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What would it look like to be completely stress-free in your marriage? Wouldn’t it be outright, utter marital bliss to wake up next to your spouse, depart for the day, rejoin together, and go to bed at night with the one you love the most without an ounce of stress pervading your relationship? 

Well, unfortunately, you can’t completely eliminate stress from your life. But you can manage stress and become a stronger couple as a result of it. The idea is to manage stress so that it does not manage you… and do harm to your health, your emotions, and most important of all, your relationship. 

What’s a Stressed-Out Couple to Do? 

Here are five ways you and the one you love the most can manage stress well… and grow stronger in your marriage at the same time! 

Come Together.

Perhaps the Beatles knew something about stress management in marriage. Stress research tells us that one of the best tools to manage stress (if not the best tool) is a strong support system. And you have no better support system than each other. Make spending regular time with each other a priority (without the kids). Talk. Do the fun things you love doing together. Reconnect

The Big 3: Sleep, Diet, Activity.

The research also tells us that if you want to manage stress and not have it manage you, you’ve got to get plenty of sleep at night (7-8 hours), eat clean and healthy, and get out and work the bod, whether it’s a heavy-duty workout or simply taking a walk. And hey, the Big 3 can be done together! Why is this good? Because you’re each other’s strong support system (see bullet #1). 

Be Physically Intimate.

Loving touch lowers the brain chemicals at work when stress builds, and increases those that bring joy, euphoria, and the ability to work yourself down the ladder of high stress. Cuddle on the couch. Hug each other daily. Give (and receive) back rubs. Hold hands. Lay your hand on their leg or shoulder. Yes, even those seemingly small non-sexual touches can make a tremendous difference in how well you handle stress. And sex? Yeah, that works, too. Let’s just say that having a strong support system has never been so much fun (see bullet #1)

Ease Up On The Schedule.

If your calendar is filled up from dawn to the wee hours of the night with work, projects, responsibilities, and demands, you probably aren’t leaving much margin for your brain to snap out of fight/flight/freeze. Give yourself space in your schedule just to be, especially at night when you’re winding down. Practice the fine art of saying “NO.” Find joy in writing in your calendar times to connect with your spouse. Or to nap. Or to have sex. Seriously

Make Self-Care a Priority.

The idea of “self-care” has been getting a lot of airplay in blogs, videos, and self-help books, but for good reason: it’s good to take care of yourself. Because here’s the thing: how can you take care of your marriage (and your spouse) if you don’t have anything to give? Self-care includes deliberate actions you take with the express purpose of taking care of your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. So… get some sunshine. Journal. Meditate. Do yoga. Fish. Take a nap. Pray. Read. Cuddle with your pet. Practice positive self-talk (I tell my college students to think about what they would love for people to say to them to lift them up, and then just say it to themselves). Enjoy a piece of chocolate cake (in moderation, of course). The bottom line: do what works for you to rejuvenate and care for yourself. 

One more interesting thing about stress that you and your spouse really need to know

*(Fair warning: this gets a little psycho-babble, but bear with me here!)*

There’s a chemical in your brain called oxytocin. It’s gained popularity, becoming known as the “cuddle hormone.” It’s released when moms give birth, when dads look on their newborn for the first time, when a couple is on a first date, and when two people have sex. It makes you want to get closer to another person, to bond, connect, be intimate. 

Kate McGonigal, a Stanford health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress, shares the real low-down on oxytocin: it’s a stress hormone. That’s right: it’s released when you experience something that stresses you out. Why? (And this is really cool…) This is your brain’s way of letting you know that you need to connect with someone (like, um, your spouse maybe?) to best manage the stress. 

You may not like stress, but it’s not going anywhere. But stress can be managed to where it doesn’t wreak havoc on your marriage. And you and your spouse have the power to use stress, and the brain with all its many wonderful processes, to draw closer to each other and strengthen your marriage. 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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Much of your talk with your spouse is “business” talk. Sure, it’s stuff that has to be discussed so things run smoothly around the house day to day, but you really wish you had more meaningful conversations with your spouse. How do you move from “business” talk to deeper, meaningful conversations about your marriage, the health of your family, feelings, needs, and hopes? Meaningful conversations build intimacy and keep you and your spouse connected. 

You need them and you definitely can have them!

Let’s look at the common roadblocks to meaningful conversations and how to remove them.

Roadblock 1. Busyness. 

Conversations have a better chance of being meaningful if you and your spouse aren’t tired, distracted, or constantly interrupted. Pick a good time to talk. You may have to schedule some talk-time or get on a regular date-night schedule. Build margin into your day—maybe you both get up a little earlier so you can talk over breakfast or coffee. Maybe you go to bed a little earlier than usual so there is time for some pillow talk. Try having some “phone-free” zones set up in your day and week. Get out of “survival mode” and don’t let your day “happen to you.”

Bottom Line: Be intentional. Carve out time for meaningful conversation to happen.

Roadblock 2. Nobody Is Leading.

Take the lead in guiding conversations to deeper levels. They say there are usually three levels to typical conversations: 

(3.) Talking about people. (Co-workers, friends, the kids, neighbors.) 

(2.) Talking about events. (The news, the kids’ soccer games, what happened at work.) 

(1.) Talking about ideas. (Feelings, needs, dreams, expectations, frustrations.)

Someone has to step up and make sure that conversations get down to Level 1. This might involve you being transparent, vulnerable, and opening up. Your spouse might meet you there. 

Bottom Line: Be patient and keep setting the example by modeling the behavior you want to see more often. Here are 200 conversation starters for couples to take you deeper.

