seriously … even if I had to “dress penguin” (smoking) as he put it.
    They have had many discussions, but that does not allowed to separate … Grandma, and 85 years old when he died, he said “you you married me because I was the prettiest of the people”, and he answered him “No, you will marry me because you felt in love for my beautiful green eyes “and laughed.
    Grandpa would have been 100 years old on 5 February. Grandama,98 last August 23.
    The two very católicos.El grandfather always said “the women are respected, they are Mother” And it was something that brooked no “buts” … the women are respected, always.
    Look how well that was a time theirs, when they got married (1937) when many marriages were arranged between families, not too many possibilities for true love.
    My great-grandparents, some ahead of their time, both born in 1873 my great-grandmother’s parents, and in 1870 and 1872 by my grandfather’s side, always let their children choose their future husbands or wives, as appropriate, according to that they were in love.
    They were not opposed and choose who considered leaving the love of his vida.Algo which, we agree, at that time there was fashionable.
    To my great grandparents I did not know them, but my grandmother told his mother said he’d rather let their children choose their future and to be happy, to impose a future and they were miserable.

  3. but when both spouses choose to be editors, no one is left to write a better story. . .that line made me smile. . great post as usual 🙂

  4. Your wife’s work sounds wonderful, amazing, challenging, and essential. How excellent to have her mind and her compassion as a resource as you write and revise.

    I am a big fan of the good apology. It is renewing and revitalizing. It is a recognition of where things went wrong and a commitment to doing better. And for me, it is never three words. “I am sorry” leaves both the speaker and the listener unclear about whether we both mean that the same thing was a problem.

    Am I sorry that your feelings are hurt, even though they only are because you are so overly sensitive? Am I sorry that you’ve read things all wrong, that you’ve overthought things again, that you can’t see my point? Am I sorry that you don’t like how it is, but it is just this way? Or am I sorry that I was careless with my words and your heart? Do I regret the way I handled things and know I should have done it differently? My actions or your reception?

    I love an apology – from my lips or to my ears – that states what we are sorry for, the harm we recognize from the action, and the change of course we intend so we can move forward together. When I speak an apology like this, I feel like I can see the relationship repaired and the care I feel for the one I hurt can be expressed again without a wall of my ego and anger to break through. When I receive an apology like this, I feel like I have been seen, acknowledged, loved, and embraced.

    • Shel, this is a great addendum to the post. Clarity and specificity in the apology. I often refer to “Hollywood apologies,” which tend to go something like this: “I’m sorry if anyone was hurt by what I said.” There are certainly different levels of divestment of the ego in any given apology. Important point.

  5. Jeez, Man…. If you played baseball, you’d be in the Hall of Fame for having the highest batting average and the lowest ERA in history. Each week you blow the doors off on what our lives should aspire to be, and the simple nuggets that we (all) must find deeply buried amongst the loose change and lint in the deepest corners of our pockets. When you bring a man (or the masculine energy) to tears with your words of wisdom, you know you’re onto something. Bring it on, I think I might have a lot more tears to shed. Thanks again, my friend.

  6. I love what you wrote about the Muse. Yes! The best writing advice I’ve ever read is, “Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” (Samuel Johnson). To follow what one feels is right in the moment, to get out of the way (get one’s ego and overly-analytical self out of the way) is how I’ve experienced it too – I love how you’ve articulated it here. Let the piece being written be what IT wants to be – I’m just the vessel. Listen to and let your spouse (and children) be who THEY want to be. It’s so much more about letting go and listening, not deciding beforehand who or what others should be. I once heard it described this way: “It’s very important – it’s right at the core… that instead of formulating what we should do, we receive it.” Thank you Kelly!

    • Jenn, I loved that this tapped into both the spouse and the writer in you. Thanks for sharing your response from the “writer side” of you!

  7. All that you’ve written applies to relationships that are very dear, like one’s children, siblings, close friends, even colleagues…we make mistakes with people other than our spouse as with our spouse. From the time my son was very young, I apologized to him when I made a bad decision or overreacted to something he said or did, and explained where and why I was wrong and how I could/should have responded differently. I told him the example of good behavior and pledged to do my best to make a different decision the next time. Although he was an exceptionally angry young teenager who NEVER apologized for his most egregious behaviors, at 18 he began to regularly apologize for his bad choices. He knows that he is safe in doing so with me. That alone can break down barriers between us and others, showing our own vulnerability makes us more human and less scary.

