We hadn’t spoken much in nearly six months. I gave birth to Auggie, our fifth baby, in March 2020, and the world was worn out. Ben and I were no exception. Raising children in this shaky society, everything uncertain and not much grounding us, chipped away at our ability to listen, to love.
It felt hopeless to me. I knew God was somewhere in the midst of it all, but I couldn’t ascertain where. Or how He would redeem the increasing chasm, which had become palpable, between Ben and me.
Couples stand at the altar and gaze into each other’s eyes, a particular naivete in their voices. Life is, in that moment of joining hands and hearts, full of endless possibilities. I remember our wedding day fifteen years ago. Everything I recall about it is ensconced in joy, pure bliss. I often retell it to our children like this: “I want Heaven to be just like our wedding day – with everyone we love in one place, celebrating and rejoicing together.”
Ben and I placed our hands on top of a heavy wooden crucifix during our vows. It has always hung in our bedroom as a reminder of love as suffering, as sacrifice. But it’s easy to look at the cross every day as some distant symbol of your faith, something you accept but only on the periphery.
The truth is, Ben and I didn’t really know what it meant to suffer or to love.
Because I’d given birth to three children in four years, our lives were a constant stream of nighttime feedings, changing diapers, and managing tantrums and conflict. This, in addition to Sarah’s ongoing complex medical care, quickly overwhelmed us. Our marriage was hanging on by a thin strand of caffeine and sleep. Not conversation. Not intimacy.
We both cried ourselves to sleep most nights. Neither of us knew the other was silently weeping. Ben, unbeknownst to me, prayed a novena to St. Anne out of desperation. His request was meager – that he would learn to accept our marriage as it was, a mere shell of the lifetime of joy we’d anticipated.
In the darkness of postpartum depression, I didn’t know the extent of my suffering, as it affected Ben and the rest of my family. I only knew that I couldn’t find myself anymore, nor could I find God.
At the end of Ben’s nine days of silent prayer, we spontaneously planned to sit outside under the unusually cool summer sky and talk after the kids went to bed, a glass of red wine in hand. I chose to be vulnerable and share about my struggles. Ben knelt at my feet and wept with me, holding my head in his hands.
This opened a pathway to healing by way of divine grace that neither of us expected. At best, we thought we’d live under the veil of fidelity – “till death do us part” – because it’s what we firmly believed. Faithfulness to God and to each other meant everything to us.
The Holy Spirit interceded with His groanings on our behalf.
Spousal love entails two things: to the degree that you love, you will suffer with your spouse, and to the degree that you love, you will desire to endure the suffering with them.
Ben and I had to learn this through many fires of trials and losses, unexpressed grief and unfulfilled dreams. We’ve lost friends, collections of books and antiques we cherished, time for hobbies, even hope at times. But God did not permit us to despair, because we continued to turn to Him, day after day.
I say He didn’t “permit” us to despair, because He heard the lamentations of our hearts, saw them in our tears. Love, in order for it to be real, must be stripped of pretense, of self, of distractions and attachments. Ben and I did, indeed, lose these in a very painful purgation. At the time, it felt cruel, lonely, and endless.
But marital love becomes the fire that sodders husband and wife as one. It is the furnace of love, of God’s love, that unites us when we suffer – and especially when we suffer together.
I have often reflected on the reality of suffering as the fulfillment of love. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus with a cloth, and in turn, His face miraculously remained on it. The name Veronica means “true image,” because she was willing to enter the suffering of Jesus along His journey on Calvary.
That is the mission of spousal love, too. When you’re in love with someone, you take on their image. You take their suffering upon yourself. It is the crucible of how the heart is purified to understand, and to live, the fullness of marital love. Without shedding all the aspects of our lives that keep us chained to our selfish ways, we cannot become joined to our spouse in the way God intends.
Suffering and sacrifices are the pathways to lifelong Christian love.