Roadblock 3. You’ve Had The Same Conversation A Million Times.

This is very common. You’re not alone. Some couples just kinda run out of stuff to talk about and they default to, “How was your day… whatcha got going on this week… anything new at work?” This can become a little cliché. (The answers, by the way, are “Good… the usual… no.”)

YOU NEED NEW STUFF TO TALK ABOUT! Consider taking up a hobby together. Have a book club just between the two of you. Start listening to some podcasts, TED Talks, or audiobooks. 

Bottom Line: Stretch yourself. Be a lifelong learner and you’ll find more meaningful things to talk about.

Roadblock 4. Not Having Family Meetings or Regular Check-In Times.

Write this down: Sunday Nights @ 8:30. This is the time set aside for you and your spouse to check in with each other and keep your fingers on the pulse of your marriage. Take turns talking and listening to each other. No interrupting. The speaker can air whatever is on their heart. (Pro-Tip: Use “I” Statements instead of “You Statements.” “I feel – I need – I think…” This usually goes over better than, “You always… you never… your mother…”) BONUS: Use this time to decide if you need to call a family meeting and what you need to talk about during it

Bottom Line: Again, prioritize the time. Put it on the schedule. You will be having a healthy, two-way dialogue about meaningful things in no time.

Roadblock 5. You Need To Improve Your Listening Skills

There. I said it. Do you and your spouse not have meaningful conversations because you dominate the conversation, interrupt, make it all about you, or don’t give your spouse your full attention? Are you more of a “talker” and your spouse is more of a “listener?” Are you the extrovert and your spouse is more introverted? All of this will impact the quality of your conversations. Learn “active listening skills.” Ask open-ended questions. Become curious about your spouse. (Check out this article on active listening skills—especially the Six Levels of Listening.) Are you an external processor—you need to talk to figure out what you think? Is your spouse an internal processor—they need to think for a while to figure out what to say? 

Bottom Line: Notice the differences in how you both communicate and respect those differences. There is no one right way.

Roadblock 6. Avoidance

Is there an issue or incident that has caused you or your spouse to clam up? Maybe there was a major breach of trust, someone may have done something incredibly hurtful, a fight or argument may have never been settled, or there is a major issue you both know you completely disagree on and frequently fight about. Avoidance is not allowing conversations to reach a meaningful level because it might go there. It might stir an issue back up with all of its associated emotions.

If you want meaningful conversations, you are both going to have to face this and deal with it constructively to the satisfaction of each of you. After this hurdle, meaningful conversations should start flowing again.

Bottom Line: If it were that easy, you probably would have dealt with it by now. It might be time to call in the pros and let a reputable, qualified marriage counselor guide you both through this process.

★ Look, here’s the thing, you and your spouse might have huge differences in your definitions of “meaningful.” This might be where you need to start. Here comes a big fat fancy word: “metacommunication.” It just means “talking about talking.” All you might need is to have a talk about how you talk. Come up with a shared definition of “meaningful.” Talk about both of your communication needs and expectations. Check it out—you’re having a meaningful conversation!

Further Reading

KEYS TO EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION IN MARRIAGE

COMMUNICATION KILLERS

HOW TO INCREASE COMMUNICATION IN YOUR HOME

6 WAYS POOR COMMUNICATION CAN AFFECT YOUR MARRIAGE

3 GREAT DATES TO ENHANCE COMMUNICATION IN YOUR MARRIAGE

THE MAGIC OF COMMUNICATION IN MARRIAGE E-BOOK

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

There are not many feelings worse than when someone puts you down, insults you, or invalidates you. And a put-down from your own spouse is like a straight-up punch to the psyche. It’s amazing how easy it is to hurt the ones we love the most with our words, but what do you do if you are the one on the receiving end of the verbal blows? 

This issue has a certain level of complexity to it, which means we have to approach it with care. Many spouses deliver verbal shots and put-downs to their spouse, unaware of the harm it’s doing. This is Situation A. 

Others are well aware and intentional with the harm. This is Situation B, and this is abuse.  

Let me be clear about Situation B right off the bat: If you are experiencing an abusive situation where someone is physically harming you, you need to seek help. Use the hotline number at the bottom of this article. 

You also need to understand that certain situations of verbal/emotional put-downs may be verbal abuse, and often accompany (or are a precursor to) physical abuse. (See the Power and Control Wheel below.)

Healthline gives some red flags to the characteristics of verbal abuse: 

  • They insult you or attempt to humiliate you, but then they accuse you of being overly-sensitive. 
  • They yell or scream at you frequently. 
  • The person plays the victim while they try to make you feel guilty. (“I wouldn’t have to scream at you if you didn’t…”)
  • They get in your personal space as an act of intimidation or try to block you from moving away.
  • They gaslight you—this means they manipulate you into questioning your own version of events in order to gain more power. For example, they may convince you to doubt your memory of them saying or doing something violent or try to convince you you’re crazy.
  • They hit the wall or throw things.  
  • They want credit for not having hit you. 

Sincerely ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I believe my spouse is putting me down with the intention to harm me, wear me down, or manipulate me?
  • Do I think there is a possibility the verbal attacks could lead to physical violence?
  • If I were to voice my concerns for how they talk to me, is there any fear that they would react with a heated backlash? 

Unless you can answer each of these questions with a confident no, these are strong indicators of verbal/emotional abuse and warning signals for possible physical abuse. Do not confront your spouse. Go somewhere safe and seek help. 

