Reducing Stress in Your Marriage
By Reed Benson
Many married people profess a desire for an improved relationship with their spouse. Those who do not are foolish, probably naively presuming that all is "good enough." Such an attitude is a sure recipe for future marriage problems, since present marriage stresses will go unresolved and gradually worsen (Every marriage will always and forever, most certainly and without fail, have areas that need to be patched and mended—this flows from the inescapable fact of sin nature). Hopefully, the readers of this article do have a wholesome desire to work on marriage stresses. So, what can be done to reduce these stress factors?
First, recognize that the problem is one you can get under control, but one from which you can never retire. Marriage stress will always be present as long as you are not dead. It is a question of developing the wisdom, maturity, and Christian character that will allow you to deal with the stresses as they crop up—learning ways to keep the weeds down in your garden, so to speak. Second, recognize that you can change yourself, but cannot do anything that will guarantee a change in your spouse. But changing yourself may stimulate your spouse to desire to change. Yet, even if it does not, changing yourself for the better will still improve your marriage even if your spouse remains as cold as an Antarctic glacier in his or her immature habits.
What follows in this article is a list of twenty-four areas of self-examination. To save space, supporting scriptural citations have been omitted since most readers will hopefully have enough biblical background to recognize these principles are indeed consistent with scripture.
Do you really listen to your spouse? The art of a good listener is nothing special—you can be nearly deaf and still be a good listener. The trick is letting your spouse know that you have truly heard the message they are trying to communicate by showing that you understand their perspective. Good listeners make eye contact. They patiently let their spouse "say their piece" without interruption. Then they say something in return that lets them know their view has been absorbed, reflected upon, and seriously considered as a potentially accurate assessment of the situation. Good listeners often reflect the fact that they are trying to honestly understand by asking questions that gently probe into the subject under discussion. Try this on your spouse.
Do you seek to learn more about your spouse? As God’s crowning achievement on earth, human beings are exceedingly complex. Our individuality makes generalizations dangerous. Do not put your spouse in a box. Keep learning and discovering more about them as the years pass and the circumstances of life change. This is not easy for most men, but it is nonetheless important.
Do you hide information from your spouse? As "one flesh," secrets between husband and wife should be few. A good marriage is one that is intertwined in so many areas that keeping secrets is difficult. Now, there are a few valid exceptions—men should perhaps withhold information that their wives cannot emotionally handle. Yet, even in such situations, this withheld information should probably be of temporary duration.
Does subordination of the wife mean inferiority? No, it does not. God values the woman as much as the man. Yet, each has been ordained and equipped for differing functions, both of which are vital to families and society. Without the subordination of the wife under the authority of her husband, order is not possible. This is the divine arrangement, and no one has the prerogative to tamper with it.
Do you really want male leadership in the home? Women, while you know what scripture teaches and can parrot the correct answer, does your soul truly desire your husband to be the decision maker for you? The feminist spirit is strong in our time and deceives many women. Ladies, are you deceived? Men, do you really want to take on the burden of leadership? A high percentage of men in our time are perfectly content to allow their wives to handle the tough decisions. Many men today welcome a quiet feminist spirit because it allows them to extent their boyhood, live a Peter Pan life, and focus their energy on their grown-up toys that take them to Never-Never Land as soon as they get off work. In too many homes, both husband and wife are content to abandon the biblical model of male leadership in the home.
Do you understand real love? Two generations have now been immersed in the images of Hollywood as the primary source by which we define love. Hollywood teaches us that real love is sensual, and if not that, then at least accompanied with emotional stirrings. Furthermore, the emphasis on happily-ever-after endings leaves one with the impression that the high-octane emotions should last forever. Biblical love, however, is not founded on emotional rushes, nor does it build castles in the sky regarding a perfect, tranquil future. Anyone with a bit of maturity will recognize that biblical love parallels the real world much more accurately. Unfortunately, many youth and young married couples do not grasp just how diverse these two views of love are to each other, and just how much the Hollywood view will defraud those who buy into it. When emotion runs thin and pressures mount, the Hollywood married couple assumes that love is gone, thus the marriage might as well dissolve also. But the Biblical couple will not be dismayed. After all, the absence of shallow emotionalism is only a small loss because it was not a foundational precept upon which the marriage was based.
