We are defined by how we act when the going gets tough.
Character doesn’t shine until it is challenged.
And often flaws are concealed until struggle wears away the veneer of perfection.
It’s no surprise that crisis often dissolves a marriage.
That when the going gets tough, many couples instead respond as though the crisis is an ax, cleaving the marriage in two, rather than working together to meet the challenge.
So why is it that when the going gets tough, so many spouses get going?
When crisis hits, people fall into two groups: those that turn towards the problem and face it head-on and those that turn inward or turn away and try not to look too closely at the carnage. And neither group really understands the other. The turn-aways look at the turn-towards and believe they are giving the struggle too much attention. That if they just focused elsewhere, the problem would diminish in capacity. The facers get frustrated with their more reserved partners, believing that they are ignoring the problem while passively hoping it will disappear.
And when a partnership is comprised of two like-minded spouses, the problem can be even worse. If both people charge towards the problem, there is no energy left for the marriage. The crisis becomes the marriage. When both people turn away, the problem may grow, malignant and untreated.
The reality is that a balance is needed. There are times to charge towards the challenge, sword in hand and ready to do battle. And there are also times when paying too much attention to the problem nurtures your struggle instead of cutting off its oxygen supply. Whether you prefer to face a challenge or look away, make sure you continue to turn towards your partner.
The Strong One
It’s common that when trouble hits, one partner wears the struggle on his or her face while the other reveals little pain to the outside world. The tearful partner can feel alone in his or her grief, interpreting the stoicism of the spouse as an indication of a callous heart. Yet so often, the phlegmatic one is determined to muffle his or her own pain and be the strong one for the other. It’s a cruel twist on the pursuer-distancer dance: the more the crying one sheds tears of isolation and frustration, the more the strong one stuffs the pain down deep. When all the other person wants is to see that their partner is hurting too.
Ideally, both partners feel comfortable exposing their vulnerabilities and fears within the marriage. And take turns being the strong one, supporting the other. We are at out strongest when we lean and support in equal measure.
We are not all created equal when it comes to ability to face a crisis. Whether from a biological roulette that leaves someone less able to handle stress, or from inadequate resiliency training in childhood, some people have it tougher than others. It’s easy for the spouse with greater coping strategies to shame or blame the other, interpreting a lack of tools as a sign of weakness. And is easy for the struggling spouse to excuse her or her struggles as a byproduct of chance or childhood rather than accepting the limitations and then taking responsibility for learning how to do better.
Some people have it easier than others when the going gets tough. But we all can learn to do better.
When the going gets tough,the tough get growing.