Till Kids Do Us Part
Twenty-two weeks into my second pregnancy, my husband Keith and I were devastated to learn that the little boy I was carrying had a serious heart defect. In the midst of our turmoil, one specialist grimly remarked, "I should warn you that half of all couples in this situation separate within a year." Thankfully, we were able to lean on each other during this most difficult time in our marriage, allowing us to grow closer, even as we watched Christopher slip away.
In all likelihood you won’t have to endure the death of one of your children, but you may suffer other heartbreaks that can take their toll on your marriage. Maybe one of your children has been injured. Maybe you have an uncontrollable four-year-old, or a teenager who is constantly threatening to run away. Even so-called "normal" children can cause stress with their constant demands.
It’s hardly surprising that children add tension to a marriage. They encapsulate our identity, our dreams, and our futures. When something goes wrong with our kids, we feel like our whole world is falling apart. A strong marriage can provide a cushion through these challenges, but a marriage that is floundering only compounds grief. Doreen Tomlin, whose 16-year-old son John was killed in the Columbine massacre, told Christianity Today that as soon as she believed he was dead, she began to pray, "Let it not ruin our marriage." To ensure that your marriage withstands whatever pressure it may face, try to nurture it in the following four ways:
1. Forgive Yourself
Guilt and parenthood seem to go hand in hand. We feel guilty for things over which we have no control, and we repeatedly kick ourselves for things we feel we should have handled better. Yet self-recrimination can cause us to build walls of silence around ourselves, isolating us from the love we so desperately need.
If your child’s problem can be traced back to your sin, remember that no matter how serious your error, Jesus has already paid for it. You do not have to keep punishing yourself for something that Jesus has already erased.
More often that not, though, our feelings of guilt have nothing to do with actual sin. In Always, a book of inspirational stories of marriage, Betsy Holt and Mike Yorkey relate the story of Rick and Laurie, who lost their infant son to SIDS. Laurie felt she was to blame for not ministering CPR correctly, and, overwhelmed by guilt, she cut herself off from Rick and everyone who loved her. Once she realized how hurtful she was being, she opened up. Simply voicing her guilt helped to alleviate it, and with her husband’s support she forgave herself. They were then free to deal with their grief together.
In a similar way, though I knew I could not be labeled "guilty" for my son’s health problems, I was nonetheless tortured as I watched him grow weaker and was unable to help. My husband Keith felt this guilt even more acutely, because as a pediatrician himself he felt he should have been able to cure him. Voicing these feelings seems to put them in perspective and minimize their ability to throw us into despair.
If you’ve ever experienced anything similar, you probably have also been consumed with questions like "Why me? Why my child? Why am I being punished?" You may wonder what you did to cause God to hurt your children like this. I vividly remember the day I heard my minister say, "When we ask ‘why me’, we are placing ourselves at the center of the universe rather than God." Suddenly it occurred to me that maybe Christopher’s illness had nothing to do with my own relationship with God. He was not necessarily putting Christopher through this to punish me, test me or teach me. Perhaps He was just choosing to use me to accomplish His plans. The realization was tremendously freeing.
God is ultimately in control. It is He who allowed this to happen, not you. And even if you never understand why in this lifetime, God trusts you with this burden and He will always help you to carry it.
2. Forgive Your Spouse
Forgiving yourself allows you to stop ruminating on your own problems and focus on your relationships. To maintain harmony in your family you must also forgive your spouse. Paul’s advice to not "let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Ephesians 4:26) is especially applicable for those of us harboring anger against our spouses, for anger can be just as destructive to a marriage as feelings of guilt. My heart feels sick at some of the heartbreaking stories that hit the news. The father hits a patch of ice and his son is thrown from the car. A little girl wanders from a family picnic and drowns. And who can forget little Jessica McClure, who fell down a well when her mother turned her back for a second. Such things seem so difficult to forgive.
Usually the infraction is far more mundane, such as the workaholic husband who leaves his wife to deal with their children’s behavioral problems herself. Yet whatever the offense, you will never be able to form a family that loves and supports unconditionally if you remain angry. If the spouse’s sin is one of deliberate abuse, you must first ensure that your children are safe. But if abuse does not enter the picture, forgiveness is the only route to peace.