Let’s talk about Situation A.

Your spouse puts you down but they are unaware of how it’s making you feel. They are being careless with the words they use toward you—perhaps in front of the kids. But despite the unintentionality of what they say, you still feel devalued. It’s time to let them know how you feel. 

  • Approach your spouse to talk at a strategic time. Ask them if this is a good time to talk. And if it’s not, arrange a time, preferably within the next 24 hours. Don’t bring up your feelings right after they say something hateful; your emotions will be dialed up, and you want to be calm and able to think clearly when you talk. Choose a time when neither of you are tired or in a bad mood. 
  • Start on a good note. Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman suggests opening difficult conversations with a positive. Begin the conversation with something you appreciate about your spouse. Say something like, “I know that you love me and the kids and that you’d do anything for your family.” Or, “I appreciate how hard you work to provide and take care of us.” 
  • Be specific about what you hear and how you feel. Make good use of “I” messages. For instance, “There have been many times when I’ve felt really undervalued and unloved when you’ve said certain things to me.” Name your feelings—beforehand, jot down some specific words that describe how it feels when your spouse puts you down. If it happens in front of your kids or other people, point out that it feels embarrassing or shameful. Err on the assumption that your spouse has been unaware of how they’ve made you feel. You may have to give them an example of what they’ve said. Describe the last incident and the effect it had on you. Avoid giving a laundry list of all the past wrongs they’ve done to you, though. 
  • Use a code word or sign. The point of addressing this with your spouse is help them be aware that they are putting you down and the negative effect it has on your feelings. Establishing some kind of code word or a non-verbal signal can subtly express to them, “You’re being degrading and ridiculing right now, and you need to dial it down.” This is especially helpful in front of the kids or in social situations. For instance, whenever you respond with “Oh, honey…” or you nonchalantly touch your earlobe, you can discreetly and calmly express to your spouse how they’re making you feel at the moment. 
  • Set boundaries. Let your spouse know that if they continue to ignore warning signs and keep putting you down, you’ll simply leave the room when they say something disparaging. Don’t threaten your spouse with divorce or the withdrawal of sex (although you probably won’t exactly feel “in the mood” after being put down). You set up boundaries to protect yourself, not punish others. 
  • Check your own thoughts and words. I mention this last step with a great deal of care, and I encourage you to approach it with humility and thoughtfulness. I have talked with many individuals who have felt insulted by others close to them; however, sometimes there was something within their own personality that colored the situation. Many were highly sensitive to remarks that weren’t overtly insulting, but they heard them through the filter of past negative experiences. 

For instance, one person interpreted an invitation to exercise together as an affront to their weight, an issue to which they felt particularly sensitive. Others that I’ve talked to were offended by another’s insults, but had no problem being equally insulting toward that person. Part of the process of working through this is to consider what may be going on inside you that could exacerbate these feelings. Ask yourself: Are the words I hear from my spouse truly insensitive put-downs, or is there something inside me that makes me overly-sensitive to their words? And, are there ways that I put my spouse down without me noticing it? 

Marriage cannot thrive in an environment of disrespect and insults. And no one deserves to be put down by their spouse. The above steps are a process that may take time before you see real change. There’s a chance that other things are going on under the surface of insults and put-downs being hurled your direction. If these problems persist after taking the above steps, ask your spouse to seek help with you through couples counseling. If they resist, seek professional help on your own. ☆ Sometimes it takes one person in the marriage to lead the charge toward getting help and improving the relationship before the other catches on. 

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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Whether you are thinking about getting married or you have already jumped in with both feet, you may be wondering if it’s really possible to prevent divorce. Or, to put it another way, is it just wishful thinking to believe this is forever?

  • If you have lived through your parents’ divorce, you might be wondering if you have what it takes to prevent a divorce in your own marriage.
  • If you have ever heard the statistic that half of all first time marriages end in divorce, you might be questioning whether or not you will make it is just luck of the draw.
  • Perhaps you have read about or know couples who have been married for 50 years, and you might be asking, “What’s their secret?”

Regardless of your responses, I’m going to give you some good news, straight up. The answer (based on research) is YES! You really can prevent divorce, and the even better news is, it isn’t rocket science.

First, the reasons people cite for wanting to get a divorce:

The National Fatherhood Initiative conducted a national survey on Marriage in America and found that the most common reason couples gave for divorce was “lack of commitment” (73% said this was a major reason). Other significant reasons included too much arguing (56%), infidelity (55%), marrying too young (46%), unrealistic expectations (45%), lack of equality in the relationship (44%), lack of preparation for marriage (41%), and abuse (29%). (People often give more than one reason, so the percentages add up to more than 100%.) Other more recent surveys of adults have come up with similar findings.

Keys to Prevent Divorce

Clearly, there are some valid reasons people divorce. However, a huge percentage of couples are divorcing for reasons that are preventable with some intentional focus. So, if you are considering marriage or you’re already married and you want it to last forever, here are some things you can do to increase your chances of staying together:

1. Communicate!

Keep in mind that just because you love someone doesn’t mean you communicate well with each other. Be intentional about making time to talk with each other not just about intense things, but life in general. Pay attention to how you listen—or actually don’t listen. So often, people are more interested in what they have to say than what their partner has to say. As a result, they only halfway listen because they are preparing for what they want to say next. Practice being in the moment and really listening to your partner. This seems to come easier when you are dating than after you get married.

