How do you support your spouse and marriage during hard times?
July 9, 2017 2:01 PM   Subscribe

How do you and your spouse navigate and support each other in times of (prolonged) stress? My spouse and I have had some difficult things come up over the past couple of years, almost nonstop. We're thankfully loving, caring, and communicative, but I wonder (and worry) about the toll these events can take on our relationship. What insight and tips do you have for surviving these bumpy waters?

We generally communicate well, enjoy each other's company, love each other, and are committed to our marriage and each other. We can still giggle when we go to bed and make each other breakfast, and talk for hours about anything. It's great. We've been through a lot in the past couple of years (cross-country move, unemployment, career change, serious illness of parents, infertility and miscarriage, etc.) and I feel reasonably confident saying that we've come out stronger at present. However, it's unclear that this stream of badness will slow any time soon. My love for my spouse is unchanged but I'm certainly more stressed and anxious, and a bit more worn, than I was before all of this began. My spouse is also feeling the stresses and coping in their own way.

My only concern with how we're coping now is that, as the more extroverted of us, I tend to want more interaction and support, while my more introverted spouse wants more alone time, which can create some tension as I worry we are flirting with a companionate marriage that will somehow fizzle in a couple of years, though this may be my anxiety speaking.

So how have you and your spouse have fed and nourished your relationship during prolonged periods of stress? Date nights scratch the itch, but seem a bit underwhelming given all that we've been through in the past couple of years. It seems that whatever we're doing has worked but I'd like a few more tools to keep for whatever's ahead.
posted by robertthebruce to Human Relations (15 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
When my partner is needing alone time due to assorted life stresses and I'm needing together time, one of the things I do that's hard but works really well is to back off.

I work on feeding and nourishing myself without seeking out my partner's company, and that gives my partner the alone time he needs, which then leaves him more open to seeking out the together time I need. I do this without seeking the end result of together time, I do it because it's the thing that feels healthy to do.
posted by aniola at 2:21 PM on July 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

If your spouse needs more alone time, can you support that by now and then going out to do something extraverted that you would really enjoy? Book club, evening class, running group, dinner with friends? With the hopeful end result that, both of you having gotten what you need to satisfy your needs for social time and alone time, you'll have more to offer each other.
posted by bunderful at 2:59 PM on July 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the replies. Won't threadsit, but just want to clarify that I'd like to hear general ideas for coping and supporting one's spouse, as well as the marriage. That is, not just as related to introversion/extroversion (although more
of that is fine, too) as I think we do a good job of respecting our space boundaries. I would like to know whether you and your spouse have gone through prolonged (years-long), multiple stressors, and how you nurtured yourselves and your marriage during that time.
posted by robertthebruce at 4:06 PM on July 9, 2017

For us, it has helped to do things as a twosome that we really enjoy doing together. That allows us to distance ourselves from the stressors. Even if we find ourselves talking about (insert name of stressor here), the conversation is more big picture and less mired in the nitty-gritty, which helps us gain perspective.

It also helps that we talk about how stressors in general affect our relationship so, for example, if one of us is overreacting to a very minor thing, the other can ask "What are you really mad about?"
posted by DrGail at 4:24 PM on July 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

My spouse and I have been going through a pretty rough patch this last year due to some pretty severe medical issues. What's really helped is that when things are good (or at least not so bad) it's the little things that add up.

Alone time is critical, but it sounds like you have that covered.

Grand gestures are great and night as you said is great, but they can seem like you're trying too hard.

My recommendation is to keep it small and simple. Make that specific dinner they like. Give a shoulder rub. Spend a little extra on a frivolous thing that you don't really need but they like or would appreciate. Make the bed. Take out the trash even though it's their turn. Little things can make a world of difference in my experience. It's a really easy and effective way to say 'hey, I'm thinking of you'. It really helps cement the bond, it acknowledges that even though things aren't really great, you're thinking of them and their comfort/happiness. It doesn't take too much effort (on a good day), and does wonders for the relationship.
posted by geckoinpdx at 4:27 PM on July 9, 2017 [11 favorites]

The best thing for our season of miscarriage, infertility, death of a pet, and depression/grief was that he went to therapy, freeing me up to care for myself more knowing that he had support.

