Combatting Stress in Marriage
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Greg SmalleyDr. Greg Smalley serves as the vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family. In this role, he develops and oversees initiatives that prepare individuals for marriage, strengthen and nurture existing marriages and help couples in marital crises. Prior to joining Focus, Smalley worked for the Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University and as president of the National Institute of Marriage. He is the author of 17 books including “Fight Your Way to a...more
The year 2020 has been a year of forced togetherness–or forced isolation–paired with additional stress. Greg Smalley gives suggestions for ways to manage stress in marriage and grow together, rather than apart.
Combatting Stress in Marriage
Michelle: In this season of the craziness of 2020, do you find yourself fighting more with those who are closest to you? Greg Smalley says there is a reason.
Greg: Anytime there’s prolonged stress, and intense stress—so a job loss/health issues—when you combine those, it increases conflict; it increases the bickering. We start to prescribe problems around the relationship, like, “Maybe we didn’t have a good marriage after all. Maybe we need to rethink this whole thing.”
Michelle: Does that sound a little familiar to you? Well, we’re going to talk about the effect that this season has on marriages and relationships on this edition of FamilyLife This Week.
Welcome to FamilyLife This Week. I’m Michelle Hill. You know, it was back in the 1950’s—there was a popular TV show by the name of I Love Lucy. You might have heard of it, or even have watched a few episodes, like when Lucy takes on the chocolate factory, or the one where Lucy stars in a commercial that has a health tonic; there’s a little too much alcohol in it, and her husband didn’t want her to star in it anyway. And then there’s the one, where Lucy’s husband, Ricky, is off of work for one week. Lucy decides that he needs to care for Ricky, Jr. Of course, you know, it’s fun watching a dad bond with his child, but then comes bedtime. Ricky, Jr., didn’t want to sleep at all. Moms, what would you do?—would you step in?—or would you just watch dad flame out?
You know, this idea brings up an interesting conversation; because it’s what we’ve been facing for much of this year. For a multitude of reasons, you moms and dads are working from home or you’re just at home right now. Husbands and wives are having to figure out: how to do life, how to share responsibilities of the kids/the house, how to communicate, how to live in close proximity. I know this is a strain. It’s a stress that you want to keep your marriage strong; but it seems right now that that is on the back burner when there are so many other negative things that are vying for your attention, whether it’s COVID, or social unrest, or other crazies that the year 2020 has brought up.
I wanted our conversation today to include Greg Smalley. Greg is the VP of Marriage at Focus on the Family®. He is married to Erin; and on non-COVID years, they are traveling a lot to talk to people about marriage; but this year, like you, Greg found himself at home, trying to figure out how to make things work smoothly with his relationships. Here’s my conversation with Greg Smalley.
Michelle: How has that been for you?—working from home.
Greg: Well, as an introvert, it’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven. [Laughter] I love it! When COVID first hit, it’s incredible, like, “Really? I don’t have to go be around a bunch of people? I can be home.” I’m a homebody, so I love being at home. For me, it was just a matter of Erin and I—my wife—figuring out, sort of, who’s going where; who’s going to help manage the kids. Our youngest daughter is—one left at home—so who’s going to help her with her homework and all that kind of stuff.
Erin’s a therapist, so she took the nice office; because she does all of her therapy clients on Zoom. I’m actually in the basement—
Greg: —which I love—that probably sounds worse than it is. No; I love it. I’ve got my own little set-up. I’ve got a comfy chair, and I collect old sports antiques; I’m surrounded by all of that. It’s kind of like the man cave, so I’m loving it. [Laughter]
Michelle: But did you have to work through/did you and Erin have to work through some—like, “Hey, this is how we’re going to work it out”? I mean, was that difficult when, all of a sudden, you’re both working from home and your daughter’s at home?
Greg: We did; we had to work through a lot of issues. I mean, we’re both marriage therapists; we both run the marriage department of Focus on the Family; and yet, we realized there were a couple things that we’ve done a good job to kind of keep buried. We’ve had to deal with that; actually, started going to a counselor back in March—
Michelle: Oh, wow!
