“I am so excited about growing old with you, again!” I recently told my husband, Brian. It may sound like an odd thing to say after 13 years of marriage and two kids. But the past two years have been incredibly hard on our relationship. We’ve faced a number of stressful life events, including job losses, moving three times, health problems, financial strains, and just the day-to-day struggles of being working parents. Although neither one of us has considered divorce during this difficult period, we’ve both often felt hopeless about our ability to improve our relationship, and fearful about our family’s future.
As I’ve written here and here, giving up when marriage gets hard is probably the only life lesson about being married that our parents gave us. We are both children of divorce, and in our families, marital struggles almost always meant divorce was on the horizon. In fact, growing up, I never witnessed a struggling marriage actually make it. Neither of us can look to our parents’ marriage examples for guidance or hope when trouble strikes in our relationship. Without a legacy of forever love to draw from during the bad times, it is difficult to ignore the negative messages in our heads that repeat, “You’re doomed to fail.”
At least, this is how we both felt before a few weeks ago, when we attended a three-day marriage enrichment retreat called Worldwide Marriage Encounter, which is sponsored by the Catholic Church but open to couples of all faiths (which was important, since Brian and I are not Catholic). There, we were introduced to some amazing, older married couples whose love stories helped to change our marriage for the better. In fact, these days we are feeling literally giddy about us as a couple, and are more hopeful about our marriage than we’ve been since our wedding day. And we primarily drew that hope from other married couples at the weekend.
During the event, my husband and I sat in a circle with about 20 other married couples, listening in awe as a 70-year-old woman explained why she and her husband of 48 years were there. With her wrinkled, red-nailed hand resting on her husband’s upper thigh, she blushed as she explained how they hoped to reignite the romance in their marriage, or “put the fizz back into their Coke,” as she put it. They had attended a similar weekend 38 years earlier when they still had young children. She said that experience transformed their marriage, and they’d returned now, “on the eve of their lives,” in the hopes of revitalizing their relationship, again.
Their story, which left my husband smiling and me in tears, was one of several inspiring testimonies we heard from seasoned married couples. In fact, the weekend wasn’t led by professional speakers, but by a priest and three married couples (all married 30 or more years), who shared their love stories as they modeled a tool for how to communicate better with your spouse. There were no PowerPoint presentations, just a few posters on the walls, some candles, and an old CD player that often didn’t work right. The meals were provided, so everyone ate together.
The setting, which is purposefully more intimate and simple than marriage conferences we’ve attended in the past, provided my husband and I with what we’ve needed most: the solidarity of other married couples. It gave us the opportunity to be in a little community with married couples of all ages, some who were facing major hurdles in their marriages, and others who were just looking to strengthen their relationships. Suddenly, we did not feel so alone, or so hopeless.
Hearing other couples share why they came, what they were learning, and what they hoped to gain encouraged us in our marriage, and enriched our own weekend experience. I guess you could say their marriages actually helped to strengthen ours.
For us, the most important part of the weekend is that when it was over, the community support for our marriage did not come to a screeching halt. Two weeks later, there was a one-day “renewal” event at a local church led by the host couples from the weekend, where we had the opportunity to ask questions about the communication tool we’d learned. After that, we were encouraged to join a local “circle group” in our area, where Marriage Encounter couples get together once a month to support one another along the way.
Ultimately, we walked away from the Marriage Encounter weekend with some real-life marriage role models who reminded us to never give up, and whose love stories gave us hope. We want to be like that sweet, white-haired couple married for 48 years who are still working on improving their marriage so it can be the best it has ever been. “Even after all this time, we still struggle,” the husband told us, “and we still need to work at our marriage to make it better.”
My husband and I no longer feel as though a happy marriage is somehow out of our reach because of our broken families. The weekend gave us hope—not just that we can make it to “‘til death do us part” but that we can have a happy, exciting marriage along the way. By striving to communicate better, reaching out for support and encouragement from other married couples, and especially seeking God together, we can build a vibrant marriage that will stand the tests of time.