Do you ever go away together? Periodic getaways to refresh communication is important. Geographically removing yourselves for a night or two, and it does not need to be all that far away, relieves temporarily some of the pressures of the everyday grind. This provides for husband and wife to get re-aquainted and engage in deeper conversations that are often difficult when the hustle of the home is constantly pressing. Some marriage counselors actually suggest that such sneak trips should be built into the budget as if it were another bill. This is not about Hollywood romance—but it is about communication—knowing how this person you married is changing and growing as time passes.
Is anger a problem in your life? Anger and frustrations directed toward your spouse are one of the most common marital stresses. The cause of anger is unfulfilled expectations. Unfortunately, many people have completely unrealistic expectations with respect to the person they are married. Many men expect their wives to be Raquel Welsh, Barbara Bush, and Mother Teresa all rolled into one. And many ladies cannot decide if they prefer their husband to push madly for the power and wealth of Donald Trump or cultivate the quiet sensitivity of Bob Newhart. In truth, the unfulfilled expectations, based on the perceived failures of your spouse, will introduce a spirit into your marriage that can never be satisfied. No matter how they perform their duties or how they respond to your desires, a spirit of anger will always keep resurfacing. Give your expectations over to God and relieve your spouse of your demands. You will both be happier.
Do you share common views and habits in financial matters? This is one of the most common stress points in a marriage. Ultimately, in order for peace to prevail in the home, a single general view must prevail. The tenor of scripture leaves no doubt that the husband is to have pre-eminence in this area. Wives, you are called upon to allow him to lead—even if he stumbles into errors! A young husband may be financially immature and shortsighted, yet his young wife has the obligation to follow his lead (after all, she freely chose to marry him). In such cases, the trend is clear; he will gradually develop more responsible habits, even though this may take years. God willing, a monetary policy with which both can be reasonably comfortable will evolve as the marriage grows. Polite, yet frank financial discussions between you and your spouse will yield great blessings. Husbands, take this financial responsibility seriously. It is your duty to develop a family financial system that results in the bills being paid on a timely basis. It is also your duty, men, to set the example of financial self-denial during lean times. The notion, "I work the hardest around here, therefore I deserve my perks more than the rest of the family deserves theirs," is not a valid principle of leadership. Husbands, your little extras should be the first to go—that is real leadership. Wives, whether he has fiscal shortcomings or not, you must yield to his directives—that is true submission.
Have you emotionally transferred your first loyalty to your spouse? Sometime within the first year or two of marriage a fundamental shift should occur. The formal transfer of government takes place at the marriage altar, but practically speaking, a young man and lady do not magically overnight shift a lifetime of built up loyalties. Nor should they be expected to. Yet, without dishonoring or disappointing their respective parents who love their grown child more than words can describe, the newly married couple must grow together in a mental and emotional framework that supersedes previous bonds. For a healthy marriage, each spouse must know that they are number one in the mind of the other. Failure of parents to let their grown and newly married children shift their first loyalty to their new spouse will ultimately sow bitterness into the grown child over which they are trying to maintain an unnatural hold. Failure of the young married couple to allow old bonds to loosen just a bit and make room for the new and most important of all earthly bonds, marriage, will set the stage for future trouble. Avoid future in-law problems—seek to strengthen your marriage bond above all others human relationships.
Do you practice any of the five languages of real love? There are five ways that people typically express love toward another person. The first is verbal praise—words of appreciation. Second is through acts of service and kindness. The third is by means of physical affection—touching, hugs, etc. The fourth way is through the giving of gifts. The last is by spending quality time with that person—good conversations, taking walks, even doing chores together. Most people will find that they tend to express love to others quite naturally in one or two of these areas. That is good. Keep doing so for your spouse.
