December 21, 2018 was our 50th wedding anniversary. We got married during a snowstorm in Buffalo, New York at 7 in the evening. The church was filled with candlelight and poinsettias. My uncle played the organ, my sister-in-law sang and the minister learned Hebrew prayers for our combined Jewish and Christian ceremony. We spoke our own vows, which at that time was unprecedented.
It was the happiest day for me, after four years of loving Barry and having people tell us that a Jewish/Christian marriage just cannot work, we were actually doing it. I was marrying the love of my life, the man foretold to me by an inner voice when I was nine years old that said, “You will recognize this man as he will be tall, have dark hair and will be on his way to becoming a doctor. He will know how to hold you when you are crying.” At the time of our wedding we had never heard the term winter solstice. This was simply the only day that Barry could fly up from Nashville where he was in medical school.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that our marriage has been pain and challenge free, because it is far from the truth. We have definitely had our share of challenges. Three years into our marriage, Barry had an affair with my best friend at the time, which nearly ended our relationship. We had a baby die before birth that plunged me into a deep grief. Shortly after the birth of our third child, a massive earthquake hit our area. Our home, with us in it, was totally destroyed and we barely made it out alive. We were homeless for six months because of that earthquake, and living in our camper with our two little girls and our baby. We struggled financially at times and had to work through many power struggles.
And yet, throughout all of the challenges, there was this deep love and commitment. Throughout each “fight” and upset we made sure to work completely through to the love that we felt for each other. Some upsets, like Barry’s affair, took longer, and some of the upsets required professional help. But in each challenge and upset we found that there was more love on the other side.
I so clearly remember an incident thirty-eight years ago. I was in a small natural foods store shopping when a woman who was checking out her items said loudly to the checker, “I bought a very special present for my niece who got married two months ago. I did not even have time to wrap it up and send it when I got word that she was already divorced. What is wrong with young couples these days? Don’t they know that there is great power in working through differences and coming out the other side? Don’t they know that marriage is not always smooth sailing, but has its challenges too? Don’t they know that love can grow stronger working through differences?”
I came up to the counter and told the woman that I agreed with her and that I felt that commitment in marriage was very important. Of course, there are some situations in a marriage that, without resolution, will require separation, like when a partner has an addiction and refuses to go into recovery or is physically or emotionally abusive.
After leaving the store, I realized that this woman’s words touched me so deeply in my heart that they led to writing our first book, The Shared Heart: Relationship Initiations and Celebrations. In this book, we share some of the darker times in our relationship and how working through these challenges allowed us to move into a deeper love for each other. We felt we could look at each other and see not just the joy and love but also the darker parts, and were able to say, “I love the whole person that you are, the light and the shadow. And I am committed to loving you and growing together.”
Barry and I, from the very beginning, told each other that our relationship would be our priority in our lives. Yes, Barry had medical school in the first four years and I was in graduate school and some days we hardly saw each other. Yet our relationship remained the top priority in our hearts and minds. Even after having our three children, our relationship with each other remained our top priority. Yes, the children took up more time especially in the beginning and they were adorably cute and fun, yet our love for each other remained the most important.
When my mother was about to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary to my dad, I was forty-three and had just given birth to our son, our third child. I was having trouble getting back my energy and the earthquake had forced us out of our home. My mother took me aside and said, “The first thirty years of our marriage were more difficult as there was so much more stress and we had financial difficulties when your dad lost his job. Yet we kept our commitment and kept loving each other throughout all of the challenges. All of the hardships were really a gift to the relationship allowing us to grow stronger in our love. These last twenty years have been the golden years in which all we have to do is to concentrate on loving each other.” My parents were blessed with ten additional years, and my dad passed from this world two months after their 60th anniversary. My dad had totally lost his hearing, and yet somehow my mother was the only one that he could “hear” and understand. The love and devotion that my parents shared was truly inspiring to all who met them.
Barry and I are in our golden years of our relationship. We still have certain issues that we continue to work on, but for the most part there is such a feeling of love and gratitude to be together. We both feel an appreciation for how deeply we each committed to the relationship and the willingness to walk through the harder times together. A long love is truly special and well worth all the effort.
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are widely regarded as among the world’s top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of eight books, including two new books, To Really Love a Woman and To Really Love a Man. Call 831-684- 2299 for further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books http://sharedheart.org/ SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their workshop schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.