My husband, Andrew, and I married over seven years ago and this week we spent some time meditating on some of the challenges we have faced in our life together. In the past seven years, three of our four parents have faced significant illnesses that have led to hospitalizations and nursing home stays, our 31-year-old sister-in-law died of brain cancer, and we have faced ongoing challenges with infertility. Between these experiences and other struggles, we have spent many days of our marriage feeling emotionally and physically drained. All of these circumstances have left us feeling hit hard by life.
What helps you to cope, both individually and as a couple when you feel overwhelmed? Several important tools my husband and I have used to navigate difficult times include: taking care of our mind, body and spirit, setting boundaries, receiving help, being kind and striving to not compare.
Taking care of your mind, body and spirit is a must during difficult times
What do you do to take care of yourself spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically? I have learned it is very difficult to offer love to others if I don’t have places in my life to receive love. I must fill up my cup if I expect to have any love in my cup to pour onto others. Self-care is simply the way we nurture ourselves and this is something you can do with your other half and on your own. I have learned that for the sake of our marriage, it is important that we have self-care practices we do together, but also that we do individually.
It is also important to evaluate whether both you and your partner are getting adequate time to practice self-care. It can quickly lead to resentment if one partner gets more time to explore their own interests than the other partner does. It also can be vital to encourage your partner to do something for themselves, if you know they are stressed out and neglecting to take care of themselves. My husband and I both tend to neglect ourselves when we are facing challenges. When I notice Andrew is not taking great care of himself, I encourage him to go for a hike, listen to music or go to the gym; because these are all practices that fill his cup. He is also great at reminding me to take a break and do something kind for myself when he notices me overdoing it. Andrew often asks me if I have spoken with any friends during a given day, because he has observed that this is a simple and yet powerful self-care practice in my life. It also is important for us to take time for a date night, because going to our favorite local Mexican restaurant is a way we collectively practice self-care. So having ways to practice self-care independently and together is very important for relationships.
Setting boundaries are imperative when you are facing stress
My husband and I are helpers, and this can be both our strength and our curse. Both of us love to support our family and community. In addition to working a full-time job, Andrew serves as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician and he is an officer on the board of our local emergency services. And I love to help people in my role as a counselor, yoga teacher and chaplain. We both are aware of our tendency to over-function in our families, volunteer work and professionally. When we are not careful, we can become so busy taking care of others that we neglect both our marriage and our own needs.
We have learned that there are some nights and weekends that we have to say no to others, in order to say yes to ourselves and our marriage. If you are not comfortable saying the word no, it may take some practice and intentionality. If you are a chronic helper, it is necessary to think about whether your commitments to a religious community, extended family, board, job or volunteer work are cutting short the time you need for both yourself and your relationship. You also will probably notice that when you take time for yourself and your partner, you will have more passion and heart to offer in your work, family and civic endeavors.
Are we able to receive help and care from others?
I love to buy gifts for others and to help loved ones, but I have noticed it is more difficult for me to receive help and generous gifts than it is for me to give them. Just as we mature spiritually and emotionally, when we learn to love others, we also can grow when we receive love. Are you and/or your spouse able to receive assistance from loved ones, when you are going through tough times?
Andrew and I just returned from a life-giving vacation, but we actually considered not going on it, because his parents are facing significant health problems and they are in need of support at this time. Andrew is one of three children, but he is the only one who lives in the same community as his parents. Since both his siblings live several hours away, we considered canceling our vacation, because we did not want to imposition anyone. But we realized we were both exhausted and needed the get-away, and so Andrew decided to ask his siblings if they could come and stay at our house, to make sure his parents’ needs were taken care of, and his brother and sister were more than happy to do this. We both felt a twinge of guilt, because of the sacrifice this involved for his siblings, but we also realized they really wanted to help, and it was important for us to receive this act of love. So we are both working on the spiritual art of receiving love, which is equally important to learn the art of giving love.
It is crucial to be gentle and kind towards one another
Do you treat your partner with the same care and regard you treat others in your life? Unfortunately, we are often hardest on the person we love the most. When I am stressed out, I know I am guilty of projecting my anger, fear and sadness onto my beloved husband.
On the first day of our recent vacation, Andrew and I had an argument about the direction we were going to travel from Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole. I wanted to take the more direct path because it was faster and he wanted to take the more scenic path. Our fight was so ridiculous that it would have been a funny scene in a comedic sitcom, because of how preposterous and stubborn both of us were being.
Luckily, we took a moment to ask ourselves why we were treating one another with such vitriol, and we recognized that neither one of us really cared which way we traveled. The real issue was that we were worn out and our honesty about the reasons for our exhaustion, led to a meaningful conversation about the toil all of our current stressors are having on us. We also made a commitment to be mindful to be kinder and less reactive with one another. When we are intentional to be gracious to one another, it is a game changer in our relationship. Our vacation took a turn in the right direction when we talked about what was really bothering us and committed ourselves to being gracious to one other.
Comparing our partner can lead to emotional or physical infidelity
The weekend of the Meghan & Harry’s wedding, my husband and I watched a news program highlighting the big event and my heart melted as I saw the way Harry was looking at Meghan. It was clear Harry was smitten with his bride. I looked over at my husband and said to him, “I wish you looked at me like that.” As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized my words were not a very loving way to express my need for romance. I also was reminded that comparison can be the kiss of death in a relationship. In the compelling book, What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal, John Gottman shares research that suggests people who negatively compare their partner to someone else, are more likely to commit infidelity.
I know I am especially more apt to negatively compare my husband when I am confronted with hardships. When our lives feel out of control, the human tendency is to try to control others or to seek perfection in them, because of the chaos in our lives. We also tend to argue more with our partner when times are hard, and this makes it easier for a celebrity, work associate, friend or ex-flame to become the object of our affection, because we never fight with them, and so, they become the more appealing apple of our eye.
It is important to be mindful of whether you are adversely comparing your partner. Have you been guilty of thinking about how your significant other stacks up against someone else lately? Once we start comparing our spouse to an old flame, colleague or even Prince Harry or Princess Meghan, we might possibly be on a dangerous road towards emotional or physical infidelity. Instead of negatively comparing our partner to someone else, it is important to look for the gifts our companion has. We probably already have a Princess Meghan or Prince Harry in our life. We just need to be intentional to remember the many gifts our mate has, instead of fixating on their negative attributes and who might be able to offer us more. Take some time to think about why you fell in love, and try to be mindful to not compare your beloved.
Final take away
What are some of the challenges you and your partner have recently faced on life’s journey? All of us go through incredible hardships on the road of life, and it is such a gift to have a partner with whom we can face these problems. However, if we are not intentional about fostering and protecting the relationship, we risk losing the person who means the most to us. I challenge you and your other half to set an intention to make time for self-care, set healthy boundaries, receive help from others, extend kindness and strive to not compare each other. If you accept this commitment, Prince Harry and Princess Meghan will not be the only couple living happily ever after.