Every couple face things they'd prefer to avoid-job losses, severe illnesses, financial reversals, deaths of close family members and many other such events. We call them crises, roadblocks, setbacks or tragedies, and none of these are terms of endearment. That's because these storms of life place immense stress on us—and they also test our marriages.
When crisis strikes, some couples not only weather the storm, they emerge stronger and more united than before. Others struggle through the pain, and some marriages are destroyed by the crisis. So what makes the difference?
It mostly comes down to what spouses do during the crisis itself. Do they give comfort and support to each other, or do they withdraw emotionally or cast blame? Do they allow friends or family members to extend support or do they isolate themselves from outside help? Do they cling to a spiritual life or do they rely, instead, on "their own understanding" and abandon their faith?
How you react during a crisis is important for the survival of your marriage. But the real battle is won or lost before the crisis occurs. A marriage that crumbles under intense pressure is similar to a china cup with a hairline crack. While the cup is sitting on a table, the crack goes unnoticed. However, when the cup is held up to the light, the tiny crack becomes visible. The light doesn't cause the crack, it only illuminates a fracture that already exists. External crises are like the light, illuminating difficulties that lie under the surface of a marriage. So while the outside influence (the crisis) may seem like the problem, the real problem is what's going on inside the marriage before the crisis strikes.
Marriages that survive share at least three characteristics. First, the couples are committed to marriage as a sacred institution. Their commitment brings stability and provides staying power even during the most severe setbacks. Every marriage needs this resilience, but true survival requires more than simply bedrock commitment to an institution. If this is the only characteristic working in a marriage's favor, the relationship can easily become lifeless and devoid of emotion.
Second, survivors are committed to marriage as a relationship. I have friends whose daughter was severely depressed, even suicidal. "We felt so helpless," John told me. "When things were at their darkest, Pam and I found ourselves holding each other tight. Through tears, I told her things may get a lot worse for us, but we'll survive even if it does." John was telling Pam he loved her, no matter what might happen. He was committed to more than the institution of marriage; he was committed to Pam.
The words were comforting, but John wasn't telling Pam anything she didn't already know. "I knew we were in this together, regardless of what might happen," she explained, "because of the way John and I both lived throughout our marriage."
For more than 20 years, John and Pam had practiced being sensitive to one another's needs. They had guarded their relationship against time pressures and striving for material success. And they had practiced mutuality—giving and receiving in roughly equal measure over the years. They shared a goal of looking for and doing whatever was in the best interest of their relationship, even if it meant sacrificing some personal comfort. John and Pam survived the pain of their daughter's depression, and their marriage was made even stronger because of it.
There's a third characteristic that enables couples to weather the big storms of life: a vital faith and commitment to God. Vital faith appreciates "the big picture." Life doesn't operate according to our agenda. Pain comes to everyone, and we learn some of the greatest truths from things we wouldn't choose for ourselves. God uses personal experiences to develop our ability to deal with the crises of life. By learning to trust him in the little storms, we are prepared to trust him in the big ones.
Married Christians have to guard against the "Teflon mentality"—an expectation that pain, stress and hardship can't really touch us but will magically slide right off. It's true that Christians are not of the world, but we are definitely in it. We do feel pain and stress. But we don't have to be overwhelmed by them.
I don't totally understand the "all things" verses in Scripture: "all things work together for good" (Rom. 8:28) and "give thanks for all things" (Eph. 5:20), but I believe them. God does not cause bad things, but he allows painful and unjust experiences. And there is a useful purpose in them. The trials of life may cause us pain, but they refine our faith in a way nothing else can (1 Pet. 1:6-7).
It's time to face some facts: Life is hard, and you and your spouse are not exempt. It's not an issue of if, it's a matter of when. And when the storms arrive, they will stress your marriage.
But here's a second fact: You can survive the storms—and even be strengthened in the process. You can do it by winning the battle before it begins by strengthening your commitment to your marriage, demonstrating that commitment by building your relationship with your spouse, and growing a faith that embraces the big picture. God always has a future for his people.
Donald R. Harvey, Ph. D., is a marriage therapist and a professor of marriage and family therapy. He and his wife, Jan, live with their two children near Nashville, Tennessee.
Copyright © 1996 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.