2. Pay attention to how you handle conflict.

Every great relationship has conflict, but it’s the way people engage each other in the midst of it that matters. If the win for either of you is to get the last word or to be right, your relationship loses. The goal with conflict is to actually increase intimacy in your relationship, not create disconnect between the two of you.

3. Commit.

This might be the super secret sauce for marriages. If you enter into marriage with the idea that if the going gets tough you can always leave, it will be hard to build a strong relationship over time because in the back of your mind you are always entertaining the notion of leaving. The thing about marriage is that it is challenging at times. It’s impossible to bring two people together and not experience some strenuous moments. However, healthy marriages aren’t challenging all the time and they take advantage of the challenges to bring them closer—as in, “Look what we just came through/survived together!” This makes you stronger as a team and also builds confidence that whatever the next challenge is, you can work together to get to the other side.

*To be clear, if you are experiencing abuse, addiction or affairs in your marriage, this is different and you need to seek professional help to determine your best next steps. These are unhealthy and potentially dangerous behaviors. You can be committed to your marriage and love your spouse and also know the relationship cannot continue along the same path with these unhealthy behaviors.

4. Be intentional about connecting.

When couples talk about lack of commitment, a lot of this centers around feeling disconnected. They are committed to the relationship, but slowly over time, children come along, careers get more intense, parents struggle with illness—all things that require your time, energy and emotional bandwidth. Before you know it, instead of feeling like a team, you feel distant from one another. When one or both people in a marriage start feeling disconnected, they consciously or unconsciously begin to look for connection elsewhere. And you know, the grass is always greener in the yard that gets attention. Take inventory of your activities. Every couple should have activities they do together and apart, but if you find you are doing more activities separately from your spouse, you may want to evaluate the impact it is having on your relationship connectedness.

5. Make time to play together.

Being playful together releases dopamine—the feel-good hormone. When you do things with your spouse that make you feel good, you create powerful positive memories and you associate those feelings with being with your spouse. The University of Denver’s Center for Marital and Family Studies research finds that the amount of fun couples have together is the strongest factor in understanding overall marital happiness.

6. Train your brain.

It is true that we teach our brains to think a certain way. If you start feeling negative toward your spouse and you avoid letting them know how you feel, you will probably start to notice the things they do that bother you even more often. Before long, you have built your case for why they are no longer the right person for you. On the other hand, if you look for the good in your spouse, it’s not that you never see their faults, you just don’t let them take up residence in your brain and impact how you see the one you love.

7. Look to the future.

Dream about things you want to do or accomplish together. Write them down and revisit them annually to see if there are things you want to add or delete. This gives you a future focus together. It also provides a focal point for when you face challenging times and need something to keep you motivated and forward-facing in your marriage. It’s kind of a reminder that in the midst of hard, it’s not always going to be like this. Kids get potty trained and sleep through the night. Teens eventually become adults. Illnesses go away or you learn how to manage them.

No marriage is 100% risk-free of divorce. However, there are definitely protective measures you can put in place to significantly decrease your risk for divorce, both before and after marriage. Guard against putting your marriage on auto-pilot. Be intentional about the choices you make on a daily basis. Avoid comparing your marriage to someone else’s, as you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. Think of your marriage as a never ending adventure. It’s going to have some insanely crazy times you don’t wish to repeat and some wildly exhilarating moments that you won’t want to end. But consider this—if you quit in the middle of a perfectly good marriage, you will have no idea what you missed out on.

Other blogs you might find helpful:

7 Ways to Reduce Your Risk for Divorce

Couples Who Play Together

10 Things Every Married Couple Needs to Know About Sex

Help! My Spouse Hates to Talk About Boundaries!

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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How do you know how strong and healthy your marriage is? Doctors help us to know whether our bodies are strong and healthy. 

I love getting a good report from the doctor after a check-up:

Mr. Ownby, your lab work shows your cholesterol is at a very healthy level. 

Mr. Ownby, your heart rate is strong and your blood pressure is perfectly normal. 

Mr. Ownby, our tests show you have the abs of a Greek warrior. 

(I haven’t actually heard that last piece of news yet, but I’m working on it…) 

How do you get a marriage check-up?

In her book, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Couples, Harvard-educated researcher Shaunti Feldhahn uncovered a number of things that highly-happy, healthy couples do. Here are four of those signs from her research that you can use right now in your marriage: 

Couples in healthy marriages remember that little things go a long way.

It’s easy to think the big, overarching gestures we give our spouses (like expensive gifts or a surprise trip) keep the marriage glue strong. In fact, while there’s nothing wrong with these big gestures, Feldhahn’s research indicates regular, small actions of love are really what keeps the relationship robust. 

More specifically, Feldhahn pinpoints five of these “little things” that each person in the marriage can do to help their spouse feel more cared for: 

What the wife can do for him:

  • Notice his efforts and sincerely thank him.
  • Make it clear you desire him sexually.
  • Let him know that he makes you happy. 
  • Say, “You did a great job at _________.
  • Affirm him in front of others.

What the husband can do for her: 

  • Reach out and hold her hand. 
  • Leave her messages during the day to let her know you are thinking about her. 
  • Pull yourself out of a funk/bad mood (rather than withdrawing).
  • Put your arm around her in public
  • Sincerely tell her, “You are beautiful.” 

Couples in healthy marriages spend time alone with each other.

