There's Something About Mary Beth
When they first met, they already shared a last name and a college mailbox. She thought he was a hillbilly; he thought she was a biker chick.
She described him as "cute and sweet." He simply said, "I like this girl."
When he arrived two hours late for their first date, instead of apologizing, he greeted her with a passionate kiss. From that moment on, they were inseparable, and a whirlwind 13 months later they were married.
Now, Steven Curtis Chapman and his wife, Mary Beth, tell about the struggles that make up the rest of the story—and the reason why, after 18 years, they're more in love than ever.
It’s the kind of romance you usually find in movies and fairy tales. In a world crowded with broken relationships, victims of heartache and divorce may look at a marriage like the Chapmans’ and think it must have been easier for them than it is for most. Were they simply lucky enough to find the right person at exactly the right time?
Steven Curtis Chapman seems relaxed but looks at me intently as he describes a scene that took place 17 years ago. "That was the first time in my life," he says slowly, "that I saw what looked like the bottom to me."
After a little over a year of marriage to Mary Beth, Steven had only just graduated from college, and the couple already had a five-week-old baby (conceived when their dog ate the birth control pills). Then one day they accidentally left the stove turned on in their apartment, starting a fire that burned the apartment to the ground. Mary Beth’s parents came to help, Steven’s mom came to visit and tensions between the two families exploded.
"Her parents were saying, ‘We’re just going to take her home to Ohio!’" Steven remembers. "And my mom is saying, ‘I’m taking my son back to Kentucky!’ And Mary Beth is crying, and I’m standing in the middle, shouting at the top of my lungs, ‘There is a real enemy trying to destroy this marriage! Satan, you will not have this marriage!’" He hesitates for a moment. "It was frightening." He leans back and reflects, "Knowing now what I know," he adds seriously, "knowing how God has used our family, there’s no question in my mind. Satan was trying to destroy us."
That was the first time Steven felt the foundation threatening to slip out from under his marriage. And it would not be the last.
"I thought the honeymoon was supposed to last six months," Steven remarks lightly, smiling faintly. "Ours lasted six hours." The newlyweds had to be back in Nashville for work and classes the Monday after their Saturday wedding, so their only honeymoon was a quick three-hour stroll through the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden on the way down from Ohio. When they walked into their house together for the first time as husband and wife, Mary Beth collapsed on the couch and cried.
"The day after our wedding," Steven shakes his head, "here sits my bride crying. And I don’t know why she’s crying." He pauses, and then looks directly at me. "But [really] I do know why she’s crying. We both just sat there thinking, ‘This is it.’ It’s like the scales fell away from our eyes, and we saw the reality: This is the person I’m married to for the rest of my life."
Steven and Mary Beth are undeniably two very different people. He is short and blond, with an eager, open face and boyish good looks. She is tall and dark-haired, with lively black eyes and a quick wit. He turns every conversation into something meaningful and spiritual; she turns every conversation into a joke.
"Communication was an obstacle," Mary Beth says emphatically. "When we first got married, I couldn’t talk about anything. I honestly did not know how to talk and express myself. "When we were dating," Steven adds, "we could talk for hours. But it’s a different dynamic [once you’re married]. [As a husband] I was wanting a different kind of communication. And when I finally pushed [the conversation] to the place where she did explode, it really was an explosion—the gloves were off, there were no boundaries, there were no rules and all these issues came to the surface."
In the beginning of the Chapmans’ marriage, most disagreements resulted in fights. They can laugh about it now. In fact, they both chuckle at the memory of the hole in the drywall of their first apartment. "Mary Beth fell asleep right in the middle of my best point," Steven grins defensively. Although funny in retrospect, at the time he was so angry he punched a hole in the wall.
"I spent a lot of the first few years of marriage," Steven admits, "as did Mary Beth, saying, ‘God, OK. You made one mistake. It’s only one. You brought us together; it wasn’t right. How could this have happened?’"
