When I was in graduate school, I read about an experiment that has stayed with me through 21 years of marriage. The researchers put two rats in a cage, then created stress in the rats by sending a mild current through the cage's floor. Not surprisingly, the rats attacked each other.
High levels of stress cause rats, and people, to turn on one another. Too many couples, when confronted with a stressful situation, fight each other rather than attack the problem. This is a formula for self-protection, a natural tendency often brought on by stress. But marriages suffer as a result.
The good news is we don't have to act like rats when we're under stress. We are living souls, made in God's image and moved by his Spirit. God has given us the capacity to reason, to express our emotions and hear those of our mate and to find meaning in the darkest corners of life.
The Power to Choose
When a college basketball team with a losing record comes from behind late in the game to beat a nationally ranked team, we see the effect of human will. In the newspaper the next morning, sports writers will talk about courage, perseverance and character. When an unheralded team faces seemingly impossible odds and comes out on top, we all take hope.
Coaches often refer to these incredible victories as defining moments—turning points that lead to additional success in the future. In this regard, marriage and college basketball have a lot in common. The crises life throws at us can be defining moments in marriage. Whether a stressful situation leads to defeat or contributes to future success begins with a choice.
Michael was in the kitchen putting away the dinner dishes when he heard the sound of grinding metal from outside. He rushed out the front door and immediately his stress level shot sky high. His son had left his bicycle in the driveway again, and Michael's wife, Diane, hadn't seen it before backing the van out of the garage. The bicycle was a tangle of twisted metal and broken spokes. The van had a scraped and dented fender and a punctured Michelin.
Michael was standing still, but he was anything but calm. Chemical messengers were racing through his blood stream as his autonomic nervous system sounded an alarm. In rapid sequence he experienced a jolting shock, a moment of disbelief, a trembling sensation inside and a surge of anger. In such a state, Michael could easily see himself launching an attack: "Justin! How many times have I told you not to leave your bike in the driveway? Why don't you ever listen? Diane! How could you forget to check before backing up?"
This was a defining moment. Bicycles can be replaced and vans can be repaired, but the damage caused by anger and impulsive words can take years to heal. Would Michael react like a rat and find someone to attack? Or would he stand as a partner with Diane, finding the strength and support that comes with teamwork?
Loving spouses rely on one another, enjoying the comfort and strength that partnership brings. No matter what crisis you and your spouse are facing, choose the right path by using these three strategies.
1. Find a New Goal
In the 1960s, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif put two groups of boys in separate areas of a Boy Scout camp and had the groups compete against one another as camp children do. Soon there were enormous tensions between the groups, evidenced by fistfights, food fights, taunting and cabin raids.
It would have been a disaster if Sherif hadn't then introduced new variables. He quickly reversed the aggressiveness by giving the two groups common goals. He had them pitch in to help move a stalled truck, work together to restore the water supply to the campground and pool their money to pay for a group fun night. Once common goals were established, the boys formed friendships that broke down the group barriers.
There's an important marriage lesson here: when spouses allow a stressful situation to drive a wedge between them, they become competitors. But when we view ourselves as partners we cooperate and enjoy one another. Playing on the same team to accomplish a shared goal creates added strength and support.
Times of high stress often come with transitions. When children move out to live on their own, a husband and wife might dread coming home to the silence that practically shouts that they have nothing to talk about. One couple might react to the stress by staying at work or filling their time with individual pursuits. But a successful couple, realizing they have lost touch with each other, will seize the opportunity to set new goals. They might agree to start playing tennis together every weekend, go for hikes in a nearby state park or take a class at the community college.
Teamwork and shared goals are things God had in mind when he created marriage, giving Adam and Eve tasks to accomplish together (Gen. 1:26-31). If you're in the habit of blaming each other during times of stress, begin a new pattern by setting new goals. Think creatively about changes you'd like to make, discuss the steps necessary to realize your dreams, then agree on what you'll both do to make it happen. It helps to write down your shared goals and review the list often. Working together, you can combat stress by achieving your new goals.
