Family Crisis — Continue Holding on to Each Other

An illustration of a husband and wife embracing, surrounded by flowers and leaves.
Ali Zhang
Your decisions now can help you prepare for future crises

The headline in the newspaper was unthinkable! The front page of the Orlando Sentinel showcased a familiar face—our son, Jason’s. But in our wildest imagination, we could never have conceived of this headline: “Blemish for Navy Officer—Murder Charge in Orlando Shooting.” A family crisis.

We had been awakened in the middle of the night with the news that Jason, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate with an impeccable record, had shot and killed his wife’s first husband.

For several months after Jason’s arrest for this heinous crime, I had trouble going about simple daily tasks, and Gene and I had strained communication. We were a Christian couple who had raised an only child. He had been a good kid with a heart to serve God and his country. How could this horrific crime have happened?

A strain on our relationship

Our marriage faced new challenges. Our distress over Jason left us short-tempered, and we sometimes allowed little disagreements to escalate into full-blown arguments. And the issue of money suddenly became an ever-present source of tension: Where would the funds for a good attorney come from? How would we make a living and still be tirelessly available to Jason? Should we continue to minister in light of our son’s actions? (We were in full-time Christian ministry; speaking and writing provided our only income.)

An awkwardness over physical intimacy also overshadowed our time together. I couldn’t think about pleasure when my son was in jail facing the death penalty. Gene, on the other hand, believed if we ever needed that physical closeness, it was now.

Following such devastating news and with a strain on our relationship, we didn’t know how we could make good decisions when we could barely breathe or think, let alone talk to each other.

But we made it through the ordeal. What helped us was that we’d put in place good marriage practices before the crisis hit. Dealing with the unexpected was easier because we made “pre-decisions” as a couple. These kinds of choices helped us and can help other couples navigate the hard places in their relationship and build a stronger marriage in preparation for the times when life turns upside down.

Here’s how Gene and I use pre-decision-making to help us do “the next right thing” in our marriage, no matter the family crisis. 

Important pre-decisions

Unexpected marriage trials might include dealing with sudden financial pressures, figuring out how to restructure your lives to meet the needs of a child with special needs, facing a health crisis, understanding the gender confusion of your teenager, caring for the needs of an aging parent, figuring out next steps with a drug-addicted child, coping with the long-term effects of a bad accident and much more.

Gene and I made a list of five principles we’re committed to live by no matter how intense our personal challenges or a family crisis become. After our son was arrested, we didn’t want to overthink simple decisions, and we certainly didn’t want to start overreacting to the multiple unwanted interruptions our son’s incarceration brought into our lives. The following pre-decisions made our marriage healthier, bolstered our intimacy and reaffirmed the teamwork our journey required.

I will seek, honor and respect the advice of my spouse. 

That meant listening to each other more than talking loudly and giving
strongly worded instruction to each other. We committed to not turning away from each other (emotionally or physically) just because our personal challenge was hard. To do this, we developed a team mentality and vowed to value all input from each other before making final decisions. And we put Romans 12:10 to work in our relationship: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Prior to Jason’s arrest, I had made a point of being as open and transparent with people as possible. But now a choice had to be made. Gene suggested that I listen and ask questions of others about their lives, rather than immediately sharing our turmoil. At first it felt like I was being dishonest by withholding information on the horrible situation we were going through. But after I listened to Gene’s advice and put it into practice, I realized it was the wisest choice. 

Instead of our friends feeling awkward while sharing their stories, which to them might have seemed like minor issues compared to our story, people were able to speak openly about their hard journeys, and we could pray with them for their needs without overwhelming them with our own crisis. 

I will serve my spouse sacrificially. 

Galatians 5:13 says, “Through love serve one another.” When our son was first arrested, it took time to explain to relatives and friends what had happened. Amid multiple allegations of past abuse involving Jason’s young stepdaughters and his wife’s ex-husband, he had made a horrible decision. My friends were grieving with us, but the communications were emotionally and physically exhausting. Gene knew I was unable to handle all the people who cared about us—so he took care of those calls day after day and week after week. And every morning he made coffee and delivered it to my bedside, often without words, placing a hand on my arm, or rubbing my feet with tender compassion. He served me long before I figured out how I needed to serve him.

