It’s common to hear the phrase jokingly tossed around, “Friends with benefits.” You know, someone that gets to have the pluses of a relationship (normally some sort of physical contact or sex), but can still hang in the friendzone and not worry about taking things too seriously, to the next level.
There’s probably a part of many of us that pretty much looks down on that approach to dating and relationship. We disdainfully think we’d never actually stoop to such a level, to use someone else only for our pleasure so as to selfishly protect our own lives by not ever committing to them as a person.
“Friends with benefits” is shorthand for “I use you as long as I get what I want, and as long as I never have to give up anything in return.”
And we think, “Thank God I’m not like that kind of person.”
But I’m starting to wonder now that if the test of true love isn’t the decision to not live out “Friends with benefits,” but perhaps is the willingness to embrace on the opposite spectrum, “Marriage without benefits.”
What is marriage all about anyway?
Recently I’ve had to really think through what marriage is really made up of. Between the point of signing a paper together and the big house, 3 kids and a white picket fence …. where does the reality lie?
Me and my husband Peter haven’t even been married 8 months, yet we’ve had quite the wild, difficult, beautiful, crazy adventure so far. From the beginning of our relationship (a whopping 15 months ago) it was always about trying to be together. Trying to keep moving forward with the lives we currently had but doing what we could to merge them together into one.
That, my friends, proved to be pretty much impossible. We learned quickly we couldn’t hold on to our personal lives and each other.
A little background about us…
Ironically, from the very get-go of our relationship I made it very clear that I felt God was clearly leading me into school in the US for the next several years, and the only way we could date is if he followed me on this path.
Believe me, I said this with much apprehension and insecurity. I had really wrestled with the internal struggle, that I’m sure many single women deal with, that if I commit to one defined path, especially if it places me in a theoretically “higher position,” that my options for marriage would be that much more limited. That most men expect the woman to change her path and calling, and maybe even her own self, to fit him and his calling. That I’d have to have the conversation that I’m not willing to give up my calling because I believe so strongly that God has called me into it. And that I’d have to have enough self-respect and belief to actually say those words, that I’m worth sacrificing for too.
And it came to that point with Peter, because initially he wasn’t interested in moving to America at all. Actually, it was a pretty hard, “No.” He thought that because of my many recent trips to Africa and my love for the culture that I would be interested in moving there. But at that time I wasn’t– at least not right away. I literally already had a speech prepared for this exact kind of scenario — I choose this calling over marriage, if it comes down to it.
Then things took a surprising turn after a few weeks of talking. As we learned more about each other and saw the mutual connection and respect, he told me that if I was the girl God had for him, then he would go wherever I was. If that meant moving to the US, then he would do that. That if something was already in motion for me in my life, he would sacrifice his current position in life and join mine.
It really shocked me and blew my mind. He would be willing to do that? Deep down I was glad though, because I found myself drawn and connected to him in ways I’ve never encountered with another guy. It was amazing. And all that was needed next was for him to come check out my life back in the States and prepare for next steps.
And then enters the scene the road less traveled (literally, it’s that way because of immigration). I’ve traveled the world without a hitch. I’ve literally gone into semi-hostile countries and simply had to fill forms and pay fees. I have now come to realize that the US passport is often a free, easy ticket to Anywhere, World.
Not so for Peter, a Tanzanian. He was denied a tourist visa without really any explanation. That was hard to hear because that visit was supposed to happen so that he could meet my family and we could get engaged with plans of getting married in the US after I finished my one-year master’s degree at the University of Chicago.
And then it quickly got worse — a month later he tried to reapply and was denied because he reapplied too soon, and we were faced with the harsh reality he may not get to come as a visitor anytime soon. We knew this train was going towards marriage, yet at that point we were advised against the fiancé visa route, which is actually a really long process (1-2 years) and complicated and we weren’t even promised it would work given our relationship was so new and recent.
At this point we concluded that the only way to really be together and to give us the best options for the future would be to get married sooner than later. And that could only happen in Tanzania, not the US.
So rewind back before immigration stunted many options — here he was in May of last year soon after we decided to seriously date, willing to let go of his life in order to love me.
And then 3 months later, after facing the harsh realities of immigration and separation, here I was, the tables turned, realizing that I had to let go of my life in order to love him.
