Focus on the Family

How to Stay Married When Life Is Tough: Keep Paddling

Couple-paddling-hard-in-a-kayak-with-churning water
© Tanes Ngamsom/
Facing tough times is like paddling a kayak against a strong ocean gale. How do you stay married when life threatens to swamp your relationship?

“Is it too windy to kayak?” my husband asked the guy at the rental counter while we were on vacation in Florida. The wind forecast was 15 to 25 mph, and the waves in Tarpon Bay were choppy. We had to kayak through the bay to reach the calm waters of the “trail,” which meanders through mangrove trees and is populated by some of the area’s beautiful birds.

“Once you’re in the trail, the kayaking is easy,” he said. “But it will take some strong paddling on the way back.”

We decided to risk it. Soon we were in still waters watching the exotic White Ibis, Reddish Egret, Great Blue Heron and Anhinga birds. I didn’t even have to paddle because it was so easy for my husband to navigate these waters. What bliss!

But on the way back, we battled a stiff ocean wind that was unrelenting. It took both of us paddling at full strength — for a long time — to make any headway at all. 

Sometimes life is like that. Tough circumstances suddenly show up and push against you like a strong ocean gale. That’s when you wonder, How did we end up here?

Rough times hit every marriage. My husband and I have faced our fair share of trials in the 35 years of our marriage — an emotional affair, the suicide of one of our sons, both of us being unemployed at the same time, my issues with depression and a painful health issue that incapacitated me for more than a year. 

So how do you survive those unexpected stressors? How do you stay married when difficult seasons and situations threaten to swamp your soul and your relationship? 

Commitment to our marriage and wedding vows was key for us. Once we decided that divorce would never be an option, it was easier to stick together as we faced a strong gale. To survive tough times in marriage, you need to keep paddling together through the stiff winds of life and depend on God, who’s in the boat with you. Here are a few things that helped us hang onto our paddles. 

Don’t blame each other

When you hit choppy seas, you can’t blame your spouse for everything and expect them to do all the work to get you out of the mess. If you do this, you won’t make it to a pleasant destination. God made you one flesh — so lean on each other and the Lord and give each other grace. 

About seven years ago, my husband wanted to quit his job and take on a freelance project. “Your job is secure,” he reassured me, although I still worried as we prayed and made the decision together. The freelance project fell apart about the same time as I was laid off from my job. I was tempted to blame my husband for this predicament, but it wasn’t his fault, and assigning blame wouldn’t have helped. 

We had to paddle hard together — and we did, even though we grew weary of sending out hundreds of resumes. God gave us hope during that season when our future was so unsure. In the end, God provided both of us with fulfilling jobs that paid more than the ones we’d lost. 

Bear the annoyances

If the husband in the back of the kayak is annoyed because his wife’s paddling is splashing water on his face, he can’t complain. She needs to keep paddling, or they won’t make it. The important fact is that she’s giving this mission all she’s got.

The wife sitting in the front of the kayak can’t complain about her position, either, which catches the waves and douses her with ocean water. That’s not her husband’s fault; it’s just part of the circumstances of being in a kayak on a large body of storm-churned water. 

Both husband and wife must focus on moving ahead, one stroke at a time, or they’ll get nowhere fast

When a health condition kept me chained to my couch, unable to walk much or bend over, I was unable to do any housework. My husband could have spent the year being annoyed and resentful that he had a bigger workload — grocery shopping, house cleaning, cooking, laundry. But he kept paddling, even though he didn’t know what would happen the next day or even the next year. 

And I kept paddling my way — seeing doctors and specialists galore, doing exercises, trying medications and asking God to keep me out of despair and heal me. I wanted to be annoyed and irrationally angry with my husband that I had to deal with the medical establishments and the pain while he didn’t, but he was doing his part so very well. His efforts encouraged me to keep paddling as well as he was through this horrible tempest. 

Don’t quit

How do you stay married when you’re in a stressful paddling-against-the-gale situation? Don’t quit! If you do, the kayak of your life will end up blown against the mangroves even farther away from your goal. If you stop paddling and drift backward, your arms will soon wear out because you’ll have to cover the same stretch of the bay all over again. And if you drop your paddles, you’ll be at the complete mercy of the wind. The key to success is teamwork and persistence.

You might have to work incredibly hard for a while. You’ll need to put all your effort into each and every stroke; you’ll feel your muscles straining while your brain says, I don’t know if I can hang on much longer. When I ended an emotional affair early in our marriage and my husband forgave me, I was still depressed in the aftermath and asked myself, Can I hang on? When our son killed himself and I couldn’t get out of bed, I asked God, How can I hang on? When I was in terrible pain for so long, I cried, Lord, I don’t think I can hang on!

Here’s the deal: You must tell yourself that you can hang on, and that you can hang on together. God can give you and your spouse the faith you need to get through your storm. But you must stick together.

If you both keep paddling as if your lives depend on it, you’ll make headway. Then, in one glorious moment, you’ll move past the point where the wind is hitting you straight on. The wind will shift, the waves will stop splashing into the kayak of your life, and finally, you’ll see the shore — the end of the rocky ride. 

God will provide. He’ll give you peace or healing. He’ll give you joy, new circumstances or a different perspective. And you’ll have accomplished this challenging, stretching, amazingly difficult endeavor together

Rely on God’s Word

Never forget that God is in the kayak with you and your spouse and will help you endure. When you feel as if you’re going to drop those paddles, lean extra hard on God’s Word. One night when I was in constant physical pain, my husband read some Psalms to me. That helped us both hang on and keep paddling. 

  • Psalm 145:14-15: “The LORD upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.”
  • 1 Corinthians 13:7: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
  • Lamentations 3:22-24: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ ”
  • James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
  • Philippians 3:13-14: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” 

Enjoy your reward

If you’ve both kept paddling, you’ll have a sweet reward. You and your spouse will be able to look back and be thankful you endured. You’ll be able to say, “Remember when the ocean winds were howling, but we stuck together? Remember how God helped us beat that challenge? Remember what we learned?”

And then you’ll smile at each other, because the ocean squall made your marriage better than it was at the beginning. You didn’t simply stay married. You both grew closer to God, and closer to each other. Your relationship became richer, deeper, more meaningful — all because you kept paddling.

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