When I was a teen, my grandma used to tell me stories of what it was like being a young bride at the start of the Great Depression. "Those were stressful times for me and your grandpa," she'd tell me over and over again.
They worried about money and making ends meet, and how long their jobs were going to last. They never got laid off, but my grandpa was required to work 12-hour days and take a pay cut to keep his railroad job. My grandma worked equally long hours at a textile factory. After my dad and his three siblings were born, my grandma quit her factory job to care for her children, but she still worked as a seamstress on the side so they'd have money to buy groceries.
"Back then, your grandpa and I did our share of bickering," my grandma would admit to me. "We had different ideas about how the money should be spent and about how to raise the children." During those years, my grandparents felt perpetually worn out, and they probably weren't as patient with each other as they wanted to be.
Then in the late 1930s my dad's older sister died at the age of 8, and my grandma's parents, who were unemployed and homeless, moved in with them—further adding to household tension.
I can still picture my grandma with tears in her eyes, telling me how she and Grandpa used to blame themselves for the death of their young daughter and how they both got so depressed that they stopped talking to each other for a while.
Sticking together through tough times
I'll never forget those conversations with my grandma. She wanted me to understand that every marriage has its "rough spots." But as frank as she was about the challenges she and my grandpa faced, she always emphasized their commitment to each other—to stick with each other through good times and bad.
Probably any husbands and wives who've been married for a while have their own stories about the tough times they've been through. In one sense, this is nothing new. Partners in marriage have always faced hardships—problems that affect their relationship.
Psychologists refer to these difficulties as marital stressors. Simply put, a marital stressor is any kind of external influence, circumstance or event that challenges or threatens a marriage. These can cause tension and discord between spouses, and even fuel bitterness that can destroy a relationship. There can also be more subtle effects. Some marital stressors cause husbands and wives to just gradually drift apart—with little or no conflict between them.
Common marital stressors include financial troubles, unemployment, intimacy problems, infidelity, differing views on parenting, chronically poor health of a dependent family member, the death of a child and clashes with in-laws. These issues have long been sources of friction for husbands and wives.
Certainly, many couples struggle with the same issues today. In addition, some new threats to marriages weren't present a generation or two ago, or at least to the same extent or in the same way they are now.
Altogether it's a long list, and obviously every possible source of marital stress can't be addressed in one article. However, there are certain issues that professional marriage counselors are seeing again and again in their practices. Let's look at what they believe are some of the biggest strains on marriages today.
Financial hardship and job loss
Even in good economic times money is a leading cause of marital strife. Couples argue about how to spend their money and who's doing the most to keep the household budget in the black. But in a down economy like we're in right now, with high unemployment rates, salary reductions, rising cost of living, mounting credit card debt, plummeting home values and shriveling retirement accounts, couples may be much more "on edge" about finances.
"Often one spouse is a saver and the other likes to overspend, and that can create a lot of conflict, especially during lean financial times when couples may have a smaller monetary cushion to fall back on," notes Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
If the household income is dwindling—perhaps one spouse got laid off or credit card interest is eating a larger chunk of the budget—Dr. Wilcox says it can "rob a couple of a sense of their future together, because they don't have any money to put into savings for long-term goals like a trip or a house down payment. Instead, they're worrying about cash flow and paying off debt, which looms over their marriage like a storm cloud."
Obviously, shrinking home values and retirement accounts can cause couples to have a gloomy outlook too.
Any type of job loss or salary reduction can be devastating, but especially if it's the husband's. "Even though there's been a great deal of change in contemporary families, there's still the implicit expectation that the husband will be the primary breadwinner. If he isn't able to do that, it's a huge blow to his self-esteem," says Dr. Wilcox.
If the husband feels that his role as provider is being threatened, he might become resentful or turn to drugs, alcohol or affairs as a way of escaping the economic pressures at home, Dr. Wilcox adds.
