The phone rang in the middle of the night. My husband, Gene, turned on a bedside lamp and lifted the receiver. I saw a look of shock and horror come over his face. The news he repeated was unthinkable. Our only child, Jason, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, had been arrested for the murder of his wife’s first husband. I tried to get out of bed, but my legs wouldn’t hold my weight. Nausea swept over me.
For more than two years I battled feelings of depression, anxiety and shame as Gene and I went through seven postponements of Jason’s trial before he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Not many of you will experience what my husband and I have; however, unforeseen pressures hit all marriages at unexpected times, creating unwelcome interruptions: A child is born with a severe disability. An accident or illness permanently impairs the health of your spouse. Your teenager becomes addicted to drugs or alcohol. Job loss rocks your financial foundation. An aging parent moves into your home. Your son is diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. You long for a child but experience another miscarriage. The list is unending.
Tough times trigger unanticipated emotions — tempers flare, the blame-game starts, anxiety is heightened — or suffering in silence keeps us pent up and unreachable. When my son was arrested, I experienced false shame, thinking if I had been a better parent, he never would have made such a horrible choice.
When my friends James and Heather dealt with the growing tensions of raising a severely autistic daughter, they often blew up at each other, allowing little irritations to become impassible obstacles. The day they walked into their family room and discovered that Joanna had smeared her feces on the wall, they started shouting, blaming each other for not figuring out how to maintain order and civility in their own home.
Why do some marriages disintegrate when life pulls them apart? Is it possible to build a stronger marriage when you face a challenge that doesn’t go away just because you prayed together and asked God to help? How do other couples develop a stronger bond in the face of insurmountable pressures?
Here’s how Gene and I — and countless other couples — have kept our marriages strong under adversity.
Develop a “we’re in this together” attitude.
Gene and I quickly discovered that making it through our son’s arrest, trial and conviction was overwhelming when we withdrew and suffered in our own private pain. We learned that we needed to honestly tell each other when we were having a bad day or when we felt unable to make even simple decisions because our minds were too focused on the bigger issues we were facing. By talking about our feelings, we developed open communication and often realized that on a day when one of us felt weak and incapable of making decisions, the other would step up and take care of the details of managing life.
During the initial stages of our challenge, an important part of our growth as a couple was to go on walks together, praying out loud as we walked side by side. One of us would pray, “God, we are afraid for our son. We fear for his safety. We don’t know where the money for his defense attorney will come from.” The other would then pray, “Lord, You are good and You are trustworthy. We know nothing can touch us without Your permission, but our hearts agonize — for the family of the deceased and for our son. Right now we ask, ‘Why did You allow this to happen?’ ” Making a habit of praying together and asking God our honest questions made our marriage stronger.
Say yes to guilt-free timeouts.
James and Heather discovered that they couldn’t allow their challenges with Joanna to place a wedge between them. They have three other children who desire their love and care, too. They also needed time with each other apart from the ongoing challenges of caring for a child with a severe disability. In the past they had managed everything themselves and lived in a constant state of exhaustion. Heather says, “Then I researched all of the educational and social options for Joanna that would fit our budget — and she’s now in programs part of every day. She’s happier, and we’re calmer.”
James and Heather also started accepting the help of a relative who volunteered to provide child care one night a week. They spent the evenings dining out or seeing a movie without worrying about the kids. They came home refreshed and were more able to face the day-to-day stress.
Make the next right choice.
While Gene and I were living in the middle of the first shock wave over Jason’s arrest, our minds were flooded with questions brought on by fear:
- How can we protect Jason from danger while he’s in a crowded jail with violent offenders?
- How can we pay for his defense?
- How can we face the people in our community when the news hits the press?
- How will we make a living in full-time ministry if our credibility is destroyed because people think we were bad parents due to our son’s devastating choice?
Heather and James faced their own set of questions:
- How can we give our other three children the attention and nurturing they need when Joanna takes so much of our time?
- How will we process our emotions when relatives and friends make us feel as if they wish Joanna weren’t with us during family reunions and social activities?
