Ashley and Ben’s marriage was in crisis. Ashley was attracted to another man, and she wasn’t handling the situation in a Christian way. When Ben realized their marriage was in jeopardy, he didn’t know what to do. Then he decided to plan a vacation.
“I was hoping a trip to St. John in the Caribbean would help,” he said, “because we went there on our honeymoon.”
Ben isn’t the first person to think that a vacation will somehow fix marriage struggles. In fact, the summer is usually a time of optimism and high hopes for couples with marriage problems, says Dr. Greg Smalley, vice president of Marriage at Focus on the Family. And this year, maybe more than ever now that COVID-19 restrictions are finally lifting, couples are looking forward to vacations.
“The kids are out of school, and couples are traveling and hoping to have a relaxing summer,” Smalley explains. “Couples are hoping to use that momentum to forge a better relationship.
“Hope and optimism are fantastic,” he says. “But you have to check your expectations. If you think a vacation will save your marriage, that’s unrealistic. If your marriage hasn’t been doing well, you can’t expect that all of the disconnect can be repaired during summer activities. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can put enormous pressure on those times.”
Because some marriages may be at a breaking point following COVID-19 pressures, this summer could be an especially rough season for couples unless they manage their expectations.
“Before COVID, all of the typical distractors and avoidance techniques kept couples from dealing with tough issues,” Smalley explains. “But during the lockdown, all of those activities disappeared. And that forced couples to face the fact that their marriage had significant problems. That’s why a lot of couples are now in crisis.”
So how should a couple in crisis make use of summertime optimism to address their marriage problems? Smalley offers four healthy ways to approach this season.
Have realistic expectations
First, be aware of the pressure you’re putting on the vacation experience, and then recognize that it’s probably unrealistic.
“Usually, vacations never work out perfectly,” Smalley says. “And if you’re already in a crisis season of marriage, any normal vacation problem is going to reinforce the negative things you’re thinking about your marriage. So you have to check your expectations.”
One way to do that is by asking God to help you see the truth. Smalley suggests asking God this: “Give me eyes to see my marriage and the reality of the summer through Your eyes. I want to trust how You interpret this, God, not how I’m interpreting it.”
Smalley believes that unrealistic expectations for the summer season play a role in why the number of divorces typically spike in August.
Pair optimism with help
Once you’ve examined your expectations, use the optimism you’re feeling as fuel to work on your marriage problems, Smalley says. Just be sure to pair it with help from a counselor.
“You might be feeling some hope going into summer, but unless you’re willing to get help with your marriage, you’ll end up doing the same things you’ve always done,” Smalley says. “You can go on your vacation, but also decide to do the hard work on your relationship.”
Fight negative beliefs
Another way to build on the optimism of summertime is to examine the beliefs you’ve formed about your marriage. What beliefs do you have? Are they true, or have you sometimes misinterpreted your spouse’s actions and words?
“Satan likes to use lies to destroy marriages,” Smalley says. “Some of those lies might include ‘My spouse will never change,’ or ‘Our problems aren’t fixable.’ ” Spouses need to fight those negative beliefs, he says, and give each other grace and the benefit of the doubt.
“You might think you know why your spouse did or said something, but you could be wrong.” Smalley offers this example:
“My spouse always takes advantage of me.” So when you see your husband leave his cereal bowl in the sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher in the morning, you default to that belief instead of considering other reasons for his action.
But if you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, it forces you to ask a question. You can say, “Hey, can you help me understand why you left your bowl in the sink?” And your spouse might say, “Well, the kids got in a fight and I had to deal with that” or “I was stressed out and late for a meeting.”
If you want a fresh start in your marriage, Smalley encourages you to fight the negative beliefs, give your spouse some grace and seek understanding.
Make outings conflict-free
If you’re looking forward to making good memories and growing closer to your spouse this summer, Smalley says having conflict-free events is important. When you plan fun outings, agree that they will be free of conflict.
“If my wife, Erin, and I want to have some fun on a hike, that’s not the time to deal with a relationship problem. We’re not willing to take experiences that could connect us and turn them into venues for processing issues,” Smalley says. “Save your discussions about conflicts for counseling.”
Finally, Smalley says to use this time of optimism to work on your contribution to your marriage relationship. “Ask yourself, what can I do? How can I deal with my negative beliefs? How can I choose to show up in this relationship? And ask God, ‘How do You want to grow me?’ ”
What happened to Ashley and Ben, the couple in crisis and on vacation in the Caribbean? The romantic getaway didn’t change a thing, but they did get help through a book written by a Christian counselor. The book pointed Ashley to God’s truth about marriage and the meaning of true love. The couple has now been happily married for more than 35 years.
If you or someone you know needs marital help, Focus on the Family has resources and counseling to assist. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or [email protected].