Calling a Marriage Truce

By Sam Jolman | February 7, 2011

“We just had a World War III here in our kitchen
We both thought the meanest things
And then we both said them
We shot at each other till we lost ammunition.”
  Sara Groves

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Philo of Alexandria

The year is 1914, the dead of winter, during the Great War.  Along the Western front, German soldiers are dug in against the British and French. This had been and would continue to be a very bloody war with casualties for all sides numbering in the millions.  Though at this moment in the war, it’s Christmas time.  And after some brutal months of costly conflict, an eerie calm has settled in over the battle line.

Christmas has been stirring other odd things among the men.  Under cover of nightfall, spontaneous Christmas carols pierce the cold damp air replacing the usual gunfire.  And now that its Christmas eve, the singing almost takes on a call and response nature between trenches as they trade renditions of Silent Night.  The German line is aglow with candle lit Christmas trees, warming the desecrated landscape.  Men even shout Christmas greetings to the opposing side.  And all of this between supposed staunch enemies.

And then the odd became the unimaginable.

The bravest in the bunch, caught up in this momentum of shared human warmth, abandon their trench positions and only protection from certain death to walk out into the open towards the other side.  To do so, they had to pass through the dreaded No Man’s Land, named for obvious reasons and riddled with dead bodies in case you forgot.  But this is no sneak attack.  These men are daring certain death and treason to their country to offer a friendly handshake and hello.

And it worked.  That Christmas, men by the thousands eventually poured out of their trench positions and fraternized with their “enemies” in the middle.  Only a few men were shot at, and there are reports that apologies were made for those shots.  They exchanged gifts of cigarettes, food, a nip of alcohol if they had it.  They shared pictures of loved ones and traded war souvenirs.  Soccer games broke out, a makeshift stuffed shoulder sack as the ball.  The men took the chance to bury fallen comrades.  There are even stories of some giving each other haircuts. 

A truce between enemies in the middle of a brutal and bloody war.  All started by Christmas carols.  It still baffles historians.  The truce lasted all of Christmas day.  And as one British soldier, Murdoch Wood, said, “If we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

I sat with a man just this week as he described his marriage struggles to me.  Unprompted, he said, “Its much like trench warfare I guess… I throw my grenades and show throws hers.”  I chuckled with what songwriter Linford Detweiler calls the laughter of recognition.   I hear it articulated this way time and again with the couples I counsel.  And I know it in my own marriage at times. Trench warfare fits all too well.

When a couple sits down on my couch, that six inches of space between them is no less dangerous than that wretched deadly space called the No Man’s Land.  Stick your heart out and its liable to get blown to bits.  I once had a soldier recently returned from Afghanistan say he could more easily handle anything thrown at him in combat than the discord in his marriage.  He courageously coped with threat of gunfire and IEDs, even negotiated insurgent surrender.  But the threat of rejection from his wife shook him to his core.  You may say that seems exaggerated, even laughable.  Just pay attention to your heart in the next marriage or friendship fight that comes your way.

When a couple is at war, every ounce of tenderness or vulnerability is quickly covered up.  Their faces turn hard as steel as they look at each other, choosing the best weapon they can reach for in their arsenal.  I can almost hear the grenades whizzing overhead as they fight in front of me. Sometimes a spouse will turn to me and share just how painful it is to be fighting, often with tears.  And for a moment I see her humanity, openness, and suffering in it all.  But when I ask her to turn back and tell her husband what two seconds ago she told me, she looks at me as if I am crazy.  Facing a spouse-turned-enemy that exposed seems absolutely foolish in a war. 

You know what?  No one really wants to win in a marriage fight.  I’m serious.  We settle for winning when we’ve given up on getting love.  All we really want is a place to be vulnerable and get love.  And that picture of the wartime Christmas truce may be the most inspiring picture of how you get back to love.  Eventually someone has to brave the divide.  Someone has to get vulnerable again, not in the name of surrender, but to call a truce.  And the difference is that its not about winning.

That Christmas day, those impenetrable, merciless military defenses melted away not by a show of power and consequent surrender, but through a truce, a mutual simultaneous agreement to disarm.  Those men put down their guns willingly when they realized the humanity of their enemies.  These were guys with families and children and lives and hopes and desires and a heart beat.  Not evil incarnate to be hunted and shot to death.

The humanity of another person may be the most difficult thing to reject.  If your spouse cusses at you, its so much easier to cuss back.  But if they risk vulnerability, melt into tears or apologize, you have to really steel yourself to retaliate back. Its clear that what can get behind the most hardened defenses we can create is the vulnerability of another person.  

Dan Allender points out some fascinating things about Jesus teaching to turn the other cheek.  He suggests that Jesus is not asking us to be kicked like a dog but calling us to risk a show of our humanity.  To turn the other cheek is to say to your enemy, “I’m not going to hit you back, I’m not going to run away, but I am going to make you look me in the eye.”  It invites your enemy to look into the very face they just slapped, a chance for them to recognize your suffering and soften their heart.

Turning your face is usually what it requires, with an apology, with tears, with finally spilling just how terrifying it is to be rejected.  A fascinating thing happens when someone in a marriage takes this step of vulnerability and the other person is ready to respond: it invites touch, usually even before words.  A strong grasp of the others hand, a shoulder rub, a hand on the leg, an outright hug, the wiping away a tear.  Touch is the unspoken language of truce and its the hardest way to bullshit your vulnerability.  Touch is the way people in love communicate.  Sue Johnson says, “It seems we are truly bonded only with those we touch.” 

Could anything be better than kissing the face and feeling again the embrace of your enemy-turned-lover?  And you wondered why make up sex is so good.  Vulnerability begets vulnerability.  Touch begets touch.  Go risk your heart and find out how sweet it is to disarm.  It is your only chance to get what you really want: Love.


  • Such a beautiful look at what it takes to change the face of a war. Thank you for being willing to be in the trenches, to be a man following the call to heal and bring life in the midst of what seems only like darkness and death. You are a battle field medic, a bringer of Life.

  • I'm amazed there aren't more comments here. This picture of vulnerable celebration in "no man's land" is as pungent as can be. And so true- how difficult it is to wade into the bloody open. But you are right, when the vulnerability is revealed, it is very difficult to remain calloused. It is a clumsy dance, this pursuit of marital intimacy. Thank you for sticking your neck out on a regular basis into the "no-man's land" of other people's marriages, let alone your own! You are a good man, Sam.

  • Good thoughts, expressed beautifully, and for me, a well-timed drop of grace.

  • Kirby, thank you! I know you to be a man who does the same… sticks his neck out for his wife and friends.

    Thank you, Bryan… been a long time coming, getting back on the writing horse.

    Kevin, glad it met you at the right time. Appreciate your words on my writing, especially coming from a poet like you.


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