Husbands and wives pledge to love each other through good times and bad, sickness and health, wealth and poverty. On the day of the wedding, these promises feel comforting. But when bad times come through the door, love often flies out the window. How can a couple stick together even when the going gets tough?
Decades of research have revealed the following four habits to be essential for staying close through difficult times. They are like four pontoons that keep your relationship afloat (see what I did there?), especially when the storms of life lead you into choppy waters.
1.Meaningful Couple Prayer—Turns out, the Venerable Patrick Peyton, CSC. was right. The couple that prays together really does stay together. Research by Baylor University found that couples who engage in meaningful couple-prayer are significantly more likely to think positively about each other and feel closer to each other, especially through hard times.
Meaningful couple prayer isn’t just about “saying words at God.” It requires you and your spouse to take a little time every day—even just five minutes—to talk to God about your life, your fears, your hopes, your dreams, and your feelings. Sit down together and speak to God as if he were the person who knew you best and loved you most. In addition to the graces we receive from prayer, couple-prayer “works” on a human level because it gives couples a safe, quasi-indirect way to reveal our hearts to one another. We talk to God while our spouse listens in. Then, as our spouse prays, we ask God to help us really hear what our spouse is trying to say. What are their needs, their fears, their wants and concerns? How do these fit with our own needs, fears, wants and concerns? By listening to each other in prayer, the Holy Spirit can guide you toward graceful solutions.
2.Talk Together—Create a daily talk ritual; a time where you intentionally discuss topics that don’t natually come up. Specifically, focus on three questions. 1) How are each of you holding up? Be honest. What do you feel like you’re handling well? Where do you feel like you’re struggling? When were you at your best today? When were you at your worst? 2) When did you feel closest to your spouse/most grateful for your spouse’s support today? First of all, discussing this question daily makes you more conscious of the need to do things to support each other. Second, acknowledging the ways you have shown up for each other throughout the day reminds you that you aren’t alone. You have a friend who really wants to be there for you. 3) What could you do to help make each other’s day a little easier/more pleasant? Is there a project you need some help with? Is there something you need prayer for? Are there little things that your spouse sometimes does that mean a lot? Take this time to ask each other to do those little things that say, “Even when life is falling apart, you can count on me to be here and to take care of you.”
3.Work Together—Your household chores aren’t just something to get through. They’re actually opportunities to build a sense of solidarity and team spirit. It’s a funny thing. You might not know how to weather the latest crisis, but doing something as simple as making the bed together, or cleaning up the kitchen after dinner together, or picking up the family room together before you turn in sends a powerful unconscious message that says, “I’m not just here for the fun. I’m here for the hard stuff and the boring stuff too. Somehow, we can get through this. Together.”
Research shows that couples who make a daily habit of cultivating simple caretaking behaviors like doing chores side-by-side develop better cooperation, communication and problem-solving skills. It turns out that the way you work together to avoid bumping into each other and stepping on each other’s toes while you clean up the kitchen becomes the unconscious template for how you work together to handle that health crisis, financial problem, or other unexpected challenge.
4. Play Together—When you’re going through tough times, you don’t want to play. We just want to isolate and hide. Resist that temptation as best you can. Make a little time every day to do something pleasant together. Think about the simple pleasures you enjoy in happier times and make yourselves do them–even if you’re not really feeling it. It might not be all laughs and giggles, but worst case scenario? You might help each other remember that life isn’t completely horrible and you’ll have each other to thank for that little moment of joy. Psychology reminds us that humor and play are two the most sophisticated defense mechanisms. They help us stubbornly resolve to make beautiful moments even when life is anything but. The couple that learns how to gently play together even the face of trials are true masters at life and love.
Life can be hard, but cultivating a love that “endures all things” (1Cor 13:7), isn’t complicated. By remembering to Pray, Talk, Work, and Play together, you can build a relationship that can stand up to whatever life throws at you.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including Just Married. Learn more at CatholicCounselors.com