Engaged couples focus on creating the perfect wedding day. But after the long-anticipated wedding date, they launch out onto the seas of matrimony. Some newlyweds launch into married life expecting a pleasure cruise and smooth sailing. Others may recognize dark clouds at the horizon, but have confidence in their crew to weather the storm. They prepare for rough waters, but may still be surprised at a fierce squall. How can novice sailors be expected to navigate uncharted waters?
Every relationship navigates rough seas at some point, but newlyweds do it without the fortitude of being a seasoned crew. Little disagreements escalate as our feelings get injured and our own crew can feel like a mutinous lot. We begin to see our new spouse as a selfish, broken human being. The person who was once prince charming or our one true love quickly becomes an adversary in the laundry battle or dirty dishes controversy. Losses will occur in our relationship, jobs have ups and downs, families face illness and death, and economic challenges arise. Babies may or may not come along, and both outcomes bring additional challenges. When we launch into married life we have no idea which obstacles we will encounter.
It doesn’t take long for a relationship to bump into challenges. So how can we navigate the challenging seas of life in a newly established marriage? Here is some advice from seasoned seafarers to keep you from going adrift.
A cool head allows us to be rational instead of reactionary. Conflict is normal and not a reason to panic--you might be irritated, but there's no need to be scared. Take a deep breath and listen well to the voices around you before reacting. Arguments do not mean that you chose the wrong person to marry or that your relationship is doomed to failure. Challenges simply mean that two broken people are trying to figure out how to live in community. Don’t abandon the ship at the first sign of difficulty. It takes time to develop a partnership and those skills are learned by working through the everyday challenges. So tune into the situation. Invite professional resources if needed, but lose the panic, it will only maroon you.
Tossing your spouse to the sharks is not constructive problem solving. Challenges give us an opportunity to exercise our problem solving skills and learn the art of collaboration. Your marriage will fare better when you realize that your spouse is not your enemy, but a fellow struggler with you. In marriage you were assigned to the same team and you committed to rowing in the same direction. As fellow crew members it is critical to negotiate so you become skilled in how to work together well. We gain the gift of companionship when we join forces and navigate difficulty together rather than trying to flounder on our own.
Once you are committed to working on the same team you need to focus on improving your teamwork. The team works best when problem areas are lovingly addressed rather than covered over. You might not be entitled to getting things your own way, but neither is it in the best interest of the relationship to ignore problems or to minimize the hurts we are experiencing. Commit to dealing with things in a loving way as problems surface. Writing down our frustrations can be a good first step in addressing problems. Don’t be afraid to get the guidance of a counselor. We do regular maintenance on our vessels--why not get some professional help for maintaining our relationships?
Accusations and anger are poor guides for navigating troubled relationships. Our success will be better if we let love steer the course. Anger can alert you to problems in need of correction, but indulged anger can blow us off course and distract us from the partnership that God established in marriage. Love on the other hand leads us with humility to follow Christ’s example of sacrificial living. We can accomplish more with love, but it requires taking on a forgiving spirit. Anger may feel justified, but alone it will not accomplish the unity that God desires for us. Loving compromise forged out of firm but tender confrontation and coming to grips with your own selfishness allows love to chart the course.
The issues of everyday life may feel overwhelming, but in the greater scheme of things they are actually small. Seasons of life may feel stormy and challenging, but they don’t last forever. Think of yourselves ten or twenty years from now. Will this still matter? God is bigger than our challenges and these problems will be but a moment of eternity. Besides, the new heaven and earth will be free of tears and dirty socks. Sometimes the best approach is to pause and reset our expectations. Take a deep breath and be thoughtful in your response rather than reactionary. Consider trying to find the joy in each situation-- we'll be less anxious if we learn to laugh at ourselves. If it will be funny later, it's probably funny now.
God did not bring us into a relationship and then set us adrift. God does not abandon us to our struggles. God might be shaping your spouse through you, or he might be shaping you through your spouse. We have a God who directs our course and journeys with us through every challenge. God is the beacon to guide you on your journey--don’t neglect your faith. There is no greater indicator of a long and healthy marriage than shared spiritual practice. So pray, and pray together. As we lean on God and base our behavior on the instructions that he brings us in his word, we will find our marriage on course and better equipped to withstand difficulties. Hold each other accountable for growing spiritually.
We might feel swamped and panicked when our shiny new relationship meets the harsh reality of life’s storms. As broken people struggling to follow Christ’s example, life can sometimes feel quite rough at times. But no matter what the weather forecast, we have the God who controls the seas guiding our journey.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Deb Koster