- Will our marriage make it through the challenges of having an autistic child?
- Who will care for Joanna and be her advocate when we are elderly or gone?
When you’re in the middle of tough times, every decision feels overwhelming. It’s easy to believe that, compared with other families, you’ll never have a normal marriage or a typical family situation. The Enemy reminds you that your family is annoyingly different and no one really cares about accommodating your unique situation. It’s tempting to look at a never-ending future with a sense of hopelessness.
Gene and I discovered that facing our son’s life sentence meant that our lives would never return to what they had been before his arrest. Life had changed, and if we focused on the distant future we were discouraged. We began to adjust by asking, “What is the next decision we need to make?” Sometimes they were small choices, such as making a grocery list or a dental appointment. Then came a harder decision: How transparent should we be about our journey? We could choose to withdraw from society and never talk about what happened, or we could be open — first with family members and friends, and eventually, with larger groups of people — and share the details of what transpired and the lessons God was teaching us.
Heather and James’ “next right choice” was to educate the people in their church about ministering to children with special needs. More people signed up for the class than they expected. Two members of the group came to their home, got to know Joanna and became part of a team of people who cared for her needs — and also other kids with special needs — during church-related functions. As a result of Heather and James’ efforts, more families with special-needs children began attending their church, and ministry was multiplied.
When you don’t know what to do during tough times, look around. Ask yourself questions like these: What is the next logical step we should take? Is there a decision that needs to be made? Is there a practical job that needs to be done? Ask God for wisdom to know the differences between the urgent, the important and the optional steps you need to take.
Serve others together.
For a while my own grief over Jason’s incarceration kept me self-focused. My thoughts swirled around fear of the future. I stressed over trying to make sure Jason was safe. Eventually an important change took place. To visit Jason, Gene and I had to stand in line with other families who were also waiting to go through prison security. We met lonely wives and children who had been separated from their husbands and fathers. We met inmates who needed Bible studies and reading material. We noticed the visitation room had few coloring books, crayons and games that children could use to interact with their father during visits.
Seeing these needs, Gene and I launched the nonprofit organization Speak Up for Hope and began collecting donations for supplies for families of inmates. Others collected games for the prison-visitation rooms or contributed toward Bible study books.
Our giving became creative and spontaneous. One day while doing the laundry, I noticed Gene’s pile of clothes was shorter that usual. I asked him what was happening to his T-shirts. He smiled and said, “You’ll find out soon enough.”
The following weekend we stood in line at the prison, waiting to get through security to visit Jason. This day it was taking more than two hours to get to the front of the line, and dozens of us waited in the Florida heat to see our loved ones. Suddenly the woman at the front of the line burst into sobs. She had been denied entry. I instantly knew why. A recently added guideline was in place for the visitation area, and newcomers were unaware that female visitors had a stricter dress code. In addition to the usual no bra straps showing, no spandex, and nothing see-through, now tank tops and other shoulder-revealing clothes were not allowed — all shirts had to have sleeves. The sobbing woman was wearing a white button-up blouse, her arms completely uncovered.
At that point I realized Gene was no longer standing next to me. He had gone to our car and was returning, carrying a black T-shirt. He walked up to the woman in distress and said, “Here, put this on and go to the front of the line. It’s my gift to you today. Have a wonderful visit with your family.”
He returned to our spot in the line. I said, “So that’s what’s been happening to your tees!”
He smiled, looked down, and said, “It’s my ministry.”
Ever since that day, Gene and I have been passing out black T-shirts to visitors who need them to pass inspection. The more we continue to serve others together, the less we focus on our own loss. As we invest in the lives of others, God doubles our joy.
And remember my friends Heather and James? She began writing a monthly blog about lessons they have learned and the joys they have experienced as a result of parenting an autistic child. God multiplied the impact of their story as other parents of autistic children reached out to them.
Is it possible to build a strong marriage during tough times? Yes, but you have to stay strong with God’s help. Develop a “we’re in this together” attitude, indulge in guilt-free time away from whatever is placing stress on your marriage, make the next right choice and serve others together. Above all, hold on to love. It “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).