As I sit in my bed being warmed by a heating pad, watching my sweet puppy sleep, it is hard to recall the way I felt when Eric and I were in our graduate school internship. We were both working full time back then and, after a long day at our jobs, we would rush across town and spend hours counseling young couples. The work was no doubt rewarding, but after advising students all day and working with couples all night, this introvert was struggling to keep it together (literally, we were doing 70-80 hour workweeks for a number of months). Eric was also exhausted, but it takes a lot more exhaustion to get him to his breaking point.
During this phase of our marriage, it was difficult to remain loving and respectful towards each other – and, we were also not eating properly. In fact, we would swing through a drive-thru on our way home from counseling almost every night (as it was one of the few places still open) and order several small sandwiches each. Eric lost weight during that time (it was not fair!). All the while focusing on helping other relationships, we were not spending time working on our relationship. More than anything, we were simply spent and the stress built up over time. In fact, I recall getting into a fight with Eric on the way home from counseling couples one night, making the same mistakes I had just counseled a young couple to avoid. It was almost funny… almost.
This time in our lives is a bit of a blur, but I am certain we repeatedly failed at showing each other love and respect. In the thick of it, I called my Dad crying and asked him if I could come home.
Me: (weeping): “Can I come home?”
Dad: “Sure, come on home.”
Me: “I don’t want to leave Eric. I just want to get away from all the stress!”
Dad: “Bring him with you!”
Thanks to our gracious Heavenly Father, we made it through, graduated, and now have a chance to work with couples worldwide. Our practicum and internship year is not a year which I would like to visit again; but, it was one that was necessary – and surely grew us in ways we may never even recognize.
Stressful times will come in your future marriage and, Lord willing, many special times will too. Life is a series of ups and downs, and wearying stress makes Christ-followers long for eternity. What we should remember is that being overwhelmed, hormonal, sick, or sleep-deprived does not give us an excuse to be unloving and disrespectful (cf. Ephesians 5:21-33).
When faced with a challenging season, your success in remaining kind towards one another will largely depend on what you do before and in the midst of the struggle. Prepare for those spiraling-down times so you are ready to face them when they come:
- Stay on your knees. Yes, I too have rolled my eyes dozens of times at this advice. The advice of, “Just pray about it,” always felt like a cop-out to me (and some of the time, it is). People want to give advice and, when they have none to offer, they resort to admonishing us to pray, pray, pray. Prayer is wonderful and should be our first thought rather than our last resort, but I still get annoyed when Christians throw it out in an attempt to end a conversation or render some form of advisement. In this case, however, I mean it sincerely. To remain loving and respectful in stressful times, we need to pray fervently in every Is life going well? Stay in prayer. Is life shaky and uncertain? Keep praying. Do you feel your world caving in on every side? Keep crying out to the Father. It is our consistent communion with God and our constant saturation in His Word which keeps us grounded regardless of the peace or chaos we are experiencing in our personal lives.
- Stay in the Word. This phrase reminds me of a dear friend who learned a lesson in preparation one Sunday morning. When she was in college, a different member of her church would stand before the congregation each Sunday and offer some words of encouragement. Finally, it was her Sunday to speak! Being the free-spirited lady she has been since birth, she decided not to write a speech, but to walk on stage and say whatever words came to her mind at the time. Unfortunately, no words came. As she stood there, facing the crowd, she lifted her Bible and said, “Stay in the Word!” The crowd cheered and clapped. When the applause died down, she, having not thought of anything else to say, once again shouted, “Stay in the Word!” The crowd cheered, though not as excitedly as before, as they anticipated her coming message…which was, “Stay in the Word!” By this point, there were a few claps from the congregation, some confusion, and probably some snickers. Embarrassed and discouraged, with a mind as blank as a bleached white sheet, she stepped down and took her seat. I have repeatedly laughed over this story! What joy it has dumped into my soul. And, though she did not intend to give such a simple message, it was (and still is) true and to the point. Who among us does not need to be reminded to stay in God’s Word regularly? It is where our answers lie. It is where we find our peace. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:3-4, ESV). When I need a good laugh, and when I need a good reminder, I think of my friend’s emphatic decree to Stay in the Word! ~smile~ When we fill our minds with Scripture, God’s truth spills out of us during trying situations. Eric can often tell when I have been to Bible study because my demeanor is more gentle and peaceful and I am unknowingly more respectful. “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV).
