Forgive Us Our Debts: My Millennial Marriage in the Crucible of Helping and Hardship

Image CC 2.0 Tad Hannah

My wife is easy to like. She is charming, caring, smart, funny, and works in addiction counseling, specifically on the front lines of the opioid crisis. She has an encyclopedic understanding of the problems with the modern healthcare system, loves Bruce Springsteen, and is exactly the right mix of self-deprecating and dish-it-back-out when it comes to the crap I give her here, in Pennsylvania, for being from New Jersey.

We’ve been together since college, 17 years this spring, where we bonded over having Italian grandfathers, being from extended blue collar families, being the locus of those families’ expectations for more fully achieved American dreams. She studied psychology and art, I studied political philosophy, history, religion.

We weren’t yet dating when she spent the fall term of 2001 in Florence. We scrambled to connect on Instant Messenger, and then on the phone, the last 30 seconds of her calling card, on 9/11. That we’d be together when she came back was unspoken, and, I hoped, understood. We got married in 2004, the summer between her senior year and her graduate program at Penn, a few months before I started the last year of my master’s at Yale.

I mention those schools because of the debt we still carry. For all of the ingrained exceptions of our grandparents’ immigrant stories, we chose helping professions. She’s been counseling people in recovery since 2005. I’m a licensed minister in the United Church of Christ and have focused almost solely on issues of economic justice and affordable housing.

Like many people our age, we have struggled to repay our student loans. Across demographics, he post-2008 economic recovery we hear about hasn’t reached everyone. Worse still, the people we serve are no better off, the programs we fight for are cut. I assume that even for people of more means, whose livelihoods aren’t always at the mercy of political sentiment or outright contempt for folks on the margin, the daily business of sharing a life makes for one hell of a crucible. It has for us.

Exhausted from long hours and the never-ending systemic issues that stock her caseload and demands on my time outside the routines of a typical 9 to 5 job, there are too many nights we fall asleep without having taken much time to just be awake together. We fall into the same unhealthy routines when it comes what or when we eat, and the last thing we have energy for is making small changes, slowing down just a bit, to get a better handle on amassing the energy and time we used to have for each other.

We know we need to. We say someday, will we. We also live knowing that someday doesn’t just come. Sometimes the crucible cracks. It’s hard finding others to talk to. Like I said, my wife is the best. Inevitably, my closest friends become her closest friends. Her friends become mine. Sharing martial struggles with them feels like betrayal. She makes me feel like we’re born to run, wherever we’re going, together. Sometimes, circumstances make me feel like there’s no where to go.

This would be terrifying if she were anyone but precisely who she is, which also means I’m terrified of taking her for granted, and that I probably do. When relationships start, we’re guarded and coy. Later, when relationships fail, it’s often because of what’s been left unsaid, and then, all at once, feeling like there’s nothing to say. That’s a sad, common irony.

It’s no longer enough to hope unspoken things are just understood. We both need to say and hear that we’re wanted, desired, and worth it. Veterans at helping others, we’re learning, as we approach forty, to help ourselves, our marriage, our future. To forgive certain debts, and to focus on what we really owe one another, the passion we had as kids, the promise to see it through.