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Time, Space and the navigation of marriage

Time, Space and the navigation of marriage


by David Gortner & Heather Van Deventer


 “What’s on the docket today?”

  “C’s elementary school graduation, then a doctor’s appointment for her.  M has Tae Kwon Do. 

  “Don’t forget, our neighbors are coming over for dinner tonight.  We’ve got food to grill, so we’re good on shopping for now.  Oh – and we have to pack for the parish weekend at camp, and for C’s week of sleepaway camp.”

  “I’ve got VBS preparations again with the team today.  And three different staff meetings.  M, please, brush your hair.”

  “I’m finishing the student handbook for the incoming doctoral students today – and I’ve got to make up the slack on worship planning for chapel next week.  C – time to go!”

  “Can you walk the dog this morning?”

  “Sure.  Can you deposit those reimbursement checks?”

So goes a typical morning in the Gortner-VanDeventer household.  Navigations and negotiations on the run, as we all prepare for the day ahead.  It is probably not that different from many households in the mornings.  But I have this lingering hunch that somewhere, some households have a calmer, more well-planned entry into their day.

So, maybe we are a little different.  We are a married couple of priests.  One of us serves a congregation, and one serves as a professor and administrator at a seminary.  But really, in terms of daily life, it’s not all that different.  It is probably like a married couple of two doctors, two teachers, or two lawyers.  Time demands are intense for each of us, our sense of dedication and purpose in work is high, we understand each other’s work environments all too well, family comes first but that ideal is hard to meet consistently…and the development and activities of our children are centerpieces of our lives.  In the midst of this flurry of rich activity, it can be easy to lose time for each other—and, at the end of the day, to let our best intentions for some catch-up or getting ahead to be taken over by our weariness that leaves enough energy for channel-surfing and falling asleep on the couch.  We love our lives, our work, our children—and we love each other deeply.  We rest in that love, and trust it, even in the buzz and turmoil of continuous activity.  We’ve now been married for 15 years and have been through the phase of life that is BC – before children – and into the phase of marriage with concerns of work, children, parents, and life together. Yeah, don’t forget the life together!

Both of us do premarital counseling from time to time. Sometimes it is with parishioners or seminarians, and sometimes it is with couples with whom we have no prior contact but who have been referred to us.  When doing premarital counseling, it takes each of us back to the early years of our marriage. What were the concerns that we had when we started out?  We remember our days together pre-marriage, and in the early years of marriage BC (before children).  Lazy mornings together, vacations together, the freedom of choices to eat out together or cook and eat in together, all occurred in a more relaxed pace of life when our investment in our work and careers was the only competitor for our time together.  Those memories are deep and joyful foundations for us—not merely wistful memories, but a base of time together in which we experienced and expressed our love, care, respect, passion, and deep commitment for each other across the range of our activities, that hums consistently in the background as a reminder of who we are together.

Couples often get reminded in premarital counseling that in marriage they are not just joining each other, they are joining each other’s families—with all the joy and pain, craziness and delight, history open and hidden. This is what comes with becoming part of a tribe.  But we are now telling couples that there are two other presences that will be part of their lives, no matter where they are.  And they are unrelenting, uncompromising in their part in the relationship.  They are Time and Space.  Time, it turns out, simply will not compromise, yield, or give way.  Space—any space—becomes its own defining playground for shared life; and once you’ve made a choice of a dwelling, for as long as you are there you don’t get more.  Navigating time and space are even more a part of our fights and conflicts than those usual suspects of money, sex, and families of origin.

So, we’ve taken to asking couples to do a few key things in their sessions with us.

  1. Have a fight, practice fighting fair. Have a slowed down, stage-fight practice speed, intentional listening focused argument. The sample topic seems simplistic: what do you do with the dirty dishes when the dishwasher is full? Do they go in the sink or on the counter? Yet it in the everydayness of life that the little things that bug a person turn into blisters, not pearls in an oyster, if you can’t figure out how to listen to one another, to bend, to be flexible.
  2. Plan two budgets—a financial budget of monthly income and expenses, and a time budget that accounts for time together and time apart, in work, leisure, exercise, hobbies, and chores. It is in the ordering of our time, space, and money that we run into each other’s differing ideas and values most.

These are not just challenges for a couple.  They are ongoing challenges in a family with children, in a shared or solo business, in a faith community.  Once we talked our daughters through the conflict exercise at the dinner table. It was rather useful that night, as our daughters later had a fight and we reminded them of ways to talk with each other, take personal responsibility, brainstorm for solutions, and commit to their best agreed solution.

We love this life together.  We thank God for each other, the gift of our children, and the grace of a faith we all share.  We continue to have some of the big questions in the mix—who gets the next big career move, where is God calling us together as a couple and family.  But for now, it’s another day.  Everybody, out the door—the piles can wait.  Kisses and words of love are the bookends to our morning rush, sending us on our way and continuing to form the deep hum in the background of our lives, wherever each one of us is each day.


The Rev. Heather A. VanDeventer is Associate Rector, Historic Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia & The Rev. Dr. David T. Gortner is Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program, and Professor of Evangelism & Congregational Leadership, Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia.  They are part of a growing trend of “clergy couples,” eager for the Church to discover effective ways to deploy the shared and distinct talents of ordained couples.  David is also a psychologist and author of several books.  In their lay and ordained ministries over the years, they have served in the Dioceses of North Carolina, Utah, Chicago and California, in congregations, camps, campus ministries, hospitals, hospices, and various international, national and regional initiatives for young adult ministry, women’s ministry, ordained leadership development, multicultural ministry, interfaith collaboration, affordable housing, community organizing, and congregational conflict.  They are currently serving in Virginia and Washington DC.  They are cooks and foodies and scifi fans, as well as lapsed hikers and kayakers, now beginning to rediscover and regain those activities now that their two daughters (Cassie and Miriam) are old and strong enough.


image: steam alarm clock with a polyphonic whistle by Jacek Yerka


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