Stress and Your Marriage

This article is courtesy of HomeLife magazine.

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, there lived a handsome prince and a beautiful princess. They fell in love, got married... and then their expectations of living happily ever after met reality. Now Prince Charming has morning breath, and the beautiful maiden doesn't have makeup on when she wakes up. They have student loans to pay off, two kids, a dog, a carpool, and a mortgage.

Both work full-time to make ends meet, and still there are more bills than money at the end of the month. There was a time when they talked for hours about their dreams and goals, but now they barely talk at all. They spend more time with busyness than they do with each other. Their lifestyle choices are negatively impacting not only their family life, but also their physical, spiritual, and emotional health and well-being. Now this fairy-tale couple is all stressed up with no place to go.

The nature of stress

Unfortunately, this scenario plays out in everyday life all too often. A popular quote says that "the most difficult years of a marriage are those following the wedding." We would think that without all the pressures we face - the hurry-sickness, uncertainties, and everyday tension our families encounter - life would be much simpler and definitely less challenging. This is not so, however.

Stress is inevitable. It's part of everyday life. If we have a pulse, we're going to experience stress. Yet, stress does not have to control us.

Stress is not all bad. We need a certain amount of stress to get us up in the morning and to motivate us to do our best at work or at school. The problem occurs when our stress levels exceed what we need, causing harm to our bodies.

Dr. Hans Selye, the late founder of the International Institute of Stress, concluded that "some people seem to thrive on stress, but an overload can damage health and well-being."

Chronic stress erodes the physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational areas of our lives, robbing us of joy, peace, contentment, time, energy, security, and intimacy. This process distorts God's original intent for our lives.

The physical impact of stress

Some people try to make excess stress seem virtuous, proclaiming, "That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger!" Not so for our physical bodies. Research shows that excess stress manifests itself in the body in harmful ways: heart disease, digestive disorders, asthma, diminished immune function, memory loss, and even particular types of cancer. An increase in cortisol, a stress-related chemical, has been linked to obesity.

Excess stress can even affect our sleep. Either we will have a hard time getting to sleep, or we will wake up between the hours of one and three in the morning, experiencing what is known as "secondary stress-induced insomnia." This insomnia pattern often leaves us falling back to sleep five minutes before the alarm goes off.

The emotional impact of stress

The effect of stress on our emotions is debilitating as well. We may feel nervous, sad, irritable, or unable to concentrate - all of which alter our sense of well-being and the way we relate to others.

Marriage and family life are particularly affected by stress. Under stress, we tend to snap at our children or spouses, pushing them away as our minds become preoccupied with our stressors. However, we can combat the stress that attempts to undermine our marriages and families.

We must ask ourselves if we are being passive victims of our stress. Stress is exacerbated when we feel powerless, but diminished when we take charge of it. We shouldn't wait for someone else to deal with stress for us, or wait for it to go away on its own. By taking action ourselves, we will experience a sense of empowerment.

Often, we deal only with the symptoms of stress, not with the root problem. We need to assess our individual lives and our relationships with God, making sure we're in alignment with God and not walking outside of His will, which in itself will cause stress.

Psalm 119:59-60 says, "I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands." Resolving any personal and spiritual conflicts we may have, working toward deepening our relationship with God, letting go of hurts, forgiving, taking time to pray every day, and attending church regularly are all ways to do this. In addition, we need to count our blessings along the way.

Overcommitment and stress

We need to lighten our load by dealing with the overcommitment trap. Stress often is self-induced. Our calendars are overbooked. Our finances are stretched to the limits (or beyond), our emotions are frazzled, and our relationships are emotionally bankrupt. Physically, we may lack sleep and exercise, or we may overindulge in food. A proactive approach is necessary to overcome these problems.

One way to avoid overcommitment is to purchase a family calendar and write in each person's schedule and important dates. A good rule of thumb is to remove something from the schedule when something else is added. Keep an eye on the children's schedules as well. Children usually don't need more than two extracurricular activities in addition to school. We need to be mindful not to overcommit our children because they need time to just be children.

One concept a lot of people seem to have forgotten is that of down time. Have you ever tried to do nothing? We're so programmed to think we always need to be doing something that doing nothing produces anxiety and/or guilt. Henry Blackaby says in Experiencing God that society tells us, "Don't just stand there. Do something!" But God says, "Don't just do something. Stand there!" Words of wisdom to take to heart!

Another idea is to practice our "no" muscle. We need to refuse the guilt that people (even at church) may try to place on us for limiting our schedules. If we're feeling guilt about saying no, we need to examine ourselves to determine the root of the guilt. Is it self-imposed, or does it come from others? Pray before saying yes to a committee or task to see if it is what God wants you to do. Accepting a task out of obligation may rob someone else of a chance to serve God.

Develop a plan for areas that are careening out of control. We need to plan some enjoyment time, a time to do some things for which we have a passion. Taking time to laugh is also important for us because humor can help us keep our sanity during times of stress. Abraham Lincoln once said that people are as happy as they make up their minds to be. So don't leave your sense of humor at home!

We need to protect our time with our spouses. People sometimes tend to withdraw into themselves during stress, disconnecting themselves from their spouses. Instead, we can choose to carve out some time for dates with our mates.

If finances are an issue, we can be creative with our dates so they don't become expensive. This could mean spending time during a date praying with and for your spouse or instituting "couch time," where the two of you sit and talk without distractions. Exercising together may be a good date for some couples. You may find it helpful to get involved with a small group of couples at church. Or you may use your date to serve together in community projects.

The spiritual impact of stress

The most serious impact of excess stress is its effect on our spiritual health. When we feel overloaded with stress, we may feel disconnected from God and even resentful or guilty that we feel stress. This happens most often when we feel overstressed while doing an activity or event that we feel God called us to do.

"Where is the grace I need to do this task?" is a question we may direct to God during excessive stress. Guilt and resentment may inhibit us from praying because we feel sinful or unworthy. Scripture tells us, however, that we should go to God first, taking all of our guilt, resentment, stress, and questions to the One who can meet all our needs.

Paul said, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:6-7).

Too often we become so problem-focused that we fail to see the solutions to our situation. We become stressed when we think that our need exceeds our Source. God said to seek Him first, but often He is the last one we go to for help. By resting in the truth that God is more than able to meet our every need, our bodies, hearts, and spirits will be protected from stress overload.

Now is the time to create a personal plan to help manage stress and face problems. Both the challenges and rewards of doing this will promote a healthier environment for you, your spouse, and your children.

Rick Roepke is a marriage and family therapist at Christian Family Institute in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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