My wife Annie and I celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary last weekend. Sweet 16 indeed. We were married on July 31, 2004 in the church of Սուրբ Աստուածածին (Sourp Asdvadzadzin-The Holy Theotokos) in Kessab, Syria. A date and a place that marks the beginning of our journey.
Annie and I had met in 1999, in Beirut, Lebanon, in the oddest of settings: a funeral of an individual we mutually knew. Our relationship grew over long-distance; I was in New York, and she was in Beirut. We were young, and there was an intense sense of mutual infatuation. I would spend a big chunk of my salary buying phone cards to call Annie (WhatsApp and other VOIP services did not exist back then). As time went by, we were falling in love. We became interested in learning more about each other and formed a strong bond. It was during those times that I read Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie. It was a fascinating read, and each chapter prompted me to reflect deeper on the meaning of life. In the chapter on marriage, Morrie spoke about the tragedy of failed marriages and also introduced a formula for creating and maintaining a thriving relationship. Morrie described that one of the most important binders in marriage is finding common values. This idea, which initially sounded pretty easy, led us to deep reflections. If Annie and I were to identify a set of common values to serve as the foundation of our relationship, we each had to do some homework and take inventory of our values and what we each cherished the most. As a young couple, we already identified our common interests, but it was time to set the foundation blocks of our relationship. We each created a concise list of our common values into a pyramid that included the following: God and the moral teachings of our church constituted the bottom of the pyramid, our base. Next came our Armenian identity, heritage, culture and homeland followed by relationships with our family members and friends. Then came integrity, hard work and work ethics, and finally at the top, leisure and fun. Our pyramid looked pretty solid.
“It’s a Sacrament, it heals itself”
When I started my clinical training as a professional counselor, I saw a married couple for therapy. After the intake and assessment, I discussed my findings with my clinical supervisor. Among other things, I also shared the fact that my patients were married in the Roman Catholic Church. My supervisor, a devout Christian, gave me some practical advice on how to proceed with the case and then he said, “They are married in the church. It’s a sacrament. It heals itself.” Hearing these words in a clinical setting gave me a refreshed perspective on the grace that couples receive through the sacrament of marriage. After all, the church defines the sacraments as divine mysteries that give us grace. It’s not magic, but rather humble and simple means to receive God’s grace. I evaluated the sacrament of our holy matrimony with this renewed perspective.
An Ordinary Couple with an Ordinary Set of Issues
Married life is not easy. Parenting is stressful. Pastoring a thriving community can be challenging. Add to that a handful of other life events, and you see how chaos emerges. Our life as a married couple was not free from tribulations. Adjusting to life in a new country, creating a support network, dealing with the illness and untimely loss of Annie’s father, going through unsuccessful rounds of IVF, managing extended family conflicts, and going back to graduate school are a few examples of the challenges Annie and I faced. Tensions were high, and emotions were raw. Yes, we are an ordinary couple with ordinary issues. But we did not allow those issues to define us. We chose to be intentional in the way that we treated the sacrament of our marriage. We sought professional help and spent hours working to understand each other’s experiences. The genuine quality of our love was tested by fire but in the end, we emerged as a strong couple.
The Lessons we Learned
In “the dark night of the soul” that our marriage went through, we learned the following:
- We embraced the idea that love is a choice, not a feeling. We understood that the way love is experienced and expressed varies throughout the different stages of life. There were times where either one of us could have easily said, “I am no longer in love with you.” But we did not. We did not use the early, blissful days of our relationship to serve as our emotional compass, rather we chose to love each other despite the various challenges we faced because we took our vows seriously. We stayed committed to the commitment, and not to how one of us presented ourselves in times of stress.
- We learned that we had to work on our problem-solving skills. It’s easy to assume that your partner is always wrong, and you are always right. After all, who wants to be wrong? But spending all that energy to prove your spouse wrong does not resolve any conflict. It may define who’s the winner and who’s the loser, but that will not create marital harmony. When you look at your partner and think that they are the problem, then your partner becomes a project, and no one likes to become someone else’s project. We learned to examine our conflicts and really try to understand the underlying issues and identify potential solutions. We learned that it’s okay to complain about problems, but not okay to criticize your partner. We learned to be patient and to listen to each other, always assuming that one may know something the other may not.
- We developed a deeper meaning of what love and respect is. While professing their vows during the sacrament of marriage, couples promise to love and respect one another. Love alone is not sufficient, and respect goes beyond simple gestures. We learned that respect is understanding who your partner is, their dreams and aspirations, and then striving to create an environment where each individual is free to become the person that they desire to be. Following the Divine example of love, we learned to love and respect each other despite our shortcomings and imperfections. We learned that it was okay to be vulnerable with each other because vulnerability helps to evolve and grow. We continued to show genuine interest in each other and never settle with “how was your day?” conversations. We learned how to appreciate the unique gifts and talents each of us brings to the relationship and always admire the little things that we do together, such as brewing a rich cup of coffee, balancing the family budget, delivering a consoling speech, cooking to feed 70 plus children in the church hall. Nothing goes unnoticed in our household. We made sure to surround ourselves with people who want the best for us, and I would like to believe that our children are learning a thing or two from their parents’ school of marriage.
I write this revealing article because I believe that the state of marriage is under attack. There are so many struggling couples and failed marriages and young people who are scared at the thought of marriage. But I firmly believe that there is hope. Jesus adorned the wedding in Cana of Galilee by changing the water into wine, and He can do the same in your marriage. Your struggles and fears can be the catalyst for creating the relationship that God desires for you. You have to be intentional with your words and actions, focus on creating a shared meaning of life, and letting the grace of the sacrament do its healing work.
As for us, I believe that our marriage is like a 16 year-old bottle of wine. It’s rich with texture, taste and aroma, and it will grow richer as time goes by. Happy sweet 16 to us.