- Do Not Neglect to Nourish. Our bodies have needs we often neglect – and sleep is one thing most of us could likely prioritize more highly than we currently do. In some seasons of life (college, baby at home, etc.), it is difficult (or even impossible) to receive the amount of sleep your body needs. In those moments, God’s grace is sufficient and He can grant our weary souls rest. Other times, we simply choose more amusing activities over rest. I will watch one more episode… and then I will sleep. I can finish one more chore before bed. I will play one more game on my phone… and then, I am going to sleep! Okay, one more game. Sigh, okay, just let me beat this dumb level and then I will go to bed. In addition to sleep, we need water! Dehydration affects our attitudes and our health. I can tell a huge difference in my sense of well-being when I drink enough water. Divide your weight in half and drink that many ounces of water. If you are 150 pounds, then drink at least 75 ounces of water throughout the day. It will make a positive difference! And, of course, we need proper nutrition. Balanced eating keeps our bodies running smoothly, and when we feel better, we are naturally more gracious and patient. One of our former clients asked his girlfriend the following three questions when she became overwhelmed and emotional: How much sleep did you get last night? How much water have you had today? When did you last eat? What simple and wise questions! So many of our negative emotions which lead to sinful behaviors are spurred by neglecting to properly nourish the bodies God gave us.
- Keep a Blessings Journal (one in general and one for your relationship). Gratitude is huge, my friends! No matter how angry and disrespectful I feel, I cannot help but calm down when I consider all the reasons I have to be thankful. Eric works hard. He has provided a good home. He would fight a bear for me. When someone is mistreating me, he is quick to put an end to it. His faults do not change the fact that he blesses me in a myriad of ways. When you get married, start a gratitude journal that very night (if not before!). Each day, write something about your spouse for which you are thankful; and, when challenging times come (and they will), open your journal and remind yourself of how thankful you are for your partner. Thanksgiving makes a difference! “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were calledin one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:15-17, ESV).
- Surround Yourself with Wise Friends. It is in my nature to sooth and ease. The desire to nurture is a gift… and it is also a stumbling block. When friends and loved ones are struggling due to the consequences of their sin, my first instinct is to want to make them feel better. My “help” often comes in the form of finding reasons to explain away their guilt. Sure, you watch six hours of television a night, but it is because you have a stressful job. We all struggle to read God’s Word and pray regularly. You are not alone. Your boss hurts your feelings constantly. I can understand why it is hard for you to stay motivated at work. (The latter two statements are not necessarily bad, but they are incomplete.) What I appreciate about several of my friends is that they affirm me and they do not neglect to tell me the truth. Having these ladies around me is helpful for my marriage. If they simply egged on my anger by validating my fickle emotions, they would drive the existing wedge further. Simple phrases such as, “I know it seems hopeless now. I have been there, but God can restore your relationship,” bring perspective and hope. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9, ESV).
- Dump the Blame Game. Whenever Eric and I are at odds with each other, I am tempted to place 100% of the blame on him. You should hear some of my prayers during these times. However, God, being full of grace and truth, lovingly reminds me that I also contribute to these situations. Does Eric sin? Yes, but so do I – sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly – and focusing on his sin does me no good; it only plants seeds of bitterness and tempts me to justify my Well, if he did not speak to me harshly, I would naturally be more respectful. That statement is likely true, but his sin is no excuse for my sin. At the heart of the matter, I do not respect Eric because he is deserving (and he does not love me because I am deserving). I respect him because I love and want to serve my Father in Heaven. He is the One who directs me to honor and respect my husband. He is the same God who instructs Eric to love and cherish me. When we disregard His commands to love and respect, we sin against Him. Blaming each other does nothing to remove or justify our guilt. It did not work in the Garden of Eden and it does not work now (cf. Genesis 3:12-13). When you remove the blame game from your life, it becomes significantly easier to remain loving and respectful despite your circumstances.
- Check Your Heart Daily. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24, ESV). In the past couple of weeks, we have had more company over than usual. Preparing for our first round of guests, I cleaned the house thoroughly; and, as usual, I stepped back and admired my work. Being a naturally messy person, I am thrilled with the fruits of my labor when I spend the day cleaning. The following day, my brother-in-law texted me and said, “Hey, I am going to be in the area if you guys don’t mind me stopping by for a few minutes.” To my glee, the house was still clean! There was no frantic power cleaning. The house was ready. The following night, we had some yummy leftovers from a church event, and I said, “Eric, why don’t we have a couple over tomorrow night since we still have so much food?” My social husband was more than happy to agree. Had my house been a disaster, there is no way I would have suggested having guests over on such short notice. Because of the joy we have experienced from maintaining a clean house over the past week, I am more determined than ever to keep my home tidy (though, not spotless), so we can welcome guests at a moment’s notice if the opportunity arises. The same principle is true in our hearts. When we let clutter build up – resentments, hurt feelings, frustrations, unmet expectations, lies – it takes significant effort to clean out the junk and create a welcoming environment. When we ask God to search our hearts daily, and we repent of sins as we become aware of them, we remain clean and ready to be relationally hospitable. My mentor, who recently went home to be with the Lord, practiced this principle. She kept her heart and her home clean. Though she went through years of uncertainty, heartache, and challenges, she was always peaceful and ready to show grace to others – the fruit of a clean heart.
Whether he was the first one to coin this phrase or not, Benjamin Franklin is credited with the famous saying, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” I have proven this truth repeatedly in my life. If I do not plan to get up at a certain time (and prepare a surefire way to get my rear end out of bed), I will sleep too long, be annoyed, and not get much done during the day. If I do not determine how I will spend my Saturday, it will drift away in the sea of television and Candy Crush Saga (not that a rest day isn’t appropriate from time to time, but I can easily go there when not planning to). When I do not pray and still my soul before a difficult conversation with Eric, I can expect to become defensive and turn a small matter into a fight.
Scripture is clear that we will encounter potholes in life:
- “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1, ESV).
- “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12, ESV, emphasis mine).
- “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1, ESV).
- “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18, ESV).
Scripture promises struggle; and, for those who repent and put their trust in Christ for salvation, Scripture promises much hope! We frequently prepare for possible problems. We lock our doors in case someone without good intentions tries to come into our home. We buy insurance in case we need financial assistance during an emergency. We keep a spare tire in our trunks in case we blow a tire. When it comes to times of strain and frustration in our marriage, we do not have to wonder. We know they are coming… and it is unwise not to prepare.
Eric and I have not reached perfection in this area. Like all married couples, we are a work in progress; however, any stride towards Christ-likeness is celebration worthy!
Recently, I was telling my former roommate about a verbal exchange Eric and I shared while we were traveling to Colorado last Spring. She responded, “Wow, that story shows how much Eric has grown. He would not have handled that situation as well when you were first married.” Her comment was a terrific reminder to appreciate Eric’s growth. Hopefully, he has a few examples of my growth too!
Our prayer for you is that you begin your marriage in constant prayer, saturated in God’s Word, and nourishing your bodies properly. We hope you will keep a journal of thanksgiving, surround yourselves with wise friends, dump the blame game completely, and check your hearts daily. If you do, you will be better prepared to remain grounded, loving, and respectful towards your spouse in the good times and bad.
How many of these seven steps are already a habit for you?