Keeping Your Marriage Strong Through Life's Critical Moments
"Most couples don't make it through this kind of stress, you realize that don't you?" the attorney said. My husband and I looked at each other in disbelief. Although the car accident had left my body unstable, we had not considered the impact that it had on our relationship. We were more concerned with the fact that the insurance company was refusing to pay the ongoing cost of treatment than that we were both physically exhausted. Crises were not new to us. We had dealt with them before, but we had never considered it a reason to call it quits.
With the divorce rate hovering at around 50%, there seem to be more reasons to end marriage than to stay married. Whether it is disagreement over finances and career changes, or infidelity and financial woes, more people are choosing to end rather than save their marriages. The most recent US Census shows the number of children born to single mothers is now higher than the number born to married couples. This trend is alarming, however, given our societal emphasis on freedom and individual independence, it is no surprise.
Perhaps marriage has been somewhat idealized by the fictional world of "happily ever after," or perhaps people don't really understand what marriage is all about. It is not meant to be a campground of endless bliss, rather it is the basis of the most fundamental unit of our society: the family. The family is the greatest schoolhouse on the face of the earth. There is no substitute for it, nor can it be abandoned without significant consequences.
There are several important decisions couples make when they marry that impact their ability to remain together, and when reiterated throughout marriage, enable them to be strong in the midst of life's critical moments.
Trading "You and I" for "We"
When a couple decides that they are ready to marry, one of the first choices they make is to trade their personal agendas for one that focuses on them as a single unit. The committment required for this type of transition is solidified by the legal contract of marriage. They are now recognized as a familiy unit as far as society is concerned. From that point on, they are financially and socially responsible for one another and the children born to them.
As always, life happens, and circumstances change our points of view. Each decision made by the couple individually or together either strengthen or weaken the family unit, depending on the priority placed on individual desires versus the needs of the family. There is a delicate balance that must be respected and understood by both marriage partners. Each has their personal needs, and putting these on hold can lead to resentment. At the same time, the family is high priority, and cannot be set aside without affecting all.
It is at these critical moments, that the couple's choice to turn to one another for support and strength increases their committment to the marriage and the family. They may have to forego some things temporarily, both individually and together, to keep the family unit functioning effectively. As they do this, they strengthen their bonds with each other, and the solidarity of the family. Challenges are minimized as they draw strength from their united efforts and sacrifice.
Taking Transitions in Stride
Life is all about change, and marriage is no exception. Transitions occur frequently, whether adding or subtracting family members, taking on new career responsibilities, or moving from one place to another. Throughout all of these changes, adjustments are necessary in the way we think, the feelings we experience, the actions we perform, and the beliefs we hold dear.
Transitions may be planned and prepared for well in advance; namely, babies are born, marriages occur, and people get old and die. Other times, they are thrust upon us through no fault or action of our own. Accidents happen, natural disasters occur, and people do things that we have no control over. The resulting changes are not easy, although they are a vital part of our growth and development as individuals and families.
Having the courage to turn to friends, extended family, and diety during transitions gives a couple support and strength, encouragement, and inspiration. Regular contact with those outside the marriage is necessary for mentorship and learning opportunities. A couple must be careful with those they choose to associate, however. Staying away from entities who breed selfishness and competition against each other will increase the chances of the marriage remaining solid.
Dealing with Conflict
Any time there are two people in one room, there are differences of opinion that can result in conflict. We experience life according to our individual personalities, family backgrounds, cultures, and education. Even then, people in the same family have differing perceptions of situations that they experience simultaneously.
When couples are courting, conflict is minimized purposefully. We want to be at our best and get to know the other person. We keep our weaknesses and imperfections hidden to give love a chance to grow and flourish. Time spent together is usually in activities of our choice that are highly desirable and enjoyable.
The more types of circumstances we experience together, the greater the opportunity to see our potential spouse in difficult or stressful situations. Even then, because we can walk away from the situation, we do not truly "know" how the other person will be once marriage occurs. Some people reason that this is the purpose of cohabitation, to give the couple a chance to see if they can "make it" together. Unfortunately, the lack of long-term committment still makes the relationship potentially vulnerable.
Conflict is guaranteed. It will happen. The way we deal with it affects our feelings for one another, and thus, the marriage relationship. John Gottman, in his book "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail" speaks of communication in marriage. He indicates that every couple developes their own style of dealing with conflict by the way that they communicate with each other. This style may be inhibitive to the relationship, or it will build it, depending upon how it is used, when, and why.
Couples who are able to resolve conflict by communicating with one another are more likely to strengthen their marriage as they work through their differences and difficulties. Couples who turn to activities outside of their marriage, especially if these activities include the use of drugs and alcohol, are weakening the marriage bond. Hobbies, sports, and entertainment have their place in making life enjoyable, but when they become an escape from our problems, we are on dangerous ground.
Since human beings change over time, marriage also changes. During it all, however, as couples remember the decisions that brought them together in the first place: trading "You and I" for "We," taking transitions in stride, and dealing with conflict, they will be in a position to keep their love strong and their relationship intact through life's most critical moments.