That meant losing some dear things to me. Not getting to have a wedding surrounded by all my friends and family. Not getting the chance for everyone dear to me to meet my fiancé. Not getting to pursue a master’s/pre-doctorate program in social enterprising that year and instead putting it off for the future. Letting go of things I didn’t realize were so tied to my expectation for meaning and happiness.
Yes, I came to realize that I knew, deep down, that when it came to marriage and lifelong partner commitment, Peter would always be my first choice.
And realizing it’s not because of how amazing he is. But because that’s who I choose to be.
And so we moved forward into engagement, and then marriage 3 months later. It was a beautiful, sweet experience getting married in Tanzania, having a wedding that was quite the unique blend of Tanzanian and American culture. And I think it would be safe to say it was something way beyond my wildest imaginations or expectations!
And so we thought that the difficult part was behind us, that once married it would make doors open easier for us with plans of the future.
But that, my friends, was a misplaced expectation.
Pregnancy and immigration don’t mix
I had not always been one to dream about starting a family and having kids. But once I met Peter, I knew I was ready to have children with him. It was as if the desired fully blossomed overnight.
We hoped, if possible, to have a child in the first year. And, well, we’ve been married and pregnant for 8 months, so I’d say that worked out pretty well! Ironically, it may be quite the only thing that has worked out for us.
We knew we were pregnant during those first married months in Tanzania, but what we didn’t know for certain is where we would, and could, live. We spent many hours working through plans A, B, and C even before we got the positive pregnancy test. Immigration and work visas are complicated no matter where you try to live in the world (yes, even in Tanzania).
Once we knew we were pregnant, we agreed that I would give birth in the US. We also at this point made the wrong assumption that being married would make it relatively easy for Peter to come visit for several months so he could be present for the birth. His organization, an international non-profit with headquarters in the US, had already offered to bring him over for a business tourist visa to do training and work-related activities.
And so on March 12th this year we said goodbye at the airport in Mwanza, fully expecting for Peter to come join me in no more than 2 months. It wasn’t as difficult as it had been when we were engaged and having to say goodbye for a while. I had such grounded hope and faith that God had such a great plan for our lives together.
But again, the wall of dashed hopes and crushed expectations.
And to this date it’s been over 5 months since I’ve seen him in person. I’ve gone through the 2nd trimester and am well into the 3rd. So many moments have happened that I wanted, and probably needed, him here to be with me.
We hit massive levels of disappointment and crisis. They seemed to all happen at the same time in the span of a month earlier this summer. He was denied his tourist visa again. I had the heartbreaking conversation with a government immigration specialist that he would most likely never get a tourist visa because we’re married, and the only way he could come would be a spousal visa. And those normally take 1-2 years to process. And then the process of trying to apply for an expedite but having documentation returned and having to resubmit. And then trying to both visit Canada to see each other and that getting denied as well. And then moving out of my apartment and not have a place of my own to live. And then me not having regular income, on top of the stress of knowing I would not be able to work soon with the baby coming and no paid maternal leave.
It really nearly broke hope in both of us. There was a specific day where all the bad dreams came true, the fears came to life, and we didn’t have any tangible hope to cling on to. It seemed that all my worst fears would come to pass. I didn’t just want Peter to be with me; I needed him.
This was the “all is lost” moment. I didn’t know if I would see Peter again in another 5 months or 1 year. I didn’t know where I would be living after I had the baby. I didn’t know not just how I would pay my current bills, but how I as self-employed would provide for myself and a baby once I had to go on maternity leave. He wouldn’t be at my ultrasounds. We couldn’t share the gender reveal party with my family. I couldn’t decorate our own baby room. There may be no couple pregnancy photos. There may be no husband present during the birth of our child. What if something went wrong? What if I had to always be alone?
That day, that very bad, horrible day, I had to face the fears and the real future possibilities, without any “Well, maybe this positive thing will happen and everything will be okay.”
No, I had to realize I was in a marriage without benefits.
We think of and see marriage in all it’s really good, glorious terms. Going out to dinner, having friends over for the evening, being physically near to each other, having intimacy and sex, cooking together, experiencing pregnancy together, sharing financial resources, showing up at events as a couple, sharing a laugh in the moment you have it together, and even just the simple comfort of not being home alone at night.
But that day, I just had to see what “was,” and the reality of what we were living without, not pretending it’s all alright to live without these things. I had to accept that, sure, maybe one day (maybe) things will be different, but right now, this is our situation and these are the very real things we have to accept to live without.
