Advice for struggling marriages in a pandemic
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive (ESV, Colossians 3:12–13).
Katie and I have been spending a lot of time together and we like it. Morning tea is extended. Although we are both having more online meetings, we find ourselves talking about technology and technique, rare for us. We have more time to plan and fix meals. (Tonight I’m making mustard chicken with crispy rice.) Of course, it helps that we really like each other. But apparently, this is not everyone’s experience. Nerves are fraying as people manage children, jobs (or the lack of one), marriage, and isolation at the same time.
Fortunately, for me, it turns out that older people often report being happier and more content than younger people in difficult circumstances, largely because they more easily lower or change their expectations. That is not to say some older people don’t handle stress poorly, but generally, we have seen more wars and more diseases and more politics. It might not be easy, we reason, but we’ll get through this.
Even as a couple that’s been at this marriage thing 46 years come June (I wrote a poem about it last year), Katie and I have had recent challenges. We both had COVID-19 this Spring, for example. Yet after six weeks, we are not getting on each other’s nerves. We are not worrying about the future. We are not even fearful.
So why not?
Admittedly our situation different in some ways. We have a big house, for one thing, with room to spread out. (Even so, I prefer to be in whatever room she is in.) Since our kids live in different cites, we’re grateful for tools like Face-Time and Zoom—we watched out granddaughter play the Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus on the violin at her “Zoom” recital last Sunday afternoon. But we were dependent on these things before the virus. (Our kids seem to have been more in touch with us during this period, however, which we really enjoy.)
Many people, however, even many people our age and in similar situations, are not doing very well. Sometimes people talk about adjusting to retirement, with their spouses suddenly “underfoot” or their schedules suddenly empty. But this is worse. These lockdowns are different because there are so many losses and they are compressed. People are experiencing real grief, and often fail to recognize it as such. Psychotherapist Esther Perel describes it like this:
People don’t mention it as grief, so what they have is different coping styles about how they deal with the unknown. Those who become clear organizers because it’s as if order will provide a bulwark against the chaos of the external world and the one that is rising inside of us, and those who are wanting to talk all the time with other people and check in and have a sense of what’s going on with everyone, and those who are thinking that their partner is making too big a deal of it and those who are thinking that their partner is not cautious enough. And so you have this polarization going on around the way that people deal with fear, and with anger.
Perel also says COVID 19, like other grief a couple might share, is a “relationship accelerator.” And it can work both ways. If you have an improving relationship it will improve faster and if you have a deteriorating one it will deteriorate faster. That’s why two things typically follow any disaster: more babies and more divorces. For now, I’ll let the babies take care of themselves.
This view ignores the potential of grace, however, both yours and God’s. The stress many couples are experiencing can strengthen as well as destroy. There are choices to be made; things don’t have to accelerate, even if they are going poorly. Here’s why:
If things seem to be getting worse, they probably aren’t.
Seriously, the things that annoy you did not suddenly appear. No one “suddenly” breaks up or gets a divorce. There is pattern and context. At a time like this, the problems may see more frequent and intense They may even be more frequent and intense. But you have danced this dance before, just at a different tempo.
That is not to say your problems are not real. And it is certainly not to say you should stay in an untenable position, where there is abuse or danger. But in most cases, you have already developed ways to cope with your spouse’s behavior. So you can get through this. If your ways of coping are not healthy, recognize it, and get help. Find a pastor or counselor. Find a senior you respect because of the way he or she loves their spouse. Get some advice or perspective. You may have to have hard and necessary conversations with your spouse and these perspectives can probably help.
But patience and forgiveness still work. And they still matter, since “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts (ESV, Romans 5:3-5).” Lots of people are watching to see what you are made of, including your children. They need to see you endure with hope.
If you expect things will get better, they probably will.
And hope is essential, as long as it is rooted in truth. Sarah’s marriage was stressful, with Abraham moving again and again and trying to sacrifice their son. She was apparently a beautiful woman, most likely a princess, but as an example of “an imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” the highest praise she gets is this: she “hoped in God” and “was not afraid of anything that was frightening (ESV, 1 Peter 3:3-6).” Her hope was not in her spouse but in God. Remember this.
And another truth is this. There are redeeming qualities about your spouse. Something is there or you wouldn’t be together in the first place. What is it? It’s easy to forget why we first loved someone, and the moments since that it mattered. But do a mental inventory. What is worth saving? Or worth savoring? This is a good time to replay the greatest hits. Do it together if you can. Spend an evening talking about the high points instead of rehashing the low ones. This is not just “positive thinking”—it’s intentional gratitude, counting blessings instead of blunders.
If time and kids and disposition don’t allow such an evening, do this by yourself. Sit down and make a list of everything worth keeping. In an awareness of such things, hope can flourish. Yes, you may have to go back a long way to remember the flashes of joy. But in doing so, you recover the foundations of intimacy and respect. Those truths are the very things that prompted you to make a promise in the first place.
If you made a covenant, your should keep it.
And the promise you made to each other is a special kind of promise; it is a covenant, a sacred promise like the kinds of promises God Himself makes—unconditional and irrevocable. Your promise was for better or for worse, and perhaps the current circumstance is the worse part. Your partner is also worried or stressed or overwhelmed. The two of you, stuck at home together, with a job that is different or no job at all, perhaps worried about parents and bills and kids—you promised to be there for him or her at exactly these times.
So much depends on our ability to keep this promise with God’s help: our self-concept, our spiritual growth, our faithful obedience. Remembering this will help you reframe the trajectory of these days, accelerating toward healing and hope instead of defeat and despair. No one should separate what God has joined. Not even you.
If you can’t do it alone, you don’t have to.
And that’s the point, isn’t it. God has joined you (Matthew 19:6). This means He will help you keep your promises, even if your partner doesn’t change the way you want as fast as you want. Or never at all. Frankly, our expectations for our spouses often become idolatrous. We have an image in our head of what they should do or must be. But this is merely an image and an unrealistic one at that. We become obsessed with that image, losing sight of the truer, greater Relationship for which even the best marriage is only a mere shadow (See Ephesians 5:31-21.).
Your spouse can never be for you what God was meant to be. The joy or security of any marriage is secondary, an added blessing at best, and perhaps an added challenge in a pandemic. But like ancient Israel, after a purifying trial, we “will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth (ESV, Isaiah 10:20).” So acknowledge your struggles, count your blessings, and keep your promises. If things are good and getting better, be grateful. If things are bad and getting worse, still be thankful.
Because His love is being poured out on you. And, hopefully, through you.