I will practice automatic forgiveness. 

Gene and I acknowledged that one of us is no more perfect than the other, and we would automatically forgive our spouse’s unwise words, weaknesses, emotional flare-ups and errors in judgment, whether or not we were under stress. We reviewed Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” 

I married a man who likes to live in a clutter-free environment. Throughout our marriage we’ve both worked at keeping our home organized. However, I didn’t keep my side of our bedroom closet neat. It was overcrowded and messy. 

One month after our son’s arrest, we were both in the walk-in closet when Gene blurted out in a loud voice, “I don’t understand why you can’t give clothing away that you haven’t worn in the past year!” I blew up with an unkind response, and a verbal battle ensued. Moments later, Gene said, “I’m sorry; will you forgive me? I’m not really mad about the closet, and I’m certainly not angry with you.” That day we eventually fell into each other’s arms and wept, recognizing that our feelings about Jason, our family’s crisis, were contributing to conflicts.

Together we agreed that the bond of love we shared was stronger than our momentary bursts of temper—and we would choose forgiveness immediately and repeatedly. Author and radio co-host Elisa Morgan writes: “Forgiveness usually isn’t a one-time experience. It’s an ongoing process. You have to work at it.” She’s right! It isn’t easy—but it’s worth it!

I will control my tongue. 

One of my most vivid memories from my growing-up years involved my family having dinner in the home of friends from church. One day I was in the kitchen helping several adults with final meal preparations. Mrs. Johnson,* the hostess, was wearing a short-sleeved dress and was dripping with perspiration at the stove. As she reached for a spatula, Mr. Johnson grasped the loose flesh under her arm and jiggled it back and forth. “I think it’s time for us to work on the battle of the bulge,” he said.

Mrs. Johnson’s face turned red. His insensitive comment deeply hurt her. My parents looked embarrassed, said they needed to check on their kids and left the kitchen. From that point on, I knew that one of the most important issues for me when I married would be my husband’s loyalty—I wanted a spouse who would not put me down with unkind words, either in public or in private.

Before our words could get us into all kinds of trouble, Gene and I made the choice to

  • Use positive, uplifting, kind and encouraging words.
  • Be first to admit when you’re wrong and be first to apologize. 
  • Think first, rather than lashing out in anger.

Just before Gene and I got married, my father reminded us of an important Scripture: Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

I will seek God’s will and make decisions quickly following reasonable consideration.

I found decision-making difficult when it came to our crisis with an incarcerated son. The questions surrounding our finances, our ministry efforts and our housing situation were overwhelming.

We discovered that when we regularly spent time with the Lord—alone and together—Scripture passages we were reading helped to confirm our decisions. We discussed the options, shared what we believed God was nudging us to do, and then made the next important choice without looking back. This mode of operating amid challenging times was freeing and empowering. We sought God’s leading—through His Word, through prayer, through rational discussions with each other—and we committed to doing the next right thing as quickly as possible.

Empowering choices

On the day of Jason’s conviction and sentencing, the news media descended on us. Our family crisis was fodder for the world. Cameras and microphones were thrust in our faces—and we left the courthouse as quickly as we could walk out to the privacy of our car. That night, all we could do was hug each other and cry. No words could express the pain in our hearts. 

As week followed week, we found solace in holding each other. One day Gene looked at me tenderly and said, “I couldn’t do this without you. The journey is too hard.” We were learning step by step and day by day that we could survive, and maybe even learn how to thrive if we stayed committed to being “in this together.” We determined that we would learn how to laugh again and that we would be intentional about thanking God for opportunities to encourage other couples even though our own family crisis wasn’t ideal. As a couple, we verbalized our commitment to build a stronger marriage—and now we make daily choices to reaffirm that decision. •

*Some names have been changed.

Are you pre-decision ready?

Read these statements aloud. Discuss with your spouse how well you put these statements into action during a family crisis. Do you . . .

  • Value and respect advice from each other.
  • Serve each other sacrificially.
  • Forgive quickly when offended.
  • Think before we speak.
  • Ask God for guidance in our decision-making.

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