Negotiating the Dance of Calling as Couples
For the first decade of our marriage, I was always a little skittish when the topic of calling came up. As a full time stay-at-home mom with 3 kids under three, married to a crazy, gifted visionary exploring his calling, I never knew where he would want to go next. Many of his vocational dreams included radical changes like moving in among the poor, or one of my personal favorite ill-timed brainstorms– start an orphanage for children with AIDS in Africa. When he floated that idea, I had toddlers crawling all over me and I remember thinking – ‘Does it look like I can handle more children right now??” and then I probably said something helpful like, “That’s a great idea! Maybe with your next wife.”
Figuring out your life calling is difficult task, let alone adding a spouse into the picture. Vocational decisions have direct impact on a marriage: what you commit your life to, where you will live, how much money you will earn, the hours you work, the people who become your network. You are not making decisions in a vacuum.
So how do we approach calling in a way that honors BOTH people’s gifts and passions?
Think of it this way – navigating calling in your marriage is not one ongoing lifelong dance to the same song— it is a series of changing dances. Over the course of your married life, you will have different styles of dance, different genres of music, and different levels of difficulty, each calling on different sets of your muscles and skills.
When you first start to learn the dance together, it takes a while to develop your groove. You might step on each others toes or stutter step when you should have shuffled; there may be a push/pull to lead and follow… but over time, you start to get used to the flow between each other.
But can you imagine if over the course of your married life, you danced to the same song over and over? For 25 years? For 50 years? Same music. Same shuffle and sway. Same dramatic dip at the end of the song. Then start at the beginning again. How boring would that be?
Marriages are meant to evolve as we ourselves are transformed, and the dance will change as you change relationally, vocationally, spiritually, and emotionally.
So here are a few tips for navigating the dance of calling as couples…
Know when you need to change to a new dance. Sometimes it is clear a season has come to an end; life transitions will often force us to learn new steps and rhythms. As children come and go, careers take off or derail, new physical limitations emerge, or as crises arise, quite literally the music may stop, forcing you to find a new one.
Other times the need to change dances will creep up on us unaware. We may find ourselves restless (see my post on what your restlessness may be saying to you). We may feel smothered. We may feel bored. We may get in touch with deep longings that have been buried. It may be time for a new dance.
Change is unavoidable. Give yourselves grace when you are creating a new dance. You are going to need to experiment for a while until you get into a rhythm of how the dance flows.
Sometimes it takes time to find the dance the suits you both. Discovering your calling together is a tricky thing. Some vocational decisions can be made separately and may not require huge sacrifices from each other. But other calls may require one give up their dream or job for a season to see the other pursue his/hers. Still other calls need to be pursued together. When we assess missionaries to be sent overseas, BOTH people have to have a call to live cross-culturally. No exceptions.
As we were exploring how to merge our callings, we actually did seriously consider moving into the inner-city. For over a year, we sat with his longing and my lack of calling. We both went through different surrender processes separately, kept coming back together for discernment, but still had no clear consensus.
A wise mentor finally said, “If you are really at an impasse and don’t feel that either of you is dug in with stubbornness, then wait and continue to pray. Either God will change one of your hearts or a new option will open up.” Sure enough, six months later, our current position in international ministry came available that was a great fit for the two of us.
Be patient. Keep praying. Do the hard work to work through the blocks. Discern whether this is your season to surrender or hold your ground. Keep waiting for the right song.
Recognize that some songs are just not going to be about YOU. If only EVERY song could magically spotlight each of us in exactly a 50/50 split. HA! The truth is some songs we are definitely the supporting cast to the principal dancer. As one person pursues education or advancement in a career, takes a demanding position, or forges a new business— his/her needs, schedule, and calling will be center stage for a season.
More often than not, women assume care-taking roles on and off throughout their lives, whether with young children or aging parents. In these seasons— the vast majority of what you do will be hidden even though, you often really are the glue behind the scenes that keeps things together. Embrace the season of hiddenness (see my post on Blooming in a Season of Hiddenness). Deep formative things happen internally in this season— if you let it (see my post on women in their 30s).
Healthy marriages include give and take. Expect that you will need to reverse roles at some point and encourage your spouse’s needs and calling to take greater priority. Or if you are the one always giving– you may need to hold your ground and request a new song.
Learn to identify when one of you is in a season of self-discovery. The operative phase here is discovery of SELF– (I know that’s a bad word in Christian circles!) not discovery of who you are as a couple. Normal life development means we will move in and out of integrative roles within our marriage. To grow, we must sometimes detach from certain roles that are deeply interdependent to allow new things to emerge. (See my last post on differentiation in marriage).
This is particularly true for women at the empty nest phase in mid-life. They need to discover their gifts not in relation to their role as wife and mother, but on their own. And sometimes that is best discovered separate from her spouse. This can be a difficult transition for both people when she has been the behind the scenes support role for many years.
If your spouse is needing space to develop— let go. There is tremendous power in releasing him/her from meeting your needs to become who he/she was made to be. This will not be forever. You’ll have more overlap again in a different season.
Some people really don’t like the solo acts. We need to acknowledge that there is loss when you change songs. You are letting go of a way of being together. You may feel a loss of intimacy, a loss of overlap, a loss of support, and even a loss of identity. As much as you can— NAME your losses (see my post on naming your losses). Grieve them.
In it’s broken forms— fear of differentiating from your partner symbolizes something hurtful. Separation. Abandonment. Rejection. Maybe it makes you feel anxious or threatened to see your spouse thrive at something outside of your marriage. Take a look at what is stirring in you. Inability to differentiate may mean your intimacy has crossed over into enmeshment. Explore it. Work through it.
But difficulty with separating from your spouse isn’t always an issue of wounding— some of us are wired to operate more on a team. Some people truly NEED high levels of relational interaction. Remember needs are neutral – neither negative nor mandatory… they are just a fact of something someone needs in their life. But the changing of songs may mean your partner won’t be able to meet your needs in the same way.
Acknowledge the grief in the change. Explore why this is so difficult for you. Recognize that all your relational needs won’t be met in your spouse— seek some new friends or supports.
Learning to embrace the changing dances throughout your marriage will bring you a lot of freedom. Staying in one song for too long risks stagnation on one or both sides, and as comfortable and familiar as one song may be— without change, you might never know what other crazy dance moves you each have in you.
Here’s an activity for your next date night: Talk about the various types of dances you’ve had throughout your married life. When did you see recognize that you were switching songs? Where are you now? In a comfortable rhythm? Feeling the need to mix it up? Needing to see a change in who is center stage? Where do you still feel like you are working against each other instead of together? Celebrate the beauty and mess of your dance history. 🙂
THEN GO DANCING for real!