Many years ago, my husband and I met with a middle-aged couple whose 17-year-old daughter, Macy*, was in a tragic accident. Their pain-filled story is still a poignant reminder of how crisis and trauma can take its toll on a marriage.
Just months from high school graduation, Macy was away at a local Christian camp over winter break. While snowmobiling with other campers, Macy’s snowmobile hit a stretch of barbed wire fence that was hidden in the snow, catapulting her through the air.
Her parents received the type of news that no mother or father ever wants: Macy’s spinal cord was severed in the accident, and she died on impact.
Like many parents of an only child, their daughter had been the centre of their world and the glue that was holding their marriage together. Her death not only left an enormous void but also revealed the lack of intimacy and interpersonal relationship between her parents. Their 21-year marriage ended in broken dreams and a subsequent divorce.
Over the years, I have seen quite a few couples struggle to cope with critical events and situations that could potentially lead to an emotional crisis in their marriage. Trauma and loss, chronic illness, severe financial difficulties and childhood abuse are too frequently some of the common denominators that stress fragile marriages to the point of separation and even divorce. Every couple’s story, as well as its pain, is unique to that couple.
Crises come to all couples
When the intimacy that existed before the pivotal event isn’t strong enough to withstand the added pain, emotional crisis can occur. A lack of communication skills can also hamper what needs to be shared or heard. Even male and female differences influence how each spouse deals with crisis. Lack of awareness about each other’s needs sometimes plays a key role in how spouses care for each other and help each other heal. If one spouse attaches a greater significance to the painful event than the other, there can be misunderstanding and lack of empathy.
Emotional crisis in marriage occurs when one or more of life’s challenges is so overwhelming that it leaves the couple feeling unable to cope. Unresolved emotional pain can lead to feelings of isolation, repressed anger, blame directed toward the other spouse and even emotional and physical abuse.
What a crisis comes down to is this: When external or internal forces reach critical mass and coping mechanisms fail, an emotional crisis in marriage begins to build. If it does, outside help is almost always needed. This can come in the form of wise counsel or emotional and spiritual support from mentors or close friends.
Drawing together in crisis
More recently, I counselled a young couple, Shawna and Trent, after their first child died as a result of miscarriage. Immersed in grief, Shawna expressed feelings of isolation from her husband. Her grief was raw and fresh, even a month later.
Trent had not understood the deep sense of loss that his wife was experiencing. During the sessions, he’d admitted that Shawna’s sadness made him feel helpless. Unable to “fix” her pain, he had wanted her to “get over it” and move on with life. As I came to know Trent better, I understood that he was struggling with his own feelings and using the only method of coping he knew, which was to try to put the loss behind him and encourage his wife to do the same.
Over the course of several counselling sessions, Shawna and Trent learned to understand the differences in the way they each dealt with loss. Trent had grown up in an alcoholic family and had learned to keep a tight rein on his emotions. Shawna had been an only child, raised by parents who doted on her and tried to buffer her from life’s disappointments. The miscarriage had been a significant critical event for Shawna. In counselling, she was able to communicate the depth of her loss and recognise that her husband was also impacted by the miscarriage, but in a different way. Trent learned to understand and express his own feelings and to share the loss of their baby with his wife. Eventually, the two of them were able to turn toward and support each other in grieving and recovering from their sadness.
Shawna and Trent were able to learn how to reach out and face their loss together. Macy’s parents could not. What made the difference? Why do some marriages become stronger under pressure while other marriages end up torn apart?
Tools to help during a crisis
With the right tools, a genuine love for each other and the commitment to do life together, you can equip your marriage to weather the storms that could be ahead. If you and your spouse are facing a critical moment in your lives that is negatively impacting your marriage relationship, there are some specific things that you can do to turn toward each other and face life’s difficulty together:
- Brainstorm ways to increase the support that you each need.
- Draw strength from those around you who can offer wise counsel and help hold you accountable.
- Be vulnerable with each other and with those who are trying to help you.
- Make sitting down together and talking priorities. Be ready to listen, listen, listen, before you speak.
- Share your feelings around the context of the crisis you are each experiencing.
- Start small. Avoid the unrealistic expectation that you and your spouse can radically change your relationship overnight.
- Offer emotional support for each other by not judging or trying to immediately fix each other’s feelings. Give each other permission to feel and express individual emotions.
- Prepare your heart to offer grace and forgiveness instead of leveling criticism and placing blame on each other for the pain you are feeling.
- Take responsibility for being a part of the solution to the crisis that your marriage is experiencing. Say, “I’m sorry” (and mean it) when you hurt your spouse.
- Partner with your spouse as you move toward emotional healing. Don’t try to do it on your own.
Finding God in the midst of a marital crisis
Tapping into God’s healing power and inexhaustible resources can help spouses change their worldview of both marriage and crisis. In the midst of great pain, though, it can feel as if God is no longer there. Dwelling on how a loving God can allow bad things to happen to his children is too easy. And finding no good answer, your feelings can run amok. Returning to the facts and truth of God’s Word can help restore faith and jump-start the healing process.
God understands what each spouse is feeling because He is the Creator of emotions. He also has firsthand experience with trauma and loss in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ (Psalm 91, Isaiah 53:3-12). When we are in pain:
- God draws close and offers support Psalm 34:17-20
- He gives wisdom to deal with the challenges of life James 1:5
- He gives strength to overcome the fear of dark places Psalm 91:5-6
- He gives strength in times of weakness 2 Corinthians 12:9-11.
Years ago I began counselling a couple whose marriage was on the brink of disaster because of financial ruin. Husband and wife were joint-proprietors in a fix-and-flip real estate business. After investing too heavily, they ended up lacking the cash to do the work necessary to resell their property. In the meantime, the local economy downturned. Banks stopped lending, and homebuyers became scarce.
Having invested most of their financial resources and energy into their business, this couple filed for bankruptcy. Their marriage relationship was depleted as well. In the middle of all the stress, they began pulling together by using the tools and resources they hadn’t seen before seeking counsel. They drew on God’s strength, believing that they could and would redeem their marriage. Their financial ruin ended up being the catalyst that led to realignment of their priorities and investment in the healing journey of living out God’s plan for their marriage.
If you combine each other’s strengths, help each other to grow and put your trust in God, you can be overcomers. Your marriage can emerge from a time of crisis with greater strength and deeper intimacy than ever before.
*Names have been changed.