Ben and I gingerly placed our right hand—mine over his—on a giant crucifix after we’d declared our vows during the Nuptial Mass. I knew our promise would, indeed, last a lifetime, and my heart fluttered with a joy I’d never known.
I remember dreamily telling my mom a few years later, “I want heaven to be like my wedding day, surrounded by all the people we love the most as we laugh and celebrate together.” Maybe that sounds trite, or naïve, or cliched, but it was as true to me as anything had been. I just didn’t realize that marriage would test us in unfathomable ways.
Ben and I celebrate fourteen years of marriage on June 30th. When we see starry-eyed couples together, we give each other a knowing glance and wry smile. There’s something we’ve weathered that we—as young, blissful newlyweds—couldn’t understand. Likewise, we notice older couples who have been married several decades, and they carry a wisdom in their eyes that Ben and I don’t yet know.
Recently, we discussed some of the ways we’ve overcome hardships in our own marriage. The disclaimer is that a) every marriage is different, and b) we don’t know it all, of course. But what we have learned is worth sharing.
Endurance During Dry Spells
Most young couples expect arguments, even real fights, during their married life, but these always include a way to make up and move on. It’s hard to foresee how each of our families of origin have shaped our worldview and the way we communicate and relate to each other—that is until we have been married for a while and realize the patterns emerging.
Ben and I dealt with our daughter, Sarah’s diagnosis of Apert syndrome very, very differently. I needed to talk about everything – my thoughts, my feelings, the what ifs – openly. It was my way of sharing this experience with Ben, as well as processing the complexity of it all. Ben, on the other hand, retreated inward and effectively shut down. He did not recognize his grief, nor understand how to express the very big feelings he carried inside.
Over time, we entered what we call a “dry spell” of our marriage. We talked every day, but our conversation centered around daily life. We didn’t delve very deeply, because we were both dealing with exhaustion, burn-out, and a general emotional malaise that was new. Since then, we have gone through more valleys, but they’ve become more like gentle rolling hills.
The one word God has placed on both of our hearts is this: endurance. What does it mean to endure? As a definition, endurance includes sitting with a difficult or painful process without giving way. Some synonyms are tolerance, forbearance, and fortitude.
What makes enduring hardships so painful in marriage is the fact that we are sharing a life with a person who essentially does not know us. This type of loneliness and emotional isolation hurts far worse than when we have severed a friendship or are ignored by our colleagues. How do we endure? By sitting with our hard emotions and risking the necessary vulnerability in opening up to each other, slowly but consistently.
Patience in Our Trials
Along with endurance, which focuses primarily on staying with our pain, patience is how we move through our suffering. In spiritual terms, patience is akin to long-suffering, our ability to bear with the steps we must take to journey our own Calvary. Marriage must be tethered to the Cross; there is no other way for a couple to survive the unthinkable changes that happen upon them.
And the long, tedious walk to where our selves are crucified must be taken together. It is when we become empty of self that we begin to make room for the other, which is first God, then our spouse. And this emptying, this pruning, hurts terribly. It feels very much like death, and it is. But only from death can new life emerge.
Discipline for Daily Life
Several years ago, I read A Mother’s Rule of Life, based on a recommendation from a friend. The concept of creating a rhythm in our home through daily routine intrigued my melancholic tendencies toward order and organization. When children are small, however, or when they have special needs, life tends more toward the chaotic than the calm.
Establishing a monastic cadence feels out of reach to most moms, and it honestly can be. But what we can do, we can do well. That’s where I began – with small steps toward routine. First, we have regular mealtimes, which we share as a family as often as we are all together. Next, we have a two-hour gap in the middle of our day that we designate as rest time. Everyone in the family either takes a nap or has quiet time with a book and stuffed animal.
Routine becomes drudgery when it is not lived out cheerfully and with love. Marriage and family life are not always filled with fluffy, rosy feelings. In fact, most of the time, these are hard to come by. The point is that we recognize the gift of discipline, first in daily prayer, then to those in our own home.
Hardships in marriage are not necessarily overcome. Rather, they are woven into the more complex tapestry of our lives. The temptation to escape into the ever-elusive, nebulous happiness will always try to lure us away from our true vocation, which is love. And love is never lived apart from one’s decision to endure—patiently – the myriad ways we are invited to die to our selfishness and discover (or rediscover) the little resurrections happening all around us.