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Marriage

How to Strengthen Your Marriage During Tough Times

Seek to uplift your partner rather than blame during difficult times.

Key points

  • Strengthening love relationships nourishes one's physical, mental, emotional, and financial health.
  • Successful long-term married couples have certain factors in common, such as considering their mate their best friend and enjoying intimacy.
  • Renewing commitment to life goals such as co-parenting or career aspirations can contribute to the strength of a marriage.
Photo by Daniel J. Schwarz on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Daniel J. Schwarz on Unsplash

Many marriages suffer under the stress of business shut-downs, financial worries, illness, and pandemic upheavals. Anxiety, anger, and stress can sometimes bring out the worst qualities in each of us. Strong negative emotions can make us look for someone to blame. Spouses make a convenient target.

If we can resist the temptation to blame problems on our spouse but instead look for ways to uplift each other, we reap many rewards. A couple, I'll call Emily and John Spencer, came to see me when their marriage faced a significant financial crisis. John had been laid off at the same time Emily's credit card spending had gotten out of control.

Initially, John raged at Emily about her spending. He blamed their financial struggle on her spending problem. Emily got defensive and blamed John's layoff for their current financial struggle. She had planned to pay down the credit card bill based on his earnings and her part-time job.

Both John and Emily wanted to make their relationship better. I asked them what first attracted them to each other. Emily said she loved that John had a great sense of humor. "He made me laugh. At the same time, he had very clear goals and a sense of confidence. We had fun together, and he made me feel safe." John said, "Emily dressed in this style unlike anyone else. She was creative with cooking, clothing, and conversation. She always surprised me with something new and exciting."

In counseling, John learned that much of Emily's spending was an attempt to please him. "Before the layoff, John was so stressed out. I just wanted him to have something fun to come home to. So, I bought pretty clothes, concert tickets, expensive wine and cheese, and decorations for the house to cheer him up," Emily said.

John told Emily he feared he was letting her down. That she wouldn't love him if he could no longer provide in the same way he could before the layoff. "I'll go through hell and back as long as I have your hand to hold and that handsome mug to look at," Emily said.

John and Emily stopped blaming each other and started working together on their shared goals and dreams. They softened their criticisms and increased their physical affection. They graduated from therapy with a renewed commitment to one another.

Tough times can shake us to the core. It helps to accept that life will sometimes organize itself into an instrument of agony. Hard times teach us that relationships matter more than things. Strong relationships make us more resilient. We heal more readily from illness and wounds. Nourishing your marriage can help you survive (Ditzen, B. and Heinricks, M. 2014; Gouin, J.P. et al., 2010).

A couple, I'll call Nancy and Andy Price, had survived enormous tragedies in their lives. Married more than 50 years, they'd suffered the death of a child, war, famine, severe health crises, and multigenerational trauma. The Prices beamed when they spoke of their love for one another. They laughed with abandon at each other's jokes and cried together while holding hands recounting the tragedies they had endured. They both claimed that their amazing resilience was due to their love's supportive shelter.

Research with long-term happily married couples found that they had all endured loss, economic struggles, wars, deaths, and health crises. Successful long-term married couples have these factors in common (Karimi, R., et al, 2019):

  • They say that their mate is their best friend.
  • Marriage is viewed as a sacred long-term commitment.
  • They agree on goals and values.
  • They express pride in each other's achievements.
  • They feel free to pursue goals.
  • Trust and forgiveness provide comfort.
  • They enjoy satisfying sexual intimacy.

The above list is an excellent place to start to strengthen your marriage. Be a good friend to your spouse. Commit to the long-term. Find points of agreement on goals and values. Show your respect for each other. Allow each other the freedom to pursue individual interests. Be trustworthy and forgive each other for mistakes. Offer affection and sexual intimacy. If that all seems like a lot, here are five points of focus to strengthen your marriage:

5 Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage

  1. Boost Oxytocin: Oxytocin is the love neuropeptide. You can increase oxytocin with physical affection, cuddling, kissing, holding hands, loving eye contact, smiles, kind words, sexual activity, and good conversation (Parmar and Malik, 2017).
  2. Spend Quality Time Together: Strong couples often make a date once a week. Schedule a sitter for the kids and make time to bring your best self to each other.
  3. Commit to Shared Goals: Renew your commitment to your life goals, co-parenting, financial goals, educational plans, home improvement, career goals, etc.
  4. Uplift Your Spouse: Write a love letter, offer generous praise, share your humor, music, joy, fun. Be playful.
  5. Try Something New: Make a date to try something new together, try tennis or golf, go roller skating, take a cooking class, travel to someplace new. Sharing new experiences allows you to learn more about yourself and each other (Bunzeck and Duzel, 2006). It also boosts your mood.

This year, my husband and I have taken up tennis. We look ridiculous as we chase balls, windmill our rackets, and sheepishly ask for balls back that we've hit into the next court. We aren't entirely playing tennis yet but having fun trying. See what novel thing you and your spouse can try in this new year. You might surprise yourself and your partner too.

References

Bunzeck, N. and Duzel, E., 2006. "Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA". Neuron 51, 369–379, DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2006.06.021,

Ditzen, B. and Heinrichs, M. 2014., "Psychobiology of Social Support: The Social Dimension of Stress Buffering." Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience 32, 149-162. DOI10.3233/RNN-139008.

Gouin, J.P. et al., 2010. "Marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing. Psychoneuroendocrinology. DOI:101016/j.psyneuen.2010.01.009.

Karimi, R. et al., 2019. "Protective Factors of Marital Stability in Long-Term Marriage Globally: A Systemic Review." Epidemiology and Health 41, 1-10. Doi.org/10.4178/epih.e2019023.

Parma, P. and Malik, S., 2017. "Oxytocin-The Hormone of Love." Journal of Pharmacy and Biological Sciences, 12. 1-9. DOI:10.9790/3008-1206060109.

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