The wife, too, might become resentful—especially if she's still going to work every day on top of doing most of the child care and housework. "If the husband has trouble finding another job, he may become discouraged and lose his motivation for seeking employment. To the wife, that can seem like a broken promise, because he no longer is trying to be the provider," says James Craig, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist with a practice in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Exactly how a couple might react to financial stressors varies. Some people might yell, argue or blame each other. Others might turn within themselves and become more anxious, depressed and withdrawn.
"Any behavior that puts distance between you and your partner—you stop talking, you pull back, you're not interacting, you're not showing affection, you're not having sexual contact—is going to be detrimental," warns Larry Barlow, Ph.D., coordinator of the Center for Couple and Family Therapy at Florida State University. "So now, not only are your finances in bad shape, your marriage is too."
Our frenetic lifestyle is taking a huge toll on marriage too. Many couples today have overloaded their schedules with work, child care and household responsibilities, as well as recreational pursuits and social functions. After they've given their energy to all of these demands and commitments, they don't have much left over for each other or even to just rest and unwind.
Ann Shorb, Ph.D., has observed this a lot in the couples who visit her Hanover, Pennsylvania, counseling practice. She always encourages them to spend more time with each other, but "with so many of them, they just can't fit 'couple time' into their busy schedules," she says. "Just about every couple I talk with lives under unending pressures and demands that cause them to be overcommitted and overextended."
Of course, life hasn't always been so hectic. Back in the 1970s, about two thirds of married couples had a spouse at home (usually the wife). All the domestic responsibilities could get taken care of during the weekdays. But today, only 40 percent of families have a stay-at-home spouse.
Couples now work a combined average of 63 hours a week, up from just 52.5 in 1970, according to a 2009 report on workplace flexibility from the Georgetown University Law Center. With both parents working so many hours away from home, many feel they have no choice but to use weeknights and weekends to run errands and do housekeeping tasks that didn't get done during the weekdays.
Couple time becomes even harder to come by when marital partners work different schedules. One may work the day shift while the other works nights, and their schedules may overlap for only a short time each day. With the rapid growth of the service economy (which requires more around-the-clock employees than does manufacturing or office work), the number of people working nonstandard or night shifts has grown dramatically in the last decade.
Harriet Presser, Ph.D., a professor with the University of Maryland's Department of Sociology, has researched this trend extensively. Her studies have found that today one in four dual-earner American couples has a spouse working the late-night or rotating, nonstandard shifts.
Typically these jobs require at least some weekend work. "Such schedules undermine the stability of marriages, increase the amount of housework to be done, reduce family cohesiveness and require elaborate child care arrangements," she says. Couples in which one spouse works a late shift report having substantially less quality time together and more marital unhappiness than couples where spouses work only fixed daytime jobs. They are also more likely to separate or divorce.
On top of complicated work schedules, parents often have their children involved in a wide range of extracurricular activities. "Weekends used to be a time for families to just kick back and relax together," says William Doherty, professor and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota. "Now parents are busy all weekend shuffling their kids to all the different sporting events they're involved with."
It doesn't necessarily stop there. Some people add in individual hobbies and recreation to their frenzied schedules—long hunting weekends, baseball games with the guys, gals' nights, etc. In his 2003 book Take Back Your Marriage, Professor Doherty writes: "If most parents were not already overbooked with children's activities, perhaps the adult activities would not be such a concern. But in truth, between chauffeuring kids and being personally involved in two or three adult activities, you know what will come last in your life—your marriage.
"It's a function of what is scheduled and to whom we feel accountable for our time. We feel accountable to our children and the commitments we have made to and for them. We feel accountable to the book club we promised to attend monthly, to the religious education committee we joined, and to the fund-raising committee of the PTA. But most of us do not feel accountable to have face-to-face time alone with our mate, because we never schedule it" (p. 66).
Busy schedules don't automatically lead to marriage problems, but they do present a challenge that needs to be addressed. "Marital partners may find themselves disconnected from each other because they aren't spending much time together and are really leading separate lives," says Kelly Roberts, a clinical instructor and marriage and family counselor with the Oklahoma State University Human Development and Family Sciences Department.