Two keywords here are meaningful and regular. Happy couples talk or share an activity when they are alone together. And these couples report doing this at least weekly

One goal you may shoot for is having a weekly “date time.” This is an intentional time you plan for just the two of you, and it can be any time of the day that’s convenient. You don’t necessarily have to leave the house or even spend a lot of money on a fancy dinner. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Play a card game. Send the kids to their rooms, turn the lights down low, and enjoy your favorite TV show over a box of Oreos. Simplicity often makes for the most meaningful times together. The idea is to have meaningful alone time with the one you love most on a regular basis

Couples in healthy marriages believe the other person is the reason their marriage is so happy.

Most people in a “highly-happy” relationship said that what their partner contributes to the relationship is why they are highly-happy. Conversely, a majority of the individuals in “so-so” happy relationships indicated they were the reason for their (so-so) happiness. Developing a sense of gratitude for the value your spouse gives to your marriage is fundamental. Recognize the great things they do for your relationship and show them your appreciation

Couples in healthy marriages believe the best of each other and don’t let negative thoughts get the best of them.

Even in the midst of disagreements, couples from healthy, happy marriages still knew that they were both on the same team and that their partner deeply cared for them. When negative thoughts about their spouse began to creep in, couples were quick to intentionally change their thinking around. They realized the power they had over these feelings and trained their brain to think the best of their partner. When you feel these kinds of negative feelings coming on, don’t let them boss you around; decide to believe the best about your spouse

Keeping your marriage strong and healthy takes intentionality on a daily basis. But with these four keys, you can be sure that your marriage check-up will merit a clean bill of health. 

 ***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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Right at the start, I want to offer you hope. I’ve been married for 25 years and we have survived the day-to-day marital difficulties as well as some things considered “Marriage Killers.” Our marriage isn’t perfect—no marriage is—but we have learned that it is possible to go from surviving to thriving. Remember: Marriage is two imperfect people, building an imperfect relationship, striving to fail better every day. Don’t lose hope.

Quarantined in a difficult marriage…

You probably feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. That’s not an easy position to be in. Quarantine has probably magnified and intensified things that you were already struggling with in your marriage. You’re not alone. Many couples are discovering difficulties with quarantine. You and your spouse’s fuses are shorter now and you are stuck together with more to stress about and get angry about. Understanding that dynamic is important. It really is a rock and a hard place. Don’t draw any conclusions during this time and don’t make any big decisions.

Since we might be inching toward the end of quarantine, let’s think about why your marriage is already difficult.

We are gonna run with the idea of “rocks” and “hard places” for a bit to talk about marriage. Some people expected their marriage to be this easy, fun, delightful walk in the park. Marriage has those moments, but… Every marriage is a rocky road. You will experience everything from a pebble in your shoe to a mountain that you have to scale. The stones on your rocky road come in all shapes and sizes. But there are ways to navigate them all and stay on the road together.

✦ Speaking of stones and rocks, a rock’s hardness is measured on something called Mohs Hardness Scale. For our purposes, this is now the Marriage Hardness Scale.

What is making your marriage difficult? Where are you on the Marriage Hardness Scale?

1. The Little Things (Marital Hardness Level: I Feel Annoyed.)

Examples: Oh, you already know them! (You can just mentally scroll through the list in your head.)

The bottom of Mohs Hardness Scale is talc. We know it as talcum powder. It’s soft, but it can get everywhere. This fine powder is going to work its way into all the unique cracks and crevices of your relationship. You may have married someone who is the complete opposite of you. Those differences can get annoying really fast. You may have married someone who is exactly like you. That too has its own challenges. The bottom line is that no matter what, you are two individuals with unique personalities, needs and habits. Don’t be surprised that your spouse does little talcum things that annoy you. (And don’t forget, you probably have little ways you annoy them too, just sayin’…).

You can do two things with Annoyance Level hardships—you can overlook them or you can address them.

Overlooking them requires you to exercise patience, grace, empathy and humility. Addressing them is going to require conversation. “I feel X when you Y. Could you please Z?” You’ll need to be able to do both along this dusty road. Maybe that takes care of it; maybe it doesn’t. When it doesn’t…

I love this clarifying question: Is this a tension to be managed or a problem to be solved? You’re two different people doing life together. Some issues and annoyances don’t change. That’s normal. You can choose NOT to give things the power to annoy you. You can accept your spouse the way they are, warts and all. Learn to lean on your differences and put them to good use. Learn to laugh about them. (I know that sometimes the “little things” can bother me the most. If you let annoyances accumulate, if you give them power, eventually, they will bump you up a Hardness Level or two.)

2. The Not So Little Things (Marital Hardness Level: I Feel Discouraged.)

Examples: Disagreements about finances, sex, parenting. Constant busyness. Undealt with annoyances. Lack of good communication.

Some things that are difficult in marriage rise above the expected annoyances of living with another person. (And sometimes those annoyances, never dealt with, get aggregated and form a rock that is harder to deal with.) These rocks become “a thing” between you and your spouse. They can twist your ankle and trip you up. These rocks can also be picked up and weaponized—“You always… You never!

Marriage is work.

You’ve heard the saying, “You can work harder or you can work smarter.” Marriage requires BOTH. Yes, it takes effort, but a healthy marriage also requires some skill sets. 

  • How to respond instead of react. (Control your emotions, don’t let them control you. Know when to call “timeout” and cool off.) 
  • How to actively listen. (Body language—look like you’re listening. Put what you heard in your own words. Ask clarifying questions.) 
  • Conflict management skills. (Attack the problem, not the person. Use “I” statements, not “You” statements. Have a plan and rules for how you will handle conflict.)
  • Intentionally staying connected. (Date nights. Learning your partner’s “Love Language” and exploring new ways to love them. Expressing gratitude. Being intentional about doing things that strengthen emotional and physical intimacy.)