Greg: —you know, via Zoom.
Michelle: Yes, yes.
Greg: We just went, “Okay, we’ve got to deal with this now,” and “Why not now?” I mean, we’re off the road; we’re not traveling; we’re not doing all of the things that we would use to distract. It’s been amazing! We’ve grown; we’ve learned; we’ve dealt with some things. We had to dig into some past hurt between us and just figure it out! I love that we’ve done the work, and we’ve grown.
Yet simple things like figuring out who’s going to/you know, how are we going to manage our daughter? At the time, our son was a senior in high school; I mean, just all of that. You know, we’ve had to talk through all of that and figure out things that feel good to both of us: “Who’s going to…” “Yes; are you going to be in the office, and I’m going to be in the basement?” It made more sense for me to do that, so it wasn’t a big deal; but for others, there have been a lot of these conflicts that have been building up.
I think, for so many couples, they’re so good at avoiding their issues; and they’ve created a life full of distractions—kids, work, leaving the home, going out, spending times with friends—that they’ve been able to sort of not deal with issues. Being stuck together/being quarantined together, has brought all of those to light; and they haven’t been able to cope with them in the same way. It’s caused couples to go, “We’ve got to figure this out.”
Greg: It’s interesting.
Michelle: It’s amazing to hear you talk; because what I’m hearing is that, for the last six months, as we’ve been going through COVID, and through some of the other stressors in life, you and Erin have used it to move closer to each other. Unfortunately, there have been a lot of couples, who have used it to grow apart from each other and magnify some of those issues that you guys have had to work through.
Greg: Yes; we’ve felt fortunate in that. I think, for a lot of couples, the perfect storm through COVID has been—any time there’s prolonged stress, or chronic stress that lasts for a long time, and intense stress—so a job loss/health issues—when you combine those, that puts a lot of strain and pressure on the individuals and then the marriage. So now, it increases conflict; it increases, you know, the bickering. We start to prescribe problems around the relationship, like, “Maybe we didn’t have a good marriage after all. Maybe we need to rethink this whole thing.”
I think, for a lot of couples, it has forced them to come to terms with: “Okay, there are things that we’ve buried,” or “This is really stressful, and we’ve got to figure out a new way to manage this stress.”
Michelle: Right; what do you say to those people, who are disconnected, and just don’t know what to do next? They’re just bickering all the time, and this has just brought up deeper, and deeper, and deeper issues.
Greg: Part of it is—I think that in this quarantine season, for a lot of us, we’re not really sure how to really take good care of ourselves. You know, I think about the things that I’ve done typically just to figure out rest and what brings me life. For me, you know, being out/going out hiking, fishing. You know, those things, typically, I do to take good care of myself; well, for so many months, I wasn’t able to do those things.
I’ve heard, again, people just talking about that: “I don’t know how to take good care of myself. Here’s what I used to do; those things aren’t available.” You know, for Erin, my wife, Spin® Class was a huge part of how she just recharged and stayed full. Well, she couldn’t do that. I think part of it is, we’ve got to, first and foremost, figure out, “How do I need to take care of myself?” It’s not Erin’s job; it’s my job.
In the midst of all the stress—like men and women handle stress very differently. Typically, for women, there’s a thing called the tend-and-befriend phenomenon. When oxytocin and stress are both present, women tend to befriend and seek out their female friends, and they draw closer to their children. For men—interesting—when we get stressed, that’s not exactly what we do; we typically want to isolate; we go into the cave. [Laughter] Even for me, you know, I’m working in my cave/my basement at home. I’m having to realize that it’s really tempting for me to stay here; to just disconnect and manage the stress that way. It’s just not healthy! I’ve had to be intentional to figure out different ways to do this.