Moreover, Roberts adds, "The super-busy lifestyle can also cause husbands and wives to feel worn down and stressed, which may make them more testy with each other." This is especially true if couples aren't taking care of themselves with quality sleep and good nutrition.
Another way time and attention is being directed away from marriages is through technology. What used to be "couple time" is often being consumed by computers, iPods, iPhones, video games and countless other electronic distractions. Granted, these things may not make you feel anxious, like other stressors might. But they are definitely a threat to marriage.
At its simplest level, spending too much time in front of the monitor can lead to insufficient time for the marital relationship, undermining the closeness and subtly building barriers between a husband and wife.
"There's a dearth of undivided attention for couples today, and that's in big part because of all these electronic distractions," observes Barbara Koppe, a licensed clinical social worker in St. Louis, Missouri, who specializes in marriage and family therapy. "People are plugged into their electronic gadgets practically every waking minute of the day."
She says this is an issue that often comes up when couples come in for counseling: "A lot of people complain that their spouse pays more attention to their BlackBerry than they do to them."
But it's not just the new technologies that draw spouses away from each other. TV, which has been around for several generations, continues to be an issue. Koppe routinely asks couples how much television they watch, and more than half say it's on from the time they get home from work in the evening until they go to sleep.
"It's even on when they're eating dinner," she relates. "So I'll ask them, 'When do you talk?' And the answer is, they don't. So all of these distractions make it a whole lot harder to have conversations—and to keep that communication going."
This is not to say that marital partners are intentionally tuning each other out. Some people have just let themselves get into the habit of constantly plugging into their computers or electronic gadgets. Others feel so exhausted after work that all they want to do is crash in front of the TV. And some truly do have work e-mails they have to read or send in the evenings.
Dr. Shorb finds it interesting that on one hand "we have more means of communicating today than ever before, yet couples are actually more distant from one another." That, she believes, is not only because couples are spending so much time online, but because "more often than not they're communicating with each other by sending text messages instead of talking with each other over the phone or face-to-face."
These electronic exchanges of bite-sized tidbits of information are definitely not the building blocks of solid relationships, she says.
A far more insidious aspect of the Internet is not just that it takes away from couple time, but that it can be a source of pornography, erotic fantasy, illicit relationships, cyber-affairs and ultimately the destruction of marriages.
According to a report by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, between 20 and 33 percent of Internet users in the United States go online for sexual purposes—either to view pornographic images or to engage in an online sexual relationship of some kind. Most of these are married men. As many as 17 percent of users become addicted to online sexual activity.
"The Internet has provided people with a lot more ways to violate their marriage vows," Dr. Craig says. "You don't have to go to a sleazy nightclub anymore. You don't have to go to a gas station to buy a dirty magazine. There's no longer any need for secret trips to obscure motels. You just have to turn on the computer and you can have all the cybersex you want—all in the privacy of your home."
He and other marriage professionals believe the Internet will soon become the most common form of infidelity, if it isn't already. That's because it is so accessible, and people can engage in it anonymously.
In some cases "cyber-adulterers" arrange to meet in real life and engage in an actual "live" affair. But even if the online relationship never gets past "cybersex," that, along with viewing pornography, is certainly still a form of infidelity and a serious threat to a marriage.
"We're seeing a lot of online sexual addictions in our office," Dr. Shorb says. "There's a huge amount of it going on right now, and it is destroying marriage after marriage."
It damages the trust and intimacy within the husband-wife relationship, which often leads to the end of the marriage. The spouse of the sex addict can develop deep emotional wounds and feelings of betrayal, loss, devastation and anger.
Pornography in particular stimulates a distorted view of sexuality within the porn addict that can lead to the desire for riskier, more perverse and even criminal sexual behaviors. "This is a problem that can be overcome," Shorb says, "but definitely needs professional intervention."
