Last year Mike and Ramona Taylor were forced to shut down their restaurant, which they had used their life savings to start only a year earlier. "Losing the business was especially hard on Mike," Ramona says. "He'd just sit around the apartment every day, hardly saying a word. If I suggested he send out some résumés, he'd take that as criticism and storm out the door in a huff. Eventually he found work, which helped our finances. But still there's a distance between us that wasn't there a year ago."
After a fire destroyed the home of Bob and Arlene Larson, they spent three stressful months living in a motel room with their two small children. "Our kids bickered the whole time, and we had one hassle after another with the insurance company," Bob says. "But, even though it was a rough time, my wife and I both look back at what happened and feel we have a stronger marriage as a result."
For better or for worse
Sooner or later most couples face a test of their marriage vows: a serious automobile accident, the loss of a job, a diagnosis of cancer in the family, a house fire, the death of a loved one. Going through tough times can leave a husband and wife feeling closer and more committed to each other than ever before, or it can sever their relationship.
How would your marriage fare in facing such traumatic times? Would it survive?
The key to helping your marriage survive tough times is to make sure your relationship is built on a strong foundation before hard times strike.
"Some couples come through a crisis and feel that it strengthened the bond between them because they conquered the problem together," says Norman Epstein, professor of family studies at the University of Maryland. "But in the majority of cases, unfortunately, tragedies tend to drive husbands and wives apart."
It's during tough times that couples often do the things that tend to undermine their marriage, just when they need each other the most. "When couples are under a lot of stress, they tend to only do the necessary things for day-to-day survival, and their relationship fades into the background," Dr. Epstein says. "They focus all their time and energy into the crisis and don't have any energy left for their marriage. Eventually they may get worn down to the point where they feel alienated from one another."
"If you let a stressful situation dominate your life, that's when it's easy to start thinking your mate is not doing his or her share of the couple's responsibilities and begin keeping score," says Scott Stanley, codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and author of Fighting For Your Marriage.
"Keeping score is one of the worst things you can do, because marriage partners rarely keep score fairly," he says. "You usually see everything you do that's positive in the relationship, but only a fraction of what your partner does. If you start keeping score, even if you're totally accurate, you're going to end up resenting your mate before too long."
Along with scorekeeping often comes blame-placing. "Pointing the finger is the hallmark of a couple who's under a lot of stress," Mr. Stanley says. "It's easy for couples facing a difficult situation to start thinking each other is not pulling their weight, that one's doing more, being more responsible or working harder than the other. But all that does is create a sense of divisiveness. It ends up me vs. you and you're not doing enough."
Marriage partners blame each other for problems, according to Douglas Sprenkle, professor of marriage and family therapy at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, in an ill-advised attempt to try to gain some control over a situation. "Oftentimes when terrible events happen in life, what makes you feel the worst is the fact that you have no control over what happened," he says. "Blaming can be a way of gaining some control. If you can at least point the finger at your partner, then that makes some sense of the situation rather than it just being a random, uncontrollable event."
It doesn't have to be a negative experience such as the loss of a job, health problems or a natural disaster to create marriage stress. Even predictable, life-in-progress events such as the birth of a first child, job promotion or retirement can strain a relationship. "Any kind of change that requires the individual and the family to reorganize is going to mean a certain amount of stress," Dr. Epstein says.
Every married couple is going to have its share of stressful situations. Obviously, you want to use tough times to draw closer to your mate and build a stronger marriage, rather than let a tragedy create a wedge between you and your spouse. "The crucial factor is the degree to which you and your mate can handle stress and how well you work as a team," Mr. Stanley says.
Here are 10 ways to strengthen your relationship and keep your marriage intact when the going gets rough:
• Talk matters out. Be willing to share your concerns, fears and hopes without criticizing or judging. "In order for a couple to work as a team, they have to know what each other is thinking," says Pauline Boss, professor of family studies at the University of Minnesota and author of Family Stress Management. "The longer you wait to talk to your spouse, the greater the chance of your feelings being buried under the rug and never being addressed."
