In times of stress, maintaining your connection is always the best choice.
After abandoning the post I repeatedly tried to write last week, I put out a call for topics on my FaceBook Page. What came back was a request for something close to the very topic I had abandoned – how to stay connected and trust God together as a couple in the midst of stress. I guess God intends for me to write about this whether I want to or not. So here goes my attempt at a rewrite with the advantage of an additional week of thought (and stress).
How Not to Do It
The other night I was completely stressed out over some serious issues with our finances. (It’s a complex situation that is tied up with a challenging job situation and my prospects for the earliest possible retirement.) Sadly, as is all too typical for me, my stress reaction spilled over into what my wife charitably calls being “prickly.” Honestly, it was anger, and I was snappy and not pleasant to be around. Nothing about my attitude invited intimacy with Jenni.
While Jenni was doing her best to reach out to me, I withdrew into my shell, which was her last straw. Whereas the unplanned cost of an expensive surgery for our dog hit me mostly in the wallet, it hit her in the heart, sick with worry for our elderly family pet. She needed compassion, and my anger and withdrawal were the exact opposite of what she needed from me.
I felt ashamed of my lack of faith, guilty that I let my emotions get the best of me, and I regretted how I had fumed about it all. Guilt and shame did what they always do; they caused me to withdraw and hide. (Look no further than Adam and Eve for how this works). We did what we almost never do, and went to sleep without even a goodnight kiss. It turns out Jenni didn’t mind, as she was fuming too at that point, although it turns out she was up in the night feeling sad and alone and wishing she had made more of an effort to maintain our connection.
The next morning I was still feeling pretty low. But as I began to think about it, I realized that in order to re-establish our connection and get us back on The Path of Intimacy, I needed to let go of the shame, fix my mess, and reach out to Jenni. She was also feeling regret, and we were happily able to make up (wink).
Shame separates. Grace invites.
There was a time in our marriage when I might have wallowed in this shame/misery for several days. After 35 years of marriage, I realize much quicker now that intimacy is always a better choice than separation and that it is always available to me if I will just turn toward Jenni and open myself up to her.
In this case, it meant a sincere apology, not only for my behavior but for shutting her out. I explained that I was trying to protect her from any further collateral damage my bad attitude might have caused her. Nevertheless, it was still a bad choice. Jenni admitted that she too had chosen to isolate herself. My lack of concern for her feelings had hurt her badly. But she also realized that her choice to separate actually ended up hurting her more.
Whenever we face stress, we also face a choice. We can choose to separate ourselves from our spouse and face the problem(s) alone. Or we can choose to maintain our connection and face the problem(s) together as a team.
The first choice, separation, only exacerbates the situation by throwing in relationship stress on top of the other negative circumstances. It leaves us feeling isolated, defeated and depleted. Starting down The Path of Separation doesn’t always come as a conscious choice – sometimes it is just matter of letting our emotional reactions get the best of us. Sometimes, however, it is a deliberate choice, especially if we feel hurt or offended by our spouse.
The Path of Intimacy, on the other hand, is always chosen deliberately.
Choosing to maintain your connection isn’t easy or natural when stressful or hurtful circumstances hit you in the face. Here are some tips on how to keep your connection and support each other to keep your relationship off the Path of Separation.
- Make every effort to choose a thoughtful response instead of an emotional reaction. Feelings can’t be helped, but how you manage them is your choice.
- Whenever possible, use physical touch (non-sexual touch) as a reminder that the two of you are for each other. Physical touch, such as hugging and holding hands, produces oxytocin, which alters your brain chemistry in a way the promotes bonding (connection), generosity and trust.
- Visualize and verbalize the truth that it is the two of you against the problem, not the two of you against each other. Say out loud, “I am for you” and/or “I am for us.
- Apologize quickly if you let your emotions get the best of you. Forgive quickly if you are on the receiving end of the emotional outburst.
- Believe the best about your spouse, even when they are at their worst. Remember that grace is an invitation to intimacy.
- Find and speak the truth into your circumstances. Stressful circumstances can bait us into believing lies about ourselves, our spouse, God and our future prospects. Cling to biblical truths, especially concerning the unchanging nature of God and his promises. But don’t use truth to preach or accuse; use truth to encourage and bless.
How Not to Do It – Again
Good stuff, huh? Good but not easy. I know – as you will see.
Yesterday we were hit with another significant unplanned financial outlay – a costly car repair. Wham. I struggled all day to not let those angry, stressed out emotions back in. I did better than I did last week, but still, I would grade myself a D- at keeping our connection. Discouragement was leaking out everywhere. Today we managed again to make a quick U-turn off the Path of Separation.
As in my case, you aren’t going to be perfect at maintaining intimacy with each other, especially in the face of challenging circumstances. The main thing to remember is that the Path of Intimacy is always available to you. Remember that connection is always a better option than struggling separately. Be aware of how what you are thinking, saying and doing is impacting your marriage and your spouse, and strive to make choices that keep you intimately connected to each other.
You’ll be glad you did.