It Takes Work To Make Marriage Work

I did it.  I survived one year without my husband. I can’t say it was easy and I won’t say I’ve enjoyed it, but I’ve experienced a light in the darkness, a peace in my heart. In my first year without Dan, I’ve often reflected on our marriage and what made it work. And what I’ve come to realize is that what made it work is just that. Work. It worked because we worked to make it work.

Making a wish after transplant
Hanna and Dan making a wish after Dan’s transplant.

The last twelve months have been all about me – traveling, shopping, writing, re-decorating, crafting, socializing, counseling, and making up for lost time in happy hours. The first six or eight months were mostly a blur of simply getting through the day, hopelessly searching for anything to fill the newly-empty space (cue the retail therapy). But in the last six months or so, I’ve been working on myself; and, while that’s what I need to do right now, it’s a stark change from the work I did in my marriage.  As much as I touted our perfect relationship and our purely blissful love, however you cut it, marriage is work. And mine certainly wasn’t spared.

Chemo has side effects; and they have a sneaky way of taking the wind out of the romantic sails.  When I married Dan he was sick. He was in remission from leukemia, but took daily chemo pills and monthly IV chemo treatments as part of the protocol to keep it that way. We got married April 10th in Pennsylvania, but he couldn’t move in with me in Virginia for twenty-one long days until May 1st when he could make an uninterrupted transition onto my insurance. So, not only did we spend our first three weeks as newlyweds apart, but once we did move in together, toxic chemo treatments prevented us from trying to start the family we were so anxious to begin. And even had we gotten permission to try for a baby, his chemo treatments squashed his drive and function, which, subsequently put a damper on my drive and function. Needless to say, we didn’t engage in the newlywed’s typical, shall we say, er, activity of choice, which was most disappointing! As any couple dealing with sickness knows, intimacy can be work.

Medicine is expensive; and this SLP’s teacher salary wasn’t cutting it. Dan was working on his PhD and got a stipend for his fellowship, but it was hard to pay the bills sometimes, let alone start a savings for our future. We had to clip coupons and make smart spending choices, which was hard. A tight budget forced Dan to forgo his (nearly daily) Seven Eleven runs and McDonald’s drive-throughs to save a buck or two. Cutting costs meant I had to repeat my outfits at work a little more often than I liked. We had to sacrifice and compromise on some of our favorite things to make ends meet. As any couple dealing with bills knows, managing finances can be work.

Hospitals are awful; and Dan and I found ourselves spending more than our fair share of time in them. Hospitals are paradoxically the scariest and most comforting places in the world. On one hand, we wanted to take up permanent residence on the hem-onc unit to avoid the frequent middle-of-the-night trips to the emergency room (“why can’t you get fevers during waking hours?!” I’d whine); on the other hand, we loathed the smell of the hand sanitizer, the whirring of the machines, the 5:30 am knock of the med student. As any couple with a chronically-ill spouse knows, keeping calm in an emergency takes work.

Forgoing the bars for Saint Patty's day at home.
Forgoing the bars for Saint Patty’s day at home.

Staying home gets boring; and keeping things interesting with a quiet evening in your 650-square-foot apartment is a challenge. Dan and I spent a lot of time together. Like, a LOT. If we hadn’t already loved spending every minute together (which, duh, of course we did), we would have had to start real quick. Exposing Dan’s brand new transplanted immune system to public events was generally frowned-upon, and eating out was a hassle due to the extensive dietary and sanitary restrictions he had to follow. Between restrictions and an immense fear of medical complications, Dan and I kept ourselves busy doing “safe” things (you may now appreciate our obsession with Jeopardy!). We played board games, video games, danced, watched lots of tv, learned to cook, and got to know every single solitary thing there was to know about each other. As anyone cooped up in an apartment for two years knows, maintaining sanity amidst terrible boredom can be work.

This year was a different and totally new kind of work, but I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’ve spent every single day working at moving through the various waves of grief and finding my way without Dan. I can’t necessarily say I was prepared for this job as widow, but I sincerely believe that my job as wife laid the foundation for me to be good at it. Our marriage was my best work. It gave meaning to my days, purpose to my life. And just because my marriage is over doesn’t mean that the work is left unfounded. On the contrary, that work helped me gain perspective, build strength, and find hope.

A good marriage takes work. It takes partnership and friendship. It takes sacrifice and compromise. A good marriage is fulfilling. It’s rewarding and it’s loving. Marriage is worth it.

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  • Hannah,
    I don’t have the pleasure of knowing you, and I barely knew Dan (we were at CUA together in different years), but I want you to know that I follow you, I pray for you, and I respect the struggle you have gone through. Marriage is work, and it sounds like you put in more work than usual… But you also reaped a lot of benefits.
    I am a military spouse, and although my spouse is alive and healthy, I unfortunately know too many young military widows. I wonder if you have ever met any? It is a community where you may find support and a sympathetic ear. I just want you to know that you are not alone. There are other young widows out there who will spend the rest of their lives honoring the memory of their husband. And there is also such a large community from CUA–people you have never met!– who pray for you and for Dan. I wish you the best!

  • Thank you, Hanna this has helped me get through this very trying day. Love you so much. Aunt Aurelia

  • Marriage IS work, even when you don’t expect it to be, sometimes you realize the areas where work needs to be put in, or HAS to be put in. But it is most definitely worth it.
    I’m proud of you for all of the work that you’ve done, with Dan, and in the year without him. You show everyone around you that it is possible, and it’s worth it.
    As always, I admire your strength. And your work ethic 🙂

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