American Honey: On Marriage and Memoir

Brandon and I had been married for about three seconds when we decided that we would be awesome at marriage ministry. Because we were clearly awesome at marriage. For those three seconds.

Neither of us knew 18 years ago what it meant to be equipped for marriage ministry. To “minister” is to tend to the needs of someone else. We thought the way to practice marriage ministry was to turn outward from our marriage and inspect other couples, tell other couples what they should do to have the best marriage now.

But what we needed to do was turn inward, to learn how to tend to the needs of each other. To be married. To stay married. To practice marriage. To minister within our own marriage.

It turns out we’ve been practicing marriage ministry now for 18 years and haven’t sat with a single couple for premarital counseling. We haven’t led a marriage retreat. We haven’t served on staff at a church or set curriculum on sex and money and fidelity.

There’s a Christian saying that marriage isn’t meant to make you happy; it’s meant to make you holy. I kind of hate that. Mostly because such one-liners are thrown out as if they contain all truth and that’s it, there’s nothing else to say. Obviously if you are not happy in your marriage it’s because that isn’t what it’s about; it’s about holiness and that’s the end of the conversation. 

But what is holiness except the profound deepening and widening of our understanding of God’s love for us? What is holiness except the experience of having your heart enlarged and beaten and restored, spurred on to love others more abundantly? What is holiness except the manifestation of the fruits of the Spirit?

And the fruits of the Spirit are first love, then joy, followed by peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. A marriage that is made holy has turned inward to each other’s needs, and by doing so, refracts the Spirit outward. Love and joy. Holiness and happiness.

Brandon and I have had 18 years worth of opportunities to not merely look out for our own personal interests but to tend to the interests of each other. Many times we’ve failed. Sometimes we’ve succeeded.

Every one of those moments has led me to this momentous announcement: We are never going into marriage ministry.

Instead, I present to you American Honey, part of our love story, the gritty, raw, honest, vulnerable, humorous, painful, complicated story of attraction and fidelity, parenting and gender role reversals, careful intimacies and, as Dinty Moore put it, “the occasional bison.” It is a quest to understand how I came to be a woman with weak boundaries, and what it might take to fortify those walls.

It is also only part of our story, albeit lots of parts, parts that were hard, parts that shattered trust, parts that took a long time to heal. This exploration of self is an exploration of part of my story, of how I experienced and worked through a challenging season, of how I processed my past with the objective of understanding the nature of yearning and attraction.

How did this happen? Why am I how I am? Who am I?

Memoir is not the whole truth, but it is an effort to write my way into and out of a situation and find my truth (with a nod to The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick).

Our hope—Brandon’s and my hope—is that this lived experience ends up being the marriage ministry we imagined we might have someday. The writing of American Honey made me a better person and a better partner. Maybe this one story can serve as a buoy for others, a quiet whisper that reassures the reader that they aren’t alone, these picture perfect marriages you imagine have their own piles of ghosts and skeletons.

And guess what. There’s hope. Hard, gentle, persistent hope.

(Adapted from an article I wrote called “Marriage as a Spiritual Practice,” originally published on the now-defunct blog, Off the Page.)

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

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