Family & Education

To the Valentines Struggling to Hang On

Marriages, just like individuals, go through difficult seasons in life
BY Bernadette Bonanno TIMEFebruary 7, 2023 PRINT

This isn’t a lovey-dovey Valentine’s Day story. This is a shout-out to all the valentines struggling to hang on.

For 30 years, my husband, Mike, and I have worked with couples preparing for marriage. Over the years, as we aged and morphed, the topics we discussed with the couples morphed as well.

These days, after brief introductions, the first thing I say to the couples is this: “If you are in this for life, I mean through thick and thin, then before you tie the knot, you owe it to yourself to ask your fiancé, ‘Are you in this for life?’”

Abruptly, the room gets serious, eyes widen, and I continue: “Ask each other: What if we can’t enjoy the lifestyle we hope for? What if I gain 30 pounds? What if I go through seasons of illness or depression? What if I get in an accident and my personality and body changes? What if we can’t have children or lose a child? Before we tie the knot, at this point, I need to know. Are you in this for life?”

Of the many lifelong marriages we know, we don’t know one that hasn’t endured very difficult seasons. Maybe that’s because every individual life goes through periods of “rocking and rolling.” So put two lives together, and it’s no wonder.

Our culture promotes the idea that there’s a program, a fix, or a pill to solve any problem. Believing this nonsense, we assume we’re different from other couples when struggles arise. We “wear makeup” to hide our blemishes.

Meanwhile, if we were a fly on the wall in any house on the block, we’d be comforted knowing that it’s not always, as Mr. Rogers sang, “a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

We think: “There must be something wrong with us! Maybe I married the wrong person. I’ll get it right the next time.” But the next time, we may find we’re reading the same book—it’s just a different chapter.

While encouraging the couples to work together as a team in all areas of marriage and family life, we’re brutally honest with them and attempt to debunk this cultural narrative.

Wrapping up our time together, we say: “Marriage can be your greatest blessing and a lot of fun. Be intentional about covering your bases—financially, physically, spiritually, sexually, and socially. But at some point, you will feel like you’re up a creek without a paddle. Try not to be surprised. Hang on and welcome yourselves to the ‘Lifelong Marriage Club.’”

Contrary to what I initially expected, the look on the couples’ faces is one of relief.

So to any valentines floating in rocky waters, before you “jump ship,” look around. You’ll probably find a paddle. Start rowing.

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Bernadette Bonanno lives in Albany, N.Y.
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