I get pretty broken up whenever I hear about the end of someone else’s marriage, including the divorces of strangers. Even the news of the latest celebrity “marriage on the rocks” can get me down if there are kids involved. I’m not a Tom Cruise fan, but I was pretty upset when I heard that Katie Holmes was leaving him, mostly because I worried about the impact on their little girl.
But what bothers me the most are the Facebook breakups, which I always seem to discover through a relationship status change, or status update (“Signed the papers today, ready for new a beginning”). Lately, it feels like way too many of my Facebook friends are getting divorced (and social media makes it more likely I will hear about the marriage woes of distant friends and relatives). These are seemingly-happily married couples, some who have been together for decades. Their divorce always leaves me wondering—what happened, what about their kids, and, ultimately, could this happen to me?
Some of these couples had marriages I envied. They seemed to go on an endless number of romantic dates, and always posted smiling pictures of themselves and their beautiful children doing fun things that, well, perfect families always seem to do. Then, one day, the happiness ends, and it’s over. Although I might not have seen this couple in years, the news that they’ve split up leaves me with a lingering sadness that almost rises to the level of devastation I felt about my own parents’ divorce. This is usually followed by the fearful thought: if this could happen to a perfect family, couldn’t it happen to my imperfect family? When I add my own family history of broken marriages to the mix, it can get pretty discouraging.
The nearly constant bad news about marriage is a big reason why I was so inspired by the video series on marriage that was released during the recent Humanum conference that took place in Rome last November. One of the most moving videos for me was Part 4 of the six-part series, “A Hidden Sweetness: The Power of Marriage Amidst Hardship.” The video features different married couples discussing how hardships in their relationships actually led them to a stronger union. Two of the stories were especially powerful:
• A Nigerian woman explains how she started to see some potentially challenging issues in her new husband after the initial excitement of the honeymoon phase wore off. She went to her mother and declared, “I am not sure I am going to cope with this.” Her mother responded, “God has put hidden sweetness in the difficulty.” The wife took her mother’s advice and held on, and today enjoys a happy marriage with her husband and their children. “Marriage thrives when the two come together in hardship,” she says, adding that, “the hardship is something you work on… to get to the sweetness hidden inside.”
• Another segment features an African American couple, who met while they were both recovering from drug addiction. “When I fall short, she is right there to pick me up,” the husband says about his wife of two decades, “even though sometimes I don’t want to be picked up. Our love is so deep that what she says means so much.”
• I was also greatly encouraged by Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren’s speech during the Humanum conference, where he shared some of his marriage testimony . Although he and his wife, Kay, have been married 40 years, he emphasized that, “Marriage doesn’t have to be perfect to be healthy.” He described two years of their marriage “as nearly hell on earth,” but said they vowed “to make this marriage last if it kills us.” They found help through 15 weeks of intensive marriage counseling. For me, learning that this “mega-church” pastor and humanitarian—who by the world’s standards should have a “perfect” marriage—actually has an imperfect one that needed help to survive is pretty inspiring.
This reinforced for me how desperately we need to hear marriage survival stories that include the (sometimes) harsh realities of day-to-day married life. As I have discussed before, many of us do not have these “love stories” to emulate in our own families. Instead, what we have are way too many “love gone wrong” stories;our own parents’ marital failures, the broken marriages of extended family members, or situations where marriage didn’t exist at all (such as with cohabiting or single parents). When we get married ourselves, we are left to figure things out without a family history of marital love to draw upon for guidance and inspiration. Trying to do marriage well without this history can be challenging.
In his Humanum speech, Rick Warren said that one way to strengthen marriage is to celebrate the happy marriages in our midst. He encouraged churches to promote the testimonies of couples in long-term, happy marriages, and to publicly recognize and honor those unions. This is a great idea for not only churches but also communities. Those of us who are married or who want to be married one day need the testimonies of long-term married couples that have confronted challenges, kept going, and found happily-ever-after in the end. Because so many of us lack these marriage role models in our own families, we need the encouragement and inspiration of older or wiser married couples, like the couples in the Humanum video series, if we are going to build the forever marriages we desire.