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A New Year's Leap of Faith

True love is what's left after the candles have burned out, the roses have died and the chocolates are gone.
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The holiday season has ended, and I see newly engaged couples everywhere, exuding romance and optimism as they look forward to married life.

They have no idea what they are in for.

My husband and I joke about going back in time to interrupt our first date with a slideshow of our shared future. We imagine our younger selves reeling in disbelief at images from the years to come, and we guffaw.

He and I were practical people, or so we thought. We figured if we could survive the wedding planning, the marriage would be a snap. In the months surrounding our engagement, we discussed all the Big Issues, including our communication styles, religious values and household finances. We bought a house together. We talked about child-rearing, at least a little. We thought we were prepared for what was to come.

However, since neither of us had lived with a romantic partner before -- or perhaps because we hadn't been adults that long -- we just had no sense of the messy rhythm of daily life.

I imagined that we would talk sincerely and respectfully about money. However, it did not occur to me that these conversations would focus on plumbing and brake lines more often than clothing budgets or vacation destinations.

I believed we'd come to love one another's families, but had not contemplated that this might mean we would have to forgive them their flaws right along with our beloved's.

I expected my husband to be honest, loyal and true to me. I never considered that at times this would require him to let me know when I was full of it.

I couldn't have told this to my 27-year-old self, but the perfect moments in our married life rarely have involved candlelight, flowers or candy. I've learned that true love is what's left after the candles have burned out, the roses have died and the chocolates are gone.

The first time I knew my husband was the real thing was a sweltering summer night when my car overheated and died in a grocery store parking lot. It was late, the neighborhood was iffy, and my Knight in Shining Armor actually wore a sweat-soaked undershirt when he arrived to help with my jumper cables. It was the first time I was in trouble that I didn't call my Dad.

The truth is that life changes you, and it also changes what love looks like.

True love is messy, just like life. It involves squabbling as you sign your first mortgage and hugging in the intensive care unit as you hold your premature baby. You find it in the support you give and get during knee replacements and power outages and funerals, when you file taxes and receive parking tickets and get passed over for a dream job, while you wait for biopsy results and for the stock market to recover.

True love requires forgiveness. Sometimes you will disappoint your beloved, and yourself. It's how you move past lapses in judgment, loyalty or kindness that will make or break your relationship.

True love requires courage. Once you give your heart to someone, it's much easier for them to break it.

And true love requires staying power, because when the going gets tough, that's when your love is probably needed most.

I saw true love when my husband was up to his ankles in sewage in our flooded basement. I felt it when he told our 5-year-old daughter that our beloved old cat had died, and a decade later when he sobbed in the waiting room during her ankle surgery. And I experienced it when he stood holding my hand in hospice, bearing unflinching witness as my father drew his last breath.

The common wisdom is that we should never enter marriage expecting our partners to change. That is only true up to a point. Sometimes love can do more than change people; it can strengthen us, transform us and help us grow into our best selves.

When my husband and I got engaged, perhaps I did not know enough to imagine what the future really would hold, but at least I knew enough to take a leap of faith. I hope all the newly engaged couples will hold tight to one another's hands and jump in.

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