Ask each other for ideas to improve the situation. Think in terms of presenting a united front against the problem, rather than allowing the problem to divide the two of you. Talk about out how you can work together to ease the stress.
• Accept each other's differences. When you talk to your spouse about the situation, you may be surprised at how differently he or she sees things. "It's a big mistake to think your mate sees everything the same way you do," Mr. Stanley says. "The same event may make one person angry or frightened, while the other is hurt or depressed."
Each person has his own perspective. Learn to respect your spouse's opinion, even when he or she sees things from a different point of view.
• Avoid finger-pointing. Fight the urge to keep score, cast blame or say I told you so. Stop and think about the advantages and disadvantages of blaming.
"There are some temporary advantages that can make you feel better about your own role in the situation," Dr. Epstein says. "The disadvantage is that if you blame you're probably going to get blamed back, and you're going to feel like adversaries instead of teammates."
Rather than point a finger, you should protect each other from self-reproach and criticism. Reassure your mate by telling him or her: "I know you did all you could do," or "This could have happened to anyone."
• Keep the tragedy in perspective. Distinguish your fears of the worst-case scenario from what is likely to happen. "People have a tendency to think in terms of catastrophes when they're under stress," Mr. Stanley says. "This tends to either freeze them into helplessness or have them rushing around in hysteria, which doesn't accomplish anything."
Ask yourself, "What is the worst thing that actually could happen?" When you think things through and look at the evidence, often you'll realize the situation isn't as bad as you thought.
• Be flexible. Routine tasks and responsibilities may need to be rethought or reshuffled in an emergency. For instance, she goes grocery shopping once a week as part of her routine. When he loses his job and she goes back to work to help with the family finances, she asks him to help out by going to the market. If he ignores her request, this seemingly small matter can blow up into an argument.
"Rigidity often produces more problems than the stressful event itself," Dr. Sprenkle says. "Couples who survive best in a tragedy are those flexible enough to accept new roles gracefully." Learn to view these new tasks as a challenge rather than a burden.
• Seek help from others. Make sure you get enough support from family and friends outside your marriage so that you're not overly dependent on your mate for support. Don't be shy about accepting offers of help from other people. A neighbor who brings over a casserole, offers to baby-sit or runs some of your errands may be giving you just the break you need.
Talk to other couples who have lived through similar situations. It's usually encouraging to hear from others who have been through the same kind of tragedy and survived. "One of the worst things you can do is isolate yourself and suffer alone," Dr. Epstein says. "You need the support and encouragement of others."
• Keep yourself active. Don't let the tragedy or negative thoughts dominate in your lives. Schedule activities to get your mind on something positive. Get together with friends and relatives. Do something fun with your kids. Plan a dinner party. Get involved with a new hobby. Take an exercise class. The key, says Dr. Epstein, is "not to wallow in self-pity." Take control of the situation before it takes control of you.
Make the time
• Plan for couple time. Block out some time in your schedule, several times a week, to be alone with your mate and get away from whatever is causing you stress. Walk around the block. Go to dinner at a quiet restaurant. 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."
• 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."
Express your devotion through small acts of kindness. Put a note in his briefcase to say how much you appreciate him. Take the baby's 4 a.m. feeding so she can get some extra sleep. Tell him you know things will work out and that you're behind him 100 percent. Acknowledge that she has had a rough day and offer to finish her chores. Small gestures like these can go a long way when times get rough.
• Don't wait for a crisis to build relationship skills. Of course, you shouldn't wait until times get tough to learn how to work as a team. "Look for opportunities when you're not under stress to solve problems together so that when something terrible does happen you're not suddenly trying to invent skills you don't have," Dr. Boss says. "Even when you're trying to decide something as simple as what movie to go to, these are the same skills you are going to use when you have to figure out what to do after your house burns down."
You need communication and problem-solving abilities such as openness, acceptance, understanding, flexibility, cooperation and kindness—in good times and bad. Use the carefree times in your life to build these skills so that you can draw on them when you need them most. GN