Two years into our marriage, my wife, Erin, and I were juggling lots of responsibilities. I was in full-time graduate school, pursuing my doctorate in marriage and family. We had a baby girl to care for and a household to manage. Erin was working full time as a labor-and-delivery nurse, and I needed to make extra money so we could afford to live in Southern California. I ended up getting a part-time job leading drug-and-alcohol recovery groups for a local high school.
Erin and I were loaded down with obligations, and it was beginning to take its toll on us and our relationship. As I look back on that season, I realize we both started to cope with the burden in some unhealthy ways. When I felt stressed out, I withdrew and isolated myself. Erin did the exact opposite. She became overly social and felt the need to connect with friends. Whereas I didn't want to be around anyone because I was exhausted, it seemed like Erin wanted to be around people every night. As you can imagine, this caused plenty of conflict.
Everyone has both healthy and unhealthy coping skills. Some of the more unhealthy ways people deal with pressure include withdrawing from friends, family and activities; taking out their stress on others with angry outbursts or physical violence; becoming a workaholic; overeating or eating too little; and seeking distractions such as shopping sprees or pornography.
What do you do when you're stressed out? When you deal with stressful events in unhealthy ways, you create new problems in your health and relationships. Let's take a look at what happens — and then some ways to constructively deal with stress.
The impact of stress
Stress creates exhausted people who are empty inside — drained physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. When we're worn out, we have nothing to give, and our marriages suffer. Several problems occur when stressful events hit a marriage. First, such situations alter what the couple need to talk about and the time available to talk about it. Thus, the more time they spend dealing with problems, the less time they have to spend on the marriage.
Furthermore, stressful events reduce the ability of couples to successfully manage their issues. Stress is like a circuit breaker on an overloaded electrical line. The circuit breaker trips and the power goes off. The same thing happens in our marriages. When stress overloads a couple, they "trip the circuit breaker" or shut down and thus have a difficult time dealing with the crisis.
Another problem with stressful events is that they cause couples to react more intensely to relationship challenges. The greater the pressure in our lives, the more reactive we are to the normal ups and downs of our relationships. For instance, the wife may feel perceived slights from her spouse more acutely. Or the husband may hear something more in the tone of his wife's voice when she asks him to take out the trash.
Relationships exposed to high stress for a long time are bound to falter, no matter how well each individual's relationship skills are developed. During such times, couples are more likely to view their relationship negatively, not realizing the impact stress is having on their perspective. Remove the stress, and a couple's positive relationship skills can once again — and usually do — take over.
Closed and hardened hearts
The most devastating effect of stressful events is that they make people feel unsafe. And when people feel unsafe, they shut down and their hearts close. Unfortunately, a closed heart will eventually begin to harden.
When Jesus talked about divorce, He mentioned a hardened heart: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning" (Matthew 19:8, NIV). Notice the last phrase: "But it was not this way from the beginning." We usually start marriage with open hearts. However, as conflict and trying situations occur, our hearts can close. How can you tell if a heart has closed? Here are some signs:
- withdrawing from relationships
- displaying negative body language
- living in attack mode
- avoiding touch
- showing a lack of sensitivity
- harboring unforgiveness
- feeling hopeless
King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, gives us this encouragement: "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it" (Proverbs 4:23, NIV). One of the best ways to guard your hearts from becoming closed is to learn how to manage stress in healthy ways.
Healthy ways to deal with stress
Here are some ideas that will help you to take great care of your heart in the midst of stressful events:
Express your feelings. Don't stuff or ignore your emotions. Feelings give your heart a voice. If you don't articulate your feelings, resentment will build and the situation will likely remain the same.
Slow down the pace of life. Intentionally change your pace and create margin — time that is not committed to something specific. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life!
Get plenty of sleep. As adults, we need eight to nine hours of sleep each night.
Rest and relax. Try to keep at least one day a week free from obligations; make it a day of rest to recharge your batteries. Genesis 2:3 tells us that "God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation."
Get regular exercise. Physical activity is a great way to release pent-up energy, stress and tension. Try to engage in at least 30 minutes of exercise, three times per week.
Keep your sense of humor. Laughing helps your body combat stress. "A cheerful heart is good medicine" (Proverbs 17:22, NIV).
Learn how to set boundaries and say no. Whether at work or at home, know your limits. When you're close to reaching them, refuse to accept additional responsibilities.
The bottom line is that taking good care of yourself is always in the best interest of you and your spouse because you can't give what you don't have.
Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley
Dr. Greg Smalley serves as the vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family. He develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages, and help couples in marital crises.
Erin Smalley serves as the program manager for Focus on the Family's marriage ministry and develops content for the marriage department. She presents with Greg at marriage enrichment seminars and she speaks to women on faith, family and the importance of healthy friendships.
Married since 1992, Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley have four children and live in Colorado.
If your marriage is in trouble, there is hope. The Focus on the Family Marriage Institute is here to help — call one of our counselors at 866-875-2915 or visit HopeRestored.FocusOnTheFamily.com.