You know, Erin and I—one of the blessings has been that we’ve started walking together. You know, we exercised alone; we did that a little bit differently prior to COVID. But one of the things that we’ve been doing is walking together; that’s where we catch up. That’s where we’ve been intentional to ask questions: “What was the high of your day?” “What was the low of your day?” “What’s one thing God has been teaching you?” “How are you feeling?” What I’ve noticed is, for us as a couple, that’s been something that’s really, really connected us. Something about getting out of the house/walking together—the intentionality of us using that time just to stay connected, stay updated, stay current, and see what’s going on.
The other part of how we use that walk time is just to keep working through the grief. All of us have experienced grief. You think about the losses; we’ve all experienced losses. For some, it’s huge job losses, health issues, death of loved ones; you couldn’t be a part of the funeral. Our son, who was a senior in high school when COVID first hit, his basketball team made it to the Final Four first time in school history. They never got to play, and they were picked to win; that was a huge loss for him/a huge loss for us. Vacations/trips—I mean, just stuff that we were going to do—all of those losses compile. It keeps people frustrated; it keeps them on edge.
What Erin and I have been doing is—on our walk, we just say, “What’s one loss you’ve experienced?” “Oh, really? Tell me more about that.” And it has really made a big difference that we’ve been able to talk about those, not to fix it! You know, in this uncertainty, there are no solutions that we can rely on; but what we can rely on is the fact that we know we’re going to get out and walk together. We’re just going to take 20/30 minutes and just talk. It’s something that has so connected us in a very different way.
That was part of what we had to learn—is that hen Erin and I/we do a lot of marriage seminars throughout the year. We realized that we were using traveling to events as a way to keep our marriage strong: we’re off doing ministry together; we’re staying in hotels; there are no kids; you know, we’re exploring.
But at home, we weren’t really being intentional with our marriage, going, “Hey, in three weeks, we go to another event, so let’s plug into friends,” “…let’s really give our attention to the kids.” Well, when our travel went away, we were like, “We don’t even really know how to keep our marriage strong when we’re home.” Isn’t it funny? That’s, for us, what stood out. We had to figure out a new way, and that’s why the walks have been huge for us. You know, I mean, date nights are still a little wonky; but the walking has really been huge for us. So just little things like that—we have to figure out how to stay connected, and that’s one of the things that really helped us.
Michelle: We’re talking today with Greg Smalley about navigating those stresses in marriage during this hard season. We need to take a break; but when we come back, Greg is going to get practical with some great advice on how to lower the stress. We’ll be back in two minutes. Stay tuned.
[Radio Station Spot Break]
Michelle: Welcome back to FamilyLife This Week. Today, we are talking about marriage and stress during this hard season. I am talking with Greg Smalley, Vice President of Marriage at Focus on the Family. He’s also a marriage counselor, so he knows what he’s talking about.
Michelle: So how else can we lower the stresses in our lives right now? There have got to be other ways.
Greg: Continuing to figure out how we stay connected to church—that’s been hard for all of us. You know, a lot of churches are still meeting via whatever online platform. There’s just a lot of disconnect; a lot of us feel disconnected from friends. I think the more that we can figure out: “How do we stay connected to our church family?” and really choose to do that.
I’m noticing that it’s easy to get up and go, “Okay; we’ve got to watch church. There’s this really cool preacher I heard about the other day; let’s watch that!” Erin and I have just been flipping around to different really awesome preachers and listening there; but that’s not helping us to stay connected to our own church family. We try to do both; but I wouldn’t lie and say, “Oh, yes, we do both every Sunday.”
There have just been things—like as social distancing has lifted a little bit—we’re, on the weekends, going hiking; and now I’m fishing again. We have probably not done the greatest job of staying connected to our church family. That’s a big part of how we cope with stress and, you know, keep growing, spiritually, with our church community. I know that we have to keep figuring it out. We haven’t solved that, but I know that’s a big area.
With our friends, this has been a really hard season for extroverts, especially my wife—huge extrovert—you talk about the pain of just feeling confined at home. Like I said, I’m an introvert, so I’m like, “Woo; woo! Another year of this!—I vote for that!”
Michelle: I never knew—
Greg: Yet, that’s been really hard.
