Years ago, a friend’s husband had an addiction that he wasn’t interested in kicking. One day my friend said to her husband, “Let’s go for a ride. I want to show you something.”
They got in the car. They drove to an apartment complex. They got out. She opened the door to an apartment.
She asked, “Do you like it?”
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “Great! This is where you will be living until you deal with this. I love you, and I will be waiting for you. But I cannot live with you right now.”
She hugged him, handed him the keys, and left.
He later kicked the addiction. They are back together in the same home.
Love is Not Black and White
It’s my belief that dropping her husband off at that apartment might have been the most loving thing my friend ever did for herself or for him.
If she had not loved herself or him, she would have continued to be a doormat to his abuse and she would have continued to enable his addiction. Because she loved him and herself, she did the one thing that was good for her—and inevitably for him, too.
Many people use a lot of “rights” and “wrongs” and “shoulds” when talking about love and marriage. But the truth is this: what is good for you and your marriage might not be good for mine and vice versa. Remind yourself of this whenever your marriage faces a great deal of stress because all sorts of people are going to be giving you all sorts of advice about the right or wrong thing that you should do.
In the end, you will want to do what’s good for you and your marriage—even if no one outside of your marriage understands it. There is no right and there is no wrong. Tough times don’t come with a one-solution-fits-all instruction manual.
Here is the rest of my advice on this subject.
Know your limits. I’ve told my husband that if he ever is to again break any bone in his body during a cycling accident, I will fly him to Florida so his mother can take care of him. I do not say this out of hatred. I tell him this because I know what I can handle. I love him, but I also love me. If there is no “me,” we will not have a “we.” So by loving myself, I am loving him by default.
Have the courage to be vulnerable. It really is okay to be weak. It really is okay to be fallible. It really is okay to not be able to rise to the occasion. Own your vulnerability. The day you stop hiding it and pretending that it isn’t there is the day that it will stop plaguing you.
Stand up for yourself. Being a doormat is not the same thing as loving someone unconditionally. If your marriage is under stress and your partner is taking that stress out on you, it’s really okay to politely, firmly, and succinctly say, “Please don’t talk to me like that. It hurts.” I’m guessing that your spouse does not intentionally set out to hurt you. Most people who displace their anger do not.
Warm things up. Small gestures of love are important all the time, but they are especially important when your marriage is under stress. Smile when your spouse walks into the room. Hug your spouse for no reason. Compliment your spouse as often as possible. Make your spouse feel like a fantastic, awesome human being.
But give your spouse space. If your spouse is grieving or suffering from a health issue, don’t try to make your spouse happy. Such a project will only frustrate you both. Illness sucks. Loss sucks. Hardship sucks. Give your spouse the space he or she needs to grieve. Yes, be there. Hold a hand. Listen. But don’t set out to make your spouse happy.
Communicate without blame. Those “I statements” are so important during stressful times. Here are a few examples:
I am exhausted. I don’t know if I can get through another day.
This grief is overwhelming. I can’t take it anymore.
I hate being sick. I’m mad at my own body. I never knew being sick could make me so angry.
I’m so frustrated. It doesn’t feel fair that we should have to go through this.
I love you and I want to get through this with you. Please tell me how.
I love you and I want to be there for you. Please tell me how.
I love you and I want to be there for you, but I don’t think I’m strong enough. I wish I were stronger.
This is so hard for me, but it would be less hard if we could face it together. Right now I feel like we are battling each other rather than supporting each other. How can we fix this?
Stop keeping score. If your spouse is going through a hard time and you are not, you might be tempted to do something like this: “Well, he wasn’t there for me when X happened, therefore I see no reason why I should…”
In a word: don’t. When marriage gets turned into a competition, you both lose. You might have to do much more than 50 percent for an extended period of time. That’s marriage. That’s love.
Know that it’s temporary. No hardship lasts forever. Think of it as a hurricane that you are riding out. Eventually the storm will pass.
Use it as an opportunity. Most couples do not grow closer during the good times, but they either grow closer or grow apart during the tough times. Look at hardships as opportunities to grow closer to your spouse.
How have you dealt with hardship? What is your advice for strengthening a relationship during tough times?
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.