Bob* spent 25 years climbing the corporate ladder at a company that provided financial stability for him, his wife, Susan, and their two teenage sons. Working with his colleagues and customers felt like smooth ocean waves, refreshing and free of stress. Then the people in charge and their policies started to change. Life quickly went from tranquil to turbulent.
Prior to the changes, Bob’s colleagues and superiors had frequently invited him to strategy meetings. His previous managers had also trusted him with a lot of autonomy. Now, meetings were held behind closed doors, and Bob spent his afternoons justifying even the smallest business matters to his supervisors. His new managers began to challenge long-accepted service patterns.
His relationship with his customers suffered, too. Clients who once accepted friendly interactions now questioned them. Customer conflicts began to escalate.
As a result, Bob’s sleep dwindled to less than three hours a night for months on end. Already a thin man, he lost 20 pounds. Once a self-assured employee, Bob became anxious, depressed and consumed with self-doubt.
In the midst of the turmoil and stress, Bob prayed: “God this is what I know how to do, and if You want me to do something different, then You are going to have to move me.” And move him God did, but not before Bob’s health took major a hit. The company downsized and Bob lost his job. He and Susan suddenly found themselves in a major multifaceted crisis that would push their marriage and their faith to the limit and beyond.
Assess the crisis
In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, you and your spouse may feel as if your entire life has been ripped apart and may never come back together. Your former life is gone, and nothing seems certain. Fear of what will happen is intense. Your situation feels insurmountable, intangible, ominous and indefinable. You don’t know where to begin or how to respond.
During this time, couples need to work together to assess the effects of the crisis. My wife, Patty, and I work with couples at Lightshine Counseling using a helpful tool we call a waves analogy. Many couples use words related to water to describe their feelings such as in over my head, crashing down, and drowning. We ask couples to describe and organize the impact of the crisis into hard, harder or hardest waves and waves that are or may still be coming. This exercise brings definition and clarity to couples in crisis and gives them a common language for staying united against problems.
Couples also use the waves list to focus their prayers. For each wave category, we ask couples to create a prayer list of best-case outcomes for the situation and then invite God “to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
Bob and Susan identified the job loss as a harder wave that generated their hardest wave — the possibility of losing their home. Bob, a self-described disaster forecaster, would imagine losing his home and spiral into a pattern of negativity and anxiety. His attitude would discourage Susan and create additional stress on the marriage.
Susan expressed to Bob that his catastrophic forecasting was crushing her desire to remain hopeful and was also undermining her ability to cope. To help break the pattern, they added saving their home to their waves list and began praying together over it.
Helping Bob shift to prayerful expectation allowed them to work together as a couple against external problems. Bob and Susan also limited discussing the dilemma to 30 minutes a day with journaling in the morning. For the rest of the day when they felt anxious, they reminded themselves that they had already addressed the problems. They chose not to focus further energy on the crisis for that day, and instead they began asking God to provide strength in the moment.
Journal the journey
Journaling not only helps with addressing problems, it is also a tool to help couples remain close. Patty and I ask couples to use journaling to refocus their negative expectations into a treasure hunt, and then look for jewels or blessings in the midst of their dark time. We also ask them to keep a journal of their discoveries.
Bob and Susan began to journal their waves journey. At one point when Bob found himself in a faith crisis, God showed up in an unusual way. Susan and a friend noticed a black Corvette with a license plate reference to Psalm 116. Knowing Corvettes are Bob’s favorite car, when Susan got home, she suggested that Bob turn to the passage. They immediately knew this was God’s word for Bob just at his point of need.
The Psalm reflected exactly how Bob was feeling, the cords of death gripping at him (v. 3). The passage reminded Bob to call on the name of the Lord, “Lord, save me!” (v. 4) Hanging on to God’s promises, Bob also declared he would walk with the Lord “in the land of the living” (v. 9) and redirect his energy toward resting in God’s goodness.
In time, Bob was notified that he had a second retirement account due to a company merger. With the extra funds, not only did Bob and Susan save their house, they had just enough to pay off the remaining mortgage. This exceeded anything they had initially prayed over, and they remembered this was not God’s first time to go beyond their needs.
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Create a marriage timeline
Patty and I also encourage couples who have weathered years together to reflect on where they’ve been. God told the Israelites to remember the trials He brought them through by setting up stone pillars (Joshua 4).
We suggest couples use a marriage timeline for this exercise. Begin with your first year together, make five-year hash marks and end with today. Note previous hardships, triumphs and places where God has worked in your lives. Write down important milestones such as births, deaths, graduations, struggles and victories, and then identify your marriage strengths.
Bob and Susan had experienced God’s faithfulness throughout their marital difficulties, from infertility (birthed two children) and Susan’s health issues to parenting a son with a disability. They remembered the way God brought them through the challenges of home-schooling their kids. These triumphs reminded Bob and Susan of God’s faithfulness and their marriage resiliency. It increased the confidence that He would come through this time as well.
Hold off on big decisions
Immediately following a calamitous wave, you may want to plan for the future based on what you know now. You may think you have received revelation regarding a new plan to move forward. While thinking about the future can help keep negative ruminations from spiraling out of control, the near-term period is a dangerous time to make big, and even not-so-big, decisions.
It’s easy to make mistakes, especially about your relationship with your spouse. Powerful emotions overly influence what may seem like good ideas. It’s natural to experience intense fear and anxiety during this season. The more self-aware you can be about your internal self-talk and your emotional reactions, the better you will communicate with your spouse about what is really going on with you.
Further, critical situations disrupt normal patterns of relating with your mate. Your spouse may behave or react in ways that seem as if they are working against or attacking you.