2. Double Your Effectiveness
There is a physiological explanation for the sensations we experience during times of stress. Our adrenal gland secretes the hormone cortisol, certain strong emotions are awakened and our thinking narrows. Imagine strolling through the woods, enjoying the freshness of a spring day, when you suddenly encounter a hungry bear. The adrenal gland kicks in, you're gripped with fear and your thinking quickly narrows: "Should I play dead? Should I run? Can bears climb trees? Can I climb trees?" This narrowed thinking is a gift that helps you focus on the task at hand. Imagine how disastrous it would be if the beautiful ferns at the bear's feet or a hawk circling overhead distracted you at this critical moment.
Though narrowed thinking is a gift to individuals in life-threatening situations, it's not always helpful to couples facing stress. Not long ago, my wife, Lisa, and I had 50 high schoolers at our house for a barbecue. When our new gas grill stopped working, I dispatched one of our daughters to the hardware store for more propane. Meanwhile, I carried the raw hamburgers to the kitchen oven where Lisa was broiling them.
My thinking was focused on feeding 50 hungry kids, so I got irritated when Lisa suggested I read the manual that came with the grill. "I know what's going on, I just need to get more propane," I snapped. "The manual isn't going to help!"
Sadly, not only was my thinking narrow, it was wrong. More propane didn't help. As it turns out, Weber grills have a feature that automatically shuts down the grill when it gets overheated. I needed to let the grill cool for five minutes, then start it up again. Guess how I figured this out. Yep. I read the manual.
When I discipline myself to listen to Lisa in times of stress, my own thinking is improved. Two heads really are better than one, especially in times of trouble. It takes humility, discipline and courage to listen to others in moments of stress, but the help we receive is well worth the effort.
I am reminded of the words of a stressed-out apostle, writing to the Christians in Philippi from a jail cell in Rome: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus … " (Phil. 2:3-5). How would this simple advice transform our marriages if we really listened to our spouse's opinion—even valuing it as superior to our own—when faced with stress that threatens to separate us?
3. Find Out What's Doable
Reinhold Niebuhr penned this opening to the Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference." These familiar words provide wise counsel in stressful times.
Many causes of stress can be changed. If you're constantly talking—sometimes heatedly—but seldom communicating, make an appointment with a qualified counselor so you can figure out how to connect. If the pages of your kitchen calendar look like they're covered with graffiti, agree together which activities you'll let go of. Maybe your children don't have to be in soccer plus gymnastics plus youth orchestra.
But life also brings stress that can't be changed: a child diagnosed with leukemia, a parent with Alzheimer's. When there's nothing you can do to fix a situation, the stress can easily overwhelm you. How can spouses pull together when dealing with a child's life-threatening illness or the daunting needs of aging parents? There are no simple, paint-by-number solutions.
That's why we need wisdom to know the difference between stress that can and can't be changed. When stress can be changed, it's time to get to work. Remember to play on the same team, set clear goals, listen to one another and then just do it.
But life has a way of showing us how limited we are. When we encounter stress that can't be changed, it's time to come together to plan, grieve, cry, laugh and pray. God is the only solution to the pain that we can't alleviate by changing our own behavior. It's a tremendous comfort and encouragement to join our prayers, asking God to work in our behalf when we are powerless to solve the problems we face (Matt. 18:18-20). Stress can humble us so that we cling to each other as we trust in God's grace to make us whole.
No matter what the source of our stress, we need to join forces to attack stress with a formula for growth. President John F. Kennedy was fond of pointing out that the Chinese word for "crisis" contains two characters: danger plus opportunity. Stress is dangerous. It has the power to disrupt our sleep, nag our souls and rip apart relationships. But it also brings opportunities for us to partner with our lifelong teammate, standing side-by-side to face life's challenges and grow together. The choice is up to us.
Mark R. McMinn, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Wheaton College and author of Making the Best of Stress (InterVarsity). He and his wife, Lisa, live in the Chicago area with their three daughters.
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