| Family Reflections |

Marital Stress

Happily married people look at the bigger picture



tress is an internal experience triggered by an external situation (like illness, failure, or loss) or by an internal process (like worrying about illness, failure, or loss). In other words, we experience the release of stress chemistry in our bodies both when something stressful occurs and when we think about something stressful that has occurred or might occur in the future.

Marital stress is one particular flavor of stress, but is similarly triggered by an external situation or an internal process.

We can’t stop our spouses from being unique people with unique thoughts, feelings, and ways of doing things. We can ask them to do specific things or not do specific things, we can try some behavioral strategies like encouragement and feedback, but ultimately, we can’t force them to change. Eventually, most of us catch on to this fact.


How Stressed to Be

Although we can’t do much to change our partners, we can do a fair amount to change the amount of stress we inflict on ourselves through thinking about stressful marital events that occurred or might occur in the future.

“My wife likes to spend more money than I do. This created a very serious threat to our financial well-being. For the first five years of our marriage, we’d have a big fight every time the credit card bill showed up. I figured I needed to teach her how to manage money better. I tried and failed. I asked her to speak to a rav, a marital therapist, and a financial advisor. That didn’t help, either.

“Needless to say, our fights over finances not only didn’t save us any money, they also ruined our shalom bayis. I decided to stop talking about money altogether, leave it up to Hashem, and focus on building a peaceful (if not particularly financially stable) home.

“Now, ten years into marriage, I can say we have a peaceful and happy home, and we have less money than we would have if I had complete control over our finances. But if I had kept going the way I was going, I would have lost my physical and emotional health, I would have lost any chance of a happy marriage. If our marriage couldn’t withstand the constant struggle and we — Heaven forbid — divorced, then I’d also have less money! Instead, I have most of what I want in life, and I’m happy about that!”

Some people would consider this man a fool — how could he allow his wife to harm their family’s financial situation? We have to remember that he tried to change her ways for five years. When nothing worked, he realized he had a choice: to give up on his financial goals and save his mental health and his marriage, or fight with his wife over money, ruminate constantly over her spending habits, and lose his shalom bayis and possibly his marriage. We know what he chose.

Marriage partners routinely present challenges large and small. They daily disappoint and frustrate each other with dozens of chronic “micro-aggressions” like leaving messes, neglecting to express appreciation, forgetting to pick up milk, speaking gruffly, being critical, and so on.

These are the external situations that can cause stress, but how much stress they cause depends on what the other spouse thinks about these behaviors and how much that person thinks about them. Are the behaviors seen as hateful cruelties or human flaws? Should we think about the offenses (replaying them mentally) for ten minutes, an hour, ten hours or ten days? Or should we note the offense and the feeling it provokes, then quickly shake it off and move on? Suffering can be intense, moderate, or minimal, depending on the choices we make.

It turns out (no surprise really) that happily married people choose to look at the big picture instead of getting stuck on the annoying and disappointing aspects of their partner’s behavior. They tend to focus their energy on productive and positive endeavors, moving forward rather than ruminating about what already happened. This doesn’t mean they accept unacceptable behavior from their spouses; it means they focus on finding solutions for the future. These practices help them create not only healthy and happy marriages, but also healthy and happy lives. To “choose life” is to train ourselves to control what we can control: not our spouse — just our thinking process.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 817)

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