At the end of that weeping day, and I didn’t know what to even say to Peter when we Skyped, something gave up in me. I gave up on holding out that I would get all these “benefits,” especially in regards to the pregnancy. You could also probably call them “expectations.” I sat down, exhausted from all the crying and sleeplessness, stared at my Whatsapp screen for a moment, breathed out, and wrote,
“Sorry it’s hard for me to process right now — and every time I start working through it I can’t stop crying, so that makes everything uncomfortable. I feel like nothing is working for us, like everything is a disappointment. I don’t understand what’s going on, and it’s hard to find positive things to think about for the future. But I’ll always choose you Peter. For better and worse.”
I’m not sure why exactly, but everything changed for me in that moment. Like, everything. Yes, I’ve had my bad days on and off. But they aren’t the kind where the bottom completely drops out like they did previously. I get sad, but I don’t get terrified. I’m able to grieve the moment in the moment, but not lose sight of the deeper reality.
I’ve realized now that the real benefit of marriage is so much greater than the tangible. We don’t get to have an Instagramable life. We don’t get to have many of the benefits everyone tells you you’d better make sure you get before you commit to marriage.
But what we do have is something you can’t put in pictures or contrive on a date night.
Faithfulness. Vulnerability. Generosity. Purity. Encouragement. Selflessness.
It’s this freedom that I’m choosing to love him when there’s no particular material benefit. And also, on the other hand, to accept being loved for no other reason than me being myself, not for anything I bring to the table.
Perhaps when you come to the place where you know you choose your marriage and your person even though it’s of no material benefit to you, that perhaps you’ve entered into a pure place.
This is why marriage is so symbolic of our Faith
I also immediately felt God drawing me to another plain, to the cross, and look at the kind of love that Jesus displayed for us, for me. He of all people chose us when there was zero benefit for him to do so. He could have left the cross, but he stayed.
I am no marriage expert, but maybe before we check out of relationships and marriage, we should discern why we’re doing it. Is it because that person has ceased to offer you any additional benefits to being single?
Do we get married so that we might increase?
Or do we get married so that we give ourselves away so that the other might increase?
It’s a beautiful thing when both have that same intention. It’s unbelievably difficult when only one does, or neither.
Jesus gives us hope on both ends. We were always the ones to abandon, to betray, to dishonor, to be selfish. But he stayed. He stayed and wooed us close in covenantal love until we drew close to him. And he continues to love those who aren’t and won’t ever choose him.
So here we are, living apart but so completely together. It’s grown my faith to be so much more tangible, so much more understanding of my relationship with God. And it’s only his grace that has given me the ability to choose Peter and not get bitter because my needs aren’t met and I don’t get to have what I think would be best for me — and strength when I don’t get things that I probably do really need.
Humility to accept being loved
Can I also say that it not only takes great faith to choose marriage without benefits, but it takes great courage to accept being loved when you have nothing to offer? There are very real tangible ways I know Peter needs me, but I can’t be there for him. And there are ways I need Peter, and he isn’t able to meet those needs for me. It takes a whole lot of humility and solid identity to be able to accept love when all the things you were proud of for yourself that you felt were strengths you brought to your marriage are actually of no value at the moment.
You must wrestle with, and accept, “I am enough.”
I can’t tell you how much I admire Peter. I’ve watched him watch me struggle, knowing he wants so bad to be able to be here and take care of me and walk with me. And though that is so hard for him, it’s become clear that his faith and identity isn’t rooted in his works. He knows who he is, and that what he does does not define this worth. It’s been amazing how much stability that has brought to our relationship. Him knowing his worth has been worth more than any other material benefit.
For us, this experience (and the journey is still continuing) has taught us that pros and cons lists are not super helpful ways to step into marriage. Yes, there are some really practical tips and signs to look for. Wisdom is a pretty big deal when it comes to choosing marriage.
But ultimately, we drastically need a mental shift.
Love is not freedom to get what you really want in the deepest part of your heart. Love is giving away from the deepest part of your heart.
It’s not self-hate or self-spite — it’s actually the most powerful form of love for another and one’s own self. We were made to do this. We were made to love and to be ultimately tested by having all gain taken away from us.
Because then we know deep down that it’s a love of purity and not ultimately for personal benefit.