    • This is a beautiful story, and you’re right, the idea applies to all relationships, not just the marital. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. Kelly, as usual you speak right to my heart — and to my ego (who doesn’t want to hear it!) I needed the reminder. I loved the description of editor and silent reader (usually me and then my husband). It also reminded me that sometimes I need to be my own editor because some of the things that I think are going on are actually only going on in my own crazy head! Thank you again for your wisdom! When I grow up I want to be just like you! 🙂

    • Jenny, you are too kind! I really like the idea of becoming our own editor. It actually tracks with the metaphor, too, because three years in, I can now anticipate some of the edits my wife will make and make the changes before she even asks. I guess that would be a pretty good groove to get into in a marriage, too, right?

  9. Oh my, yes. I too was a first drafter – I didn’t edit, revise or look back. A difficult woman indeed! Three things have changed me:
    1. having children. I realised that to teach them to apologise, I needed to show them. So I started saying sorry when I made a mistake, acted badly, whatever.
    2. becoming a writer: writers need to edit, they need to revise, and they need to be patient. I am learning 🙂
    3. and last of all – my own 14 year relationship, which ended and began again this year. I have learned so much from this.

    • Ditto, ditto, ditto, Sara. Partners, kids, and art. The magic ingredients for learning to embrace mess and mistakes!

  10. was a great thought provoking post. I realize my spouse is the only one who has observed me through good times and bad. She has an insight into my habits and patterns in a way no one else can. The image I give the outside world I can manipulate, if I feel grumpy maybe I don’t go out, but she does see me in those times. As such I have asked her to point out when she sees a sign I am starting to overwork, or starting to be self critical, the signs she can recognize as being potential precursors to getting down and/or discouraged. Asking someone else to take this editor role was not easy to start with , and required me to accept my faults. Now I have that however it feels like being supported by a team, not just myself. Much better.

    On saying ‘I am sorry’ , some can use that phrase to try and brush off responsibility. I prefer to hear myself saying ‘I am sorry, and this is what I will do to fix it…’

    Thank you for these posts

  11. LOVE it. Allowing ourselves to be unabashedly vulnerable is the greatest gift we can offer another (and often the most difficult) By surrendering Self and offering fragile egos on the proverbial sacrificial altar, we all win; enabling us to share not only our common humanity, but to connect on deeper, more profound, levels. It’s the most beautiful thing, indeed.

  12. First, i am sorry … for my bad english.
    I just discovered your blog, and i hope i can improve my english by reading your interesting posts 😉

    I read 2 posts from you : “A Daddy’s Letter to His Little Girl” and this one.
    Theses 2 posts are so differents.
    – In the first post you wrote : “Because in the end, Little One, the only thing you should have to do to “keep him interested” is to be you.”
    – But in this post you wrote : “Asking each other with courage and humility, “Show me how to become a more loving version of who I am.” (…) revision is where the magic happens.”
    Finally … your daughter was not so wrong by searching how to “revise” herself in order to keep her love. Right? 🙂

  13. Hello,
    As I read the post I find a bit of a divergence. One one hand I find the positive messages of “I am sorry” and “I love you”. These are wonderful, lovely words. However, somehow, I only hear the revision in your words… your wife has made XYZ (critical) proclamations ie “and when she calls me out on my errors or lack of clarity, or when she
    sees something differently, or when she just flat out disagrees with how
    I’ve presented an idea,” you “roll over” and say ahhhhhhh.
    I dont mind volunteering, I dont mind being revised, I make mistakes, I am human. But where in your article, beginning with “When the magic happens” does your wife also “bend”?
    I’m sorry but the older I get… day by day… i can ONLY find consolation in hearing word from my spouse that echo “I love you”, “You are OK as you are”. want to be CHRIST to you and in doing so I love you more than myself, I adore you, I want to bend down on my knees with you and embrace the wood of the cross. Together, with Christ, we will all rise and honor God!!! My marriage is CHALLENGING. If we both understood what it means to be CHRIST to one another, I am certain we would not spend the day apologizing… just loving in the limited time God has given us to LOVE.

  14. I’m getting addicted to your posts. Whether they are edited or raw I don’t care. They are always brilliant! The only sad thing is that should I have found them 1 or 2 years ago (not sure if you have written them by then) it could have saved my 30 year marriage, which ended up in bitter divorce. Maybe, just maybe. For sure it would have brought a lot of clarity. Now it only brings rivers of tears to my eyes… 🙁 All the other posts are brilliant too, parenting, etc. Please put them all together in a book!!! Thank you from my heart.

    • Hi Jen, I’m glad you found us, welcome to UnTangled! Working on the book now, stay tuned! : )

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