I met Jeff and Kirstin when they were in the middle of a crisis. Their 17-year-old son was in full-blown rebellion. Many nights he would never show up, and on others he would come home intoxicated. What amazed many of their friends, including me, was their ability to pull together during this challenging season. Years later their son had recovered; however, they hadn’t. Jeff and Kirstin shared that their marriage was holding on by a thread and they needed a miracle.
Recently, I have become especially attuned to the following verse (which is strangely missing from most wedding ceremony programs!): “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (1 Corinthians 7:28, NIV). During the past 25 years, Greg and I have experienced amazing marriage seasons; I mean full-blown blessings! There have also been seasons of trials and "many troubles." We have faced walking away from a ministry we loved, managing family difficulties and health scares, losing a parent to lung cancer and another to kidney failure, adopting internationally, moving again and again and overcommitting our time, to name a few.
It has always amazed me to see a couple work together through the white waters of a crisis, yet as the rapids settle, they not only realize they are in separate rafts, but are also paddling in different directions.
What are the secrets of working through a challenging season and afterward being stronger as a couple?
I discovered some significant insights by reading about the horrific events that have befallen our country over the past decades. As tragedies have occurred — from the 1995 Oklahoma City disaster to the 2001 terrorist attacks on 9/11 to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing to recent mass shootings in Nevada and Texas and California — researchers have noticed that the country bands together and unity increases.
In a 2013 article for The Atlantic, psychotherapist and author Joseph Burgo wrote that tragedy-centered camaraderie fades: “The emotional sense of unity will inevitably abate and instead of hating those evil terrorists, we'll go back to bickering.”
Although this analysis is referring to crises in our country, I believe the same may be true in some marriages when the couple is facing an external crisis. As couples face their 'trouble" together, they bond to conquer the “enemy”; however, once the crisis lets up, the couple returns to living in a pattern of everyday discord. If there were issues in the marriage prior to the crisis, they will more than likely return.
When an external crisis surfaces, couples typically move into a survival mode of sorts. It may be that they are caring for an aging parent who just entered into hospice, seeking medical treatment for a child's cancer or managing finances when a job is suddenly lost.
Here are some steps for couples in crisis to follow:
1. Recognize that you are in crisis mode. Let’s call a crisis a crisis; however, it’s also important to acknowledge that somehow and someway there will be an end to the challenging season. The frantic pace will change or the level of intensity may die down. Eventually, life will return to a slower pace and a “new normal” will become established.
2. Support each other’s self-care. Self-care will allow each of you to have a break from the crisis mode. Send your husband out for lunch or to a movie with one of his guy friends. Perhaps one or both of you needs to walk every morning or to listen to praise and worship music.
3. Turn to God and godly community. Don’t face any crisis alone. Instead, follow the advice in Galatians 6:2: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (NIV). Surround yourself with wise and supporting people. Seek God’s presence through reading the Bible and spending time in prayer.
4. Stay connected with each other afterward. As a couple grieves the results of the crisis, often each spouse will express loss and sorrow differently. Give each other space, but make sure you are staying connected by listening to each other and seeking to understand what the other is experiencing. If this means seeking professional Christian counseling to stay connected — do it! Invest your time and finances in your marriage — it is worth making your marriage a high priority.
5. Continue strengthening and evaluating your marriage. Attend a marriage seminar, join a marriage small group or ask a few close friends to walk with you in the aftermath of the crisis. (Make sure both of you agree on who those friends are.) Have regular discussions about the strength of your marriage. Ask, “Do we need to do something differently as we recover from a season of crisis?” If there was a specific marital issue before the crisis, it may resurface afterward. Be on alert and open to seeking help.
6. Make time for fun! Fun and laughter can do great things for any marriage. However, post-crisis mode, make sure to regularly schedule something fun to do with each other — see a movie, have friends over to play a game, dance or go on an adventure of some sort. These activities will infuse you and your spouse with energy and healing.
Erin Smalley serves as the strategic spokesperson for Focus on the Family's marriage ministry and develops content for that department.