“Why do you think,” she asked, “your marriage has lasted 11+ years? And you were together four years before you got married too, right?”
She was right about that last part. The person asking me is a friend, never married, who was talking to me about people we knew from our high school years. I guess she had a right to be astounded my marriage has endured for as long as it has. After all I know people from high school who have been married and divorced in the 16 years since graduation. Twice. In particular she was thinking of 2 people we had known during those years who had married, divorced after the wife had an affair, and the wife went on to have a child with the man she had an affair with. And now, I was being told, was unhappy in the relationship. A lot to unpack.
Last weekend I went to my brother-in-law’s wedding. He and his wife chose to have a destination wedding in Isle of Palms, SC. It was a lovely location and they lucked out with gorgeous warm weather and nary a hurricane in sight. They chose to write their own vows. And the vows were true to the people they are. I remember when I chose the traditional vows at our wedding. My mother was in a slight case of shock because I think she assumed with me being a writer, I would just create my own vows. I was in a slight case of shock when my mother told me she and my dad wrote their own vows. I guess I just never thought much about what was said at their wedding except that it worked. 36 years now they’ve been married.
In thinking about the variety of wedding vows and mulling over this conversation regarding people who’ve been married and divorced that I grew up with, I started thinking about why some marriages fail while others that seem shaky don’t. And I remember this piece written by Hallie Lord almost two years ago now. And as I re-read it, this jumped out at me:
I was quickly realizing that the lessons God had lovingly wrapped up for me in that little package known as matrimony would be difficult ones. Over the course of my marriage I’d be asked to die to self again and again—something I was quickly finding I had no propensity for.
She goes on to say a bit later:
But by the simple, passive act of staying, I learned what wiser and more experienced couples could have told me but which I would have refused to believe until I’d experienced it myself: marriage is not always fun; there aren’t always rewards for your gifts of love; and ultimately profound self-sacrifice is the name of the game. While my younger self, cheeks pinked with the fresh blooms of love, would have been terribly disillusioned by that proposition, over time I came to see that the valleys, rather than being valueless experiences we can only ever grit our teeth through, are gifts. Without these moments of marital aridity we’d never have the opportunity to choose love.
And then continues:
Somewhat tangential, perhaps, but nevertheless relevant is the fact that few manage to make it through life without encountering tragedy. Sadly, heartache is our ever-present companion in this fallen world. Poverty, sickness and death can bond a couple or destroy a marriage depending on the health of the union. A couple that has spent some time acclimating themselves to less-than-optimal circumstances, such as can be found during arid phases, is a couple that can form a united front and face hardships with confidence.
The only problem with valleys, for all their—admittedly unpleasant—benefit, is that when one isn’t prepared for them they can be alarmingly dark and frightening places. Could the high rate of divorce be, to some degree, traced back to the fact that many are caught by surprise by this phenomenon? To suddenly find your marriage lacking in romance or rife with discord without ever having been told that this might very well be a part of the natural ebb and flow of marriage would be quite disturbing indeed. How many couples jump ship before their marriage has a chance to pull out of the valley? How many marriages, having hit a rough patch, are further disturbed by a couple who despair that this is their new and permanent reality? And for how many does this despondency sap any and all will that might have been used to fight their way out of this rocky bottom?
Marriage is hard and marriage is work. Even when it seems easy, the work is there. I once heard an interview where an author said that marriage was like the military, except you have to re-up every day. The minister who married Jeff and I had us go through pre-marital counseling with him. One of the first questions he asked was why we wanted to be married in the church. My answer both shocked and relieved him. I said I had seen a billboard growing up that said,”It was a lovely wedding. I hope I’m invited to the marriage.–God.” It was one of a series of billboards including one that said, “Don’t make me come down there!–God.” I told him that I believed that God should be in a marriage starting even before the wedding if He was to bless it. We talked often in those sessions about struggles of marriage. And while my romance, much like Hallie’s, seemed charmed, I was all to aware that hard times fell on everyone.
It was one of the reasons I stuck with the traditional vows. It is also why instead of using the readings from Genesis and 1st Corinthians synonymous with most Catholic weddings, I chose from Ruth 1:16-17 and 1 John 4:7-16. Yes, love is patient and kind but love comes from God and God should be our foundation in marriage, not emotion. Which is why many of us choose to make our vows before God and not necessarilyjust the State of NC, VA, MD, ID, MO etc, etc. If we don’t know God, we cannot know love.
But those vows, those traditional vows (which fyi, in the Eastern Rites of the Church you don’t get a choice, you say the traditional vows), in themselves are a preparation for the hard times of marriage. You vow, before God, that you will stay “in sickness and in health,” “in good times and in bad,” “richer or poorer.” And while many self-written vows are beautiful and poetic, many neglect the rough times that will come ahead. And they will come. Satan is out there to kill families and domestic churches.
For so many divorcees today, it wasn’t a desire for someone else nor a desire for be away from their spouse, but a disillusionment when the good times went sour. When, as Hallie describes it, the valleys came to be. And some can’t even make it when things are good but they aren’t “madly in love” and are dealing with the minutiae of folding socks instead of eating by a river in candlelight.
Marriages that survive are marriages that are not built on love, but built on God. Because God is love. Our vows reflect that all these trials and tribulations are overcome when God (love) is present. In good times, in bad, in sickness, in health, when money is plentiful, when money is scarce…praise God and entrust your marriage to Him. If you didn’t at the beginning it is never too late. The Foundation can be rebuilt. The vallies can make you stronger. Any marriage can survive if we choose to build it on God, because then it is built on love.
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.