It’s a question many couples have asked themselves, a doubt that has shattered many relationships. But Steven shrugs it off as if it’s not that important. "What I’m coming to realize," he continues, "is that in those moments when we looked at each other and looked at God and said, ‘God, are You absolutely sure You knew what You were doing?’ God was weaving this [relationship] that’s so much better than I ever imagined marriage being."
Suddenly I realize that he’s close to tears just thinking about it. "The very broken places in my sweetheart’s life," he finishes softly, "have been the places God has used in such a glorious way to say, ‘What’s really in your heart?’"
Though the Chapmans are certain now that any strength in their marriage has come not only through commitment but also through those very broken places.
It was five years into their marriage when the buildup of various stresses in their lives ignited the onslaught of Mary Beth’s struggle with depression—a struggle that lasted for years. "There have been some pretty dark days," she confesses. "Days that my sweetie just had to hold me, whether I wanted to be held or not." She searches for the right words to describe it. "I didn’t know how I would survive," she adds.
"I never really thought our marriage would fail. I just didn’t know if I would survive myself." "I have understood the depth of pain that causes people to consider just checking out," Steven says hesitantly. "The depth that causes people to say, ‘I’m ending this pain. I can’t leave my family, so the only option is to just check out of life.’" His voice grows firm as he says with certainty, "I can understand that place of desperation and loneliness."
There have been many broken places over the years. Perhaps the lowest point for Steven was his parents’ divorce. "That was the day the rug was pulled out from under me," he says. "So much of my model for my wife and me was built on their relationship."
Now, that’s the moment when, looking back, he can most clearly see how God was at work. "It took me to a place of dependence on God that I had never known before," he reflects. "[I thought] ‘What can I really trust and really count on?’"
There are now few things left that the Chapmans once thought they could count on. And yet, after so many difficulties that should have crushed them, they have done more than just survive. "Through all those things," Steven asserts confidently, "God was showing us, ‘You cannot do this on your own. This is going to be so much harder than you ever imagined. But it’s going to be so much better than you ever imagined because it involves suffering, because it involves death to self.’"
One of the greatest mysteries of the gospel is the joy of being perfected through suffering, and it’s a truth the Chapmans are still just beginning to understand. "It’s at those points," Steven leans forward eagerly, "that we have to run to God and say, ‘I feel alone in this. But I trust that You will reveal Yourself and bring relief.’" Suddenly he smiles and says earnestly, "God has done that. God has proven Himself faithful."
Today, after 18 years of marriage, the Chapmans still flirt like a pair of love-struck teenagers. They hold hands, they hug, they kiss in public and, over lunch, they have the whole table in stitches as they tease each other.
Mary Beth says laughingly that the new record, All About Love (Sparrow), is really "all about her." Steven tries to explain the mystery of romance expressed in the album, the contradiction of love in the midst of conflict. "There’s a fine print to these songs," he says. "I try to make it sound very eloquent. When you hear the words, ‘I will be here when you need to speak your mind,’ the fine print was, ‘When the plate comes flying across the room, and I’m ducking just in time for it to smash into the wall and fortunately not into me, I will do my best to learn to listen.’ Or, ‘When you feel like being quiet, even though it is absolutely killing me, I will learn, by the grace of God, to let you be quiet.’" He stops and takes a breath. "Even though that’s a really hard thing for me."
To say that marriage is hard is a vast understatement. The process of learning to truly love one another can be overwhelmingly painful. For the Chapmans, it’s been worth it. "This is a calling," Steven insists fiercely. "I get to love somebody at this level; I get to hurt that deeply. If we run to God with the pain and run to Him with the suffering, we can watch Him be strong in us. We cannot let that pain define us but shape us, shape our souls and our hearts. And the shaping always enlarges our capacity to love."
Steven brings it back again to the moments of broken desperation—moments that, like fire, have welded their hearts together. "So many of those places can look like death," he says. "It can be so painful. And they are a death of sorts. Unless those things happen, life can’t spring up in its place. I’m so thankful that God has been committed to [us]." He grins as if he just figured out the secret to his and Mary Beth’s 18 years of marriage. "When it’s all said and done, it’s all about God’s commitment to us."