When you can navigate the rocks as a strong TEAM, instead of tripping you up or being weapons, they become mile-markers of your growth.

3. The Big Things (Marital Hardness Level: I Feel Exasperated.) 

Examples: Mistrust. Constant conflict. Boundaries being approached or crossed. Resentment.

These are boulders along the rocky road of marriage that can get in your way and make you change direction and get off course. You can become divided as you navigate different paths around the boulders and now you’re not walking together. You can feel the separate lives forming. Plus, you feel like co-owners of a small business named, Family, Inc. and your communication has devolved to a level that has all the romance of a business meeting—“Did you pay the electric bill? Who’s driving to soccer practice? What’s this charge on the statement?” This can make a marriage difficult. And maybe, after a few boulders, you’re just trying to keep it together for the kids.

It is incredibly valuable to have a Marital Mentoring Couple.

I’m talking about a couple that has made it 20+ years and has the war stories and the lessons they learned from them. People that will be honest with you and you can be transparent with them. You might be surprised to find out how normal and expected some of your “unique” problems are. Expectations are everything and finding out that some things are “normal” can take some of the power away from them and encourage you. A mentoring couple can pass on lessons, skills, and maybe more importantly—a new outlook and hope.

The boulders of marriage can unite you, rather than divide you. It’s all in how you approach them.

4. The Hardest Things (Marital Hardness Level: I Feel Hopeless.) 

Examples: Infidelity. Apathy. Emotional Affairs. Contempt. Separate Lives Under One Roof.

You are going to face some problems and issues that seem “irreconcilable” along the rocky road of marriage. This isn’t an annoying pebble in your shoe, or a rock you can twist your ankle on or throw at your spouse; this isn’t even a boulder that has come between you. There are mountains to climb. And the fact is that you can also move up the Hardness Scale very quickly. Situations, issues, problems can escalate from Annoying, Discouraging, Exasperating, to Hopeless quickly if left unchecked and undealt with.

Don’t be afraid to call in the pros at this point. (Or at any point.)

By pros, I mean marriage counselors. We have personal blindspots. We have marital blindspots. A counselor might be able to see what you aren’t seeing, hear what you aren’t hearing, and show you that you’re doing things that you both don’t know you’re doing. (Or NOT doing.) They can help you cultivate the skills that you didn’t even know were available or you were capable of. Don’t be ashamed of getting counseling. You probably already know couples that have benefited from it—you just didn’t know a counselor helped them. Even if your spouse isn’t willing to see someone, that shouldn’t stop you. It only takes one person to change the dance.

Fun (IMPORTANT) Fact: There’s been a lot of “rock” talk here. The hardest stone on Mohs Hardness Scale is the DIAMOND. That’s right. It’s likely that one of you gave a diamond on your wedding day and one of you received it and is wearing it right now. That hardest of stones comes in handy for ALL your marital hardships, especially for the hardest of situations in your difficult marriage. And you already have that stone! You’ve had it the whole time! Remember why you got married in the first place? When you climb the Marital Mountains together, you’ll find an incredible view and a whole new perspective.

Back to hope

This Marital Hardness Level can go from Hopeless to Hopeful. All of them have the potential to bring you closer together instead of driving you apart. Annoying can go to Amazing. Discouraging can go to Encouraging. Exasperating can go to Exhilarating

During this quarantine, remember, you’re between a diamond and a hard place. You can do this.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

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David and Claudia Arp believe that fun in marriage is serious business. They have written several books on marriage together, including the 10 Great Dates series.

“In our 30-plus years of marriage, we have learned important things like, if you don’t say what is on your mind when it is on your mind, it may not be there later,” says Claudia. “We have also learned that it is critical for people to be intentional about having fun in their marriage. Most of us lead such busy, stressful lives that many times there is very little left over for the marriage, especially when it comes to anything fun. When the fun dies in a relationship, it is hard to keep the marriage alive.”

Through the years, the Arps have made it a point to enjoy each other’s company and to have fun. One time when they got lost, instead of getting irritated with each other, they realized they were lost together. The kids weren’t with them, so they decided to make it into a 30-minute get lost date.

“We believe it is important to model a healthy relationship for your children,” says David. “Research has shown that the level of a couple’s friendship is a determining factor in whether their marriage will go the distance. In order to keep a friendship alive, you have to nurture it.”

The Arps have many good ideas to help grow the friendship in marriage, including this fun assignment: Kiss for 10 seconds in the morning before leaving for work with your eyes wide open. When you return home in the evening, do the same thing.

The key is to understand that you can turn any situation into a date, even a frustrating one. For example, you can go on a flu shot date. Or, if you find yourself in an airport with an extended layover, go to a gate where a plane is getting ready to take off. Pretend you are saying goodbye to each other. Once the plane leaves, move on to another gate and start all over again. You can do this for as long as your layover allows.

If your marriage could use some jazzing up with a heaping helping of fun, these great dates can build a stronger friendship into your marriage.

  • Take a trip down memory lane. Remembering your past can energize your relationship for the future.
  • Celebrate your differences. Reclaim that unity and diversity you felt before you married. List ways you are alike and ways you are different. For all the ways you are alike, figure out how to compensate for those areas. For all the ways you are different, determine how you can make sure the differences complement your marriage relationship instead of creating friction.
  • Make a date to talk about “us.” Lots of couples talk over each other. They talk about the kids, work, community service, etc. On this date, the Arps encourage couples to talk about “you.” Talk about positive things, your hopes and dreams, what you want your marriage to look like.
  • Have an encouragement date. Verbalize all those things you keep in your head, like when you think he looks really good, but you forget to tell him or when she cooks a great dinner, you think about how great everything tastes, but you never say anything.

