When engaged couples busily and earnestly plan their whimsical, romantic wedding and honeymoon, they seldom consider the possibility of truly heavy crosses afterwards. I’m not saying that everyone who gets married should carry a cloud of doom above their heads and in their hearts, but it’s important for those who are called to the vocation of marriage to recognize the stark reality that till death do us part is usually a very long time.
My husband and I were no different when we planned our authentic Scottish wedding eight years ago this month. I was captivated by the perfect dress, matching tartan stripes on everything, and palatable cuisine for our guests to enjoy. But in the back of my mind, I knew that marriage might, in fact, be really hard. Marriage is everything that happens after the wedding and honeymoon. Marriage is everyday life.
Ben and I never imagined that our life would turn out the way it has. We initially pursued “the American Dream” (whatever that is, anyway) with a life of luxury, comforts, and pleasures. We wanted our forever home with a white picket fence, several children, and a dog. What we got was a well-worn nineteenth century home in a Mayberry-like town, a rescue dog, and two girls with special needs.
Our crisis hit hard when Sarah was born over two years ago. But we realize that many other crises await us in the future. We prefer to call them crosses of marriage: our infertility journey, the financial strain and stress of constantly paying medical bills, and the chronic grief in caring for a medically fragile child and psychologically anxious preschooler.
Every marriage encounters the tempests of life. That’s the nature of humanity: the struggle and strain of bringing two entirely different people together from completely separate families of origin and possibly cultures, not to mention the differences between men and women (another topic altogether). Our society and – dare I say – our churches don’t truthfully and adequately prepare us for these storms, trials, and spiritual attacks.
How, then, are we to survive? I will share five ways Ben and I have endured the crises and trials that we have encountered in our nuptial journey so far.
Do Not Make Divorce an Option
How many of us honestly talk about this with our spouse? Within the first year of our marriage, Ben and I firmly resolved never to bring up the “d” word during our arguments. It was what we called a roadblock to communication, something that only further divided and hurt the other person. Even if the thought of divorce has ever been a temptation for either of us (for me it has), we both agreed to quickly and silently pray to overcome that temptation and not to spew and sputter that thought aloud.
When spouses consistently and persistently throw out the possibility of divorce when days, weeks, and even months or years are really challenging the marital relationship, then the alternative is that they must work things out. In turn, they are more likely to dialogue with each other to come to solutions at what is straining the marriage.
Approach the Altar of Life with Humility
Ben and I are not humble people by nature. We are both self-declared choleric temperaments, so we tend to enjoy lively debates without recoiling in horror. The double-edged sword to that is that squabbles between us are often heated and sometimes end up being mutually hurtful.
What helps us both is taking an honest look at ourselves with humility. This is much, much more difficult than it sounds. When we are arguing, Ben and I both believe we are right and the other has wronged us. So it can indeed be excruciating for both of us to stop talking, pause for a moment, and ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten our hearts with an honest look at how we are contributing to the other person’s hurt or frustration.
The Holy Spirit always delivers, but not necessarily in the midst of an intense verbal altercation. During those times, Ben and I agree to revisit the discussion after we both have taken some time to pray about our contribution to the argument and how we both can grow from difficult conversations.
Recognize Your Enemy
There is nothing that delights the devil more than to conquer and divide holy marriages (or marriages in general), which is evident in the macrocosm of divorce and separation in our modern milieu. Ben and I are both attuned to the language of spiritual warfare, so there are days and weeks when division and misunderstandings creep into our marriage.
Almost always one of us will approach the other in a moment of spiritual revelation with the idea, “Maybe we have been under spiritual attack lately.” This opens an authentic and emotionally transparent conversation with the other spouse, and we end up looking in retrospect at the patterns of fear, division, pride, anger, etc. that have entered our marriage at that point. Once we talk about it, we close in prayer, and it is almost as if a cloud has been lifted from our hearts. The burden and battles cease for a time, and our marital bond is strengthened in our faith.
Pray Together Every Day
Isn’t this so obvious? But do we diligently and faithfully make time to pray with our spouse? Ben and I struggle with this, because there are evenings when he is gone for a church meeting or community event, or perhaps I have an evening phone appointment or writing deadline. Then we both end up too drained to make it happen.
But there is incredible power in prayer, especially in a marriage. I recall a friend once telling me, shortly before Ben and I wed in 2007, “Never forget that God bestows a special grace upon your marriage because of the sacramental bond. When you call upon that grace, it will be granted to you both every day.” Sometimes I am desperate in that petition, but the Holy Spirit always intervenes. And when Ben and I pray aloud with heartfelt sincerity for each other and for our children, the immensity of God’s strength and power are granted to our family.
Never, ever underestimate the healing effect prayer has upon your marriage.
Incorporate Fun Into Your Own Schedule
Ben and I often get bogged down with the drudgery of filling out paperwork: Ben at the office and me for Sarah’s medical records. In addition, the sheer exhaustion of keeping up with the demands of Sarah’s and Felicity’s occupational therapy, counseling, and specialist appointments can drain us both emotionally and physically. Needless to say, having fun long ago lost its luster in our vocabulary. Fun has been replaced by sleep or time for solitude (both of which are legitimately important).
There is something healing about laughter, though, especially when something weighs heavily upon your marriage. Reminiscing about the early days of wedded bliss is encouraging, but it’s not enough. We have to plan for fun (as oxymoronic as it sounds) in order to rediscover our love for each other and return to a playful, carefree existential state.
Ben and I find this to be truly enlivening and enriching to our marriage. When we laugh together, the stress we carry temporarily vanishes, and we are left with a new luster gratitude for the life God has granted us. Having fun together is part of maintaining a sense of balance; Ben and I are also strong advocates for incorporating time for prayer and reflection, work and home responsibilities, and rest on a daily basis. Recreation is also necessary, especially when you and your spouse are in the midst of a difficulty.
When we get married, we all know that “love is patient, love is kind.” But we don’t always prepare our hearts for the unforeseen struggles we may be called to endure on our nuptial journey. A sobering part of our Nuptial Mass was when Ben and I placed our hands on top of a blessed crucifix following our vows. The crucifix was then hung in a prominent place in our home as a daily reminder that we both needed to look to the Cross when we were tempted to respond to each other in selfishness or anger.
Pope Francis beautifully stated it thus: “Love is stronger than the moments in which we argue.” Indeed it is, for love supersedes our vices, even and especially in marriage. When we keep our eyes and hearts fixed on the Cross, we crucify all that must die within us in order for us to fully love our spouse in a wholeheartedly sacrificial way. This, I believe, is the only way true love prevails and marriages survive the crises of life.