My dress was off-white and perfect. Worn only once before, 28 years earlier by my mother, it reflected with its empire waist and flowing train a timeless elegance both simple and stunning. I fantasized about that dress and the sensation of its layered netting scratching my stockinged legs, the swishing sounds of taffeta serenading my every graceful step. I imagined myself as a princess lifted from the pages of a storybook; I imagined myself as a bride.
Just two months shy of my 23rd birthday, I walked arm in arm with my weepy father down the aisle of the church my future husband, Troy, had grown up in. I was thinking that he looked handsome and my bridesmaids beautiful in their coordinating mint green shawls. I was aware of my high-heeled shoes pinching toes more accustomed to flip-flops and of an impossible to reach itch beneath my carefully coiffed up-do, but that was the extent of my pondering. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much beyond this magical day at all. My wedding was the culmination, the happy ending, the grand finale of my inexperienced life. As a little girl, my daydreams had usually stopped here: in this dress and at this moment.
They always tell you (the already married women) that your wedding day will be a blur, and the bride-to-be smiles politely, secretly confident that her wedding will be different, that she will remember every detail of that glorious occasion in slow, deliberate, motion. Never again, in all likelihood, will she ever plan any other event with the same degree of passion, drama, and intensity. I was no different, and was thus quite surprised when my wedding day was over as soon as it had begun - my memories but a swirl of camera clicks and kisses choreographed to the tune of clinking glasses.
I remember sitting at a restaurant with Troy just hours after our cake and finger food reception earlier that afternoon. With all the hullabaloo of planning and celebrating behind us we were at somewhat of a loss as to what to do next. The conversation felt awkward and forced (“Nice wedding uh?”). I was still in ideal mode, and worried a bit that the warm tingling passion I’d assumed would electrify us both from the moment we said, “I do” had not kicked in as expected. I was confused as to why in these first hours as a wife I still felt insecure, like I could say or do something stupid to make him love me less at any moment.
After a week in the Smokey Mountains, where we spent our honeymoon terrified by pitch-black skies, howling coyotes, and winding roads up to ear popping altitudes, I looked forward to starting life, real life, as a team; I looked forward to reveling in our intimacy. Without realizing it, I shifted all my hopes, my self-esteem, and my longings for contentment onto one imperfect man. A dangerous combination of wanting to please and yet of wanting to be pleased resulted in some initial passive aggressiveness on my part.
“Do you care if I go out with my friends tonight?” Troy asked me once early on in our marriage. I did care. I didn’t want to be alone on a Saturday. I didn’t want Troy to prefer their company to mine.
“That’s fine,” I lied, “…I mean if that’s what you want to do.” Knowing of course that he would read my mind and refuse to leave without me.
“Great! I’ll call them,” He’d said, pecking me on the cheek while reaching for the phone. I, in turn, pouted my way through the next two hours with grunts and one-word answers.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“Oh … nothing,” I sighed, and then stood up dramatically and started to wash the dishes.
“Alright, then. See ya later!” Without batting an eye, he took off for his guys’ only evening.
As the door closed behind him, I sobbed in disappointment. I felt completely overwhelmed by loneliness. I had, essentially, put all my eggs in one basket, a basket Troy had dropped because it was altogether much too large for any human being to carry. When he came home to find me crying, he wrapped his arms around my shoulders.
“What happened?” He asked alarmed.
“How could you leave, when you knew I had no plans? Why didn’t you want to spend a quiet night with me, your wife?” I blubbered.
Instead of an apology, Troy pulled back his arms and looked sternly at me. “I asked you if it was o.k. for me to go and you said yes. I asked if anything was wrong and you said ‘no’. It is not fair for you to say one thing and mean another. I need us to be honest with each other!” Ouch. The truth held up in front of you like a big old mirror in unflattering light is never pleasant to look at, but there it was, plain as day; I was wrong to think that Troy should bend over backwards to interpret my emotions. I was naïve to hope that marriage would fill a gap in my soul created for being stuffed to overflowing with adoration for God.
Two people trying to live by breathing in one another will find out soon enough that the oxygen is limited. Their love will inevitably fall victim to suffocation. Every married couple eventually gets to the point where the rose colored glasses, through with each of them had viewed the other, become shattered. It is highly common in this day and age to just assume, then, that the match was a poor one, that someone else is out there capable of saying and doing all the right things to keep you satisfied - all the things your old partner couldn’t. It is at this crucial stage that the difference between marriage as a sacrament of the Church verses marriage as an expression of affection between two individuals becomes most significant. It was at this crossroads within my own marriage that the death of romanticized misconceptions made way for the resurrection of a miraculous and unconditional love rooted in divinity.