“A number of years ago, we moved our office and David gave in to using an answering machine,” Claudia says. “The past few days had been rough so I decided to leave a message of encouragement for David on the new answering machine telling him I was really looking forward to seeing him at home and suggested some activities we could do.

“What I didn’t know is that David had some friends at the office who ended up helping him install the answering machine. Then they all went out to lunch. When they returned, one of his friends noticed he had a message. David hit play and the whole group proceeded to listen to my message. When it finished, the friends turned to David and wanted to know who that woman was leaving that kind of message on his machine. My red-faced husband tried to convince them it really was his wife. Needless to say, we have had more than a few good laughs over that one!”

Fun in marriage is serious business! To find out more ways to create fun and adventure in your marriage, take look around our website.

Looking for more resources? Watch this episode of JulieB TV for an in-depth look on this topic!

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Stories abound about the winter 2014 Olympic athletes and what it took for them to participate in the games. Katie Summerhayes, Sage Kotsenburg, Bode Miller and others trained for thousands of hours. Why? They wanted to become the best in their sport – whether they actually won a medal or not.

It’s unlikely that anyone said, “You’re a natural, just get out there and make it happen,” or “You don’t need any training, just show up on race day.” When these athletes became serious about their sport, they found coaches to help them reach their fullest potential. Moreover, they followed through and put in their time.

Take Bode Miller, for instance. As one of the most successful Alpine skiers in American history, Miller experienced extreme disappointment. He actually came in 8th in a race he had hoped would signal his return after knee surgery. Yet, even after such a disappointing run, he returned to the slopes for another event’s training run.

Why are so many people willing to put in blood, sweat and tears to succeed athletically, but they often won’t put even half the effort into their marriage? Imagine what marriages nationwide could be if we put in a fraction of these athletes’ training time!

Fortunately, many successful athletic practices also apply to your marriage.

  • Learn about the sport. Educate yourself about building a healthy marriage and finding a “keeper.” Don’t just assume you know. Unprepared athletes receive serious, but avoidable injuries. It’s the same in marriage.

  • Train, and be hungry to learn new insights and strategies. Just as athletes constantly seek to improve, continually learning new insights and strategies in marriage helps individuals and couples change and grow over time.

  • Give it 100 percent. Athletes eat, sleep and breathe their sport. They devote themselves to it, often travel great distances and make significant sacrifice to train with the best. Your marriage can really benefit from a 100% commitment.

  • Practice determination. Bode Miller was determined to ski again even after surgery and a successful run as an athlete. He and many other athletes have a “do whatever it takes” mentality. Most marriages would benefit from adopting this attitude.

  • Don’t give up. Athletes can easily reflect on victories and disappointments. Couples rarely do this, it can be motivational. Anybody in a worthwhile relationship will say that the mountaintops are awesome. Additionally, they learned the most about their marriage in the valleys.

As you know, becoming the best at anything doesn’t happen overnight. Each Olympian invests their time, determination and perseverance to achieve their life’s goal. Your marriage is also the commitment of a lifetime. Why stop short of the victory?

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Over the past 30 years, Gary and Carrie Oliver have worked with literally thousands of couples. Some were preparing for marriage while others were trying to figure out how to make their marriage work.

“Every couple we have worked with began their marriage with a proclamation of their love and commitment to stay together ‘until death do us part,’” says Gary Oliver, psychologist and co-author of Mad About Us: Moving from Anger to Intimacy with Your Spouse.

“In many cases, the couples we worked with talked about being madly in love with each other. But over time the madly in love feeling turned to feelings of being mad at each other. The vast majority of failed relationships have at their core the inability to understand differences, deal with the emotion of anger in healthy ways and engage in healthy and constructive conflict.”

Close to 90 percent of people say they want to marry. Clearly, people want to be in relationships. Most married couples will tell you, however, that differences that were so fun and attractive while dating tend to cause marital conflict.

“More than 96 percent of the people we have worked with view conflict as negative and something to be avoided at all costs,” Oliver says.

He has spent thousands of hours playing referee for couples who do not understand that there is both unhealthy and healthy conflict. As a result, responding instead of reacting can make all the difference in the world. He says that conflict pushes buttons of fear, hurt and/or frustration, and things tend to get very personal. “When people feel misunderstood, the relationship doesn’t feel trustworthy or safe. Needless to say, this does nothing to build intimacy in a relationship.”

Misunderstanding anger is one big issue the Olivers deal with as they counsel couples.

“Anger is a complex emotion,” Oliver says. “One of the major reasons why the emotion of anger has gained a primarily negative reputation is that there is so much misinformation about what anger is and can be. We only tend to hear and read about unhealthy expressions of anger. It’s tragic that the mostly incorrect and inaccurate misinformation far outweighs the true and accurate facts regarding this powerful and potentially positive emotion.”

Consider these common myths (and facts) about anger.

Myth: If you don’t look or sound angry, you don’t have an anger problem.

Fact: Just because you don’t look or feel angry, or because your friend wouldn’t describe you as an angry person, does not mean you don’t have an anger problem. Anyone who does not understand and appreciate the potential value of anger may have a problem with it.

Myth: Anger always leads to some form of violence, so it is never good to be angry.

