Recognizing and helping those in high-risk marriagesWritten by Gary J. Oliver
What's inside this article
Tim was a good husband and father, reliable employee and patriotic soldier who served his country in the National Guard. When he was called to full-time duty, he and his wife, Julie, knew their separation would be difficult but were confident they would get through it.
After his first deployment, Tim took a second tour of duty. When he finally returned home, it seemed that his wife and daughters had changed. His old job had been filled, his finances were in shambles and he was struggling with anxiety, depression and fears he had never known.
At the same time, Tim’s family noticed this husband and father who was usually positive, affectionate and social had become pessimistic, critical, irritable and withdrawn. The more Julie reached out to him, the more he withdrew.
"I felt as though I’d lost a husband, our girls had lost their father and Tim had lost a part of himself," Julie said. After six months of trying to make things work, Tim and Julie began to think about divorce for the first time in 15 years of marriage.
Sadly, Tim and Julie’s experience is not uncommon. They are among three distinct groups of couples whose marriages are falling apart at an alarming rate. These three at-risk groups are military personnel, emergency responders and parents of children with disabilities.
Military marriages are besieged by a number of stressors. Soldiers must cope with extended absences, uncertainty about the future, the daily or weekly possibility of death and the emotional and relational challenges of re-entering society after deployment. About 40 per cent of military personnel who return from a war zone struggle with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. All these factors take a toll on even the healthiest marriage. Almost two-thirds of the marriages of junior enlisted personnel end in divorce.
Emergency responders and medical personnel also encounter extraordinary pressures that can tear apart a marriage. One minute they are sitting at the fire station reading a book; the next minute they’re at the scene of a horrific crash with the mangled bodies of a family. They do all they can, but despite their heroic efforts, the mother of three young children is DOA. That’s what takes place in just the first half of their shift.
The lives of emergency responders are filled with crisis, unspeakable trauma, frustration, disappointment and grief. What they see in one week is more than most people see in a lifetime. Although they are trained professionals, they are also normal men and women, husbands and wives, who cannot help but be impacted by what they see and do.
Some cope by suppressing and ignoring the pain. Sharing their experiences with others may cause them to relive the trauma, so they often choose not to talk about their jobs. If they don’t find support, however, the increased pain leads to irritability, isolation and anger. Eventually, they may medicate the pain with alcohol or drugs.
Parents of kids with disabilities face a set of challenges that extend far beyond those of the average household. Every morning they wake up not only to the constant grief of seeing their child struggling, but also to a host of endless tasks that may include managing medications, visiting doctors, helping with physical therapy and monitoring special diets. Their weekly schedules often include hours of frustrating interactions with hospitals, clinics and insurance companies.
As the medical bills pile up, many of these parents struggle with financial problems and even the imminent threat of bankruptcy. Then there is the challenge of caring for their other kids who also need love and attention. After tending to all these daily demands, they have precious little energy for nurturing their marriages. No wonder the divorce rate for this group is an estimated 80 per cent.
Help for the hurting
Soldiers, emergency responders and the devoted parents of special-needs children are often seen as heroes – and for good reason. This heroic image, however, can sometimes blind us to their need for help.
Fortunately, someone did see Tim and Julie’s desperate need. Thanks to the compassion of close friends and the wise counsel of someone who understood their struggles, this military couple survived their crisis and emerged with a stronger marriage. They are now part of a ministry in their church that supports couples who are dealing with the same challenges they once faced.
It’s amazing how God can use a little bit of training, wisdom and insight in ordinary people like you and me, and Tim and Julie, to make a significant difference in the lives of those who are hurting – yes, even in the lives of hurting heroes.
Gary J. Oliver was executive director of The Center for Relationship Enrichment and professor of psychology and practical theology at John Brown University at the time of publication.
If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.Our recommended resources
Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox