The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

I had a lot to learn about having a happy marriage

My husband photographs people for a living. In more than two decades of working with him, I've talked with hundreds of couples planning their weddings. Most people enter marriage with expectations, dreams, and a mixture of joy and fear of the unknown. I carried this to an extreme and entered marriage with a fantasy.

When I was 17, my best friend and I went to the mall to have a photograph taken with Santa Claus. He was an old man with a real beard and his own long white hair. We sat on his lap, a helper snapped the photograph, and my friend bounced up.

Before I could bounce up, Santa asked, "What do you want for Christmas?"

I looked him square in the eye. "Peace, happiness, and contentment."

Yes, a tall order from a 17-year-old, but that was me, and it was Santa.

Ironically, I left that conversation with Santa, walked into a music store, and met the young man who would become my husband. The timing wasn't lost on me. From the start, I saw this man as a gift, and I went to the wedding altar one year and two months later, expecting the same three things: Peace, happiness, and contentment. This was, after all, the list I'd given Santa.

Somehow, I thought making a life together would be easier than it turned out to be. From the start, Loyd and I struggled. We argued over the same things most couples argue over: money, housework, sex, in-laws, time, children, communication, intimacy. In the worst moments, we threatened to leave and even threw the word divorce around.

But one day I looked Loyd straight in the eye and said, "Are you ever really going to leave me?"

"No." His jaw was set.

"Well, I'm not going to leave you either, so how about we start trying to be nice to each other." Somehow we finally figured out that that being nice to each other would increase our happiness.

Wanting a Happy Marriage

Even with the commitment to be nice, I grumbled and complained. I blamed Loyd for my feelings—feelings I thought I couldn't control. In my eyes, he caused my jealousy. If he was attentive enough, if he ignored other girls enough, if he loved me enough, I'd feel secure, and the jealousy would evaporate. I blamed him for my depression, my loneliness, my boredom. If he were more fun-loving, expressive, interesting, entertaining, then I'd be happy.

Our marriage was functioning. We were making a living, keeping a home, raising children, going to church. But as an old Hank Williams' song laments, I was "so lonesome I could die." I thought I'd married the wrong man. I longed for my soul mate. Between my ears echoed, What about me? I wasn't where I wanted to be. I wasn't loved like I wanted to be loved. I wasn't living the life I thought I'd be living.

Have you heard the saying that sympathy is never wasted except when you give it to yourself? Well, I've wasted a lot of sympathy on myself over the years. I was, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, a "selfish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world would not devote itself to making me happy."

I thought married life would be blissful. I learned it has its moments of bliss, but it also has its troubles. Reluctantly, I admitted that a good relationship is work. I pointed this out to my husband who already seemed to know it. We both wanted a happy marriage, so together we set to work. We went to our minister for counseling and started to make changes. We went to a Marriage Encounter Weekend. We read books and learned new attitudes, actions, and words to grow our loving feelings. Old, natural patterns will persist unless serious effort is made to change them, so we planned and worked for change.

Finding Peace

Love is the most powerful force in the universe. It's the force that created everything, and it recreated our marriage. We chose to connect with each other by generously sharing our lives. We ate together. We embraced. Hugs and kisses said hello and good-bye. We shared the things we learned and experienced each day when we came back together. And when we really connected, we wondered together, and we sought wisdom. We offered our presence and full attention to the other, bathing each other in kindness, laughter, and touch that told us we were wanted and cherished. We worked to really see, acknowledge, and listen.

My old fantasy of marriage has turned into a realistic hope. My husband wasn't a gift from Santa, but he was a gift from God. And God keeps teaching us how to build a good love relationship. We've learned that we have to work at it, because love is something we do. Love is making sacrifices. It's listening when we want to talk. It's giving our time and energy to another. It's empathizing, appreciating, affirming. It's refusing to blame, refusing to accuse, and resisting feeling like a victim.

As the old sayings go: The happiest people don't necessarily have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything they have, and Contentment is not getting what we want, but being satisfied with what we have. Some people might call this settling; I call it finding peace. And every facet of peace requires effort and diligence. This peace isn't only getting along, but it is also having sufficient potential to meet deep needs. In my 34-year-old marriage, I've found happiness, peace, and contentment; they just look different from what I expected. If I could tell those couples planning their weddings one thing, I'd smile and say, "Marriage is the hardest thing I've ever done. But it's also the best."

Sherry Van Zante married Loyd when she was 18. Thirty-four years later, marriage is the hardest, but also the best, thing she's ever done. She and Loyd live on the central coast of California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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