Reconcilable Differences: A Real-Life Fairy Tale Marriage

A couple dancing with each other in their living room, enjoying their real-life fairy tale marriage.
The clock struck 12 in this couple's real-life fairy tale marriage, and the glamour vanished. How could theirs be a happy ending?

The Illusion of a Fairy Tale Marriage

“The day our marriage broke into a million pieces, I was sure no one could ever glue it back together,” Liz Mannenbach says of what she thought was a real-life fairy tale marriage. “Not even God.”

Theirs had been a fairy-tale existence, a time when lifelong dreams were becoming reality. Mark had just begun his pediatric residency, and rumor had it he would be named chief resident. Liz, his high-school sweetheart turned wife, was pregnant with their second child. They lived in a nice home in a comfortable Milwaukee suburb and were active members of their church.

But as with Cinderella, the clock in their real-life fairy tale struck 12, and the glamour vanished.

Once Upon a Time

Marital conflict and discord don’t blindside couples out of the blue. Self-protective natures and divisive issues start taking form long before we awake to their existence. And they often begin in childhood.

“My mother was schizophrenic,” Mark recalls. “She hallucinated every day and showed no interest in her appearance or health, nor was she under treatment. She also refused to acknowledge that my brother, sister and I were growing up.

In fact, it wasn’t until I interviewed psychiatric patients during my second year of medical school that I realized my mother was mentally ill!

“My father was emotionally unavailable. He worked two jobs, one a night shift, and defined himself by his work and paychecks. And that’s how he valued his kids. For each A on our report cards, we received a dollar. Any other grade earned nothing. Not surprisingly, I graduated from high school with only one B.”

Liz’s childhood had been more carefree. Or so it appeared. “My mom stayed home to raise three daughters while Dad worked,” she explains. “We enjoyed eating out and lacked little in the way of comforts. On the outside, ours was a happy life.

“But Mom didn’t have an identity outside of being ‘Mom,’ and her resentment played out in anger. As the oldest, I thought I had to fix everything, to please everyone and always to look happy.” Liz even went to college simply because her parents wanted her to go.

So when Mark completed medical school in 1988, “I had arrived!” Liz says. “I was a doctor’s wife. Now we could live the way we wanted to – like my parents did – and even buy a big house. I could stay home with Emily, who was just 3 at the time, become more involved in church and do and have everything I’ve always wanted.”

More than anything, she wanted to be taken care of. Little did she know, that expectation was something Mark simply could not fulfill.

The Demise of Prince Charming

“My ninth-grade science teacher told me my drive to achieve would take me as far as anyone could go,” Mark says. And after enduring 80-plus grueling hours each week and occasional 36-hour stretches of sleeplessness during his internship, he reached that point. Trying to make ends meet and care for his pregnant wife and young daughter were more than he could handle.

“Liz had no idea what my life was like,” Mark explains. “She didn’t understand our financial situation and why it was putting so much stress on our marriage. And I didn’t sit down and tell her.”

Never having learned how his needs should be met while growing up, Mark looked elsewhere, finding comfort in an on-again-off-again affair with another woman. News of her husband’s infidelity crushed Liz. “The one person I loved more than anything – even more than God at times – had betrayed me. He moved out, we separated. I was three months pregnant and now had Emily to raise by myself,” she recalls. “I was paralyzed with fear. Plus, my best friend, Mary, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt like Cinderella after midnight, dressed in rags and all alone in a pumpkin patch. It wasn’t pretty.”

Yet that’s precisely where God met both Liz and Mark.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

For Mark, feelings of abandonment and shame crept in. “I drifted away from church and God and everyone I knew,” he says. “In fact, I blamed Him for everything; after all, He was the one who allowed me to be born into such a dysfunctional family. And, He allowed my relationship with Liz to unravel.”

Liz, too, faced many emotional ups and downs. In spring 1989, she gave birth to their second daughter, Kate. Then she watched her friend Mary succumb to cancer over the course of the next two years. “Caring for Mary and eventually losing her was so painful, and it required me to seriously examine rooms in my life I never before had entered,” she says.