For example, before he discovered the additional pension, Bob exerted significant mental energy making a to-do list so they could put their house on the market quickly. This made Bob feel like he was in control. Bob would sometimes tell Susan they had to sell the house right away, but Susan was not on board.
When emotions ran high and Bob and Susan clashed, they found it helpful to use a manna-for-the-day metaphor (Exodus 16) to remind each other to shorten their focus to present-day issues. Bob and Susan began to ask each other, “Can we make it today?” The answer was usually manageable.
Seasons when emotions run high can be dangerous for your marriage. Each of you will be dealing with your own internal emotional storms and runaway thought trains.
Trying to take on all of the future unknowns will usually overwhelm the emotional resources that you desperately need for today. Attempting to project too far into the future (sometimes even to tomorrow or the day after that) can rob you of the energy you need to face today’s issues.
On the flip side, you or your spouse may experience fear paralysis or analysis paralysis. You may avoid taking necessary steps, which can also lead to mistakes. Pray together and rely on the Spirit’s guidance during this time. Remember that you only have a few pieces of the big picture and God’s plan is bigger than yours (and His may include things you see as missteps).
In the near-term, our clients appreciate sharing concerns with each other daily and helping each other stay focused. Decisions made as a couple are always better than choices made by one spouse for the couple.
Take care of yourself
Immediately after a crisis, you may find you only have energy to get through the day. Understandably, you want to expend your physical and emotional strength tackling urgent needs. In that process you may end up feeling emotionally depleted. Nothing is left over for your mate. Consider minimizing all outside commitments and make sure you each have a plan for self-care. In the manner in which you love yourself, love each other (Mark 12:31).
Couples that Patty and I counsel make progress when each spouse expresses his or her emotional capacity regularly; daily at a minimum, more frequently if needed. During these times each spouse can get through by extending extra measures of grace to each other.
Reach for reinforcements
When your mate struggles to survive and you also feel depleted, call on outside resources for support. Reach out to your church, trusted friends, older children, family and professional counsel for short-term help. You and your spouse can then take time and space to shore up your emotional, mental and physical resources.
Bob initially believed he had to save the household on his own. By not taking care of himself, Bob’s physical and emotional strength completely broke down. Bob was not able to support Susan during this rough patch, so Susan reached out to friends and their older teen sons for extra support. One son invited Bob to go to his workout sessions. The two sons also took turns with Susan getting up with Bob in the middle of the night to help him through swells of anxiety. They also agreed to take him on hikes when his depression and regrets soared. This gave Susan some much needed respite and sleep.
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Release your regrets
In the immediate aftermath of your tsunami, your thoughts may race backward, trying to make sense of what happened, who’s to blame and what you could have done differently. Mulling over negative thoughts stirs up intense emotions, triggering avalanches of more negative thoughts. You can find yourself stuck in an unhealthy cycle of regret.
Patty and I frame this phase in the context of grief after a significant loss. Rather than ruminate on how things went wrong, we ask our clients to frame specific regrettable events with words like better, more or different. For each event they write out what happened and then make a feeling-oriented statement or two such as, “That could have gone better if I would have …” or “I feel really sad that I will not get to do more of …” or “I wish that event had gone differently.”
Taking time to work through the feelings is paramount to the healing process, and sharing these feelings with your mate facilitates restoration, intimacy and closeness. When clients feel stuck in guilt or shame, we work through a self-forgiveness exercise to release disproportional regrets. We attempt to reinforce resilience in both spouses, empowering couples to press on together. Grieving and letting go of regrets are essential to moving forward. Couples may benefit greatly from professional help to get through the process, which can take significant time and energy.
Embrace new beginnings together
People vary in their response to a crisis. Some will immediately strike out in a new direction. Others will not rebound quickly. Still others will struggle, and their recovery will take longer and require more effort. Consider your spouse’s personality traits. Make this an opportunity to learn more about your spouse. God wants to heal you and grow you together in new ways.
One day at work when Bob’s long career was going from bad to worse, he heard I have a plan pass through his thoughts. The words had a different vocal quality than his usual self-talk. He believed the Lord had personally reassured him. Bob clung in faith to that message.
Initially, Bob thought God’s plan was lining up with his own plan to stay at the company. Bob had received the I have a plan message before his harder and hardest waves hit. He struggled through what seemed like mixed messages from God. Sometimes it felt as if God was not there at all or was just toying with him.
Loss like this can trigger a crisis of faith. Bob found himself in just such a place. But God was not finished with Bob or Susan. God granted Susan extra measures of grace through the darkest of Bob’s days. Susan encouraged Bob by reminding him that their crisis was no surprise to God. Bob held on by a thread to faith that God did, indeed, have a plan. Bob had to fight to give up his own expectations for that plan, yielding to what God was going to do.
This journey stripped away Bob’s dependence on his job, his own plan and even on his ability to provide security for Susan. As they searched for new direction, Bob and Susan began to look at their new life through eyes of faith, keeping a very short leash on their own imaginings.
Every day in the immediate aftermath God provided a new lesson about His faithfulness. Susan would envision herself and Bob embarking on an adventure with God, embracing the unknown with anticipation of what God may bring. Throughout their journey, Bob embraced the sense of adventure, sharing new hopes with God and Susan. This adventure mindset bonded them closer to each other and to God. Bob eventually went back to school while Susan worked in a new career field to support them during that time. Together they figured out a way to invest in a vacation rental property, which was one of their dreams.
You and your spouse can weather the short-term, after-crisis blows together with intentional, purposeful attention and recommitment to God and to each other.
Steven L. Keller is a licensed professional counselor with an M.A. in counseling. Patricia L. Keller is a family nurse practitioner and clinical nurse specialist. Together they help individuals and couples in Estes Park, Colorado, at Lightshine Counseling.
* Names have been changed.