Dirty dishes have killed more marriages than extramarital affairs ever did. Because they’re boring, repetitive, monotonous. And we have no idea what to do with boring. If we want our marriages to survive, we must find a way to reclaim the extraordinary lying just beneath the surface of our monotony…
My boys and I are playing zombie apocalypse and my three-year-old daughter is looking on with big, expectant eyes. I ask her to join us. “Caitlin, do you want to be a zombie?”
“Yes,” she replies, “a princess zombie.”
I try again. “Caitlin, do you want to be a soldier instead?”
And again she replies, “Yes, a princess soldier.”
I get the point, and so we play zombies and princesses, all at once. My boys love war stories. And my daughter loves princess stories. What do they both have in common?
THE STORYBOOK DECEPTION
In the final scenes of any good story, there is triumph and ecstasy and satisfaction—conquering heroes vanquish the zombies and princesses ride off into the sunset with prince charming. We are drawn to stories with blissfully happy endings. The only problem is, our lives don’t work that way, do they?
Our stories don’t end at the penultimate scene.
My family attended a beautiful wedding last weekend—two days full of joy and celebration and hope for this blooming romance. But then we had to get into the car for the six-hour ride home. And unpack. And do the dishes. And the laundry. And herd crabby, over-tired children into bed.
I want to see the Disney princess movie that depicts life after Flynn Rider marries Rapunzel. I want to see them trying to share a sink in the castle while the kids bang at the bathroom door. I want to see them picking up the horse’s poop for the umpteenth time so the neighbors don’t get pissed. I want to see Rapunzel clipping her toenails and having to sit on the can. I want to see Flynn wake up the day after the honeymoon to return to his day job ruling a kingdom. I want to see them arguing about whose job it is to fold the laundry if the other one ran it through the wash. (Can you imagine how much laundry there is with all those big puffy dresses?)
But I’ll never see that movie, because in a culture of smart phones and instant entertainment, we believe all of life should be thrilling, and we avoid boredom like the plague. With Facebook over morning coffee, and email at stoplights, and YouTube videos filling the nooks and crannies of life, and on-demand television at night, and iPad flicking until the eyelids droop.
And, in doing so, we leave ourselves completely unprepared for the repetitive monotony of one of the most important endeavors of our lives: marriage and family building.
I know I write a lot about conflict and anger and shame, but the truth is, boredom is just as corrosive to our marriages. We must learn to live our boredom well, or we will search for excitement elsewhere. Maybe even in the arms of another person.
A MARRIAGE LESSON FROM A PHOTOGRAPHER
A photographer recently told me the story of his photo shoot at a local forest preserve. While other photographers and pedestrians hustled around him in the gathering dusk, hunting for increasingly beautiful shots in the withering light, he sat.
And watched. And waited.
Because he knew beauty would be found not in the quantity of trees photographed. He knew beauty would be found in nuance—the infinite array of hue as the light changed angles minute-to-minute, and the slowly morphing shapes of shadows come alive.
He faced the boredom of attending to one seemingly uninteresting event, and just beneath the surface of the monotony, he discovered extraordinary beauty and wonder.
The pictures were breathtaking.
I think the same could be true for our marriages. If we want to discover breathtakingly beautiful love and sacrificial living, we will need to learn how to stay in our boredom long enough to unearth the riches buried just beneath the surface of our monotony.
ORDINARY STITCHES IN A BEAUTIFUL TAPESTRY
Could the boring-repetitive tasks of marriage and family life—dishes, laundry, ironing, vacuuming, picking up clutter, chauffeuring—be the birthplace of joy and wonder?
I think they are, because they are the stitches in the complicated, beautiful, gloriously messy tapestry of life.
They are the strands that hold it all together. If we have lived well, when we step back in the end and look at the beautiful stories of love and loss and joy and sacrifice we have woven with our lives, others will not notice these mundane stitches, this thread that keeps all the beauty together. But without them, the beauty we created would be impossible.
If we can behold the boredom in this way, I think will find gratitude welling up like a geyser. Not heave-a-sigh-I-probably-shouldn’t-complain-other-people-have-it-worse-gratitude. But real, overwhelming, bursting-with-joy gratitude.
Gratitude. That this now dirty bowl will tomorrow be the place of my child’s sustenance—he will tip it up it to his mouth when the Cheerios are done and gleefully drink down all that sweet leftover, while we say a benediction for the day and the girl with the curls babbles and the boy with the insights expounds.
Gratitude. That love is just a word, but a clean bowl is love and sacrifice in action. Grateful for this one opportunity to provide respite for a war-weary spouse. And in the end, what will we desire more, that we had done less dirty dishes, or that we had done more love and sacrifice?
For the stitches that hold up the glorious tapestry.
And our gratitude will be the spade, unearthing the moment-to-moment wonder beneath the surface of the boring: the slick soap on hands and warm water rinsing food clean and the shimmer of light on bubbles and that favorite song playing in the background and kids screaming and pummeling each other in the bedroom and a spouse who wanders in and begins to lend a quiet hand.
With your choices, you can weave something beautiful with your life. But every tapestry requires stitches. Boring, repetitive stitches.
May you be deeply, joyfully grateful for yours.
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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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.