Coping with Change, Stress, and Crisis

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in Me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

(John 16:33, NLT)

Every marriage faces change, stress, and crisis. Coping well requires first of all a solid understanding that challenges of this kind are inevitable. Indeed, part of the excitement and adventure of marriage comes from facing the pressure of hostile outside forces together. Healthy couples prepare for hard times and work together to overcome difficulties. They trust God, lean on each other, and are willing to seek help when they need it.

We’ve already talked about the ways in which internal conflict management can help a couple build intimacy by teaching them to resolve issues. In the same way, surviving a marital challenge or crisis is not only possible, but those difficult times can also be redeemed by God and transformed into experiences that will strengthen your marriage. Although painful, working through a crisis can force you to grow as individuals. Then you will have the maturity to confront and fix other problems in your relationship, perhaps issues you have been “stuck” on for years.

How does this process look in practical terms? We describe it in terms of four basic attitudes:

Know what to expect

“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials,” writes James, “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance” (James 1:2, 3). The most successful married couples are those who understand this principle and know how to put it into practice. They assume that married life is going to have its ups and downs, its good times and bad. As a result, they don’t allow unexpected changes, stresses, and crises to throw them off balance.

John and Stasi Eldredge have expressed this same idea by pointing out that every couple lives “in a great love story, set in the midst of war.”[i] It’s important to understand precisely what they mean by this. John and Stasi aren’t using the word “war” to refer to conflict between spouses. Instead, they’re thinking about external forces and pressures. They’re telling us that like any vessel on a long voyage, the ship of marriage will almost certainly have to weather some storms.

Those storms can take an almost endless variety of shapes: job stress, job loss, a child with a disability, cancer, in-law problems, the death of a loved one, miscarriage, infertility, infidelity, financial failure, and so on. You can probably expand the list with some personal experiences of your own. The point here is that all this is completely normal. Even as a single man, the apostle Paul knew this truth. He wrote, “Those who marry will face many troubles in this life” (1 Corinthians 7:28). Couples who arm themselves with this expectation have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.

Be prepared

Once equipped with the knowledge of what’s coming, thriving couples take time to prepare for the difficulties that life in a fallen world is likely to send their way. They understand that the two houses described in Jesus’ parable – the house built on the sand and the house built on the rock (Matthew 7:24-27) – both endured the buffeting of the wind and the rain. The only difference between the two structures lay in the quality of their foundations.

Because they grasp this concept, these couples don’t flinch at the prospect of trouble. They don’t consider it strange when trials come upon them (1 Peter 4:12), nor do they blame each other when misfortunes arise. Instead, they take pains to anchor their marriage to the solid rock. They do this by drawing upon the strengths they derive from all of the other traits of a thriving marriage. They establish effective communication skills, cherish and nourish each other, build physical, emotional, and spiritual intimacy, and spend lots of enjoyable time together. In short, they put out an effort to strengthen their relationship during the good times so that when the bad times come they’re strong enough to stand against the storm.

Work as a team

All of this is just another aspect of the teamwork that characterizes a genuinely thriving marriage. Husbands and wives who have healthy, vibrant relationships face adversity side by side. They proactively anticipate domestic hardships. They work together to get on the same page when faced with stressful or critical situations. They bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2) and take the view that tribulations and difficulties are, among other things, springboards to growth and positive change. In short, they’re prepared to tackle life together as fellow travelers on an adventurous journey. As a result, they’re ready for anything, and nothing can ultimately knock them down.

Key to this process is the ability to keep an eye out for the opportunity that lies hidden, like the proverbial silver lining, behind every new challenge that life brings our way. President John F. Kennedy once wrote, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.” Couples who go the distance understand this concept and look for ways to put it into practice. This requires intentionality and the willingness to work together to achieve a real meeting of the minds.

Ask For help

Finally, the couples we have in mind are not too proud to seek outside help in times of trouble. They are quick to turn to the Lord in prayer in every circumstance and aren’t above admitting their needs to family members, friends, pastors, spiritual mentors, or professional counselors when it’s appropriate. They understand that being strong doesn’t necessarily mean going it alone. As a result, they are willing to ask for and accept assistance when faced with difficulties they can’t handle on their own.

“Call upon Me in the day of trouble,” says the Lord; “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15). Enduring couples take this promise seriously, and as a result they trust God to lead, guide, protect, and provide for them in the face of all kinds of difficulties and challenges. They believe that He is faithful (1 Corinthians 10:13), that He cares for them (1 Peter 5:7), and that He will not allow them to be tested beyond what they can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Questions for Discussion

  1. Have you ever thought of your relationship as a “great love story, set in the midst of war?” Spend some time talking about how this description of marriage might apply to you and your spouse.
  2. Think about some challenges you’ve faced in the past as a couple. How have these experiences shown you something about the ways in which tough situations can become opportunities for learning and growth?
  3. How do you think those opportunities can be used to strengthen your relationship as a couple?
  4. What are some other ways you can keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities as you meet the day-to-day challenges of the coming week?