Real talk: nothing will test your marriage more than trauma. In marriage, don’t be surprised if you experience times when the weight of those vows you once said and then tossed aside are tried by fire. My marriage certainly wasn’t and isn’t an exception.
In December 2013, a few weeks before my wedding, I had butterflies. I anticipated starting a life together with my groom-to-be and couldn’t wake to embark on adventures together. I couldn’t wait to exchange vows and get this party-of-two started. What I didn’t expect was to experience the whole “for better or for worse” part of my vows way sooner than I’d ever imagined.
Instead of a love-struck honeymoon phase, it wasn’t long before my marriage, my family, entered into a VERY unpleasant season. There was a hot minute when I didn’t think we’d make it. But I mean, who plans ahead to spend the first three years of their marriage in survival mode, battling crippling mental health and mysterious health issues.
There were several moments when that certain “I DO” sounded more like uncertain “Do I?”.
When this happens, what can we do to salvage whatever good we can? How can we safeguard this relationship and start to reclaim the love and commitment?
I wanted to share just a few practical tips for doing so.
Disclaimer: I am not a marriage counselor; I’m sharing personal experience. I am a wife that’s had to work hard to reclaim joy and love in my marriage.
“THE FIRST YEAR OF MARRIAGE IS THE HARDEST”
My husband and I had a whirlwind romance. By the second date, we had our future planned out. Call it love at first sight or call it whatever you’d like. All I know is when we fell in love, we fell in love fast.
Some people say the first year of marriage is the hardest. At least that’s what was written in a few of our wedding cards. I didn’t consider myself naive. Naturally, combining two lives into one wasn’t going to be perfect. Those early weeks are full of plenty of chances to learn one another’s quirks and qualities. Despite the adjustments (and my new husband’s shortcomings- I mean, hello! It’s called a laundry basket! There’s no reason to find clothes behind the bathroom door every morning!), I had high hopes and dreams for our marriage, especially the first few years. All of that seemed to come crashing down when I read the positive sign on a pregnancy test. I wasn’t expecting a perfect first year of married life, but I was positively not expecting to be, well, expecting within three months.
Newlywed-life was off to a rough start: My husband was a first-year teacher. I was halfway through my Bachelor’s degree. Our living situation was fickle as our original rental fell through. I was between jobs and now I was sick as a dog as my body worked hard to grow our baby. To top it all off, the idea of motherhood felt more like a trap than anything. I’ll be honest: It’s hard to be excited about being pregnant when you didn’t want to get pregnant in the first place (and we were actively not trying). I wanted my baby; I just didn’t want my baby right now.
Our wedding cards were partially right: the first year of marriage was hard. As I set aside my own plans and tried to embrace whatever plans God must have had for me instead, I tried coming to terms with becoming a mom. It took time but as my guess-date drew closer, my excitement for starting life as a family of three grew too.
Little did I know, my new husband and I were about to face a very difficult, dark season. Our vows were about to be all kinds of tested.
WHEN IT SEEMS LIKE “FOR WORSE” HAPPENS MORE THAN “FOR BETTER”
What was supposed to be such a sweet season of life quickly turned sour when our home birth turned postpartum hemorrhage turned hospital transfer on December 25th.
Unfortunately, problems didn’t end with a happily-ever-after when we got home. The first week alone was full of pain, trauma, and ER visit, and the first of two surgeries for me (that’s another story for another time). I didn’t ring in that New Year celebrating with my new family; I was passed out and coming off the anesthesia and hanging on by a thread as I pumped and dumped breastmilk and struggled to bond with my son.
About three weeks later, on January 18th of 2015, our first wedding anniversary was spent hardly talking to my husband. I didn’t know what the heck was going on with my body, my mind, or my heart (or my boobs for that matter. Breastfeeding is no joke.). My husband couldn’t read my mind and I simply couldn’t communicate. That day looked a lot like this:
I cried a lot.
I cried some more.
He didn’t know how to help.
I didn’t know how to help myself.
This wasn’t at all what I ever envisioned for our first anniversary together.
A good part of the next year and a half was spent navigating physical issues as we followed up on post-op complications. I underwent another surgery in the summer, and over the next few months, was diagnosed with PTSD and general anxiety disorder. Marriage and motherhood weren’t off to a great start. Having a baby already changed marriage dynamics, but add survival mode on all levels to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster. My relationship with my husband grew stale and cold as “we” were put on the back-burner in every sense of the word.
All of the pain and confusion I felt inwardly manifested outwardly. I resented my husband for things that weren’t his fault, took my issues out on him. Ultimately, our marriage suffered.
Not to mention the physical issues meant no sex life for a year.
We were still newlyweds but it wasn’t a joyous time. It felt like the whole “for worse” part of our vows came a whole lot quicker than expected. Mentally, physically, and emotionally, I was at my worst and it was taking a major toll on my relationship.
MAKING THE CHOICE TO RECLAIM MY MARRIAGE
The reality is that instead of a “honeymoon phase”, my husband and I fought to survive multiple unexpected traumas, health issues, debilitating mental health, and plenty of financial burdens. I was trying to finish my degree and took all my remaining classes online, there was no physical intimacy that next year either. Oh, and we shared ONE car. If you share a car with your spouse, you get it.
The first few years of our marriage was pure survival mode.
When we are broken, we use people as emotional punching bags. The ones closest to us usually take the hardest hits.
Despite my brokenness and inability to love him (or myself) well, not once did my husband hint at quitting. I’d be lying if I said the idea didn’t cross my mind. The worse the anxiety got, the further I felt from my husband. The more I was triggered, the more I took my anger and grief out on him.
It wasn’t until I started working on myself, learning what it took to manage my anxiety and start to heal from my wounds, that things changed.
As I learned ways to manage and heal my mental and physical health, process emotions, and take my healing process into my own hands, that’s when things changed.
Thankfully, we made it.
Today, my husband and I are two completely different people than we were when we first got married, especially me.
It’s okay to be a different person now than you used to be. People change and evolve and we just hope that it’s in a positive direction. You don’t have to be the same person as your spouse, and you don’t even have to want the same things, you just have to make the decision to move in a direction together. There are still times when we walk a fine line between rivals and friends, but we still choose one another.
My mom used to do this thing. I mean, she still does. She didn’t call my husband my husband, she called him my running buddy. She does the same thing to my sister. It used to annoy the crap out of us- like why can’t you just call him my “boyfriend”, “fiancé”, “husband”, “father of my son”?
But, he is my running buddy.
Let me clarify- we aren’t a “running couple”. You’ll see me huffing and puffing before I come close to the 1-mile marker and my husband runs like his legs are made of rubber. Bless his (uncoordinated) heart.
We might not run the lake but we choose to run together in life– in parenthood, in our marriage, in shared and individual pursuits. We choose to empower, encourage, and support each other in this race.
We don’t have to run in the same form. We might need to go at our own pace at times. Chances are we are wearing completely different outfits and even running for different reasons, but we are running forward together.
When I went through a season of debilitating mental health, he cheered me on.
When I didn’t know left from right, he didn’t leave my side.
When I was covered in breastmilk, a mix of my own tears and our baby’s tears, and suffered daily panic attacks, he was there. He even slowed his pace a little to run next to me.
THINGS THAT HELPED ME START TO RECLAIM MY MARRIAGE
Hopefully, your marriage will have far better moments than worse ones. Marriage wasn’t intended for brokenness, but it does involve two usually-broken people. You can expect a few bumps along the way. Here are a few practical tips that really helped me start to reclaim the love in my marriage after a grueling season of survival mode and trauma when whole “for worse part” of or vows seemed all that applied.
Reclaiming my marriage has always been a part of my process because we need close relationships around us to align with who we are and where we are going in order to get there.
Decide what is internal or external, both for yourself and the marriage: Look at the influences surrounding your marriage.
It wasn’t a surprise when it felt like my marriage was failing. One day, I took a look at everything that was surrounding us- physical health concerns, medical bills, etc. and I realized that the issue wasn’t necessarily between me and my husband. The issues around us were trying to drive a wedge between us. He was not doing anything to directly hurt me.
Now, look at the influences in you.
Once I realized that the root of our problems was my problems, and I took responsibility for that, it made a huge difference. It wasn’t a matter of infidelity, secret-keeping, or abuse. I just couldn’t see past my pain and I didn’t know who I was anymore so I took it out on my husband. I realized the conflict was internal on my behalf. Know it’s totally okay to have shared values and individual interests.