Ethical and moral decline
While couples face very serious marital stresses today, a key point to remember is that people have always experienced hardships.
My grandparents' story, mentioned at the beginning of this article, is a case in point. They encountered many of the same stressors during the 1930s that couples struggle with today—tight finances, long workdays, in-law pressures and parenting issues, including the death of a child. Many couples during those years had similar stories of adversity. Yet they didn't let life's "rough spots" tear their marriages apart.
Divorce rates were relatively low back then, with no more than 10 percent of marriages ending in divorce. That was true for not just the 1930s but the whole first half of the 20th century. This was, in part, because it just wasn't practical to split up.
Divorce was considered shameful—something "respectable people" didn't do, Dr. Shorb notes. It was also very complicated and costly; couples had to "prove" grounds for divorce, and most couldn't afford all the legal fees. Furthermore, most women didn't have jobs and wouldn't have been able to make it on their own.
In the late 1960s the divorce rate started climbing. It rose steadily for two decades until it peaked at around 50 percent in the 1980s, where it has remained since. What brought on this spike in divorces more than anything else, Dr. Craig says, is ethical and moral decline.
True, these days there are a lot of outside pressures making it hard for couples to stay connected. People are probably the busiest and household finances are the tightest they've been since the Great Depression. But these types of issues are not ultimately the cause of marital breakdown. If they were, then every marriage would be only as secure as the societal trends and circumstances around it.
Selfishness trumps commitment
"The ultimate threat to marriages today is not the external stressors, but what's going on internally," says Dr. Craig. Too often in our modern society, if the marriage is or becomes "too hard" or is not exactly meeting one's needs, people have no inhibitions about walking away.
"Today many people will stay in a relationship only as long as they're getting more out of it than they have to put into it," observes Craig. "People are more focused on making themselves happy, rather than in doing what is right. They're not nearly as committed to their marital vows as people once were."
When this approach to marriage is combined with life's inevitable problems, the "glue" often does not hold, Dr. Craig says. For instance, if a debilitating illness seriously affects a spouse's ability to give to the other spouse, the relationship may not survive the test.
Adds Dr. Shorb: "We live in a very self-focused world. Our advertising fosters that. We're told 'You deserve a break today' and 'It's all about me.' We've forgotten to serve others—and that's what marriage is all about—'How can I meet your needs?' rather than focusing on 'What's in it for me?'"
She says online infidelity is the epitome of this mentality: "I have my needs and nobody else is fulfilling them, so I'll just take care of myself and I'll do my own thing."
With many, religion is no longer the authority in their lives, so everything the Bible says about what a marriage should and shouldn't be like—including teachings against adultery—doesn't matter to them. "There aren't any absolutes anymore in our society—no definite rights and wrongs," Koppe observes. "People pretty much do whatever they want."
This secular, "no-commitment, me-first" approach to marriage got its foothold in the late 1960s and early '70s—the era of free love, drugs and antiauthority sentiment. That's also when the "no-fault" divorce revolution began, which allowed one spouse to dissolve a marriage for any reason—or for no reason at all.
Since then, there has been a growing acceptance of divorce. "It's so easy nowadays to get divorced," observes Koppe. She says there certainly are reasons divorce is sometimes warranted, such as in an abusive situation. But today, "more often than not, couples just grow out of love with each other and don't try to solve the problems. People don't work at marriage like they used to. They don't want to have to endure any kind of difficulties."
What a contrast from God's intentions for marriage! We're told over and over again in the Bible that marriage is to be a lifelong commitment. For starters, in Matthew 19:6 Jesus states, "What God has joined together, let not man separate." This same admonition is repeated in Mark 10:5-9.
The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 7:2, "For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives" (emphasis added throughout). There is no concession for "if the marriage is no longer gratifying."
