Last Christmas Rodney and I got in a doozy of a fight. I would like to tell you it had to do with something really important. Like money. Or parenting styles. Or whether we should stay up and watch one more episode of Naked and Afraid. But it was about none of those things.

It was Christmas Eve and we were fighting about Santa.

“All the presents are wrapped!” I remember telling him, glad for the task to be done, the clock close to midnight, and my Christmas spirit alive, but not totally well.

“What about those over there?” Rodney asked pointing to the stack of unwrapped presents next to the fireplace.

“Oh, those are from Santa.” I began putting the wrapping paper away, the tape back in the drawer.

“Santa doesn’t leave his gifts out like that,” his confusion becoming obvious. “He wraps his presents.” Rodney looked at me as if he didn’t even know who I was anymore.

“No, he doesn’t.” I quipped. At this point I wasn’t sure if I was more passionate about Santa’s gift giving habits or just trying to avoid wrapping one. more. present. It was not lost on me that we had started talking about the tendencies of an imaginary person, getting dangerously close to a full on argument on this magical night of Jesus’ birth.

“That’s crazy. Why would Santa leave presents unwrapped? That doesn’t even make any sense,” he shot back. That’s when I began to wonder why this sort of thing wasn’t brought up in premarital counseling? How had we stayed married for ten years and managed to not talk through this not so small child-rearing difference?

It was downhill from there. I was insistent on my way, and Rodney on his, the situation getting more and more heated—and ridiculous—as the minutes ticked by.

Like a lot of married couples, when we have an argument, we walk away thinking, “We could probably stand to improve.” And occasionally, after some time has passed, after our minds have cleared, and the emotions have settled, we come back together and talk about what we should do better. It isn’t necessarily rehashing the argument—though it can be that sometimes. It’s looking back and each of us learning to take ownership for the part we played in it.

Eight times out of ten, one of us ends up saying, “I would appreciate it if you would be more willing to own up sooner to the part you got wrong.” Because in the middle of it, that feels like what you want. You want someone to validate your frustration, your anger, your hurt. You want someone to say, “Yup. I did that. And you are right to be so upset.” Or even better, just stop with, “You are right.” In the moment, that’s what we crave.

But on this particular Christmas Eve, that’s not what Rodney said. I was waiting for it. I deserved it, so I thought, but I didn’t get it.

Instead, “It’s Christmas.” Then, “I love you.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear. At least I didn’t think it was. But it turns out those words were more magical than being told I was right. In the heat of the argument, in the middle of the dissonance, with the clenched jaw and rising blood pressure, being told I was loved, was the prescription I never knew I needed.

I don’t know why it works this way exactly. But I think it has something to do with being reminded of the most true thing about us, versus what feels the most true in the moment. Conflict makes us feel like we have to fight for our lives. Like who we are is on the line in this argument. Physiologically, we engage in the fight or flight response—a survival mechanism for our ancient ancestors. We aren’t thinking about sentimentality, we are thinking about how to make it out of this thing alive—with our pride still in tact, with some self-respect.

Which is why Rodney bringing me back to my senses was so powerful. It got me out of the moment and back to reality. This fight wasn’t a defining moment in our relationship. The defining moment was choosing to believe what was already true and continues to be true. Love.

Believing that brings our humanity back. It gives perspective that emotion and frustration won’t. And allows us to even admit the part we played in it in the first place.

It doesn’t seem like it would work that way. But it makes sense. Over and over God strives to make His message heard in our obstinate hearts. “You are loved,” He assures us. “You are loved,” He avows. “You are loved,” He drills again and again into our stubborn and forgetful minds. And when we finally start to believe it? We are more than just named and claimed. We know we belong. As a result, I think there is a part of us that becomes more willing and more able to name our sin and our shortcomings.

Being told, “you are loved” makes it easier to say, “I was wrong.” Because love is our identity—not our wrongdoings.

Then we know our mistakes don’t define us. Who loves us, does. Due to God’s persistent message, we no longer fear being seen as the sum of our mistakes. We are seen as the object of affection. We aren’t simply a pity case. We are a valuable son and daughter.

In the same way, when Rodney told me he loved me (but still didn’t concede on Santa’s presents) I heard him say, “You are more than how you may have gotten it wrong. You are who I love.” And somehow that was enough.

When you know you are loved, being wrong is no longer a threat to who you are and the worth you have. It’s a misstep. It’s a detour. But it doesn’t have to define you or the relationship. Love does. Love allows us to swallow our pride and humbly confess, “I messed up.” And love nods, opens it’s arms as it takes you back, and assures, “Tomorrow, we’ll try again.”

It’s true of God. And on our best days in can be true in our relationships too.

We wrapped the Santa presents.

Me, not quite over the argument, Rodney not quite over it either, but we did it. Together. And of all the ways it could have ended, it ended far better than I expected. Not because I got my way, but because we let the defining moment be a statement of love, and not an accusation. Not a line in the sand. Not hurt feelings or mounting frustrations. But the thing that has allowed us to stay married for ten years. Clearly, not our views on Santa. But our views on love being the most important thing about us, and not our disagreements.

It’s a simple thing. But it’s enough.

(Now. Someone please tell me I’m not the only one who leaves Santa’s presents unwrapped?!?)