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Making marriage work…from the 50 year perspective

Published on: December 29, 2011

Paul and Marsha Sasville. Melody Jameson Photo

Paul and Marsha Sasville. Melody Jameson Photo


SUN CITY CENTER – “I now pronounce you……”

Fifty years ago this month, in southern California, Paul and Marsha Sasville pledged their lasting commitments, heard those words and officially commenced a happily-anticipated life together.

This year, on the weekend before Christmas, the Sasvilles commemorated that event in Community Hall here, celebrating an increasing rarity in 21st century America: marriage enduring a half century.

Surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, they ate and danced and schmoozed, inviting everyone present to join them. They fed each other pieces of an elaborate wedding cake made from scratch by an artistic daughter-in-law. They swung around the dance floor to strains of “their song” sung by their youngest son, a dedicated musician. They introduced their eldest, a West coast graphics artist with a long list of credits. They joked about the years gone by.

In their unpretentious, down-to- earth style, they seemed to exhibit an idyllic life together; achieving the golden wedding anniversary after careers completed, children launched, retirement to comfortable digs in a much touted senior community – the American dream in spades.

Well, not exactly.

The challenges of marriage

It’s probably the most difficult, demanding and potentially damaging relationship known to man – or to woman. In the U.S., more than a third of those attempted fail. The psychological, physical or financial destruction left in the wake can impact generations.

Yet, in most of the world’s societies, throughout history, succeeding generations have continued to try, even to the extent of experimenting with same gender and multi-partner unions.

For, when successful on both partners’ terms, a marriage of individuals committed to giving support and succor unceasingly, to friendship and companionship no matter what, to picking up and piecing together broken shards when the relationship shatters, can be the most rewarding, most treasured of life’s experiences.

That forever promise leads couples, hand in hand, to simple ceremonies and fancy events every day of every month, every year. Regardless of the beginning, though, the journey to realizing that promise is more likely to be rough than smooth. After all, proof of such devotion comes only out of the turmoil of trouble.

Rocky roads are not ice cream

In 1961, when Marsha and Paul Sasville were married, experts would have given the couple little chance of a lasting union, much less a mutually satisfying one. She was18, he was 20 years old; deemed capable under the law, but not necessarily ready for the requirements, restrictions, responsibilities of marriage. And there were more strikes than youthfulness against them.

Both had come from broken homes, badly broken homes. Both were raised primarily by grandparents because their parents were so far off the grid, either emotionally or physically among the missing, on a regular basis. The two sets of grandparents, of the Great Depression era, unknown to each other, were responsible enough to provide life’s basic necessities, but not a lot more.

For Marsha, in particular, childhood in the unglamorous venues of Hollywood, could be torturous. Exposed to a long succession of her late mother’s boyfriends and husbands from a young age, she remembers learning to escape to a bathroom, locking herself in for protection. Momentarily out of reach, she would retreat mentally, she recalls today, to “green, grassy fields, rolling into the distance, where there were people dressed in white and it was a happy place.” For years, she adds, she thought that place was only a figment of her imagination.

She grew into her teen years, dark-haired and diminutive. For her, high school was a better place, a place to achieve and build confidence. She was a cheerleader, made good grades, developed a love of dance, was a popular member of the student body. She was graduated with two ambitions: “I wanted to be a ballet dancer and then a wife and mother.”

Determined to follow her dreams, confident in her own resourcefulness, she contacted her biological father, asking only for money to get to New York City. He turned her down flat. “He said he had two boys to raise,” she relates. Young Marsha found a job as a secretary in a large southern California corporation.

Meanwhile, Paul, surviving a less than ideal childhood and skinning through his teen years, found work in the same corporation. His was a night job; he was on his way to becoming a machinist.

They were introduced by a mutual acquaintance in October. “I was in lust,” Paul admits as he talks about the tiny, brown-eyed beauty he immediately began dating, soon developing an increasing attitude of possession. He was, he acknowledges, ready to fight anyone who looked at her.

For her part, Marsha says of those few weeks in late 1961, “I knew clearly what I didn’t want in a man.” But what she did want was not so clarified. Among her criteria were that he be working and have a car. Paul Sasville met that standard.

They were married in a small church ceremony within three months of their meeting.

Challenges come home

Their first decade together, they indicate, well might be dubbed War of the Sasvilles. They battled constantly. Marsha thought her husband unreasonable, “controlling.” Paul was not equipped to deal with the fallout of her traumatic childhood. Love, they were learning, does not conquer all.

One day, a short time into the marriage, Paul says “I lost my temper, threw something across the room.” It was not directed at his wife; it was strictly an outburst of impatience, he adds. But, Marsha fled. He found her hiding, shuddering, under a piece of furniture in another part of the house. The violence of his raised arm had triggered for her a terrifying flashback. It would not be the last time he wrapped her in a hug, trying to calm the involuntary trembling.

During that first decade, their three surviving children would arrive and they would face two miscarriages. There would be several job-related moves, as Paul’s career blossomed into sales management for the tool industry, overseeing large teams and big territories. Each time, she, too, found a new job, made a fresh start. By 1971, craving the stability of constancy, Marsha concluded she could not go on; she decided to take the children and leave. Her announcement was devastating.

“We had a big house. I had a boat. We had motorcycles,” Paul recalls. But the toys that money could buy were not what it was about. Shattered, the 30-year-old sales success story was on his knees – literally. “I am losing my children, my woman,” he realized, “my wife is going to leave me.” And for the first time in many years, Paul Sasville says he prayed. Scared, with nowhere to turn, “I got on my knees and asked God to help.”

Before making the split final, they agreed to try a marriage counselor. Calling a friend for a recommendation, they were steered to a local church pastor. Prior to keeping an appointment with him, however, they visited the church and immediately were welcomed into, caught up in a vibrant, enveloping congregation. “We never did keep that counseling appointment,” Paul notes.

For them, it was the right place at the right time, a place to undertake the long journey toward fulfilled spiritual needs, to help heal emotional wounds, to putting psychological problems to rest and behind them. Independently, each responded to an altar call for commitment; he down one aisle, she down another.

 Over time, the faith discovered in adulthood deepened, they say. They began formal religious education, training for a ministry. They instituted daily Bible reading, at home, covering every book in the King James version, repeatedly. And, ultimately, they began conducting marriage counseling themselves, bringing to these efforts the understanding gained from first-hand experience.

Looking back, Paul says he came to recognize that in striving to provide materially for his family, “I was putting work before everything and everyone else, including God.” Marsha adds she was able to accept “he’s the head, I’m the heart.” And, after listening to the testimony of others, she decided those green, grassy fields of her childhood retreats were more vision than fiction.

There would be additional family moves up and down the West Coast, then eastward, in concert with job demands. There would be more disappointments, some arising from job loss in economic downturns. And, one of the three offspring would skate dangerously close to the edge. None of it, however, would lay the Sasvilles low again. There’s always the chance of crisis, they allow, but there’s also always the promise springing from conviction.

Asked the customary question — their secret for maintaining a long, happy marriage — as they observed their 50th anniversary this month, they answer almost in unison: “With God, there are no deal breakers. We were meant to be together.” And they aren’t referring solely to each other.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson