You’re no stranger to stress. Your job demands more than you can give. Your kids’ needs and struggles feel overwhelming. The harder you hold on to your resources of time, money, or energy, the faster they slip through your fingers. Connecting with your spouse is an uphill battle. You put on a brave face and dig deep to keep on going, but you know that you’re one setback away from falling apart.
For us, the past three months have buried us in stress. In a sudden turn of events, we moved out of the ‘burbs into a new neighborhood. That meant week upon week of cleaning, sorting, moving our belongings, and staging our old house to sell. Added to the mix was a difficult bout of anemia that benched Joanna in the middle of the move. Throw in back-to-school for our kids, work travel, full fall calendars, and burdens for hurting loved ones, and we’ve been stretched to our limit.
Not all the stress has been negative. But exciting life changes like our daughter and son-in-law realizing their dream of moving overseas, a new grandbaby on the way, and ministry opportunities increase the intensity of our days. Stress is stress, no matter the source.
It’s no secret that stress will test a marriage relationship like nothing else. It can make you tired. Preoccupied. Irritable. Distracted. Pushy or passive. Emotional. Negative. Stress exposes the cracks in our maturity and ability to stay steady in the storm. How can a couple draw closer together instead of letting life’s pressures and problems pull them apart?
The two of us have felt that push and pull on our relationship since July. Here are four strategies for coping with stress that have helped us in this season. We pray they will meet you in whatever you’re facing today.
1) Name it
It’s easy to lay blame for our stress at the feet of our circumstances. But if we’re honest, our fears are often rooted in something we can’t see with our eyes. Is our angst truly about our son’s missing cleats, or are we actually afraid he’ll never wise up and grow up? Is our anxiety about meeting a deadline, or is it really the potential embarrassment we’ll suffer if we fall behind? Is money the issue, or is it the shame and blame your in-laws might dish out? When we feel stressed out, the “thing” might not be the thing at all.
Marriage is a place to name our true fears. Take time to share what has you on edge. That fear of failure. Of rejection. Of disappointed dreams. Of criticism. Of burnout. By sharing what’s weighing heavily on your heart and mind, you create intimacy between you. It opens the door to offering comfort, help, and encouragement to one another. Give your stress a name so you can face it side-by-side.
2) Create space
Chances are high that your spouse’s stress response is the polar opposite of your own. You want space to think and process what’s happening, while your spouse wants to talk, talk, and talk some more. You might take charge with plans and checklists and strategies, but your spouse wants to hold back and see how things play out. One of you needs to work out or clean the house from top to bottom, while the other needs a fuzzy blanket and a good book to unwind. Everybody handles their overwhelm in their own unique way.
It’s tempting to expect your spouse to cope with stress just like you. You might feel frustrated that they’re moving at a different pace or find relief in ways that drive you nuts. Yet, like Jill and Mark Savage are quick to teach the couples they serve, your spouse isn’t wrong, they’re just different. Instead of trying to force your partner into your own stress-management mold, create space for them to be who they are. That kind of acceptance may just be the most reassuring gift you can give the one you love when times are tough.
3) Have a little fun
When stress looms large, it can be hard to see anything else. We ignore the natural beauty outside our window. We rush our meals instead of savoring family time around the dinner table. We stare at our phones instead of our spouse’s beautiful eyes. Laughter, joy, and quality time give way to work and worry.
Today, move some fun to the top of your to-do list. Go for a walk. Find a cozy booth to share at a favorite restaurant. Pretend you’re kids and visit the zoo. Kiss at every red light like you did when you were dating. Spend the night at a romantic B & B. Watch your favorite movie for the hundredth time. Browse a bookstore or catch a concert. Take time to step out of the crazy and simply focus on each other. Your marriage will thank you for it.
4) Stop and pray
Stress feels like a heavy weight, doesn’t it? It’s tempting to think we have to carry it on our own. Yet it takes more strength to lay our troubles at Jesus’ feet than to try to power through alone. More and more in our marriage, we drop everything and take our stress to God in prayer.
Prayer does two things: It invites God’s power and help into our situation, and it reminds us that God is God and we are not. Prayer dissolves any illusion that we can control the future. It sets us free from pressure to have all the answers. Prayer sustains our faith in the God who promises to hear us, care for us, stay with us, and love us relentlessly through it all. It names our needs and calls on the One who can satisfy them. Prayer is the one and only thing we can do that’s guaranteed to make a difference.
Prayer also shifts our perspective on our spouse. By praying together, we practice partnership. We grow in empathy for our loved one’s needs and emotions. We release each other from the pressure to be perfect, and trust in the One who is. Prayer puts us in a posture of humility so we can serve and put each other first. It infuses our lives with hope that while today is hard, much good is still to come because God never wastes our pain. Prayer unites us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We begin to want what God wants as we surrender to Him together.
We don’t know the stress you’re under today. But as your friends, we would be humbled and thankful to pray with you and for you in your situation. We’re here—reach out any time! God bless you as you follow after Jesus together.
Rob & Joanna
And all of you serve each other with humble spirits, for God gives special blessings to those who are humble, but sets himself against those who are proud. If you will humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, in his good time he will lift you up.
Let him have all your worries and cares, for he is always thinking about you and watching everything that concerns you. (1 Peter 5:5-7 TLB)