There is no relationship between human beings, said St. John Chyrsostom in his homily on marriage, so close as that of husband and wife, if they are united as they ought to be. He goes on to say that:
Paul has precisely described for husband and wife what is fitting behavior for each: she should reverence him as the head and he should love her as his body. But how is this behavior achieved? That it must be is clear; now I will tell you how. It will be achieved if we are detached from money, if we strive above everything for virtue, if we keep the fear of God before our eyes. What Paul says to servants in the next chapter applies to us as well, … knowing that whatever good anyone does he will receive the same again from the Lord (Eph. 6:8). Love her not so much for her own sake but for Christ’s sake. That is why he says, be subject … as to the Lord. Do everything for the Lord’s sake, in a spirit of obedience to Him.
Between the years of 1997 and 1999, I became a wife, an Orthodox Christian, and a mother; all three of these roles were challenging. My marriage went through several metamorphoses at break neck speed in order to keep up with the changes. By the end of that 24-month period, I was much too tired to be flawless. But in the midst of admitting I had no idea what I was doing, in the process of shedding old skin to make room for the new me growing and evolving with each trial, with the realization that my husband could not save me from the frustration of reaching my own limits, I found the desperation necessary to throw myself at the feet of Christ. I began to internalize the teachings of St. John Chyrsostom, and discovered that when my identity was wrapped up in my role as a Christian, when love for God was the source from which my thoughts and actions originated, I was more apt to support Troy with no strings attached. When I trusted in my own shallow resources, however, my love became possessive, manipulative, and self-serving.
With the onset of parenthood, Troy and I had to reacquaint ourselves all over again with each other, now as “mom” and “dad.” We had different backgrounds and different ideas about discipline and job sharing. I felt it unfair that his life did not change as severely as my own and he felt limited as to what he could give to a baby obsessed with its mother. Our words became poorly aimed arrows, usually missing their mark. I was too emotional to be taken seriously, I figured bitterly, and he was too removed from my existence as a lonely new mother to ever offer the right advice or comfort. Orthodoxy was the one common denominator in our lives. Communing together, fasting together, and standing as a couple before our icons in prayer, fueled our desire to keep trying, to keep giving, to keep sacrificing ourselves for the sake of salvation- to obey Christ by serving one another.
Troy and I each desired respect for the positive elements we were bringing to this marriage and to this family. I had to force myself to inquire about his day and really listen, asking questions that confirmed my care for and pride in his ability to persevere within a stressful job environment. I had to pause and mull over my grievances, determining while calm whether or not they were worth a confrontation. If so, I had to proceed with carefully constructed explanations (rather than loud, impulsively fired assaults on his character- assaults that would surely be regretted by us both) and remain open to the criticism I would receive in the process. I had to pray every morning for wisdom and correct thinking, for divine guidance on when to assert myself and when to hold my tongue. I knew that the natural outcome of a healthy marriage was healthy children who would not compromise for anything less than being treated with loving respect by their own potential partners down the road. I knew I wanted to show my kids that Troy and I were a united team, incapable of being divided.
Troy is a very attentive father; I have fallen in love all over again with this “new” older man beside me, transformed by the hardships and pleasures of providing for his family. I am especially sensitive now to the slow steady drifting due to inadequate communication, pouncing on the widening gap between us and stitching it back together with prayer, apologies, and forthright conversation. We invest ourselves in this marriage, making frequent deposits of affirmation, unprompted kindness, and extemporaneous hugs and kisses. Troy and I make it quite clear there are times when he and I are not to be interrupted. We teach our kids by example that the relationship between moms and dads must be cultivated with time and effort, that giving us space to bond and catch up after a long day apart is beneficial for everyone.
I am proud of Troy and he is proud of me, out of that mutual pride flows courage, stamina and a continuous yearning for improvement. The sacredness of our marrital covenant only deepens as the years pass by and as the obstacles of raising four spirited children test our faith and commitment to one another. Marriage is never static. This miraculous relationship must be nourished or it will wither and die of starvation. It must be watered with sweat and tears in order to bloom and bring beauty to its household. The healing effect of a sincerely offered compliment from Troy never ceases to amaze me, nor does my own power to return the gift of encouragement with reciprocated words of heart-felt appreciation. May we never, when our children are grown and gone, look upon one another as strangers who have lost their one connection, their only adhesive whose absence makes evident two separate hearts beating out of synch and shivering in the frigidness of love grown cold. May the sacrament of marriage purify our souls and always remind us that God is good.
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