“Happy Anniversary!” the family chorused around the dinner table in the elegant dining room of the cruise ship. Gene and I celebrated 40 years of being married. But unlike the calm waters on the cruise, many years in our marriage were rough because of the storms that buffeted our relationship. In fact, many times we came close to the shipwreck of divorce.
But to grant us a little grace, I’ll relate only five of them. We faced them in various seasons of our marriage, in different forms and even when we least expected.
1. We expect our spouse to meet all of our needs.
The first one happened at the very beginning. Dressed in pure white, I took slow steps down the church aisle. A rhythmic melody played on the piano while all eyes were on me. I reached my husband-to-be at the altar and we pronounced our vows. I said, “I do” to the familiar wedding commitment. But in my 23-year-old heart what I really said was “I do… I do expect this man to make me happy, to nurture me, to make me whole, to fill the void in my heart. I do anticipate being the center of his life. And I do expect my life to be happier than when I was single.”
What I didn’t expect was that he too, at 23, had his own expectations. His own needs, desires and hopes. And to my shock, he expected me to fulfill them.
As a result, in our small apartment furnished with a red, brown and orange couch and shag carpeting, conflict visited often. Blame and episodes of animosity marked with harsh words moved in with us.
Only months after that day where folks lifted their champagne glasses toasting to our happiness, we realized neither one of us could provide even a slight resemblance to the storybook “happily ever after.”
Going our separate ways seemed a liberating solution.
2. We fail to prioritize sexual intimacy.
The second temptation to give up came around our seventh anniversary. By then we had three little boys under the age of five. Life had changed. It became more hectic and sleepless nights multiplied with each child. Although they brought deep joy, their care zapped all my energy.
Nights were long with little sleep. Days were short because of my endless tasks. And my heart was empty of fulfillment.
As a result, sexual intimacy was at the bottom of priorities. Gene didn’t seem to understand.
Why couldn’t he see my sacrifice to the family? How could he demand more of me? He should be happy that I manage to care for all the family’s needs. But he wasn’t grateful. He became resentful instead.
3. We forget to communicate.
The third step that could have triggered divorce came when those long, heart-to-heart talks we enjoyed while dating were forgotten. Our hectic days were filled with so many activities that we had no time or energy to connect. We talked but didn’t communicate. We exchanged necessary comments. “When is Joe’s soccer game? Did you remember to pay the car insurance?”
One evening when Gene came home from work and announced there was someone else in his life, I was numb with disbelief. Anger, bitterness and desperation filled my nights. Meanwhile, confusion and frustration filled his.
4. We are poisoned by resentment.
The fourth step that could have taken us to the doorstep of divorce came when financial devastation barged in. After six months of employment in a small company, it went bankrupt. As one of the executives, Gene was personally responsible for the huge debt to the IRS. The amount was so large that we couldn’t pay it in a lifetime. The IRS took our savings and our bank accounts became theirs. The debt and interest kept increasing. And so did my fear. That fear triggered irrational blame. Why couldn’t Gene have seen this coming? How could he have allowed this to happen to us? That blend of fear and resentment became the poison that was killing our marriage.
5. We become separated in tragedy.
The fifth episode that could have taken us closer to divorce came ten years later when our youngest son, 19 at the time, was killed. We both crumbled with grief. The heartache was about to consume us. And the desire to nurture our relationship was drowning in the lake of sorrow. We were told that often tragedies sever a marriage. They often create a wedge that is nearly impossible to mend. And we could see that very outcome drawing closer.
Those are only five episodes that could have taken Gene and me to divorce court.
Still in love…
Then why, after 40 years, are we still in love more than ever? How did we overcome those trials, setbacks and pain?
The answer came when I stopped. I stopped seeking a way out of our mess. And instead, began seeking God first as He says to do in Matthew 6:33. With my face buried in my hands, I cried out my surrender to Him. Then I made God the center of all. I made Him the rock in our marriage. And I made Him the Lord of every aspect of our relationship.
Then the change came. But the first one to change had to be me. Prayer and Scripture rose to the top of my priorities. I invited Gene to do the same. Our transformation came in stages.
First, I admitted my mistake and recognized that no human being, no spouse, or family member can be the one to bring me joy, security or fulfillment. I embraced God’s truth that He and only He could be the one to fill my deepest needs. He said: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
When life became overwhelming and days brought more burdens than I could carry. Jesus whispered to come to Him. To receive what He offered. And when exhaustion lay beside me in bed, Jesus said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
God smiled at us when we obeyed in our tithing. Even when facing that huge debt, we remained faithful in our trust in Him. And even when funds nearly ran out, we still tithed as God instructed. That’s when His promise to fill our baskets till they overflowed proved true (see Malachi 3:10).
When infidelity stained our marriage, forgiveness became the choice that washed resentment, anger and bitterness away. Gene learned that love “is not self-seeking” (>1 Corinthians 13:5a). And I learned that “love does not keep record of wrongs” (>1 Corinthians 13:5b).
And when the devastation of our son’s death threatened to end our peace and joy, God’s promise in Psalm 34:18 sustained us: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
The mistakes we made, the unrealistic expectations, the trials and the “me-first” attitudes all served a purpose. All proved our desperate need for Jesus. Each episode showed that when He is invited into the marriage, hope is born. His presence brings security, clearer perception and wisdom. He and only He grants the grace to forgive. And when He is the center, He turns dark moments to light. He mends bleeding wounds. He eases the heartache, and in a sweet, glorious way, He brings joy back.
Janet Perez Eckles is an inspirational speaker and author of four books, including Simply Salsa: Dancing Without Fear at God’s Fiesta, where she helps thousands walk from the darkest valleys into triumphant, joy-filled lives.
Publication date: June 3. 2016