Jesus put no limits on forgiveness. Philip Yancey, in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, admits that forgiveness is an "unnatural act". Extending grace to someone who does not deserve it feels just plain wrong. Yet just as Jesus already paid for the guilt we feel, He already paid for our spouse’s guilt, too.
Best of all, forgiveness has a side effect that nothing else can deliver: it brings a marvelous freedom to both parties. Your spouse is set free to parent, unencumbered by the need to "make amends", and you are free from the cycle of "ungrace" which demands a retribution which can never be paid.
Unforgiveness is probably the biggest barrier to healing this side of heaven. It takes such humility and strength to say, "I will no longer hold this against you," and often we just don’t feel up to the task. As hard as it seems, though, it is so much harder to live with bitterness. As speaker Patricia Frances asserts, "unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die." You may be protecting your need to be right, but you give up your only chance at freedom and peace, and limit what God can do in your family.
If there is a seemingly insurmountable sin that is coming between you and your spouse, get down on your knees and ask for God to help you put it aside, and open yourself up to that cycle of grace which can save your family.
3. Show Love to Your Spouse
One of the hardest things to do when you are exhausted, worried about a child, or grieving is to focus on someone else. Yet relationships need constant nourishment, especially through the hard times. Christian counselor and teacher John Walton sees many broken-hearted couples who neglected their marriage after the children came, and soon found they had no relationship apart from their kids.
So how can you nourish your marriage during periods of family stress? "Make sure you take time everyday just to talk," advises Walton. "It doesn’t have to be ‘heavy’. Just tell each other what you’re thinking about."
Counselor Denise MacDonald, operator of FamilyWorks therapy in Belleville, Ontario, also advises couples to practice "caring behaviors" toward each other to build goodwill. This can be difficult if your spouse is not interested in participating. But a wife showing her husband he’s important, for instance, isn’t saying he’s more important than she is. It’s just building positive feelings to strengthen their relationship. She doesn’t have to feel that he’s important, either; there are times when she may honestly not care because she’s up to her eyeballs in diapers and the kids are screaming. But if she can act out her love, she demonstrates that she values him, even if she has difficulty communicating it in other ways.
These acts of kindness towards your spouse don’t have to be elaborate, but they must speak your spouse’s language. I love backrubs, but my husband would rather sit alone and read. If I rub his shoulders, I make him more annoyed than appreciated. Ask your spouse what makes him or her feel loved, and then try to do one or two of these things a day. If you take time to practice kindness, to listen, and to share, you will be fostering the harmony that builds a solid family foundation.
4. Find Solutions
After you have addressed your own spiritual issues and demonstrated love to your spouse, you are ready for the biggest challenge of all: finding agreement on how to handle the challenges your child poses. While the previous four steps can be done even with an uncooperative spouse, this one requires more compromise.
When parents agree on a course of action, whether it’s about discipline for a rebellious teenager, or about treatment options for an ill child, life is much smoother than when parents do not. Yet what do you do when you reach an impasse about issues which are so vitally important?
When Julie and Jim’s son Matt began exhibiting serious behavioral problems, they disagreed on how to discipline him. Julie, who grew up in a Christian home, believed she had more insight than Jim did, whose parents were not Christian. "Sometimes I would just shout to get my way, I was so sure I was right," Julie told me. "But when nothing worked, we realized nobody had all the answers. Now we try to work things out together."
John Walton believes that having a "teachable spirit" is crucial in reaching these agreements. To Walton, Ephesians 5:21, "submit yourselves to one another", should govern marital decision-making. If you can’t agree, he advises taking a "time out" from each other to pray and ask God to show you where you are wrong.
If, however, you have prayed and talked and you still disagree, find a third party to help, such as a minister or a counselor skilled in family therapy. Don’t just acquiesce without believing in your heart that you are doing the right thing, or you risk feeling angry and self-righteous later if things turn out badly. Keep praying and talking until both of you are at peace.