Tough times are eventually going to find you, it’s inevitable. Life has a way of interjecting adversity despite all we do to try and prevent it. Sometimes, it’s trivial and throws you off for a few weeks, and sometimes it’s life-changing and gives you a new perspective on just about everything.
When bigger adversity challenges you and your partner together, as a couple, there can be a “we’re in this together” bond that is pretty powerful and can give you the momentum to push through the difficult time. However, when something happens to you or your partner separately, it can feel very isolating, even though it’s likely that you’re both significantly affected by it. Tough times that fall into this category can vary greatly, but examples would be a health diagnosis or a job loss.
In the case where it’s just happening to one of you, it’s really important to remember that even though it may feel as though it’s only happening to the one person, it’s really impacting both of you.
It will affect each of you differently, but it’s important to realize it’s not happening to the one person in a vacuum. If you have kids, it affects them, too. That’s part of being in a family – each person is a component in the family system. When something happens to an element of the system, the entire system shifts and swings in response. When a shake-up like this happens, the goal is to return to a state of balance where things settle back into place. Sometimes, this means solving for the challenge. In the case of a job loss, this might be finding a new job and adapting to all that comes with that change – new schedule, financial implications, maybe even a relocation. In the case of a health diagnosis, it’s understanding what adjustments have to be made to the existing roles, rituals, and responsibilities in the family, since the health diagnosis can’t simply be “solved,” it needs to be accommodated for.
For those of you living this right now, not only are you enduring the daily stress of figuring out life in the midst of a major adversity, but you’re trying to keep your marriage moving forward in a healthy direction. When you’re fixed on making ends meet, faced with tough healthcare decisions, and struggling to keep it all together, it’s easy to see why keeping your marriage a priority is really hard.
With that being said, there are ways to tip things in your favor when going through a particularly challenging time. Here are four ways to support your spouse through hardship, while reinforcing healthy relationship habits:
- Assert your needs (and get your partner to assert his/hers).
This goes for both of you. In times where you likely have new needs, it’s crucially important to voice them to one another. Be careful how you assert your own and how you encourage your partner to assert theirs. Hurt feelings don’t help in tough times, but clear assertive language does. If your spouse is going through something where they actually have more needs than you, it’s okay for this to be out of balance. This is the “through good times and bad, through sickness and health” that we hear echoed throughout wedding vows time and time again. If you need a refresher on how to be assertive with your communication, check out this blog post.
- Listen, don’t solve.
On the other side of being assertive, we have actively listening. Listening to someone who is facing hardship can be emotionally draining, especially when it’s someone you love so deeply. We encourage you in this moment to really listen though. Listen to what your spouse is going through, what they are feeling, what their fears and insecurities are. Listen for what lies beneath the words. If they are facing something as life changing as illness or as jarring as having to find a new job, they likely have new feelings they haven’t articulated before. They may not have even identified those feelings to themselves. A tip to getting deeper than just the basic feelings we all learn as kids – mad/sad/happy/etc. – is to ask them what their feeling feels like. For example, if your spouse says, “I’m feeling sad that I’m going through this,” you could follow up with, “I’m hearing that you’re sad that you’re going through this. What does that sadness feel like for you?” This question helps delve deeper into a more descriptive feeling that might provide more insight for both of you. Sitting with them and hearing what they have to say will help you empathize with them. Try your hardest not to solve in this moment – even if there is an obvious next step, just let them feel the feels.
- Ask for help.
When you’re in the situation of wanting to support your spouse and fulfill their needs, but they’re also dealing with a lot of other twists and turns of life, it’s hard to expect them to also fulfill your expressed needs. This is where asking for help comes in. You are likely surrounded by friends and family who want to help, especially if they know that by helping they are allowing you to spare extra stress on your marriage. Ask for help. Lean on the bigger system that supports your marriage and your family. Find ways to take care of your needs. If you’re playing the role of caregiver, sole provider, or some other new responsibility you didn’t have before, you will need support. We’ve heard this before, and while it’s hard to hear, it’s true – you need to take care of yourself first, so that you can take care of others. Asking for help and taking the time to take care of you is not selfish – it’s a very healthy way to help support your spouse through a difficult time.
- Align on a plan.
When we’re faced with adversity, some people jump right into problem-solving mode, and others want to sulk and sit in the frustration of being dealt a crappy hand. You and your spouse may have different reactions, and that’s okay. When you’re both ready to talk about next steps, have a discussion about what the options are and what is important to each of you and your family. The decision of what to do next may fall to one of you more than the other. Be sensitive to that, and don’t push it to be a complete joint decision. Remember, your spouse may be looking for your input, thoughts, concerns, ideas, and ultimately encouragement in the next step. Whatever that decision is, align on the plan together. Be supportive. Keep in mind, plans can change, especially when you get new information, so be open to it shifting in the future.
Ultimately, going through a tough time is, well, tough. No one likes it or wishes it upon anyone. But there are ways to support your spouse through hardship, and believe it or not, you can continue to invest in your marriage while doing so by practicing healthy relationship skills. The key thing to know about going through something difficult is that you often come out stronger. This is resiliency at work – showcasing all of the strength building you’ve done as a couple. Weathering the storm will show you that you’re able to bounce back, and that momentum will carry you forward through the next struggle when it comes along.