Picture this: You’re trapped in a small apartment with two very rambunctious toddler boys (one of whom screams like the Nazgûl from The Lord of the Rings) in the midst of yet another “polar vortex.” Your husband just texted to say that he will be home late for the fourth time that week, and there is a chance he won’t have a job next year. All of that stress has induced loads of miscommunication that week, thus leading to painful fighting for which you have neither the time nor the energy. On top of all that, a billboard has been erected across from your only window to the outside world that says, “Struggling Marriage?”
The dramatic irony was not lost on me.
Yes, there were plenty of days when that billboard was disheartening. But I didn’t want to lose my heart! After all, one bright, hope-filled afternoon, I had confidently proclaimed in front of all my friends and family that I would “have” that man standing in front of me. I heard myself say it—out loud and on purpose—that from that day forward, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” he would be mine. I really wanted to keep that promise.
For me, it’s less about “staying together” in the worst of times and more about “keeping it together.” You see, every relationship faces difficult times, but if you take that “until death do us part” clause seriously, it’s really how you get through them that matters.
So how do I do that when things get rough? Here are five things that have helped me.
I know it’s cliché, so I won’t say, “Laughter is the best medicine.” I’ll instead say, “Laughter can keep you from changing all the locks.” Pause for a moment, and try to see the humor in the situation. Or, deliberately put humor in the situation. Open a bottle of wine, and watch your favorite episode of The Office together. It’s short, but that might be all the time you have to spare anyway. Little investments like that can pay back major dividends. Better to spend twenty minutes laughing than an hour fighting because you haven’t done anything fun in so long.
For me, exercise is just as much about mental and emotional health as it is about physical well-being. It’s a great way to process stressful situations, as both the Mayo Clinic and I have found. Some couples like to work out together, playing tennis before dinner or doing P90X first thing in the morning. I’ve always preferred to exercise solo. I use an elliptical machine, which feels a bit like flying. Pedaling as fast as I possibly can is pretty exhilarating, especially when I pair it with cathartic music that meets me right where I am but then lifts me out of myself. Which songs do that for you? Turn them on, and sweat it off.
03. Hold On.
It turns out that the best answer to how we stay faithful to these insanely difficult vows is right there in the midst of them: “. . .to have and to hold.” Hold on. Hold each other through the storm like that old couple in Titanic. That’s what you’re there for—support, trust, and tenderness. These are the elements of unconditional love. Sometimes it is a white-knuckle ride, but those hard times don’t last forever. Hold on, and take heart.
04. Seek Help.
One way to improve your grip on your marriage is to reach out for help with your other hand. Talk to a counselor as the stress starts to mount to decrease your chances of feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Get some perspective from a wise relative or friend who may have had similar struggles. Start a margarita night with your girlfriends where you can commiserate in a laid-back, jovial setting. This worked wonders for me.
When good things happen in the midst of the chaos, be sure to acknowledge them. Have a dance party in the kitchen when your tax return comes in the mail. Open your Timehop app or an old planner to see what you were doing together on this particular date for the past few years. There’s bound to be a good memory in there to brighten your day. Share it with your husband. Whatever you do, don’t let special anniversaries pass by because you’re so frustrated that you want to send a clear, pointed message, like, “Not this year, you jerk.” That will only make things worse. When things are tough, celebrations are more important than ever, even if all you can afford is a staycation or one date night per month. (For more on this, see my previous article.) You’ve gotten this far without killing each other—that’s reason enough to make merry!
As for my husband and me, last year is far behind us now, I’m happy to say. Spring is here, reminding me of the many blessings we’ve enjoyed since my husband got a great new job. I don’t begrudge the difficult journey because I know it made us stronger. We’re well-equipped for the next chapter of “for worse,” and that will help make the next “for better” our best yet.