Do you know which of the five languages of love your spouse prefers to receive? Probably all of them, yet one or two will stand out above the others if you take the time to explore their preferences. This may be important, because this is one of the best ways to build affection and communion between you and your spouse. It may be that the manner which they most easily express love to you is the way they would like to receive love from you!
Have you put your spouse’s past failures behind you? Forgiveness is a word that is tossed about with considerable glibness. Yet, its frequent use is for a good reason. Forgiveness may be the most powerful force on earth, doing more to change, inspire, and motivate people for positive results than anything else conceived. In respect to your spouse, you must develop a lifestyle of forgiveness. Your spouse will certainly fail you—in ways either large or small. To an unforgiving person, however, every failure, even those that are truly insignificant, has the potential to become gargantuan. And there it remains, like a bone in one’s throat. Forgiveness means nothing if you insist on receiving an apology before you forgive. Forgiveness means nothing if you expect change before you forgive. Forgiveness means nothing if you are ready and willing to keep bringing an old offense back up again. The power of forgiveness is this—no one, anywhere, can prevent you from forgiving another person. Practice this formidable force in your marriage and let the joy back into your life! Quit keeping score with your spouse and start forgiving!
Have you put your own past failures behind you? Many people carry guilt from past failures around with them for decades. Resolve this guilt by asking forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ His Son. Then leave it behind—yes, try to learn from past errors so they will not be repeated; yes, accept the limitations that God may place in your life from your blunders, but be ready and open for God to open other vistas of opportunity that are uniquely suited to you. Do not feel you must make up for lost years or past sins through extra exertions or accomplishments. God will receive no glory through such efforts. Simply get close to God, study his Word, and accept your position in life. This will infinitely bless your marriage and your spouse.
Do you know how deeply you are committed to your marriage? Try to discover! All married folks took vows before God and witnesses. Do you remember precisely what you vowed to do? Are you still as dedicated to holding fast to those words as you were when they were nervously uttered before a crowd of family and peers? If those who witnessed your vows were to come back for a visit and evaluate your marital performance in respect to your vows, what kind of a grade would you receive? If your Heavenly Father were to send an angel to convey to you his evaluation, how would you rate? Do you have a dependence upon your spouse? You should. That is not to say you would never recover if your spouse were to suddenly perish. Yet, a marriage that has no reciprocal co-dependency is a marriage that has little motivation to be maintained into the future.
Husbands, do you know how to give yourself to your wife as Christ gave himself for the Church? Every husband should be willing to lay down his life for the saving of his wife. Is that not the ultimate test of true love? Yet, speculation would lead one to believe that few husbands meet this stiff criteria. In fact, the reverse is often the case. Many men, instead of valuing their wife above themselves, spare no opportunity to advance their own image at the expense of their wife. Men, never use your authority to damage your wife’s dignity through anything that would embarrass or demean her. Be very cautious what you say about her to others, whether or not she is present. Men, root out the selfishness in your life.
Husbands, do you sympathize with your wife’s problems? Women are strange creatures to a man. When your wife tells you she cannot get the baby to go to sleep at night like he ought, do not attempt to be helpful and propose several potential solutions. Quite probably, your wife is not seeking a solution from you. What she wants is a measure of sympathy and understanding from her husband. Women intuitively know this when they are around each other—that is why they enjoy the companionship of one another and often find it greatly encouraging. So men, just lend a sympathetic ear. Commiserate with your wife for a few minutes. It means more to her than you would ever guess.
