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Marriage, like all worthwhile endeavors, takes effort to be successful. As the Oscar-nominated film Marriage Story shows, even good people struggle in marriage, for very understandable reasons. While all marriages have their challenges, every once in a while you have one of those sun-shining-through-the-clouds moments that makes it all meaningful. You hear a song on the radio; you see a scene in a film; or you read a passage in a book, and it gets it. This—this is what makes marriage meaningful for me!

I think married folk, no matter how long we’ve been married, need to hold onto those moments over the years. I have a few that rise to the top, like the time my Pandora station played an instrumental version of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” while I was laboring with our second child (we had danced to that song at our wedding). Or the time my husband made a last-minute decision to invite me to join him to the karaoke stage when his name was called for Goldfinger’s “Here In My Bedroom,” and we surprised each other by how far we knocked it out of the park. “When I wake up tomorrow, will you still feel the same? / . . . will you have changed? / cuz I’ll still feel the same!”—words that can seem as relevant to a one-night stand as to a ten-year marriage.

I decided to invite others to share their moments of marital meaning in art, word, or song. I was surprised by some of the responses.

“I’m afraid I can’t think of any,” one friend wrote back. “I feel like the lack of good art about marriage is very sad and noticeable. To me, it all seems to be about the romance leading up to marriage, but not unpacking ‘the happily ever after.’”

A half a dozen shared their experiences, which I’ve decided to share here. Perhaps in sharing these moments we could help each other navigate our relationships with more meaning and less stress.

Pas de Deux

I wasn’t even married yet when I first saw the scene that epitomized for me the kind of love that inspires lifelong commitment. I was in Lincoln Center, watching the New York City Ballet perform The Nutcracker. In New York, Tchaikovsky’s iconic music is accompanied by the choreography of George Balanchine, and the marriage of their work is divine. I watched Balanchine’s Nutcracker on Netflix a couple of years ago, and seven years and two kids into marriage, the same scene struck me again.

It’s near the end of the little girl’s visit to dreamland. The very hospitable Sugar Plum Fairy shares a personal dance with her partner the Chevalier, before sending everyone home. What transpires is a stunning pas de deux, the French term for a dance between a man and a woman. Sugar straight up leaps into the air and knows her man will catch her. Her confidence is proportionate to his support for her. And it’s gorgeous. —Mary Rose 

Jane Austen

I have always really enjoyed Jane Austen novels. The men in her stories are far from perfect, and she points out their obvious flaws when she describes them. The women in her stories represent a wide range of different personalities and, just like the men, have their own strengths and weaknesses. However, her characters, especially the wiser ones, take the good with the bad when choosing a suitable spouse. Most of the characters would rather marry for love than money or status. For the wisest of her characters, this is the ultimate goal. And married couples in her stories are never portrayed in fairy-tale relationships. The road to marriage for Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, for example, could not have been rockier: 

“From the very beginning—from the first moment, I may almost say—of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form the groundwork of the disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immovable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.”

Elizabeth Bennett to Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice (Spoiler alert: she marries him despite all the flaws she points out in this quote.)

Their struggles are as clear to the reader as the love they share, but they work through their differences. It is so real and beautiful to me! —Emily

A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, tells the story of a young husband who comes back to stay by his wife’s side after he dies in a car accident. It’s a beautiful, sometimes frustrating meditation on loss—for instance, Mara’s character spends five minutes of screen time sitting on the floor, grief-eating an entire pie. The ghost watches her sadly, but he has his own work to do to accept what’s happened to their family. For me, and I suspect for most married women, my relationship with my husband is the deepest, most intimate connection I’ve ever had with another human being. And yet from the moment we met, our marriage also has been destined to end some day, hopefully many years into the future. We have to hold on tight to one another while recognizing that we will have to let go eventually. When I watch this movie I’m reminded that we belong to each other, that love outlasts death, but that my husband is not mine to keep. —Maggie

Kitty and Levin

I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina while I was dating the man I knew I would someday marry, and although Anna’s marriage and illicit relationship with Count Vronsky did anything but assuage my fears concerning marriage, the marriage between their foil couple, Levin and Kitty, gave me much consolation and inspiration. They have a true and pure love that eventually leads to marriage, and when their “honeymoon phase” ends, they find that they have to really work at their marriage to keep it strong. Regrets over loss of independence, jealousy, and boredom creep into their relationship. But their marriage is beautiful precisely because it is not always easy and because they fight for each other—repeatedly. I have always found this realistic portrayal of marriage to be reassuring, especially when I’m wrestling with the more mundane moments in marriage. Levin and Kitty help me to remember that the heart of marriage is found in sacrificial love and trust. —Madeleine 

The Painted Veil

I saw this movie, based on the novel of the same name, by W. Somerset Maugham, in high school, and it left a lasting impression on me. It was the first movie I can remember watching that showed true love in all it’s messiness and not just the fantasy of “happily ever after.” It shows healing and forgiveness and the resilience that I have found to be absolutely necessary for a marriage to work. When things get tough in marriage, I think of this movie, and it helps me soften my heart and find the courage to work through things. —Emily

Till We Have Faces

The myth of Cupid and Psyche has been one of my favorites from the time I was a young girl. It’s also had a special place in my relationship with my husband: when we were newly dating, we visited an exhibition featuring Rodin’s masterpiece of this iconic romance, and C.S. Lewis’s rendering of the ancient tale in Till We Have Faces ranks as a favorite book for both of us. The book grapples brilliantly with the terrifying and often elusive nature of love.

C.S. Lewis writes from the perspective of Psyche’s overly-protective sister, Queen Orual, who questions the goodness of Psyche’s inscrutable god-husband Cupid, and pressures her to tragically betray his trust. “And we said we loved her,” she complains to her mentor. “And we did,” he responds, but, he continues, “She had no more dangerous enemies than us.” I love the way this passage captures the paradox at the heart of the story—the corruption of love through fear. Psyche foils her sister’s bitter doubts with courage, perseverance, and enduring faith in both Cupid and Orual’s goodness. This distinction between love and doubt resonates personally for my husband and me.

Having been married almost 14 years, we’ve both seen one another at our worst, and those moments can be agonizing—for both of us. But we’ve learned that if we hold onto faith in each other—in our mutual ability to grow and forgive—we often discover a new depth of love that surprises and delights us. In fact, I don’t believe love can be experienced profoundly without precisely these moments: when our worst and most dreadful flaws are exposed—when we take off our masks and, as the title suggests, reveal our true faces. To be loved then, is to be truly loved. —Ana

Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. For me, it’s the image of Eve, tucked so closely in the embrace of God the Father that reminds me that God holds in the center of his heart the good of man and woman, created for one another. The image as a whole shows the stark difference of man and woman, but how, in God’s mind, one cannot exist without the other. The way God reaches out to pursue Adam while continuing to embrace Eve reminds me that a higher power is the essential center of my marriage. —Regina 


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