Your spouse is crabby. You can't carry on a conversation without one of you storming out of the room. Or maybe a polite, yet strained, silence permeates the house. Maybe you haven't laughed—or kissed—in weeks, and too often you think, If this is what our marriage is going to be like for the next 50 years, then I don't want it!
If this describes you, stop for a moment. Chances are it's not your marriage—or even your spouse—that's making you miserable. Take a look around and notice what else is going on in your life. Are you in the midst of some career difficulty? Are you worried about a medical problem? Are you having trouble with one of your kids? Or maybe it's nothing more than life's common, everyday pressures and busyness wreaking havoc on your otherwise healthy relationship.
The Real Problem
One day over coffee, as my friend Karen sobbed and confided how desperate and miserable she and her husband felt, I began to imagine the worst. Were they in trouble with the IRS? Had one of them been caught hiding some dark secret from the other? When she finally caught her breath, she confided, "I don't know what's wrong! Our marriage is just not right."
Not knowing what else to say, I asked her what they did for fun.
"Fun?" She looked at me as if I had three heads. "Who has time for fun? All we ever do is work and take care of the baby."
I suggested she bring her son over to my house the following Saturday so she and her husband could catch a movie, something they hadn't done in years. She called me a few weeks later, giggling. "It's amazing! We're actually connecting again. All the time, I thought our marriage was bad when all we needed was time for us."
Their marriage wasn't the problem—their workload and schedule were the problem! Even though nothing was inherently wrong between them, they had grown cool toward one another. And it seemed natural to blame their unhappy feelings on each other.
Karen and her husband had forgotten to have some fun along the way! And just like the little foxes that ruined the vineyard mentioned in the Song of Songs, the weariness of their daily routine robbed them of the joy of their relationship.
"Couples who concentrate all their energy into their work, their children, their home, find when it comes time for their relationship, all that's left are the dregs," counselor and author Norman Wright told me in a recent interview. Nothing's left to give, so spouses end up snapping at each other. Wright suggests that weary couples take note of their peak energy times and try to save those for couple time. That way, they can give each other their best energy and attention.
Some friends of mine struggled with this tension. Dan and Tina both work during the day, but Dan also serves as his church's choir director. Most of the time they do a good job of protecting precious couple time—but not during the holidays. As Tina recalled, "That first year I was convinced he didn't care about me. Most nights he'd rush in after work and rush right out again—to hold emergency practices or to build sets for the Christmas pageant. And I was stuck at home with two kids."
Eventually Tina realized the situation was only temporary. Once the Christmas cantata was over, Tina had her husband's attention back. Her whole outlook on the month of December changed when she lowered her expectation for what their lives would be like. She started blaming the heavier workload instead of blaming her husband.
You vs. Me?
The stress of parenting was the fox in my marriage vineyard. A few years ago, the strain of having two teenage daughters threatened to drive my husband and me apart. As the only male in the household, Barry said he felt "hormonally outnumbered," and he emotionally distanced himself. He didn't know how to handle female mood swings, and even began thinking of me as "one of them." He didn't like being at home, which I took as evidence that he didn't like being with me.
One day when we were in the car, Barry told me how alone he felt. I assured him that he and I were a team, and our daughters wouldn't always be teenagers. Just letting him know it wasn't "three against one" encouraged him. Now his attitude is, "We can handle this," with the emphasis on we.
That idea of being in it together is crucial when it comes to the difficult child-rearing years. Marriage and family counselors Jeanette and Robert Lauer explained to me that marital satisfaction is at its lowest during those parenting years. "This is the time a couple needs to stick together and explore the best ways to remain a team," advised Robert.
Sometimes all it takes is a shift in your point of view. When things go wrong and seem to stay that way, it's easy to fear that your marriage is going down the tubes. But the Lauers suggest a shift in your thinking. Instead of seeing your mate or your marriage as "the problem," think in terms of "We have a good marriage; this is just a low spot common to every couple." Then, they advise, sit down and work out a solution.
That's what my friends Mike and Penny did. Mike travels a lot in his job, and Penny couldn't help resenting the time he spent away from the family. She'd give him the silent treatment before he left and nag him once he got home. Then Mike's boss offered some good advice: "No matter how tired you are or how many meals you eat out on the road, take your family out to dinner your first night home." Penny said the celebration dinner doesn't make Mike's absences any less painful, but it does make her feel she's Mike's priority.
Is Everything Okay?
If you still believe your fears of marital misery are well founded, use this checklist to help you determine if your marriage is good, or at least better than you think.
- How do you handle problems? "The mark of a marriage that's in good shape isn't the absence of problems, but what the couple does with a problem once it arises," Jeanette Lauer points out. Her husband adds that working through a dreary period or a time of conflict produces a confidence that a couple can draw from in the future. We made it through this trial—we can do it again.
- What is your reaction when feelings ebb? At the first hint of coolness or distance in your marriage, do you hit the panic button and decide your marriage is doomed? Watch out for all-or-nothing thinking. You're not destined for divorce court. Instead, you've been given an opportunity to remember and build on your rock-solid commitment to each other.
- Where is your focus? In his counseling sessions, Norm Wright lets couples talk about their problems for a little while, but then he turns the tables and asks, "What's going well in your marriage?" He says once couples start listing all the good things, their whole perspective changes. They often leave the office saying, "There's not that much wrong with our marriage after all!"
- Do you tap into available resources? The Lauers encourage every couple to involve themselves with family, friends, their church and the vast variety of written resources on marriage. Other resources include seeking counsel from older, mentoring couples, praying for and with each other, and asking others to pray for you. Also, cultivate your personal relationship with God.
- What do you do when you feel you're at the end of your rope?
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, "A cord of three strands is not quickly broken" (Eccl. 4:12). It's good to remember that since Almighty God is one of the strands, your marriage is stronger than either of you can fathom. When you feel you're at the end of your rope, remind yourself whose hand is holding the other end.
In his Song of Songs, King Solomon addressed the problem of foxes that ruin vineyards. He knew the problem wasn't bad vineyards, but rather the annoying creatures that destroy the grapes. His kingly advice was to catch them and let the vineyard continue to flourish. That's how it is with vineyards. That's how it is with marriage, too.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of several books, including Honey, They're Playing Our Song (Multnomah).
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or email@example.com.