Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. (Lao Tzu)
For anyone who has ever been in a long-term relationship, you know that love changes over time. My husband and I are college sweethearts and have been married for eight years. I never anticipated getting married so young, but I was so in love and couldn’t have been any more sure. He was, and is, the best guy I know.
And still, marriage is the best and the hardest thing I have ever done. When we were dating, we had lots of challenging things going on in our family lives, but we as a couple felt solid and connected. Then we got married, and that dynamic shifted dramatically. Where the chaos once existed outside of us, a storm all of a sudden arrived between us. This insidious little thing called vaginismus (a sexual pain disorder) arrived in our lives on our wedding night and has been an unwelcome companion in our marriage ever since.
When we were dating, our physical relationship was one of my favorite ways that we connected. His kisses were electric, sending energy coursing all the way down to my toes. I felt safe and I wanted more. I was so sure that growing together in this part of our relationship was going to be fun and exciting. I naively thought that we could figure out how to avoid some of the “dry spells” that other married couples went through.
Clearly, I received a very rude awakening when I realized that one of the things that used to be one of the best parts of our relationship was about to become the most complicated.
When you spend years in doctor’s offices, physical therapy appointments, and counseling sessions trying to figure out what is wrong with your body, so much of the romance of sex slips away. Even fooling around or extended kisses can feel like they come with baggage. Even though all of those appointments were necessary and worth it, they were heavy and costly. The 19-year-old me who felt free to be swept up in romance felt like she died a long time ago and I came to resent her. A silly girl who got swept up in all the warm fuzzy feelings while she danced around her bathroom to a love song wasn’t prepared for the decimation a diagnosis like this could bring.
I am grateful that being deeply loved by my husband gave me the strength to keep going, to not stop looking for answers and for help. I am grateful that loving my husband deeply gave me the courage to look at my pain and my excruciating vulnerability in the midst of all of this. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t feel distant or hopeless on many, many days because we certainly did. However, we kept finding small ways to choose each other.
Last month, we celebrated ten years as a couple and had already decided to get dressed up for date night. As I got ready, I put on my playlist of love songs, many that were woven into our history as a couple. Without realizing it, I started to sing and dance along to song after song. Even as I tried on multiple dresses and realized that I felt beautiful in so many of them, it dawned on me that it was because I believed in the beauty of that day. I felt worthy of that sexy, red dress. I felt worthy of the beauty I held and still offered. I felt worthy of celebrating surviving all we had been through and how far we had come. I felt worthy of being swept up in the romance of a love song.
While much of my naivety about my physical relationship with my husband has died off, choosing to be swept up in the innocence of believing a love song again took a lot of courage for me. It’s vulnerable for me to go back to that place and to feel those feelings again. That small victory was proof that my heart is coming back to life. When you have days (or weeks or months) where you’re not sure if that will happen because life is just that painful, believing in the hope of new life is brave.
Sometimes in our life, in our dealings with our hardest things, we don’t get one big victory. Sometimes, we work as hard as we’ve ever worked for little victories that we get to string together that will eventually reveal the big victory. I see the realities of that all over our marriage. The small victories matter deeply, and I’m learning to dismiss them less. I need the small victories, for they have much to teach me.
Nicole Clifton is a Phoenix-native, a voracious reader, an Enneagram 8, a passionate advocate against injustice, and committed to being a life-long learner. Her educational background is in psychology and was a Resident Director at Grand Canyon University for 8 years. As aa RD, she loved mentoring and getting to engage with college students about a variety of topics such as embracing diversity, LGBTQ awareness, healthy relationships & boundaries, sex trafficking, body image, forgiveness, and the power of vulnerability & owning our stories. Nicole and her husband have been married for 8 years and are figuring out how to chase their dreams together. Read more about Nicole here or watch her TEDx talk here.