Michelle: —I thought I was an introvert; because I expend all my energy at the office, and then I go home—or maybe I’m at Bible study or whatever—I thought I was an introvert; because I would go home and be like [sigh], “Okay!” and not talk to anybody. Now, during COVID and all of this, I’m realizing that I’m the biggest extrovert that was ever alive. I think we’re learning things about each other and ourselves—
Greg: Yes; amen.
Michelle: —a lot during this time.
Greg: What great insight.
Yes; I still am okay to be at home, and to hang out with my daughter/hang out with my wife. We have a dog; she goes on the walks with us. But that’s not healthy for me. That’s, again, a part of me understanding: “How do I recharge? How do I take good care of myself?” I’ve had to be intentional with some of my guy-friends to go, “Hey, why don’t you come over, masked-up, and let’s watch a sports game,”—finally, they’re back on—or “Let’s watch a movie or something.”
Typically, I wouldn’t do that; because, like you’re saying, I get a lot of my social needs met at work—just having to figure this out. I think what’s important is that we just have to use this time to be aware/just to notice. You know, if I’m feeling depressed/you know, if I’m feeling anxious: “What is that about?” That’s what I love—that Erin and I—on our walks, we can talk about these things.
I’m noticing how important it is for me to initiate: “Here’s what I’m noticing about me; I’ve noticed that I’m kind of lonely. It’s not about you; I think I miss some guy friends.” I don’t do that well. Erin’s really insightful; she seems to be much more aware of where she is emotionally/spiritually—all of that—than I am. It’s just something that I’ve had to be more intentional about/is just to kind of think about: “Okay; where am I? What’s going on?” and making sure that, as I talk to Erin, then we talk about: “Okay, yes; I’m going to go out tonight. Why don’t you go out tomorrow night?”
That’s hard for me, because I have to, then, call up a guy/initiate that connection. It just takes effort, but I know now why that’s important.
Michelle: You know, Greg, what I’m hearing from you is that we are best when we are a full-orbed person—
Michelle: —you know, when we are working with our spouse, working through issues, and becoming best friends with them; but that we are also friends with other people. We need church; we need to be active in church.
Where is God in this? Because I have heard from a lot of friends, going, “God is silent right now.” Help us tap into that. Where is He in all of this?
Greg: That was one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about on our walks. I was hearing people say, “Man, this has been the most amazing spiritual growth of my life!” You know, “I’m less busy! I’m less distracted, and I’m so plugged into God. I’m growing! I feel that.” I was just going, “Really?!” because I’ve never felt more distance in—
Greg: —in, you know, I think, for Erin and I/we did a good job of giving each other permission to be wherever. You know, God can certainly handle any of that. We know He’s there; but it’s been a hard season of just not understanding, “What on earth? What happened to our country?” And now, the civil unrest, and racial issues, and all of that. I can tell you this: “I, 100 percent, know and trust that God is so present.” You know, I love King David; and this is something that I just keep saying and repeating in Psalms, where King David says, “Your beauty and love chase after me all the days of my life.” What I love about that is that God is pursuing me; He’s pursuing my wife; He’s pursuing us.
Do I know what exactly that looks like?—I don’t know—I mean, there are moments I don’t feel that; but I know that that’s true, and so I trust that. I’m not worried about the season; I know that God loves me; He’s chasing me; He’s going to grow me. And then I look around, and I think, “Man, I’ve grown as an individual in this season,”—having counseling/went through some personal counseling—Erin and I are growing.
If we don’t like the way our marriage is right now: “Do something about it.” You know, there’s always so much good help. Look at the ministry you guys have. You know, look what we’re doing at Focus on the Family. There’s so much good help out there, so pick an online course. There are so many good online events to go through; sit down as a couple; be intentional.
Michelle: Greg, what would you say to a spouse, who is in a marriage where, especially, the pressures of all that we’re facing now, that other spouse has checked out and has said, “I’m not going to get help; I’m just checking out”? How would you encourage them or even challenge them?
