Growing Stronger Through Stress in Marriage

A couple staring at the view from a mountainside from under an umbrella on a foggy day
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Chris and Rachel met while attending college, where they became well-acquainted friends. After a year, they took the next step into a dating relationship. About six months later, Chris excitedly proposed to the love of his life, and she agreed to be his wife. Everything was on course — he was about to graduate and had landed a youth-pastor job at their church while working at Starbucks on the side. And Rachel worked to complete her senior thesis and internship so she could graduate within the next year. Wedding plans were interwoven with late-night study sessions and many specialty coffee drinks delivered by Rachel's favorite barista. Their engagement season was as good as it gets. They had each other, a future together and coffee. What more did they need?

They spent one last holiday apart with their respective families in Seattle and Colorado prior to getting married. When they returned from their travels, they were thrilled to be back together. They decided to have some fun their first night back and make paper snowflakes while watching a Christmas movie. After their picturesque reunion, Chris walked home to his apartment only a few blocks away. Blissful was what life seemed to be — for now and forever.

However, within 20 minutes, everything changed. As Rachel was getting ready for bed, she heard the doorbell ringing urgently. What in the world?

Her roommate tentatively approached the front door, where she met Chris, who was crying.

Rachel’s heart started beating wildly as she tried to imagine what could possibly be going on. Twenty minutes earlier, as Chris kissed her goodbye, this scene never would have crossed her mind. But now she was facing a distraught, tear-stained man. To her shock, he pushed out the grief-stricken words, “My dad … my dad is dead.”

Rachel's story of crisis

Here's Rachel's story in her words:

It was the most confusing, tragic and desperate 24 hours I’ve ever experienced. It was so difficult to see my beloved Chris be filled with questions, doubt, confusion and deep, deep sadness. And the worst part? There was absolutely nothing I could do but be there. The next day we flew to Colorado in total disbelief and shock.

I had met Chris’ parents during my earlier visits. I loved being with them and knew them to be funny, loving and generous.

However, the dynamic changed quickly because I was thrust into this tragedy. Chris' mom, Carol, was no longer the happy, soon-to-be mother-in-law with her husband by her side supporting and cheering us on. Instead, as you can imagine, she was grieving deeply, and the roles suddenly shifted. We were no longer being supported by two amazing people who were anticipating our special day and helping us plan wedding details. We were now comforting and supporting Carol as we planned her husband’s funeral.

Although I wasn’t quite part of the family yet, I did my best to be helpful.

That November day when we buried Chris' father was bitter cold and snowy. Six months later, I graduated from college, and Chris stepped down from his pastoral job. In mid-June we were married, and by the end of July, we packed up everything and moved to Colorado to live with Carol.

We spent the first year of our marriage living in Carol's basement. This was good for her and it was helpful for Chris as well. It allowed him to fully grieve his father’s death.

All I can say is that married life didn’t go the way I had anticipated. We shared all of our dinners, movie nights and game nights with Carol. We really felt called to care for her and not allow her to be alone. Every night we maintained the family tradition of bedtime prayer, which was filled with a strange mix of tears, praise and thanks.

After about a year of living this way, my heart began to close. I was a new wife and I had wanted to care for Carol and Chris. However, I desperately needed for Chris and me to have our own space and home. My desires weren’t wrong, but sometimes my behaviors were. Soon, Chris and I transitioned into our own home and life; however, I knew everything in the future would be colored by the absence of my father-in-law.

Managing stress and challenges

Greg and I (Erin) wouldn’t wish what Chris and Rachel went through on any married couple. And yet stress, challenges and painful trials are going to be part of your relationship — sooner or later. The key isn’t to hope that nothing bad will come your way until you’ve had time for your relationship to develop the necessary coping skills. The key is to learn how to manage the stress and challenges that are inevitable in marriage.

Part of the adventure of marriage lies in facing external difficulties together and growing stronger through these trials. Couples who thrive in their marriages don’t have fewer problems, but they do work together and take the view that tribulations are opportunities for growth and positive change.

Take hope. Your marriage story doesn’t have to end in massive hurt and frustration as you face stress and challenges. Instead, your story can be personally fulfilling and a beacon of light for those who are watching your journey.

Do you have a roadmap for marriage?

Yes, marriage can have its twists and turns. But the detours don't necessarily have to lead couples off course. With practical advice and stories from their own relationship and counseling experiences, the Smalleys explore 12 biblically based strategies to help you chart a course for a romantic adventure that will last a lifetime. Couples who want a happy marriage will appreciate the secrets in Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage. Download a free chapter

Erin Smalley serves in the Marriage and Family Formation department at Focus on the Family. Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family.

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