"Is marriage this hard for everyone?"

"For the sake of our children, for the sake of us, I just want to get through this intact."

These are the types of things I hear as a marriage counsellor. Marital hardship is often expressed as something unexpected. Feelings are betrayed. Expectations are trashed. It’s like a landslide of disappointment.

I remember one husband complaining bitterly about coming home to a barrage of interrogation: "Why are you home so late?" "Who did you talk to today?" "Can I see your phone?" The questions felt like jabs. The words were painful. He was looking for a line to silence the onslaught.

One woman, sinking back deeply into the cushioned chair of my counselling office, came searching for how she could help her marriage stay on the road. “It feels like survival. I tried being quiet, I tried getting mad, and nothing seems to work,” she said, her voice trembling as she spoke. “I just don’t know if staying is the right thing to do. It just feels like this brings out the worst in everyone.” Her once peaceful home was upended. She felt like she was walking on eggshells, constantly rehearsing her script, questioning a response here, changing her positioning there.

While some couples find a way through on their own, many feel stuck. So, what differentiates someone who stays simply to stave off defeat and someone who desires to overcome the strife they feel and ultimately thrive in their marriage?

Qualities of an overcomer

In John 16:33, Jesus explains, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Trials, tribulation and distress in this world are a given, and we are all longing to have what it takes to overcome – to avoid flailing in desperation or showing up with defeat in our heart.

When I have sat with people in their relationship distress, I’ve noticed certain qualities in spouses that define the critical differences between those who are entrenched into their positions in the struggle and those who have an agenda, a goal to work toward. These qualities are starkly different in how they affect one’s hope. They shine like guideposts in the darkness. These are the qualities that you can fix your sights on when desperation and exhaustion are closing in.

1. Active commitment

Active commitment has the stance of looking at the present with a deep awareness of the bigger picture. Distress can feel like an explosion in the frying pan of a catastrophic mind, or it can be soothed in the solid assurance that we are in an intentional place. “But take heart,” God says as he allows distress to roll into your life (John 16:33). Make no mistake, nothing goes unnoticed by our Heavenly Father. The abiding continuity of a God-ordained world, expressed in long-term words of covenant language, pervade the whole of life – marital distress included. This is spiritual business and as such, we can take heart and have confidence in God’s sovereignty.

The active part of commitment is the stance in which you act. Without overlooking the everyday struggle, active commitment retains the expressions of wants, dreams and long-term intentions. In Hebrews 12:2, we’re told to fix our eyes on Jesus. A stance that includes being fixed on points beyond the current distress is where we can put confidence in motion. It is like two-eyed seeing, where we have one eye on the present and one on the big picture. It is seeing beyond the pain we feel now that makes the difference in how we fare in marital distress.

2. Active emotions

Active emotions bring to the forefront what has impacted us in the past. Our emotions remember with sharp precision the presence of a wound. Emotions, that integral source of meaning deep within us, stay running like a background computer underneath our moment-by-moment activity. This is information flow on demand, with each nuance influenced by experiences and events that have informed the emotion.

Contrary to popular belief, time, by itself, does not heal the emotional heart that bleeds. Rather, the processing of emotion is what shifts the meaning from painful wounds to an acceptable price for a marriage struggle. Emotion comes forward to inform or learn from the present. To ignore the emotional flow of influence is to be operating in the dark; but to harness messaging is to have our hands on the most powerful aspects within us. 

Staying active in our emotional life requires awareness. What emotion do I feel? When something my spouse says or does “gets to me,” how am I feeling? There is an emotional message underneath that experience – an experience that is the energizer behind how I respond – and being illiterate to what it stands for creates much less chance of responding well. This is especially true when the pain that comes my way is coming from someone who is not seeing my heart for the longings it has.

One of the differences that helps spouses overcome is assessing the weight of the emotional hurt truthfully. Past injuries and scars heighten the pain in the present. Deeply held reactions are challenging to neutralize, but it is so necessary to really see what is going on now. Sitting in the present emotion is so critical to keeping it from becoming distorted and untrue. This does not mean letting it scream uncontrolled, ramping it up to unmanageable levels, or adding other painful things onto it. It means facing the feeling, one at a time. A spouse who is successful at overcoming marital distress keeps focusing on the emotion they’re feeling at present.

3. Active communication

Active communication is the essential lifeblood of an intimate marriage. When the artery of communication is constricted or blocked, the oxygen vital for the marriage to sustain becomes scarce. Talking about sensitive topics becomes a dangerous act. Unintentionally hurtful words become sources of great pain. And the marriage interactions shift into defensive mode, with each spouse trying to find a safer angle from which to express their feelings. This stance drains both spouses of what will sustain them in the long run.

Staying active in communication requires discernment. “Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord in Isaiah 1:18. Think carefully, think accurately. The implication is blatant. There are blind spots that need to be addressed to bring to focus. Clarity for our personal stance in the marriage relationship is not simply a given. Swerving back into “hearing what I assume I hear” versus “hearing what my spouse is actually feeling” is a precarious process. Misunderstandings, inaccurate conclusions and assigned meanings are responses that shut down the communication. Defensiveness locks the door, and interactions absent from the real feelings creates a starved desert in a marriage.

Active communication must always involve active listening. Tracking your spouse in their communication is like an emotional mirror – we reflect what we are hearing them say. Rather than jumping into our own response, active listening communicates back to your spouse what you are hearing them say and what they are saying about their feelings – without disagreeing, without evaluation and without taking away from their experienced emotional truth. When couples can do this, the truth of what is in their heart can be heard and seen, and they can experience the giving and receiving of life-giving empathy. And empathy opens hearts wide for couples to overcome the struggles they’re in.

If you and your spouse are finding it difficult to overcome difficulties in your marriage, you are not alone. Many couples need additional help to practice active commitment, active emotions and active communication. Our in-house counselling team offers a free, one-time phone counselling consultation. We can also refer you to a trusted counsellor in your area or direct you to our Hope Restored marriage intensives. Call us at 1.800.661.9800 to learn more. 

Please note: This article is not intended for spouses in an abusive marriage. Spouses in this situation need detailed, expert advice that deals specifically with abuse, such as the advice in Leslie Vernick's book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. If you would like to discuss your situation with our professional counsellors, please call 1.800.661.9800 to arrange a free, one-time consultation. 

Tom Peters has been nurturing his passion for helping others over a 35-year journey. Tom earned his MA in Counselling Psychology and in addition to developing a private practice, Tom is a practicing counselling supervisor and a member of the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. He is currently one of Focus on the Family Canada's Hope Restored marriage therapists. Tom and his wife recently celebrated 29 years of marriage. They are parents to two married daughters and one son, and recently became grandparents.

© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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