Some experts are finding that six or seven weeks of pressure is as much as human relationships can last before they crack. Here’s a piece many of us should probably read right now.—Editors
COVID-19 has dramatically and drastically changed life in our homes. Many of us are feeling anxious, uncertain, and stressed while trying to adjust to a new and hopefully temporary normal. Marriage and family life are already full of challenges, where we inevitably have conflict and hurt one another. But now the virus has added another layer to regular stressors. It’s easy during this time for tensions to rise, tempers to flare, and to get on each other’s nerves. Initially, the time together seemed like a blessing, but extra time has created more opportunity for misunderstandings and dysfunctional interactions. This is especially true for husbands and wives where previous relational struggles may have become magnified.
Keeping your marriage healthy during the COVID-19 quarantine needs to be a high priority for all couples. There are no easy answers and quick fixes, and we don’t know how long we’ll be living under these conditions. So, while we can’t control the virus and our current circumstances, we can take control and change our response to what’s happening around us. Here are some tips to help your marriage survive and thrive during COVID-19 and beyond.
As people of faith, now is the time to use our spiritual disciplines, especially prayer. We’re constantly being reminded during this pandemic to protect ourselves by washing our hands, not touching our face, and practicing social distancing. These tasks, however, don’t necessarily protect us from the emotional, mental, and spiritual distress we’re encountering. This is the reason prayer is so critical at this time. Prayer takes us outside of ourselves and reminds us that our reliance is on God and not ourselves. Paul reminds us: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6, 7).1
Prayer has to be the first protection for our marriage and family. With tensions rising and tempers flaring, we need a sense of calm and peace in our homes. From a physiological perspective, prayer is highly effective in reducing our reaction to trauma and crises. Prayer takes us out of the fight, flight, or freeze mode and pushes us into a more thoughtful and reflective mode.
When we pray, God speaks to our hearts and transforms our minds. We’ve witnessed miraculous healing in marriages where one or both spouses commit to praying earnestly for the marriage. Ellen White says: “When we come to ask mercy and blessing from God we should have a spirit of love and forgiveness in our own hearts.”2
Practice the PPC Model
Throughout this pandemic, we’ve heard the term PPE (personal protective equipment), which includes items to defend against the virus such as face masks, gloves, and other protective gear. The PPC Model (pause, pray and choose), however, is a defense strategy to protect your relationship. Using this skill will help you create and ensure a safe environment for your marriage and family.
Pause—when tensions are rising, pause and breathe. Taking deep breaths will activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which conserves energy and slows the heart rate, relaxes the body, and allows the brain to think more clearly.
Pray—say a quick prayer and ask God to help you calm down and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23), despite feeling stressed, anxious, and frustrated.
Choose—choose a response that will create a safe space and foster peace in your home.
Are little things about your spouse beginning to irritate you? You’ve started noticing some things that were probably there before, but all of a sudden they seem more magnified. Don’t sweat the small stuff—it’s all small stuff! You’ll naturally get a little snippy with each other unintentionally, so practice being kind and nice. Give each other lots of grace, and remember that you’re on the same team.
Ask Your Spouse What He or She Needs
Set aside at least 10 minutes every day for a checkup with each other. The simple act of asking and responding as needed validates and supports each partner and sends a message of caring. There might be some things that seem obvious and maybe even things that you normally do to support each other, but now they’ve become more important. It’s easy during this crisis to take each other for granted. Taking the time to communicate your thoughts, fears, needs, and desires will help you to remain in tune with each other.
Be Warm and Affectionate
Social distancing rules don’t apply to your marriage unless you’ve tested positive for COVID-19. Make time in your relationship to connect and to be warm and affectionate in your daily interactions. Develop a habit of hugging and kissing each other in the morning when you wake up and before you go to sleep at night, or even in the middle of the day. This will help relieve tension and connect you to each other emotionally. Schedule a weekly date night for just the two of you. Be creative, have fun, and laugh a lot.
Take Breaks From Each Other
While marriage is designed to bring out the best in us, it also tends to bring out the worst in us. That’s what makes this forced togetherness so difficult. Therefore, it’s more than OK to take at least 20 to 30 minutes of uninterrupted time alone every day for the health and well-being of your relationship. Of course, we’re not talking about silent treatment or ignoring each other. So talk about it and agree together when you will carve out some personal time each day. Then respect those boundaries going forward.
Keep a Positive Attitude
Having a positive attitude about your spouse and your marriage directly impacts the quality of your relationship. Rather than thinking your problems can’t be solved, change your self-talk and the way you view your relationship. If you think your marriage is relatively good with some challenges, you’ll tend to focus on how you can survive this crisis together and even thrive on the other side. Positive thinking will give you hope about the future and about your marriage. “A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones” (Prov. 17:22).
Connect With Others
Connecting with friends and family through FaceTime, Zoom, SMS, or a simple telephone call will help to lessen the tension and strain on your marriage. In this way, your spouse or children are not the only people you interact with. If allowed, you can even go outside and say hello to your neighbors while practicing social distancing. Be sure, however, not to connect clandestinely with anyone. This will only invite additional problems into your marriage during this stressful time.
Because you’re human, it’s inevitable that at some point during these tension-filled days you may say something or do something that might hurt your spouse, or vice-versa. As soon as someone conveys being hurt, the one causing the pain should be quick to apologize. For this to work, the offended pa
rty should also be swift to forgive. This will help your relationship to get back on track and keep the evil one from further damaging your oneness. The Bible says: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32, emphasis supplied).
If Necessary, Reach Out for Help
If you’re having problems that you’re unable to resolve on your own, seek help from a qualified Christian counselor who shares your values about marriage. Most therapists are offering telehealth for individuals and couples these days. So, talking to a counselor about the challenges you’re having can be invaluable during and after the lockdown.
By responding to your challenges in constructive ways, your marriage will survive and thrive during COVID-19. “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27).
For more marriage and family resources to help you through COVID-19, visit family.adventist.org. If you’re afraid that your spouse might hurt you or your children, or if you’re already experiencing some form of domestic violence, reach out for help now. In the United States, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or online at https://www.thehotline.org/help/. They offer help in more than 200 languages. If you’re outside the United States, look for hotlines that are available in your country.
Willie Oliver, a family sociologist, pastoral counselor, and certified family life educator, is director of Adventist Family Ministries at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Elaine P. Oliver, a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified family life educator, is associate director.
1 All Bible texts are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1892), p. 97.
Domestic Violence (DV) refers to a comprehensive mixture of violent deeds perpetrated by one member of a family against another. It frequently describes the maltreatment of a child, spouse, intimate partner, or other family member, and may include physical injury, intimidation, as well as verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse. The primary difference between DV and other assaults is the relationship between the victim and the person responsible for the abuse.
While victims of DV are mostly women, a remarkable number of men also sustain physical, mental, and sexual abuse in domestic heterosexual and same-sex relationships.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest male victimization is a significant public health problem. Data from their comprehensive annual national research on intimate partner violence1 shows that during their lifetimes:
Data on sexual activity when consent is not acquired or given without reservation may engender its own surprise when it is recognized that 82 percent of male victims of sexual coercion reported only female perpetrators, and 53 percent of male victims of unwanted sexual contact reported only female perpetrators. Female aggression is also documented in data on stalking (repetitive harassment, triggering fear or concerns about safety), in which 46 percent of male victims reported being stalked by female perpetrators only.
Drawing attention to numbers on female aggression cannot, with any enlightenment, be seen as toning down the reality of outrageous rates of DV against women each year, much higher than they are for men. Rather, it is meant to shine a light on an expanding discussion: it is important to acknowledge that anyone can become a victim of DV, that everyone deserves access to protection, and that we should all do our part to mitigate these realities.
Adventist congregations must work toward the goal of making our churches safe spaces.
Male victims of DV, much like their female counterparts, experience severe anxiety and insecurity before getting assistance. They are afraid to end such relationships because they’ve been isolated from friends and family, intimidated, controlled, or physically and emotionally battered. Moreover, their religious beliefs often dictate that they stay with their spouse. They are frightened that their abusers will hurt them if they report the situation. Also, many are in denial about what is happening and believe their partners are good people who will eventually change if they pray hard enough.
The more understanding there is on the issue of DV, the easier it will be for communities to stop the violence before it begins. Also, men in abusive relationships need to know that they are not alone, and that this experience happens without regard to culture, race, occupation, or socioeconomic status.
Because DV can have serious physical and emotional consequences on any victim, the first thing victims can do to protect themselves and stop the abuse is to reach out for help. They should be willing to talk to a friend, family member, pastor, counselor, or someone else they trust, or call a DV helpline. Acknowledging the problem and looking for assistance doesn’t mean a victim has failed as a man or as a husband. In fact, sharing the reality of their abuse with the right person will begin to offer much-needed assistance and a sense of release.
Reading this content in a faith-based publication many may respond that such abuse and violence might be taking place far from their spiritual community, certainly not anywhere close to them, or, perish the thought, in their congregation. It may be easier to question the reliability and validity of the research, and push these revolting thoughts to the back of their consciousness, than to think about what can be done to deliberately make their congregations safe spaces for victims and help perpetrators find transformation through acceptance, healing, and change.
As disciples of Jesus, our assignment is to be the hands, feet, and heart of Jesus to a world wounded by victimization of all kinds. After all, Jesus Himself, quoting Isaiah 61:1 from the Hebrew Scriptures, declared: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18, NKJV).2
Adventist congregations must work toward the goal of making our churches safe spaces where victims can share their pain and be heard, and abusers can talk about their disease and find support and healing. Like the early church, we, too, may astonish onlookers by being a community so dedicated to mutual caring that it can truly be said, “They had all things in common” (Acts 4:32, NKJV).
Willie Oliver, director of the General Conference Family Ministries Department, coauthored the church’s 2019 world missionary book of the year, Hope for Today’s Families.
Marriage is at once awesome, wonderful, and difficult. Awesome and wonderful because it was designed by the Creator for us to reflect His image.1 Difficult because it brings a flawed man and woman together into the most intimate and lengthy relation existing on earth between humans. Moreover, these two selfish and otherwise imperfect human beings sometimes seem to grow more flawed and selfish as the marriage goes along. No wonder “dysfunctional marriage” sometimes seems like the trending phrase of the day or year.
The word “dysfunctional,” used in regard to relationships, refers to a breakdown of that which is normal. In marriage, to be sure, it is normal for two imperfect human beings to disagree, especially in a relationship as intimate as marriage. Hence, every marriage has the potential to become dysfunctional if couples don’t take care of inevitable challenges that will arise in their relationships.
But how does one know if one’s marriage has reached the point of being dysfunctional, or is just going through inevitable challenges that are a part of married life? Too often couples ignore problems by focusing more on the immediate event that has emerged, rather than really thinking through the actual issues facing them. Sadly, too many couples wait too long to think things through together. Their resentment for each other becomes so deep that they stop operating as a team and resort to living as separate individuals.
This is the point at which the relationship becomes dysfunctional. There are, of course, multiple factors that contribute to a relationship becoming dysfunctional, including abuse, addictions, abandonment, and psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, and clinically assessed personality disorders. Nevertheless, many marriages experience dysfunction because couples have stopped communicating with each other, and are either unwilling or unaware of how to manage their differences with genuine love and respect. They yell and scream at each other rather than finding helpful solutions together that can assist their marriage to become more functional. Subsequently, as a quick solution (they think), they head to the divorce attorney, claiming irreconcilable differences.
Successful couples learn over time to diminish destructive or negative patterns in their relationship. Each partner focuses on what they can do to be a better spouse and looks for their partner’s positive attributes.
It isn’t so much that they married the wrong person as that each one just stopped being the right person.
We regularly invite premarital couples to (1) list 12 reasons they love and want to marry the other person; (2) keep their lists in a safe place; and (3) pull them out when times get difficult, as a reminder of what it is they loved about each other. Usually those reasons still exist, but lie buried under the rubble of daily living.
So the good news is that dysfunction can be repaired. Frustration, contempt, and isolation do not have to lead to divorce: people can choose to fight for their marriage. But it requires couples to begin to see their marriage in a different light. They need a new way of thinking about their marriage and their spouse. There is no perfect marriage, because there are no perfect people. Yet couples can grow in their experience of the oneness God intended for marriage, and restore their relationship to what they dreamed about on their wedding day.
Here are six functional behaviors for getting a marriage back on track. Introducing at least one of them will likely bring prompt improvement in a marital relationship:
1Drop the “dysfunction” label: your brain is wired to believe what you tell it. Insisting that your marriage is dysfunctional will bring you to believe it. Here’s a question to pose to yourself: “Do I have a good marriage with some dysfunctional times, or do I have a lousy marriage with a few good times?” It’s the proverbial half-full or half-empty glass. Couples who are willing to find the good in their marriage and in their mate will more easily resolve conflict, and have a more satisfying marriage. So start telling yourself that you have a great marriage: you and your spouse will begin to believe it. Any marriage can be turned around if the couple believes in it and is willing to save it and make it grow stronger. Jesus was right when He declared, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).
2Pray like crazy for your marriage and your mate: God, the Creator, invented marriage. Therefore, it is both wise and absolutely essential to keep Him at the center of your marriage. We don’t mean just paying lip service to this, but establishing and maintaining a meaningful relationship with God and constantly acknowledging His presence as individuals and also as a couple. Ask God to heal your marriage, and then expect a miracle. God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). And here’s another question: If you believe God is always present, would you say all the things you say to each other? Wouldn’t you want to impress Him with how kind, patient, loving, and forgiving you are? Given our daily appeals to God to forgive our sins and favor us with His grace and mercy, how can we do less for our mate? Don’t we want the same healing for our mate as we want for ourselves (2 Chron. 7:14)?
3Learn and practice effective communication skills: however obvious this may seem, it is neither instinctive nor easy. Most of us have been developing, from birth, faulty or erroneous methods of communication. We bring our communication patterns—good and bad—right into marriage. But even the good patterns that work with family and friends may not work in our marriage, with our spouse. Therefore, each partner needs to be willing to adjust their relational and communication styles in ways that can enhance the marital relationship. Disagreements happen in marriage mostly because couples are talking over each other, and neither partner has stopped to listen to the needs, wants, and hurts of their mate. Many marriage issues can be resolved by patient listening and commitment to understand each other. As James 1:19 counsels: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
4Find out what your spouse likes and keep doing it. And find out what your spouse doesn’t like and quit doing it! Prior to marriage, couples take great pride in being their best selves—the best boyfriend or the best girlfriend. They pull out all the stops to find out what the other person likes, and shower them with their heart’s desires. But after a year or so of marriage the special treatment fades away, each begins to feel taken for granted, and people begin to fear that they’ve married the wrong person. It isn’t so much that they married the wrong person as that each one just stopped being the right person. To make matters worse, they begin to do the very things their spouse dislikes. The golden rule would go a long way toward turning these marriages from fading to flourishing: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).
5Forgive often: marriage, life’s most intimate relationship, may involve hurt sometimes—intentional or not.2 Learning to forgive each other is learning to live together. Sometimes the hurt is careless. But sometimes it is nasty retaliation for pain they may be experiencing that has left deep and lasting scars. Sometimes we can ignore an injury. But sometimes we neither can nor should. Forgiving someone who has harmed us is the hardest part of loving. But we cannot continue to truly love without it. Forgiveness is much stronger than always being trampled, absolving the guilty, or simply forgetting. Forgiving begins my healing from another’s hurts and from the need to punish them. It also pushes us toward new and deeper union as God’s power moves the guilty one to repentance through knowing I have forgiven them and they are able to forgive themselves: God’s love wins us over because we come to appreciate that even as we are causing Him pain, He is extending pardon to us (see Rom. 5:8).
6Laugh a lot: laughter abounds in physiological and neurological benefits: it reduces stress and blood pressure; stimulates the immune system; bonds couples together, and keeps the relationship fresh as they find things to laugh about and stop stressing about the small stuff. “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Prov. 17:22).
Functional marriages involve married couples willing to confront life’s relational challenges and work together as teammates and allies. Together, couples must fight the enemy that threatens to destroy their oneness with each other and God. All humans struggle. Becoming united in marriage sometimes seems to augment that struggle after the honeymoon. But all marriages can experience ever greater joy and ever deeper love through the power and saving grace of Jesus: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Willie and Elaine Oliver are the husband-and-wife team that directs the Department of Family Ministries at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Reach them at family.adventist.org.