Marriages are made or broken in the transitions of life. Between the transition points, most relationships operate smoothly. It's the change points that test us. That's certainly how it's been in my marriage.
My husband, Bill, and I were parenting preschoolers when I decided to become a re-entry college student. I had visions of the programs I could build, the books I could write and the teaching I could present to help women. My excitement was so intense that it scared Bill. He was afraid my enthusiasm would lead to more responsibility for him. The result was an ongoing argument that stretched us as a couple. We would talk, but we couldn't resolve any of the issues. By the end of that year, some small thing set us off, and in exasperation I huffed, "Why is life so stressful? One of us must be doing something wrong, and I'm pretty sure it's not me!"
After a few zinging comments back and forth, Bill's words stopped both of us in our tracks. He said, "Pam, it's not me; it's not you; it's just life!"
That bit of truth brought clarity to both of us. We realized that the quality of our love was going to be determined by how we handled the changing seasons that every marriage encounters.
The importance of preparation
Sometimes change comes from external pressures, other times from internal stresses. No matter the source of the change, embracing life's challenges can bring maturity as it develops new strengths in each of us. As paraphrased in The Message, "Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don't try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way" (James 1:2-4). How then can we turn life's obstacles into love's opportunities?
A good friend of ours is a police captain, so we asked him, "Are you ever afraid while you're out on patrol?" His response was simple: "It's not scary if you're prepared."
Just like our police officer friend discovered, being prepared will help to lower the overall stress of transitions. Being ready as a couple means knowing how to survive — together. Let's take a look at a few of the typical seasons of change in married life and then consider ways to stay connected amid the change.
At the beginning of your marriage, everything is novel. These exciting days bring joy, but they can also bring challenges as you figure out how to be a team.
The key during this season is to capture the power of "we." When you experience good times, celebrate together. When tough times come, tell yourself that the "we" is more important than the "me." You can strengthen your oneness by creating patterns of healthy love:
- Pray together daily.
- Have a regular date night.
- Attend church as a couple.
- Schedule sex so you connect intimately on a regular basis.
The most critical skill to learn in these early years is to be tough on yourself and tender toward your spouse. This simply means that you become good at forgiving your spouse and become willing to grow in your own areas of personal weakness. Forgiveness, grace and mercy are the traits that protect the "we" of love.
Family fast lane
When children join your family, life speeds up. Your resources, schedules and patience are stretched. Sweet memories are punctuated by sleepless nights as you learn to balance work, home, relationships and personal pursuits. If you're not careful, you and your spouse can drift apart because of your busy schedules.
This was the stage of married life when Bill and I had our yearlong argument. So when tensions ran high because of our hectic schedules, we would tell each other, "I'd rather be busy with you than relaxing on the beach with anyone else!" God led us to create more T.I.M.E. for us:
- Take 10 to 20 minutes a day to talk and connect.
- Invest in a weekly date night.
- Make space each month for a day away from the kids.
- Escape at least once a year for a weekend marriage conference or a couples-only vacation.
It's vital, every day, to carve out time out of earshot of the kids. Additional time together each week, as well as monthly and yearly getaways, will help remind you both of why you first fell in love.
The transition into midlife moves a couple from a life of productivity to a life of influence. During this season of married life, you might find yourself dealing with tweens, teens or college students. You might even have a bonus baby after 40, so you're dealing with a toddler and hot flashes simultaneously. Add to this the possibility of caring for aging parents and you can see the stress scale tipping.
One of the best ways to keep sight of the "we" during midlife is to step back and remember that you now have a family looking to you as leaders and legacy leavers. If you hold tight to your love, the sweet upside of midlife will be revealed when children and grandchildren point to your love as a positive pattern to follow.
Men and women under stress
No matter the season of marriage or the changes that come your way, it's essential to understand that men and women deal with stress differently: Women tend to talk, and men tend to silently stuff. Couples who are aware of these differences between men and women can help minimize the tension by not allowing the push-pull of stress to become a recipe for chaos.
You can't always foresee the changes that will affect your marriage, but you always have a choice in whether those transitions make you resilient or make you want to run. Just as Bill and I came to realize, how you handle stress will define the quality of your love — year after year.Pam and Bill Farrel are international speakers and the authors of The 10 Best Decisions a Couple Can Make and Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti.