Don’t divorce just yet

 Nikki Bray

Have you been tempted to give up your marriage this year? I’ve talked to many who have, so you aren’t alone.

2020 has been the year of social distancing. However, before you choose to permanently ‘social distance’ from your partner, can I encourage you to read this article and consider whether there’s more you can do to build a flourishing marriage. After all, you don’t want to leave any stone unturned.

Due to Covid 19, we’ve had to pull back from our workplaces, our friends and our communities, and retreat to our homes. For some, it’s been a gift, an opportunity of a lifetime as we’ve slowed down and connected relationally with our loved ones. For others, it’s been tough. I know many have lost jobs which causes financial pressure, and then there’s the juggling of educating kids while trying to work at the same time. And if our marriages were struggling before Covid, then being forced together at home has probably just exacerbated things.

So practically what steps can we take to build long-lasting relationships during stressful times?

1. Control the controllables

At this moment in time, much is out of our hands, but that doesn’t mean everything is. Reign back the tendency to catastrophize, and give each other permission to gently ‘call you out on it’. Avoid blame. Ask ourselves, ‘what do I have influence over at this time?’ Becoming aware of our own sense of influence helps steady emotions, allows our brains to slow down and helps us to gain perspective. Managing ‘me’ and ‘my emotions’ is every person’s primary function. While this is a scary time for most, we don’t want to be scary and show fear around others, especially young children.

We have to be careful to differentiate facts from fears

We used to have mottos on our fridge when our kids were growing up, one of which was a Robert Louis Stevenson quote, “make the most of the best and the least of the worst”. Seeing that quote whenever we opened the fridge door, was a constant reminder to choose to focus on the good. We weren’t being unrealistic by denying the bad, but choosing to rehearse our good memories rather than dwelling on the difficult ones, enabled us to move forward with confidence and not get stuck.

2. Allow each other the freedom to process your feelings

The interesting thing about relationships is that we can tend to be attracted to those who are opposite to us. The optimist marries the pessimist, the external processor loves the internal processor, the extrovert is attracted to the introvert. We often appreciate those differences in harmonious times, but in stressful times we can become more critical, and can tend to believe that we are right and the other is wrong. Remember that is not the case, we are just different. Resist the urge to try and ‘fix’ the other person as if they are wrong in their perspective.

The most caring response is to listen and validate the other – you see, when we feel heard and understood, we feel loved.

3. Be kind in how you communicate with one another

Carefully chosen words are the best way to express thoughts, feelings and desires. Think before you speak and remember not everything you’re thinking needs to be expressed. Sometimes silence really is golden. For those of us who are external processors, there is the need to just say everything that we’re thinking and feeling, but our partner is not there to meet every single need we have. We have friends who can also listen – ensure that you keep conversing with others outside of your relationship. (For more information on how to communicate in a way that truly connects click here.)

4. Speak in a way that encourages not discourages

Someone once said that encouragement is like oxygen to the soul. I like that picture. Encouraging words breathe life into another person. Take time to voice your positive thoughts and feelings. Simply noticing and acknowledging what our partner is doing, can truly change the tone of our home. “Thank you for emptying the dishwasher”, “I appreciate the way you read to the kids every night”, “I notice all the small daily sacrifices you make to keep our family thriving, and I’m proud of you”. Our partners aren’t mind-readers – we need to say these words, not just think them.

You may be thinking, there isn’t much to be thankful for right now. However, can I encourage you to proactively look for something you can appreciate, and then acknowledge it? We all want to be noticed and appreciated, and the more we are, the more we respond positively to our actions. We can set up an encouragement jar (kids love this stuff) where we write anonymous notes to one another and then take turns to read them out at dinner time.

5. And finally, we can lean into one another

John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Institute calls it “turning towards”. He says that we are constantly making little bids for connection with one another. It might be as simple as someone saying, “I read a news story online today”. We have a choice at that moment to turn towards and engage with the person, or ignore them and figuratively turn away. The more we notice those bids and turn towards them, the more intimacy and trust it creates.

At FamilyLife, we’re all about developing effective relationship skills as couples, because we know that when we do, all our relationships flourish. Maybe take some time and begin listening to our FamilyLife NZ podcast on Spotify or iTunes, or consider asking a ‘seasoned’ couple to mentor you on your marriage journey. Check out our mentoring programme here. It’s a fabulous resource, and many couples have found tremendous value and help.

I know life can be tough – believe me, I’ve walked a challenging journey. I also know that people are incredibly resilient and that we can learn, change and grow…..if we want to. If the time comes and you do decide to go your separate ways you want to ensure that you have left no stone unturned.

I’m holding onto hope for you!