How to Make the Magic Happen in a Marriage

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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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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About Kelly

Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.