Husbands, have you found a way to help out around the house? I am not suggesting that men should take up housekeeping as a general duty. That would indeed be confusing the God-given roles for men and ladies. Yet, when the bustle of life creates moments of stress, a wise husband will not find it an affront to his male ego to occasionally do a few dishes, change a diaper, or some other household task that needs to be done, when his wife, whom he claims to dearly love, cannot get to it! Husbands, do not try to do it all—just find one niche. Find that one way that you can lend a bit of household assistance to your wife when she has that harried, Mount Saint Helens look on her face.
Husbands, do you account for your wife’s craving for security? All females tend to be more security minded than men—this flows from their instinctive nurturing tendencies. Women will do almost anything to obtain for themselves and their children what they believe will be a more secure future. That is why women find it easier to admit fault or ask for help regarding a personal problem. That also explains why traditional altar calls at a church service generally yield more ladies than men. Admitting a mistake and asking for help is a small price to pay for a better future, at least from the female perspective. Men, guide your wife to find her security in Christ, first and foremost. Do not prey on her fears or take advantage of her insecurities (that is what salesmen do). Let us hope not. Pray for her daily, that she can find comfort and security in God and His promises.
Wives, do you account for the fragile male ego? A man’s pride is perhaps his most precious commodity, at least from the male perspective. Many men will endure anything rather than see their pride, their ego, damaged. Many have been the men who have suffered divorce, death, or other catastrophes in order to save face. That is why it is difficult for a man to admit fault or make a request for help. Wives, when you have a disagreement with your husband, and you have cornered him with your impeccable logic, you would be wise not to treat him like a cornered wild animal—give him a route of escape whereby he can save face, and not be forced to grovel in his error! While he will probably not admit his error openly, he will most likely not make the same mistake again. And wives, isn’t that what you ultimately want?
Wives, do you allow him time to be lost in thought? In general, studies are revealing that women do their best thinking when they can talk things out with others. Men, however, think best when they can quietly let the gears whirl. Ladies, you should allow your husband to be with you in your presence and yet not speak—riding in the car is a good example of this. This is not meant to be an excuse for a man to be rude, simply acknowledging that men need time to be lost in thought. He will enjoy your companionship even if there is no exciting dialogue. Do not interpret his silence as anger, disappointment, or any other negative emotion. He simply needs to think. He may be happy to listen to you talk—but do not try to compel a verbal response.
Wives, do you try to genuinely please him? Most men have several strong opinions about how a household should be administered—call them "pet peeves." Perhaps he wishes for the house to always be tidy. Perhaps another does not mind clutter, but he wants a wholesome big-spread breakfast at 6:30 AM sharp. Yet another is content helping himself to cold granola, but insists on crisp clean bedsheets twice a week. Ladies, discover what his top priorities are by simply asking him and then try hardest in these areas. Yes, you will have to flexible, adjusting to his views on such matters, but this is a small price to pay for a happy marriage.
Wives, are you careful about offering unsolicited advice? This is a valid principle in all relationships, and it holds true for marriage as well. Authority figures will ask for input from those under their leadership when they are prepared to listen. But until they are ready, you are probably wasting your breath. A wiser strategy is to offer unrequested counsel only on rare occasions, when the situation is truly a serious one. Pick your battles. Do not routinely pepper your husband with suggestions to improve this or that. Advice will go much further when it is offered sparingly. Offer it too frequently, and he will emotionally and mentally pull away from you. It is true; this seems like a catch-22 when you see his weak points so clearly. But ladies, your odds for influencing him to the betterment of all are best when you lie low except on the most important of issues.
Husbands and wives, are you willing to work for a better marriage? Good marriages are not found among lazy, shiftless people. Such folks are not only derelict in their work, but they also neglect their relationships. You must work at changing yourself for the better if you want a healthy marriage. Remember, you cannot directly change your spouse. You may never stimulate your spouse to change himself, yet you can be a happier person by responding differently to your spouse’s weak areas. Make an effort to improve your own knowledge and character: study the Bible, read good books, listen to godly lessons by wise ministers. Even if your spouse refuses to change, alter your own immature thinking, and your marriage will nonetheless improve!