This past summer, my husband and I invited his coworker and wife—a couple about to celebrate their second year of marriage—over for dinner. During our conversation, we mentioned celebrating our ninth wedding anniversary. My husband’s coworker asked, “So how does year nine compare with the first year?” We laughed and admitted that the first year was way harder! Here we were with 5 kids under the age of 8 admitting that our “newlywed” year was more difficult than our life now?
When we first got married, we were infants in so many aspects of our marital lives…communication, selflessness, patience and love. I remember as an engaged couple sitting in a Pre-Cana retreat balking at the presenting couple when they said “Love is a choice, not a feeling.” A choice? How stale! Where was the romance? The electricity? Foolishly I believed the love I was feeling would conquer all. I was right, of course, love does conquer all, but my definition was a far cry from true love.
One month after our first anniversary, we welcomed a little baby girl into the world. My limits of selflessness were blown open as I found myself wanting to give everything to this little girl. But it was hard. That first year with a newborn shook my entire world. Sleepless nights, exhausted mornings, helplessness over not knowing if I was doing anything right.
It brought me to my knees. But that was a good thing. I learned not to rely on myself, but on God.
I also started seeking help from veteran moms. My husband sought advice from other dads. I remember sitting in church watching a mom with a large family. She seemed so relaxed and confident compared to my nervous attempts to quiet my little one as my face turned beet red and prickly heat ran through my body. It’s not that her children were quieter than mine just that she had a sense of peace surrounding her. Fast forward ten years and I’m that mom. There are many things that still bring me to my knees, but the things I struggled with as a new mom are now second nature.
Learning Marriage is Like Learning Parenting
In the beginning of marriage the love is intense, but there is a lack of experience. Petty annoyances, allocating household responsibilities, working out a budget, fights unresolved that result in growing tension. All requiring a fine-tuned art of communication to avoid more hurt feelings, except that the skill doesn’t exist yet. A couple, expecting newlywed bliss, is left feeling deflated, and alone.
As a new bride, I can distinctly remember flinging myself onto our bed after a particularly upsetting fight about something I cannot even recall. I remember the tears falling as if it was the end of the world. But as the tears dried I realized, “Shoot. There is no one here to fix this, but us.” I prayed that God would help me get over my selfish pride allowing me not only to forgive, but to seek forgiveness.
“Love is a choice, not a feeling.” I began to realize what our pre-Cana couple was talking about. We’re raised in a fairy tale society where “they lived happily ever after” only requires that we fall in love. (I guess Disney thought it might ruin the ending if we saw Cinderella and Prince Charming duking it out over which way the toilet paper goes). In reality, though, true love takes work, requires sacrifice, and is more than just a passionate feeling. It can be heart wrenching, soul searching and at times downright painful.
Unlike parenting though, where a mom and dad receive countless advice and support, read books, and go to classes, newlyweds are often unprepared for the challenges of marriage. Married couples need support. They need veteran couples who can lift them up and say, “We’ve been there. It’s hard, but you can get through it. We can help you.”
Support for Marriage
Our church recently began a marriage enrichment program called Covenant of Love. The ministry was started by Greg and Julie Alexander, a couple on the brink of divorce before a priest friend helped restore their love by inviting God back into their relationship. Soon after, they founded The Alexander House which “works to educate, strengthen, promote, and advocate the splendor, beauty and truth of God’s plan for marriage.”
Once a month at our parish, couples come together for a date night. The room is lit by candlelight and there is an array of delicious treats and wine. A “core couple” makes a presentation, followed by a video series from the Alexander House Apostolate. After the video, there is group discussions based on the month’s topic and then time to socialize. The program’s goal is not only to discuss marriage, and create a marriage-minded community, but also to foster friendships with people willing to hold up the value of marriage and hold us accountable to our vows.
As I look around the room at the core presenters who have been married 20, 30, 40 years, I know that their marriages are not perfect, but that they’ve been there. They know the ups and downs. They’ve weathered the challenges and have come through. They stand together to pass on their knowledge, learning from their mistakes and sharing their successes. They know that there are still struggles in their future, but here they stand opening up their lives and imparting their wisdom. They are committed to sharing the struggles because they have experienced the joy. Despite the hardships they know firsthand “the depth, the intimacy, and the beauty of the gift of self that occurs in the marriage of husband and wife” (Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, p.32).
Your marriage doesn’t need to be flawless in order for you to offer insight to a struggling couple. Let’s reach out to each other. We’re not perfect. The road’s not easy but the joys are real and plentiful if we work together as spouses and a community to fulfill God’s plan for marriage: to partake in Christ’s complete self giving.
Let’s renew the commitment we’ve made and work towards strengthening our marriage bond. Join a marriage enrichment program in your parish or attend a marriage retreat. Use these links for tips and resources for marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and help for troubled marriages: 34 Top Resources for Catholic Dating & Marriage or CatholicMarriageWeek.com