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With our annual Oscar party coming up, my husband, Tony, and I have been watching our way through the Best Picture nominees. Last night was Past Lives. I was not prepared for what it provoked: one of the most painful and connecting conversations of our marriage. 

Past Lives is about a Korean woman who emigrated as a child and now lives in New York, married to her kind, white husband. Seven years into their marriage she reconnects with a childhood love. She had known and loved him at twelve and again at twenty-four, and then meets him again at thirty-six and we get to watch. 

He has come to New York just for a vacation, he says, but neither you nor she quite believe him. Throughout the film, their connection is powerful, palpable, and it leads all three — wife, husband, and past love — to wonder about the paths they didn’t take. With the relationships on a razor’s edge throughout the film, all three of them are excruciatingly vulnerable. It made the whole thing hard to watch. 

Though it can be painful to admit, every marriage has those wonderings. Whether we brush them aside, cherish them in secret, or share them openly, they are bound to surface now and again. Past Lives gives an intimate and uncomfortable look at one of these wonderings explored. What does it mean to love your spouse and still wonder? What does it mean to love the one who is wondering? What if these forbidden others reconnect you with parts of yourself that your spouse cannot? Does that mean that your marriage is a mistake?  

It’s not often that we get a look at a good marriage in film, let alone explore an issue that even the best marriages confront. Much more often, we get pictures of the boredom and tyranny of bad marriages, the happy perfection of fantasy, or the movie ends just as the real relationship starts. No one talks about the hard work of staying together. 

I think I have a good marriage. My husband and I enjoy each other, we fight well (mostly), we work hard to see and care for one another. It is good. We are happy. And, we too have these wonderings.

After watching the movie, we laid on the couch way past our bedtime talking about the things that the film had evoked. It is hard to admit wonderings about past loves or new strangers and harder still to bear those of your spouse. I get insecure and hurt when I hear it from my husband, even as I recognize the same things in myself. And yet, there can be connection even there, in that painful space. 

A friend recently said about her husband, “He’s my person. And I’m his. I’ve promised to be the one who is for him, whatever comes.” Of course, that’s what I promised too, and yet, at forty-one, it struck me for the first time that this was not quite how I had been living. I had been treating my marriage as if the goal were mutual enjoyment, but it’s not. The goal is love. Love allows another to change, to be broken, to need, to fail, to grow, and even to wonder. I have promised to always see my husband, to work for his flourishing, to allow him to be free, even when that seeing, that work, that freedom is painful for me. (Please note that I am not talking about abuse. Abuse is a wholly different category than the regular fluctuations of a person and relationship and should be dealt with differently.)

This is a tricky line to hold, especially as a woman. It can so easily devolve into letting my own self squish into the corners of our lives, while his self fills the room, as per the patriarchy. But that’s not what love requires either. Advocating for my needs has led to some of the most growth for Tony. My willingness to be (or rather, inability not to be) emotionally honest has served us mightily. Both people have to actually show up for a marriage to be good. Both people have made these same promises and we can hold one another to them. 

And yet, even in a committed marriage, both people have to open their hands and let the other be.  Love requires a freedom that even includes allowing the other to leave you or to die. Any control we imagine is an illusion anyway. I can no more control my spouse’s thoughts or actions than I can keep him alive. Like the movie, the vulnerability is excruciating. Love can be so painful even when it is good. The alternative, though, the desperate clinging, the micromanaging, is bound to asphyxiate your love and leave you both lonely and exhausted. 

The love of a good marriage is not only the heroic acts of sacrifice or the meet-cutes of romantic comedies. It is also not an easy path. It is long suffering. As Dostoevsky said in The Brother Karamazov,

Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on stage. But active love is labor and fortitude.

It is labor and fortitude that can form us into people able to handle the complexity and tension of it all with acceptance and grace. That is to say, it forms us into lovers like God. Sometimes people think the pain of a marriage means that there’s something wrong with it, but, no, that’s partly what it’s for. The commitment creates a safe pasture that can transform the whole thing into a school of love.

The cross is the epitome of this kind of love, holding together the reality of a sinful world with an unshakable commitment. On the cross Jesus forgave those who wronged him even as they continued to inflict pain, he cried out to the Father in the agony of it all, and he stayed there in his commitment to love. But he did it for the joy of reconciliation and intimacy with his beloved.

This is not unlike the love of marriage. It requires grief and pain, forgiveness and grace all jumbled together in daring and hopeful commitment, and it promises something beautiful. Each day of a marriage requires that each partner submit again and again to the process of death and resurrection, surrendering themselves only to be surprised again by new levels of intimacy and connection.

I want to hear this story told more often and I am grateful to Past Lives for telling it. The flutter of a new relationship is exciting, but it is nothing compared to the harrowing adventure of a good marriage. 

Jen Holmes Curran

Jen Holmes Curran is a pastor at Sherman Street Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She co-pastors and co-parents with her husband Tony.


  • Emily Jane VandenBos Style says:

    My goodness, thank you … for your forthright truth-telling about this marriage terrain. Whatever would we do – without the “windows & mirrors” of the ARTS?!

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    This is so good! Thank you Jen! Great depth here, vulnerability, and insights into Gods sacrificial love. I’m saving this and Liz and I will enjoy it over and over, alone and together. We’ve been in it together for 58 years and it’s still deep and good and joyful. Again, thank you!

  • Janneke Cole says:

    This is so wise; it will give us a lot to discuss when we watch Past Lives. Thanks, Jen!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, this is very good.

  • Ann S says:

    Insightfully spot on. Per usual. Thanks Jen!

  • Heidi De Jonge says:

    Goodness, Jen. You are SUCH a fantastic writer. And I feel seen and heard and invited into something bigger than myself and my marriage when I read your words. (Also, just learned that the writer/director is a Queen’s University Grad! Cool! Must watch.)

  • Henry Baron says:

    I echo the comments of the others – this can evoke such consequential discussions between spouses as well as discussion groups! And yes, must see this movie!

  • Katie Day-Schirmer says:

    Your mention of an Oscar party brought back a distant memory of you & Tony coming to my then river house (with you dog) to watch The Oscars and spend the night:) I too watched the nominees for Best Picture, being a fellow cinephile and “Past Lives” was excellent and thought provoking cinema! Thank you for sharing your piece of writing Jen.

  • Kathryn Vilela says:

    Thank you for putting words to this deeply-important part of the human experience. I appreciate how warmly and thoughtfully you invited us all on this reflective relational path with you.

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