He slid three pamphlets across his desk toward us.
“You have to pick one of these for your pre-wedding retreat.”
They all looked the same. Glossy photos, smiling couples, cheesy quotes.
I was tired from this tedious meeting of wedding planning and a long day of work. I really didn’t care which one we picked.
“Most couples I work with didn’t like the first one. I don’t know anything about the second. But the third one’s supposed to be good. It’s long, but it’s worth it if you can make the dates work.”
I looked at my fiance. He shrugged. I shrugged, too.
“I guess we’ll take the third.”
. . .
The terrifying thing about hindsight is how arbitrary certain decisions can seem.
We picked that retreat because the dates worked.
Yet after the obvious impact of our parents’ long-lasting marriages, I am certain that nothing has influenced our own marriage more than the choice we made that sunny afternoon in the deacon’s office.
When we picked one brochure instead of the other two.
We signed up for the Engaged Encounter and thought nothing more of it, after checking one more box off our wedding to-do list. Several months later, we tossed overnight bags in the trunk and drove through the winter dark to a tiny retreat center. The team couples waved as we approached, offered to carry our bags from the car, led us into the dimly lit and charmingly run-down old convent.
We had no idea what to expect.
What happened next is something that has happened more times than I can count. One by one, engaged couples trickled downstairs into the basement meeting room, choosing chairs two by two, joking nervously to each other, waiting to begin. Then the team couples opened their overstuffed binders and began to talk.
They began to tell us their stories.
. . .
Nearly a decade later, I am convinced that this is the brilliance behind the pedagogy of Engaged Encounter. One couple sharing deeply from their own experience invites other couples to do the same with each other.
Unsurprisingly, this mirrors the best advice I ever received for writing: dig deep into the well of your own particularity, and you will tap into the aquifer of human experience.
Because sharing stories is what transforms us. It creates channels for communication. It changes choices into commitments.
I guarantee that if you asked that fiance-turned-husband and me, what was the best advice we heard on our Engaged Encounter weekend? We couldn’t tell you a single wise word.
But we could tell you handfuls of stories from the team couples. That hysterical story from the couple in their sixties about the time their grandchild almost discovered them in flagrante delicto. That heart-breaking story from the couple in their thirties about the death of the husband’s best friend from high school. That eye-opening story from the newly married couple about how natural family planning wasn’t what they expected.
All of their stories nudged us to think differently about our own relationship. And when the team couples passed around the volunteer sheets at the end of the weekend, we looked each other and shrugged, why not?
Over our years as a team couple, we have sat in front of more engaged couples than I can count. We have told stories about sex and parenting and fighting over our finances. We have told stories about work and temperaments and disagreeing over household chores. We have told stories from the young, tender side of marriage.
We have told the only stories we know.
. . .
Nine years ago today, we said “I do.”
Nine years is a blink in a marriage’s story. I have learned only enough to know that marriage must be practiced daily, humbly, and gratefully. It is an everyday sacrament.
Once again our anniversary arrives in the midst of a maelstrom swirling around marriage. Once again no one lacks for strong opinions about the present state and future prospects of marriage.
But once again beyond the headlines, the everyday love and work of marriage go on as before. And this is the story I want to hear. How real couples make marriage work.
Because even though marrying my spouse remains the most important choice of my life, it also remains a choice to be renewed each morning.
It is the story we are writing together.
Today we will celebrate by telling stories. With each other, with our kids, with our families and friends who faithfully remember this day, too. Stories about the wedding and the reception and the honeymoon. Stories we laugh about every year and maybe, if we’re lucky, a new gem of a story that we’ve never discovered.
Nine years into marriage, I am not sure I have a single piece of advice about the institution thereof. But I have plenty of stories. Stories from couples married decades longer, stories from every Engaged Encounter we have served, stories that have shaped our marriage in defining ways.
Sharing stories is what keeps our marriage alive. For ourselves, for our families, and for all those we’re called to serve.
What is your story? Who needs to hear it?
. . .
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