While getting married might metaphorically make you “one”, you are still separate entities. It’s okay to have different interests and it can actually be quite healthy. You don’t have to be the same person, you just have to choose that person.
Be running buddies. Run forward in life together and know it’s okay to listen to different music and have running different running shoes.
Love yourself so you can love your partner well.
You have the capacity to truly love someone to the degree that you truly love yourself. It’s hard to love and accept others when you don’t love and accept yourself. Know that you are worth loving and have love to give. You can’t pour from an empty cup. If your internal cup of love is empty, the same rule applies.
Talk to your partner about spending time with a couple whose relationship you admire. Learn from their experience. Ask the hard questions and see if they’re willing to pour into your lives. If you’re at a stand-still and can’t communicate clearly, consider a marriage and couples counselor. Either way, a fresh, third-party perspective might be nice.
Mind your words.
I once heard love defined as when your name is safe in someone’s mouth. I loved that description.
Pay attention to the vocabulary you use about and in your marriage. There is power in the tongue and we create much of our life through the words we use.
How do you speak about your partner with others?
How do you speak to your partner directly?
Are they life-giving or tearing them (or both of you) down?
Is their name safe in your mouth?
Are you creating more negative energy by speaking only negatively about your spouse?
That’s not to say you can’t vent or confide in someone you trust, but make sure you are using wisdom and minding what you say.
Recognize you both will change and that’s okay.
Change doesn’t have to mean you’ll grow apart. It means that you are both evolving, not just as a couple, but as individuals. Learn to love one another and meet each other’s needs in different seasons and new dynamics in the relationship.
Give yourself grace.
Regardless of how new or experienced in the relationship you are, recognize that as you change and evolve as individuals, you will be both experiencing new things. Give each other grace as you figure it out ourselves as individuals and also as a couple. Don’t forget to give yourself grace, too (read more about giving yourself grace– It’s okay to be a work in progress; we all are).
Thank your “running buddy”.
Just like I shared before, remember your running buddy. It’s amazing how far a simple “thank-you” will go. It’s so easy to neglect to appreciate all of the little things our spouses do for us. Whether it’s reminding you to breeze through an anxiety attack, brushing the kids’ teeth, or supporting your family, don’t forget to thank your running buddy while they allow you to learn who you are this season.
Exchange your vows…again!
While vows are not to be taken lightly, my husband and I joke about how we went ahead and checked off a lot of the vows in the first few years:” For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”.
Vows shouldn’t be used to excuse unfaithful and unethical decisions in a relationship. Vows signify the intent to do the work and make the choice to choose each other. Far too often vows are said once and then forgotten at the altar. When the going gets tough but you’re both willing to choose each other, remember the vows you exchanged and recite them to each other.
ON MY SIXTH ANNIVERSARY, I FELL (BACK) IN LOVE WITH MY HUSBAND
A few days ago, my hubby and I celebrated six years of marriage.
After working so hard to reclaim and re-invest in my marriage, I’m seeing the fruit.
It’s with a heart full of gratitude that I can say I confidently love my husband now. Not that I didn’t love him when we got married; it was just that I had an untainted kind of love- the love that wasn’t yet tried, tested, and refined by fire.
On the day of our anniversary, I pulled up to the house after running errands. When I saw that my husband’s car wasn’t parked in the driveway, I felt it: I missed my husband.
I just wanted to spend time with him.
I just wanted to see him and to talk to him.
Oh.my.gosh. I thought.
I love him.
But let me tell you, it’s not uncommon for trials, tribulations, and just life in general to jade our human-love.
So there I was, sitting in my car and shushing the voice in my head that told me I had a mile-long to-do list. Instead of rushing through the emotion, I sat in it. I felt it.
I felt the love that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
I felt the desire.
I felt joy and peace.
I relished it with gratitude and thanked God for loving me so much that he blessed me with the ability to love on this earth.
I gave myself space and granted myself permission to feel what I was feeling. And this time, I was feeling the love.
There is hope.
I’m not a licensed marriage counselor so take what I say with a grain of salt. Just like I am evolving as an individual, my marriage is ever-stretching and adapting to new seasons.
With intention, self-love, and practical approaches, I’ve been able to reclaim my marriage and fall more in love with my husband.
Have you ever been in survival mode in your marriage?
What helped you overcome that season?
What are the ways you connect with your running buddy?
Until next time,