“But my relationship with God began to grow by leaps and bounds. I realized that no one person can meet another’s needs completely – that’s the Lord’s job. But instead of looking to Him, I had made Mark responsible. God also taught me that life is not a real-life fairy tale, but an intimately detailed story; one that takes time – His time – to tell.”

“Working at the hospital was all I had,” Mark continues. “Like my father, work defined who I was. No one could tell me how to do it better; in fact, I was quick to pass judgment on others.

“Then, despite my protests, one of the attending physicians sent me home on Christmas Day 1990, saying I should be with my family. Never had I felt so alone.”

Staring at the walls of his one-room apartment was a turning point in Mark’s life. “I remembered a story in John 5, where Jesus heals an invalid. He asks the man, ‘Do you want to get well?’ At that moment, I felt God asking the same of me. ‘Yes!’ “

Waking Up to Reality

Another question remained: Would the Mannenbachs’ marriage make it? “It had nothing to grow on,” Liz says. “No give and take, no nurture, no intimacy. My view of marriage was purely functional – two people having children, not a relationship; in other words, it was just like my parents’. I even cooked many of Mother’s meals and kept house the same way she did.”

For two years, the Mannenbachs sought the help of a counselor, as a couple and individually. Even Emily, young as she was, needed help sorting out all the anger, fear and loss that goes with broken relationships,” Liz says.

“We spent so many hours in counseling,” Mark quips, “we qualify for a master’s degree in family therapy!”

But toward the end of that time, Liz found herself sitting in their counselor’s office with the sinking feeling that the marriage was truly over. “I set boundaries with Mark and wouldn’t budge, and he didn’t easily accept these limitations. I was at the end; the loss and pain were too great,” she says. “I also knew God had taken care of me and would continue to do so, whether I was married or not.”

As Mark sat in his apartment that Christmas day in 1990, he also remembered something their counselor had told him: “God loves you for who you are, not for what you’ve done – good or bad. Let Him love you!”

Those words began a long road to mending their marriage, which included a recommitment ceremony in December 1991.

Happily Ever After?

In the years since their reconciliation, the Mannenbachs have grown in their faith and in their relationships with each other and the Lord. The births of two more children, Evan and Ben, have helped cement the entire family. “We are now very aware of how crucial it is for us to leave behind our childhood views and beliefs in order to live a life of committed marriage and service to Christ,” Mark says. “There are still many times when the glass slipper just doesn’t fit either one of us, but we are still in counseling, working on communication and learning to be vulnerable with each other and with God.”

And often that vulnerability takes them out of their comfort zones. “Ten weeks after Ben was born, we moved from Milwaukee to Rochester, Minn., because we felt God could better use us here,” Mark continues. “That wasn’t easy for either Liz or me, what with a new baby, new house and new job. But we have learned we need to put God first in our lives and not keep Him out of any part of it – to have a ‘with-boots-on’ kind of faith. James 1:22-23 says, ‘Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’

“So, I stepped out and did something I knew was not for me. In January 1995, I joined 13 others on a medical missions trip to the Philippines. What an experience! While there, God planted in me a heart of compassion. He reminded me that, much as I’d beg to differ, He’s the One in complete control.”

Relinquishing that control has led the Mannenbachs to go public with their story, something else which has been neither comfortable nor easy for them. “But Liz and I know there are many others physicians and medical families who face the same or similar circumstances,” Mark says. “And they need to know there is hope and possibility, even after obvious sin.

“All through my life, ” Mark continues, “I asked, ‘Why?’ Why was my mother mentally ill? Why didn’t Dad pay more attention to me? Why doesn’t my wife understand my needs?”

His answer? “For me, and for Liz as well, I believe the reason for our struggles is the same as it was for a blind man Jesus healed. It’s not a matter of ‘Who sinned?’ but that the healing would bring glory to His name.”

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