Greg: When you’re in that season, the hardest thing that you have to understand is going on is—that the more and more you feel the disconnect/the more and more isolation you feel, the more disheartened you get. Understand that your heart continues to close. The wrecking ball of marriage is a hardened heart. You can’t control your spouse’s heart—if it’s open to you or not—but you can control yours.
I say that to go, “The first place that you have to work/what you have to guard, King Solomon said, in Proverbs said, ‘Above all else, guard your heart.’” What he’s saying is: “Guard it from closing.” Part of your work has to be giving effort/energy to: “How do I stay open? I’m discouraged; I’m tired of this; I’m worn out; so what do I need to do to be sure that I’m well cared for? What am I doing to rest? How am I finding life?—things that give me life? How am I reaching out for support? How am I staying plugged in at church?” All of those things you can control. What that’s going to do is keep your heart open, so that you can keep working at this marriage. You don’t have control of your spouse, but you can choose how you show up.
My wife is the one, who will come and say, “Hey, let’s go for a walk.” I’d be lying if I said I’m so good at initiating that. [Laughter] She wants to connect with me. Instead of saying, “Hey, I feel disconnected,” or “Guy, why aren’t you initiating connection?” she comes and says, “Hey, let’s go for a walk.” “Well…“ “No; come on. Let’s do it!” “Okay.”
Look for ways to connect, whether that’s simple things like cooking together, going for a walk, sharing the highs and lows of your day, to watching a movie together, to where you’re just having fun—just keep looking for ways. That’s not a long-term solution; I get that; but if you stay well cared for, and make sure your heart stays open, boy, you can hang in there for a long, long time. God is a God of miracles, and we don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring. If you keep pursuing your spouse, and asking for the kinds of things that you need and want, and doing those things in your marriage, you never know how that’s going to turn the heart of your spouse around, or what God’s going to do in their life.
You know, I can’t predict what that outcome is going to be, but I can tell you this: “You’ll be well cared for. That continues to buy you time. As long as you stay working at this, you just never know what’s going to happen.” That’s, I think, the very best that you can hope for in this hard season.
Michelle: Excellent words; wonderful advice. I feel encouraged!
Greg, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today; because as hard as life has been and all the stressors that have been thrown at us, I feel like your words today have encouraged me. I hope they’ve encouraged some of my friends too.
Greg: Thank you so much.
Michelle: Thank you.
Greg: Thank you for your ministry. Thank you for your heart and passion for marriage.
Michelle: Solid advice from Greg Smalley. I hope you are encouraged; and if, for some reason, this season with your spouse is exceptionally hard, take Greg’s advice—maybe seek counseling. If that’s not possible, lean hard on God. Worry about you. Life is hard—and I would never say that it’s not—but with God, all things are possible.
You know that popular song right now?—Way Maker. He is our way-maker. Always go back to 1 Corinthians 13. I know I’ve been going through this riff a lot lately on FamilyLife This Week; but “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy. It does not boast. It is not proud. It does not dishonor others. It is not self-seeking. It is not easily angered. It keeps no record of wrongs.”
Thanks, again, to Greg Smalley for joining me today. If you’d like, go to our website, FamilyLifeThisWeek.com—that’s FamilyLifeThisWeek.com. We have an interview with Greg and his father, the late Gary Smalley. The topic isn’t about marriage; but it is fun to hear Greg interact with his dad, Gary, someone whom we all think very fondly of; because we’ve learned from both Greg and Gary. Again, that’s at FamilyLifeThisWeek.com.
Okay; so it’s after Thanksgiving, and it’s time to start thinking about Christmas. You may already have your tree up, and maybe the lights are twinkling. Well, next week, Bob Lepine is going to join me, and we’re going to talk through my Christmas list this year. It’s the year 2020, so anything could be on it! I hope you’ll join us for that.
Thanks for listening! I want to thank the president of FamilyLife®, David Robbins, along with our station partners around the country. And a big “Thank you!” to our engineer today, Keith Lynch. Thanks to our producers, Marques Holt and Bruce Goff. Justin Adams is our mastering engineer, and Megan Martin is our production coordinator.
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