Wedding RingsIf ever there was a romance that started off with a bang it was ours. It was love at first sight—the kind of love affair that many have trouble believing exists until they find themselves swept up in one of their own. We fell, rolled head over heels, and saw stars. It was cliché, yes, but also extraordinary.

I was a college student being supported by my parents. He was a handsome, charismatic rock star—adored by the masses and by me. Ours was a life of very few cares, nearly endless freedom and vibrant passion—in a word, it was bliss.

But for all the pleasure this carefree existence brought us, we soon found ourselves craving more domestic pursuits—namely the 9-5, marriage and parenthood—so we set a date and began to eagerly prepare for the big day.

During a particularly intense session of our required premarital counseling, our pastor took me aside for a little one-on-one. He seemed mildly concerned that I might not have a firm grasp on the realities of married life.

Did I understand that for all it’s unparalleled joy, our marriage would surely go through times of aridity; that marriages were ever growing and changing; and that truly great marriages were the ones comprised of two people who embraced sacrificial love? In an Academy Award worthy performance, I assured him I did. Secretly though? Well, it seemed to me that such things were perfectly fine for inferior couples but wouldn’t be necessary for a pair as in-sync as we were. I couldn’t help but wonder how this astute man of the cloth couldn’t see that, too. A story for the ages, we’d be remembered right alongside Scarlett and Rhett.

It was only as I was furiously shattering our wedding champagne flutes against our kitchen sink that it occurred to me just how very similar I really was to Scarlett O’Hara. My marriage, too, was much like the Butler/O’Hara model: full of passion, yes, but also periods of coolness; there was peaceful stillness, but also storms; and we were ever journeying over peaks, down into valleys and back up again.

We weren’t destined for a quiet, predictable, moseying type of marriage but is anyone really? For even unions of the more mild-natured come replete with highs and lows, if only because life is one long drama and to walk through it hand-in-hand is to walk through God’s refining fire, rarely a gentle process.

We’d encountered our first rough patch and despite my pastor’s warning, it took me by surprise. Nothing cataclysmic had occurred. In fact, I can’t recall anything specific ushering in our troubles at all. Perhaps we’d been working especially hard or were struggling to make ends meet. All I remember is that a slight heaviness had settled over us—a presence I found most unsettling.

I hadn’t fallen out of love with my husband, not remotely, but the intense self-sacrifice that was being asked of me during our first walk through a valley was enough to make a part of me yearn for my days of singlehood. Having naively expected the honeymoon to last forever, I was caught off-guard by the challenge of caring for someone I wasn’t currently feeling dizzyingly, head-over-heels, madly in love with. What had always come easy—nurturing my man and marriage—was, for the first time, hugely difficult without the consolation of romantic sentiment. In the blink of an eye, a bucket of ice cold water had crashed over my naïve, fanciful visions of what marriage was all about.

I was quickly realizing that the lessons God had lovingly wrapped up for me in that little package known as matrimony would be difficult ones. Over the course of my marriage I’d be asked to die to self again and again—something I was quickly finding I had no propensity for.

Many choose to flee fearing the hard times will never end—divorce is always, sadly, an option and I surely, though insincerely, threatened my fair share of times—but having been raised in a broken home I knew well that was a path of last resort. And so I stayed. Many times I stayed because I could not imagine leaving. It wasn’t separation I wanted; it was abatement; a return to the carefree, exciting days of yore.

But by the simple, passive act of staying, I learned what wiser and more experienced couples could have told me but which I would have refused to believe until I’d experienced it myself: marriage is not always fun; there aren’t always rewards for your gifts of love; and ultimately profound self-sacrifice is the name of the game. While my younger self, cheeks pinked with the fresh blooms of love, would have been terribly disillusioned by that proposition, over time I came to see that the valleys, rather than being valueless experiences we can only ever grit our teeth through, are gifts. Without these moments of marital aridity we’d never have the opportunity to choose love.

For all my youthful arrogance, there was no honor in having a passionate romance that hadn’t been worked at or sacrificed for. Up until the point when we are asked to choose love we are merely the beneficiaries of God’s grace and the recipients of His goodness. We’ve been given the gift of romantic love and, at the start, to simply bask in it is part of the offering. But eventually we are given the greatest earthly gift of all: an opportunity to become more Christ-like.

It’s easy to serve my husband when I’m overwhelmed with love for him. The challenge is to do so when we’ve been bickering, or barely speaking at all, for days, or even months, on end. But thanks to those trials I learn to pour my very self out for another—when all I really want to do is pour out myself for me; to serve others—when every bone in my body wants to balk; and to stay—when I so want to run and hide.

Somewhat tangential, perhaps, but nevertheless relevant is the fact that few manage to make it through life without encountering tragedy. Sadly, heartache is our ever-present companion in this fallen world. Poverty, sickness and death can bond a couple or destroy a marriage depending on the health of the union. A couple that has spent some time acclimating themselves to less-than-optimal circumstances, such as can be found during arid phases, is a couple that can form a united front and face hardships with confidence.

The only problem with valleys, for all their—admittedly unpleasant—benefit, is that when one isn’t prepared for them they can be alarmingly dark and frightening places. Could the high rate of divorce be, to some degree, traced back to the fact that many are caught by surprise by this phenomenon? To suddenly find your marriage lacking in romance or rife with discord without ever having been told that this might very well be a part of the natural ebb and flow of marriage would be quite disturbing indeed. How many couples jump ship before their marriage has a chance to pull out of the valley? How many marriages, having hit a rough patch, are further disturbed by a couple who despair that this is their new and permanent reality? And for how many does this despondency sap any and all will that might have been used to fight their way out of this rocky bottom?

The truth, in the wise words of Holly Pierlot, is that in God’s plan, there’s meant to be a resurrection for every crucifixion. Few married couples committed to embracing the Christian model of marriage stay in the valley interminably—though it does feel that way sometimes. In time the valley floor recedes behind us and we are mercifully lifted up to inhale the crisp, refreshing air of a marital mountain peak. The buds of love bloom once again—perhaps even more beautiful than before thanks to the effect walking the valley together has had on us.

So, for all the suffering that has been part and parcel of our traversing these mountainous trails together, I’d have it no other way. Our early love was blissful but not strong, fun but lacked depth, and true but untested. The attribute I’d so coveted as a young woman—passion—now defines my marriage; for there is nothing as passionate as knowing with absolute certainty that your husband will have a firm grasp on your hand, through good times and through bad, until death do you part.

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