In 1 Corinthians 7:10-24 Paul addresses the problem of divorce, which was quite common during that time in cities like Corinth. Verse 10 states that "a wife is not to depart from her husband," and verse 11 adds that "a husband is not to divorce his wife." To put it in modern terms, face the difficulties and work out your differences.
Finally, Malachi 2:16 states, "For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce." It doesn't get any plainer than that.
Weathering the storms together
Ultimately, unconditional commitment is the key to successfully resisting all these marital stressors. It is only when husbands and wives are totally committed to each other that they will be able to withstand the pressures of life that are sure to come their way.
That means striving to live by the standards for marriage spelled out in the Bible. This includes putting each other's needs before your own, not giving up on each other during difficulties, and working through situations together as a team. This kind of commitment is the most important step you can take to weather any kind of marital storm. Some other strategies include:
Approach challenges with open communication. If there are issues that are really troubling you, you and your spouse should set aside a time to talk with each other in a relaxed setting. Be willing to share each other's concerns, fears and hopes without criticizing or judging. Talk about how you can work together to improve the situation.
"In order for a couple to work as a team, the partners have to know what each other is thinking," says Pauline Boss, Ph.D., professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of Family Stress Management. When you and your spouse stop talking with each other, that's when marital problems escalate.
Show your affection. Make it a point to tell each other "I love you," and say it often. "When you are in the middle of something awful, that is the worst time to just assume your mate knows how you feel," Dr. Boss says. "It's during the tough times that your partner needs the reassurance of your love even more."
Cultivate a positive and thankful mind-set. We're told in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, "In everything give thanks." No matter what the situation, there's always something to be thankful for.
My grandmother used to tell me that "Grandpa's railroad job during the Great Depression sure didn't pay well, but at least he had a job." She had a positive focus. You should too. Be thankful to God for what He has done in your lives. Learn to appreciate your spouse's good qualities—rather than dwell on his or her shortcomings. A thankful mate is pleasant to be around. Not only that, but if you maintain a positive outlook, your spouse is likely to follow suit.
Plan for couple time. Carve out time in your schedule, several times a week, to be alone with your mate and get away from whatever is causing you stress. Take a walk together. Go out to dinner. Have a picnic at the park. Get up a half hour earlier during the workweek so that you and your spouse can have a quiet breakfast in bed before you leave for the office. Go out for coffee Sunday morning while your teens are still asleep. Share a pot of tea after the kids are in bed.
"No matter how terrible the stress is, you should give yourselves a respite now and then," Dr. Boss says. "You need time to talk with each other, without the tragedy facing you, so that you can regroup your thoughts and say to your mate, 'Yes, I'm tired,' or 'I need a hug.' When couples are under a lot of stress, they often have so much to say to each other but no time to say it."
If you can't fit "couple time" into your busy schedule, you need to reprioritize your time commitments so that you can.
Pray together. Together, as a couple, bring the things that cause you stress to God in prayer. Ask Him to help you discern what to do to ease the stress in your lives and to help you stay committed to your marriage. Let Him know your needs. Philippians 4:19 tells us that "God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus." Trust in God's provision together.
Seek counsel. In Proverbs 13:20, the Bible states the importance of seeking the advice of wise individuals. If you or your mate are struggling with any of the issues discussed in this article, be willing to get the professional help you need.
Depending on the problem, this help might come from your pastor, a professional marriage and family counselor, or a financial adviser. "It's best to go to counseling as soon as you start having problems, rather than wait until they become breaking points," Roberts advises.
Look at challenges as opportunities to strengthen your marriage. The "rough spots" you and your spouse face can actually bring the two of you closer. "When you work together through it all in a constructive way—you're communicating, you're appreciating each other, you're putting each other's needs above your own—you come out stronger and closer," Dr. Barlow says. "You'll then have confidence to face the next issue down the road."
Reminding yourself of this can help you have the determination to hang in there.
We certainly live in a stressful world. Our lives are full of challenges. What's important is that you and your husband or wife support each other during the tough times, rather than allow life's difficulties to pull you apart! GN