Fact: Anger does not always lead to violence, nor is it always a bad thing to be angry. The key is to understand and control this emotion rather than letting it control you.

Myth: Expressing anger to someone you love will destroy your relationship. Anger and love just don’t mix.

Fact: Being aware of your experience of anger and choosing to express it in healthy ways can actually increase mutual understanding, It can also help, strengthen and enrich your relationship.

Myth: Spiritual people don’t get angry.

Fact: Anger is a fact of life. Everyone experiences it. If you want to be smart and healthy, choose to understand your experience of anger, then express it constructively.

Myth: The best way to deal with anger is to stuff it. Expressing anger breeds even more anger and leads to loss of control.

Fact: When in doubt about what to do with your experience of anger, don’t stuff it. Healthy expressions of anger allow you to deal with the root issues and decrease anger. They are constructive and lead to greater control.

Myth: The best way to deal with anger is to dump it. Just get all of that anger out of your system. You and everyone else will be better for it.

Fact: When you are angry, take the time to understand your experience of anger. It can help you express it in a healthy and constructive way.

“Most couples we worked with were surprised at the degree to which they have believed many of these myths and the degree to which these myths have negatively impacted their marriage relationship,” Oliver says. “In fact, my wife and I both realized that neither of us grew up with models of what healthy expressions of anger looked like. Learning how to express anger in healthy ways tore down walls of fear, hurt and pain. It also helped us build bridges of understanding and trust that became the pathway to deep levels of intimacy in our marriage.”

Read Mad About Us, Part 2.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

Read Mad About Us, Part 1 here.

Almost daily, unhealthy anger causes some kind of devastation. It could be anything from child abuse or domestic violence to road rage, or to children methodically preparing to harm their teacher. The emotion of anger in and of itself isn’t the problem, though. When people allow themselves to be controlled by this powerful emotion, it can become unhealthy and cause harm to others.

“We have to continually remind ourselves that anger is energy and energy is neutral,” says Gary Oliver, clinical psychologist and co-author of Mad About Us: Moving From Anger to Intimacy with Your Spouse, with his wife, Carrie. “We have total control over how we choose to express our anger, so we can choose to express this emotion in unhealthy or in healthy and constructive ways. Plus, we can choose to spend the anger-energy by expressing it in ways that hurt ourselves and others. Or, we can choose to invest the anger-energy in building a healthier relationship.”

The Olivers believe that anger can be an alarm or warning sign that we need to look at some aspect of our lives or relationship. It can serve as a powerful source of motivation. Healthy anger provides the power to protect loved ones, and healthy anger can lead to more intimate relationships.

“Disagreements usually involve the emotions of fear and/or hurt and/or frustration. These are the primary emotions that lead to the secondary emotion of anger,” Oliver says. “Anger sets most people up for conflict – and most couples don’t know how to do conflict well. Couples can choose to spend their anger-energy by dumping, blaming, attacking or walking out. Or they can choose to acknowledge the fear, hurt or frustration and invest their anger-energy in seizing the opportunity to better understand their spouse.”

For example, Oliver spoke with a couple in the middle of a serious conflict. The husband made a comment at a party, and his wife responded with a joke about it. Her response embarrassed him in front of their friends. He was making a serious point and, she spoke without thinking about how it would impact the situation. Since this was not the first time she had done something like this, her husband was hurt, embarrassed, marginalized and frustrated.

When they headed home, the wife asked him what was wrong. Although he initially denied being upset, he releases his frustration after several questions.

In working through Oliver’s seven conflict management steps, they discovered that the wife had no idea he was being serious. The husband realized that his wife didn’t intend to make him look bad, but his friends started laughing and he felt naked, exposed and embarrassed in front of them. As they talked, the wife truly felt bad and apologized. This was a landmark conversation for them because they were actually able to talk through what had taken place and understand each other. Then they set a new direction for how to manage their conflict.

Couples who develop the healthy habit of working through differences often find that listening, asking questions, listening again and asking more questions leads to understanding. Additionally, it provides a window into each other’s hearts and a pathway to greater intimacy.

“When you know someone loves you enough to take the time to understand you rather than take a walk out the door, you know that person’s love is not a shallow, superficial, conditional love,” Oliver says. “That type of love makes a person feel safe and secure. This type of security leads to an increase in trust, which creates the perfect environment for deep levels of intimacy to grow.”

If you’re seeking to more effectively manage the conflicts in your marriage, try these seven steps:

  • Define the issue. Listen and seek understanding. Whose issue is it? Is there more than one issue involved? What is my spouse’s core concern? What is my core concern?
  • How important is it? On a scale from 1 to 10, with one being low-ticket and 10 being high-ticket, how important is this?
  • Ask yourself, “What is MY contribution to the problem?”
  • Do I need to apologize or ask for forgiveness?
  • Choose radical responsibility. Don’t wait for your partner to reach out and seek understanding—be willing to take the first step.
  • Choose what both of you can do differently.
  • Make changes and review them.

“Healthy conflict is good,” Oliver says. “When a couple has a disagreement and one person takes the time to listen even if they think the other person is wrong, that says to their spouse, ‘I value you and you are important to me.’”

It isn’t always about agreeing on something. When you know your spouse is trying to understand what is going on, it increases your sense of value and safety.

One of the best ways to go from being mad at each other to “mad about us” isn’t reading books on new sexual positions. Instead, it’s about creating a sense of trust and safety within your marriage. A spouse who feels understood will feel safe and be willing to trust. Consequently, that trust leads to the deeper levels of intimacy every person longs for. Guaranteed!

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***