We also carved out time to talk about each rough thing, but also time to take breaks from those topics and do something else like see a museum or go for a walk where those subjects were off limits. It helped us reestablish our older connections with each other.
posted by sadmadglad at 6:18 PM on July 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

In the last several years we have coped with job loss, being underwater on mortgage, sale of house, purchase of house, death of pet and death of both of our fathers. Along with numerous other issues.... it has been a lot. We have danced around companionate marriage but we still love each other and do not want to split up. The one thing that has worked for us is doing our "papers". We sit down on a regular basis - used to be once a week but now it is every day - and complete a few questions that we then share with each other. Right now our questions revolve around remembering what made us fall in love, our favorite dates we've had, things we admire about each other, and our dreams for the future. We do three to four questions a night. It gives us ten minutes to focus on our relationship and our love. I just google relationship questions and make my own sheets inspired by what I find. It has literally saved our marriage over the last three years. When we don't do it, things fall apart quickly.
posted by ChristineSings at 7:14 PM on July 9, 2017 [21 favorites]

ChristineSings, that is a really cool idea. You two keep that up, you'll stick together!
posted by wenestvedt at 7:56 PM on July 9, 2017

We do something similar to ChrstineSings, but using that Gottman book to check in and talk about our relationship. Although there wasn't anything "wrong" per se, the book's been a useful resource; we've both been able to express ourselves more clearly and deal with stressful situations more kindly because we built up that common communication framework. In fact, we once misplaced the book and bought it again because it was so useful to us.

It's been a very busy and stressful couple of years and because of clashing work schedules, we've had to prioritise seeing each other over other friendships. But I've also met my introversion needs by going away on my own - once for ten days and once for four days - and this was invaluable to my well being and made me a better spouse to boot.
posted by mkdirusername at 10:44 PM on July 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

My husband and I split 6 months ago, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

I wish he had said to me, when I needed it: "What can I do? What can I do to help you?" and then follow through. I'd have loved it if he had asked with concern and consistency. I make sure to ask this question to all my friends/family/loved ones in times of stress.

I was going to add more, but yeah - if he had been able to do this, we might still be together.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:23 AM on July 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

You are overthinking this. The same stuff that worked in your marriage when it was less stressful works when it's stressed. It's probably more effective actually. You don't need all new routines, you need normalcy, punctuated by the occasional wild hair up your ass idea to keep life fresh.

I lost my job and my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in a 24 hour period last September. I speak from experience here.
posted by COD at 5:38 AM on July 10, 2017

Things that work best for us are mixing and matching from many of the things already mentioned here:

- Alone time, which sometimes means "dear god please go out to a movie or something and let me have the house to myself for three hour" and sometimes means "I'm gonna check myself into a hotel for the weekend and not speak to another human being, I love you and l'll see you Monday," and we both get to do both versions, and we're both extra-happy to see each other again afterwards.

- Occasional check-ins to see who's carrying which stresses around and whether there are things either of us could be doing for the other to help. (The other day my partner was like, "I've got some extra time today and I know your week is gonna suck, tell me the three chores you are dreading most this week and I'll do them for you" and he did and it was maybe the most romantic thing anyone's ever said to me.)

- Making sure that we have support sources other than simply each other - friends, therapists, internet forums, whatever - so that neither of us is additionally stressed by being the other's whole support system, and also so that not all of our time is spent supporting each other, but can be spent on just fun stuff too.

- I picked this one up from Metafilter and I wish I remembered who to credit, sorry I don't! But in one of these "how do you keep your relationship strong" questions years back, someone told a story about how they had made a habit of vocally pointing out when they and their partner had good teamwork, and how it made them both feel good to notice when they were having good times together. I stole that habit, and my partner picked it up from me, and now we both pretty announce "Yay, teamwork!" at each other. Just yesterday we were discussing how even though it sounds/feels a little silly, it also feels warm and fuzzy and nice and we both like the verbal acknowledgement of We Did A Good Thing Together. Sometimes I make a little more effort to do that in the rough patches.

- I do NOT actually advise this one, but it's entirely possible that adopting a pair of kittens got us through a really rough patch a few years ago when I'm not sure anything else would have. Perhaps something like kittens that is not an actual living creature would be helpful - some long-term project for something you can make or grow together and see tangible results. An art project, a garden, re-painting a room in the house?
posted by Stacey at 5:55 AM on July 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

We've been through all of the things that you mentioned, though thankfully, not all at the same time. It sucked a lot. It actually sounds like you're handling it way better than we did, since you didn't mention any of the blame or anger that we had to work through. Good job on being on 'team us.'

I think what got us through was the belief that we would come out the other side and that this was just a crappy period that we would look back on from our rocking chairs on our porch some day. This too shall pass.

My parents have a running joke where one of them will say 'X years of marriage!' and the other will say 'X-5 wonderful years!' They're at like 45 years/ 40 wonderful years right now, so that long term perspective and acceptance that some years are just terrible clearly helped.

We took on as few additional stresses as possible. We turned down extra work responsibilities. We put off non-essential household repairs until we felt up for it.

When we went on vacation together, we choose one that allowed us to sleep 11 hours a night and make no decisions. While unexpectedly unemployed, my husband went on a long solo vacation and visited family, which got him out of the apartment and helped with perspective.

We started a new hobby together, a physical non-thinking hobby that relied on teamwork and also got us exercise. We did this because it would relieve stress - don't put pressure on yourself to add anything if it doesn't sound fun - but the exercise and bonding helped.
posted by oryelle at 9:05 AM on July 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

freeing me up to care for myself more knowing that he had support.

sadmadglad makes an important point here. Just because you are in a marriage (or any relationship, really) that doesn't mean that your partner should be your sole source of support, especially during difficult times. It's actually incredibly unfair to ask your partner to take care of your feelings when they are in survival mode as well. Lean a bit on friends, family, clergy, therapy, yoga, whatever-ya-got to get things off your chest. Put on your own oxygen mask in that way, so that you will be refreshed enough to provide support to your partner. Ideally, they should be doing the same thing.
posted by vignettist at 7:47 AM on July 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Since 2014 my spouse and I have had a baby with a difficult birth which threatened my life twice (2 separate haemorrhages and sepsis), the baby, our 3rd, went on to have multiple allergies early on which meant I (breastfeeding) had to live on a very restricted diet for months. As he got past his feeding issues our eldest was referred to CAMHS due to some issues she was having at school and she was subsequently diagnosed with aspergers and ADHD. By the time she was fully diagnosed, receiving treatment and doing much better it had become clear her brother, the aforementioned baby, had some very significant delays. In the months that followed that he was diagnosed with complex Autism and a very significant learning impairment, he is non verbal, doubly incontinent (he's 4.5), lots of behavioural issues, ridiculously poor sleep etc. His trajectory is unknown and it's probable he will need lifelong care. I am his full time carer and my husband is the sole earner. The divorce rate for couples in our situation is around 90%.

So, with all of that in mind, this is what helps us:

1. We make ourselves be really honest about our emotional states and stay responsible for our own wellness. At the, moment we are both on ssri's, he is managing to eat better and get to the gym more than me due to it being the school holiday where we are but I do make sure I get out with the dogs every day and keep my brain occupied with stuff that isn't the kids.
2. We are kind and generous with one another even when our own cups are empty. It takes a lot of trust to do that when you're at your lowest ebb but I find that a ten minute break he has somehow provided me is more restorative and gives me a deeper sense of being on a team than a 30 minute break I somehow managed to get myself.
3. We laugh a LOT. The unfunnier the situation the harder we work at finding a way to poke fun at it. We laugh at ourselves, we laugh at our frustration, at our rage about it all. It really is a good medicine for us and it's a habit that gets easier with practice.
4. Time off means time off. On a night off or an afternoon out the person with the kids does not contact the other except to share good news or in absolute extremis (up to and including a broken bones doesn't count as extremis). Our time off is incredibly precious and we both treat one another's leisure as sacred. Likewise our friendships outwith the marriage are really important and we both take time to consider if the other has seen their friends recently and enough.
5. We don't fear "mere" companionship. Marriage is a long time. I don't expect we'll be having wild passionate times in our 80's very often, but we might sometimes. Likewise when sleep was really bad (literally 3 hours a night broken into 40 minute chunks for months and months and months) we cuddled a lot but had no energy for anything else. Our sex drives are always fairly matched (either we are both up for it or both not but very rarely is one up for it and the other not) so it doesn't cause actual issues, and we consciously reject the idea that a "good marriage" can be measured by anyone but the couple or by any measure they themselves don't choose. Sex is not as important but there is a lot of affection and attraction and when it happens its as good as it ever was. It's possible this is easier for us because we have a uniting factor in the needs of our children that will outlast any other marker for togetherness one could name.

You would need to ask me in 30 years if this is enough to keep us in the 10% who survive what we have going on together, but as of right now we both feel part of an incredible and unique team. It is very hard work at times, over and above the general hard work of caring for our family, but it is so worthwhile.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 3:48 PM on July 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

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