Is It Well?
“Marriage in Tough Times”
by Dr. Josh Stowe
Remember the scene. Flowers were arranged. Family and friends gathered. Everyone was dressed for the occasion. You stood at the altar holding hands. You declared your love for one another. You exchanged rings and said your vows. You promised to be together through all of life’s good times and all of life’s hard times. It was a beautiful moment.
Then something happened. Situations and circumstances we never would have expected become part of our story. There are times when money gets tight. There are job changes. There are the in-laws. Some couples struggle with infertility issues. Some couples struggle to manage a household with children. Still others are learning what it means to live in an “empty nest.” And then, there was a pandemic, an economic shutdown, and orders to shelter in place. Up and down. Back and forth. Life together shifts and moves. It twists and turns with unpredictability.
So how are you doing? How is your spouse or significant other? What challenges are you facing right now? Are there any past issues which have resurfaced? Any lingering issues that refuse to go away? While this article cannot possibly address every situation, allow me to offer a few suggestions for working through tough times. Many of these suggestions are adapted from the work of John and Julie Gottman and The Gottman Institute. You can find more of their work in books like “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.”
Start slow. There are two typical ways in which many couples address their challenges: 1) Some couples stay silent and hope things just go away or correct themselves. 2) Some couples attack issues head-on and try to wrestle something to the ground. The trouble with the first approach is that few things simply resolve themselves with time. The trouble with the second approach is that people often feel overwhelmed and they can become defensive. So when you’re working though tough times:
- Be gentle with one another and start slow.
- Pick one issue at a time and be patient.
- Ask if it’s a good time to talk or pick a time when it might be better to visit.
- Be willing to pause the conversation if the timing is off or the topic is too sensitive.
Don’t shutdown. In such challenging times, many of us are carrying more stress than we realize. It makes us tired, and it can make us a little more irritable. Then, someone you love says those dreaded words, “Can we talk?” On good days, these conversations can be challenging. When times are tough, they may become extremely difficult.
- Take a deep breath.
- Remain open to one another’s thoughts and feeling. You don’t always have to agree in order to love one another and listen with kindness.
- Avoid crossing your arms or rolling your eyes. These are defensive expressions that signal to our significant others that we’re closed-off to their input, feedback, thoughts, and feelings.
Work together. Sometimes, we can feel like the problem we’re facing is embodied in our spouse or significant other. “HE doesn’t want to talk about our finances.” “SHE doesn’t respect what I have to say.” And both may be true. But, if we see the problem as our spouse, we miss something significant. First, we lose sight of the fact that marriage partners are on the same team. They are supposed to work together to accomplish their goals. Second, when we make a conflict ABOUT YOU rather than something BEFORE US, we lose a sense of direction. In the examples given above, one can see the spouse as the problem, or one can see the issues: “how do we address financial issues” and “how do we talk to and listen to one another.” The conflict is not necessarily a person; it’s a thing.
- Identify the issue.
- Affirm the other person’s value in addressing that issue.
- Ask “how might we work on this issue?” Brainstorm ideas together.
- Identify one thing each of you are willing to try together, and see how it goes.
Remember your commitment to one another. This is a difficult point because not every relationship is healthy or doing well. There may be disappointment, frustration, hurt, loneliness, violence, or betrayal in your marriage relationship. And marriages don’t usually get better when things get harder. In fact, the opposite is more common as additional stress and strain can accentuate the pressure points and brokenness in one’s relationship. Given that these issues can be serious, special attention may be needed. Some couples may need to visit with a professional counselor or a marriage and family therapist to help them navigate the road before them. My primary point here is simply to emphasize the importance of working together to face life’s challenges. Don’t let difficulties divide you. Find ways to work together.
- Reminisce about how the two of you met and what attracted you to one another.
- When did you realize that this person was someone you wanted to marry? What qualities did you love most about him/her?
- Remember your vows. You made them as a commitment to love.
- Look for little ways to love one another. Wherever you are, start from there. Give love a chance.
When I first wrote these words, it was the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. And I was reminded of the pain and suffering of Jesus. I was reminded of the simple acts of love he demonstrated in his final days. He ate with his disciples who would forsake him. He prayed for Peter who would deny him. He was gentle with Judas who would betray him. He forgave those who executed him. There is such tremendous power in Love, and we see it in the person of Jesus. Then came Resurrection Sunday morning, even death could not deny LOVE for God is love. So regardless of the struggle and regardless of what has “died,” there is always hope because there is a LOVE which has overcome it all.