“‘You’re going to marry that man,’ your friend Katrina tells you, hours after the first time you introduce yourself to him on the Oregon coast. You smile, because you desperately want to be a wife, to be chosen by someone forever, to be that radiant NON-bridezilla. Simply a beautiful, patient, calm, radiating bride.
You are 19 when you first lay eyes on him, and a fresh 20 when you announce to the world you are marrying the man of your dreams, your best friend, the Bible College student you have been long distance dating for 8 months.
You are SO thrilled to be planning a wedding, to wear that sparkly solitaire on your finger that he picked out, to be a Bride.
Months before your boyfriend kneels down on one knee to pop the question, you stumble upon the most beautiful, multi-tiered, sweetheart-cut, lace wedding dress. It has buttons down your backside and a 4-foot train. It is vintage. You and your boyfriend book your wedding venue and honeymoon Tahoe suite months before there is a ring on your finger… months after you meet.
There is nothing he can do that will alter your deep knowing that he will be the one you stand at the altar with. From the moment you see him and learn he is going to be a pastor one day, you know that is the life for you. You always wanted to be a pastor’s wife, and that dream will come true. It is God’s will.
Looking back, it is insane to play it all through my head: You guys don’t argue about a single thing while you date. In fact, it’s pure bliss. You write letters back and forth and dream about marriage and ministry life together while a state separates you. The beginning of forever cannot start until the knot is tied, so most conversations revolve around the future.
Sweet bride self, your standards and expectations are the highest in a few areas, non-existent in other areas. I look back on you just 8 years ago and I have such compassion on you and him both; neither of you knew what you were signing up for, and both of you thought you were ready.
You grew up in a dysfunctional home where yelling was the go-to volume, where insults were hurled back and forth, where marriage was a prison more than a partnership. Your parents didn’t communicate or make it safe emotionally, not for each other and not for you. They didn’t know how to be healthily married and therefore you don’t either. You were raised to believe your sensitivity was a shame, something to silence and ignore, creating a coping mechanism of repression that would help destroy your marriage while also saving your life.
You figure if you find yourself a Christian man, one willing to wait to have sex until marriage and one who wants to change the world with you, life will be nothing but pretty much perfect. Sure, there will be heartache and difficulties, but you have had Jesus your whole life and Jesus is all you guys need to get through anything.
Jesus is bigger than everything. Jesus will always make sure a Vow stays intact. These are the things you believe to your core: that above all, marriages must remain — no matter what — in order for Jesus to be true and real and your leader.
‘I met the man I’m going to marry,’ you tell Haley and Maggie as soon as you get home from being a camp counselor with him. You all giggle and dance as you eat ice cream. They ask how you know, and you shrug your shoulders because you just know.
More than 200 people come to celebrate your DIY Pinterest wedding. Less than a year before, you had been dating your high school boyfriend, but it didn’t matter, because ‘when you know, you know,’ and you two knew.
You craved to be seen and known and cherished in the way you saw many of your friends being seen and known and cherished by their husbands… but you also didn’t know how to ask for that. You didn’t know how to look for that. You assumed it would be natural for whoever you married. You didn’t know that it was okay to want these things, because you had been told your whole life that all you needed was Jesus. Your husband isn’t supposed to be the one to meet all your needs, he isn’t your Savior, Jesus is, and therefore, be careful with what you expect of a man.
Here is the thing… you two begin living the most beautiful life. Truly. I mean, you are serving the youth in your city and building a church and leading Bible studies. You are planning retreats for middle + high schoolers and even college age students. Natalie, you are so good with young girls, talking with them about boys and love and grace. You keep it so real with people. For that I am proud.
You two end up finally leaving that small town, which is a transition full of trauma and dysfunction on all ends, and moving to Portland. You join a beautiful new church community, you grow incredibly close with the Kings, and somehow within 6 months you grow by two beautiful baby boys. One you adopt at birth while 20 weeks pregnant with your second. Honestly, the whole journey is a miracle and beautiful and you feel like the world’s luckiest mom. It’s because you are.
Within the next 2 years, before your boys are 2 years old, you release your first memoir, your photography business is booming and supporting your family while your husband goes to graduate school, and you two begin doing foster care.
From the outside looking in, you are the picture-perfect family. You work so very hard to believe it yourself, because if you were to look at your silent sorrow settling into your soul, then what? If you open your eyes to the hidden dysfunction, then what? You know he is an amazing dad; you know he loves you and those kids; you know you are all doing your very best.
But sometimes our very best is still so dysfunctional that lines are crossed that shouldn’t be crossed. Some things cannot be undone within a marriage. Some trauma cannot be healed within a marriage.
Sweet 19-year-old bride self, you begin slowly dying by numbing yourself in your marriage, because it is all you know how to do to survive and be ‘the best wife’ you can be with what you are living through.
You get to a point where you are mothering 5 children between foster care, adoption, and biological birth and it feels like half of your life (the mothering half) is near-perfect and better than you could have dreamed…but the other half? The half where there is another adult involved whom you pledged the rest of your life to? You want that part to end, but you feel so trapped. Divorce isn’t even an option, so the only escape is death.
You flinch when touched, and the shame and confusion that brings you is heavy. You cannot even get undressed in front of the man you are to spend your life with…because shame. Shame is such a beast and it twists and morphs and breaks.
You begin carrying your PTSD around as your fault, doing different therapies with the hope that you can fix all the broken inside you, sure that it is all because you are broken.
Then one day while drowning in your own shame-filled tears, wondering how in the world your life can be so perfect and so miserable all in one…how you can hate a man so much, but also see that he is a good dad doing his best and is going to be the very best teacher there is…your eyes open to see the truth. You begin connecting the dots and seeing everything a little more clearly, and then you wonder if this means you can be set free to begin a journey of healing.
If maybe divorce is an option, is where healing will be found.
Dear 19-year-old bride, I love you, because in those first few weeks of finally seeing clearly, you are able to talk calmly and explain to this man what is going on. I am proud of you, because you choose what you need to choose, knowing there can be grace even on the other side of divorce.
I am honored to be you, because you still love that man, but not in the way of wanting to be with him or married to him ever again…but because you love him in the way Jesus loves us. You want the best for him, you want healing for him, you want freedom for him too.
You don’t hate him, you hold grace for him. You aren’t perfect, you’ve hurt him too, you’ve made many mistakes on this journey, but you have continued to learn how to love.
I don’t blame us quite as much as I blame the toxicity bred in Christian culture. But I also find freedom in knowing you did your very best to save yourself and your marriage…but at the end of the day, you had to pick one. You had to choose saving yourself, because you only live once.
So, 19-year-old bride self. The road ahead is so treacherous. You aren’t quite yourself yet, and it is going to take a lot of loss, grief, pain, and hell-on-earth to find yourself. But it will be okay.
You will be okay.
I am proud of you.
Your 27-year-old self.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Natalie Brenner of Portland, Oregon. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook and her website. Learn more about her book here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read Natalie’s powerful backstories here:
‘I can’t introduce you to my kids until I know. They’ll attach to you, and I can’t break their hearts.’: Girlfriend nervous it’s ‘too soon’ to meet boyfriend’s kids, feels anxious to not ‘replace’ mom
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