1. the act of stretching or straining.
  2. the state of being stretched or strained.
  3. mental or emotional strain; intense, suppressed suspense, anxiety, or excitement.
  4. a strained relationship between individuals, groups, nations, etc.

Have you ever taken a new rubber band, one of those really thick ones, and tried to stretch it out? At first, it wants to hold onto its shape. If you keep pulling on it, though, the tension builds up enough that it stretches out—and the more it is stretched, the easier it is to keep on stretching it.

Tension becomes a normal state for the rubber band.

It loses its shape and its flexibility—but when you let up on the tension, the rubber band returns to a relaxed state.

Tension in Marriage

My marriage wasn’t so different.

During the difficult years of our marriage, it seemed like all my husband ever thought about was sex. Every night I expected him to approach me for sex. Even when he wasn’t asking, it was always obvious that he was thinking about it. It seemed like I never had a break from having to deal with his sexpectations in some way.

It was always on his mind.

His constant stress about our sex life had become an issue in our marriage just as much as the lack of sex itself had been. The tension in our marriage was snowballing and spiraling out of control: I was emotionally hurting and couldn’t bring myself to be sexual. He was sexually hurting (which for many husbands is an emotional hurt) so couldn’t bring himself to share his heart with me. Not only were we both being deprived, we also found that much of our mental space was occupied by that deprivation.

For both of us, the compounding hurt (and the ensuing preoccupation with that hurt) interfered with our ability to function well in daily life—not to mention in our relationship.

The constant tension that resulted from strain also caused more strain.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d eventually snapped.

Tension had become a normal state in our marriage.

When Stress Turns into Tension

I have been experiencing a great deal of stress over the past several weeks. I have been away from home three weekends in a row, my husband was in the hospital for five days with heart trouble, and two of our kids needed trips to urgent care.

All this happened on top of stress related to our finances. As much as we wanted for me to stay at home, write, and build a marriage ministry, our family needs some income from me. I have been pushing a job search and putting my faith in God’s provision, even though it was getting harder by the day.

Instead of simply responding to all of this stress that is just part of the ebb and flow of life, I began to worry. The worry began to take up some of my mental space. Instead of using my mental energy to actually deal with the stresses, I used my energy to feed my worry—which made the stresses seem even worse, thereby leading to more worry. My stress had snowballed to a point where I was mentally stretched out.

I had allowed myself to progress to a state of constant tension.

My base anxiety level rose, and I’ve seen the effects in different areas of my life. I’ve snapped at my family members for little reason. I’ve cried at the drop of a hat. I’ve been having disturbing dreams filled with difficult memories. My interest in sex has decreased. My insecurities have risen to the surface. I can’t even think of the words for prayer.

The state of constant tension has made it difficult to respond normally to anything, especially to the health and financial situations we’ve faced. Two days ago, the only words I remember from my praying were, “God, I think I’m about to snap.” When the rubber band gets stretched too thin, the tension is released all at once in a breaking.

I was reminded yesterday of how wearing it is to experience constant tension—and of how wonderful it is to experience an ease of that tension.

Yesterday I was offered a chance to return to a teaching position I left several years ago. It will be part-time and will not cover all the financial gaps for us. Nonetheless, as soon as I got the phone call, I could feel the tension easing in me.

With one phone call, all my worries stopped pulling on me. I stopped feeding into the stress monster, and I could feel my soul settle.

My breathing slowed, the worries that popped into my head out of habit were easily dismissed, and many of my insecurities were replaced by the feeling of being wanted and valued. My dreams last night were unmemorable.

The cessation of tension made me all too aware of how I’d let tension take root in my life.

Stress Is Part of Life

Life will always have some stress. There’s always something that needs to be done, a problem that needs to be solved, a loved one who is ill, and a situation that needs to be addressed.

Part of life is having stress, which means that part of life is also responding to stress.

The problem comes when we respond to stress in ways that end up increasing the tension.

That’s exactly what I did it my marriage. Our marriage lost its shape and its flexibility because it was being stretched too thin.

How often do you respond to stress in ways that end up increasing the tension?

You know what the normal stresses in your life are. You have the things that are there constantly simply as a by-product of living: laundry, juggling schedules and family obligations, figuring out your ministry offerings, mowing the lawn, paying the bills, taking care of business, parenting your children, and the list goes on.

It’s normal to have stresses in marriage, too. A marriage has two individuals who both make mistakes, experience frustrations and joys, and feel hurt. There are feelings to nurture, needs to meet, hurts to tend, and information to exchange.

How do you respond to these stresses? Do you learn to adapt in understanding that these things are part of life and part of marriage?

Or, do you do like I did for so long and respond in ways that end up compounding the hurt and increasing the tension?

Have you thought about whether your response increases the tension on your marriage? Has your marriage lost its shape and flexibility? Is it getting stretched too thin?

Ease Up

How would your marriage look if you started to let go of some of the tension?

In this post, I wrote about two things that changed in our marriage after I began addressing our sex life:

  • The biggest problem between us was no longer an issue. My husband no longer had to wonder when he would have sex again, so he was able to let go of his anxiety and frustration about that.
  • My husband’s baseline of tension was much lower. Whereas in the past, it would take very little to upset him, he became less likely to get upset. Not only was he no longer anxious about sex, he was experiencing the physical and mental benefits of regular sexual activity.

Once sex began to improve, the tension began to ease for my husband . . . and that made it easier for him to be emotionally open to me . . . and that made it easier for me to keep working on sex . . . and so on and so on.

Our marriage began to improve not because my husband was getting sex as much as because the tension was decreasing for both of us.

What if you decided to try to respond to one of your marriage stresses differently? If sex is a stress in your marriage, can you try responding differently? Instead of allowing yourself to feel hurt when your husband asks to have sex when you’re tired, what if you were to decide to respond out of love instead of out of your hurt? If your husband asks to have dim lighting during love-making, what if you were to simply go with the flow instead of making lighting into an issue?

We let up on the tension, and our marriage looked like a marriage again.

Ease up on the responses that add to the tension in your marriage and see if that makes your marriage look more like a marriage and less like a stretched-out rubber band.

Image courtesy of krosseel|morgueFile.com


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2 Thoughts on “How Do You Respond to Stress in Your Marriage?

  1. Great post, Chris! I’m pretty new to your site and just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your posts. I appreciate your transparency and the way you share your struggles to help other women overcome theirs (myself included!).

    I can remember a time when tension between my husband and I was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Dealing with another person’s tension on top of your own is not easy at all. At the time we went through this, God was not the center of our marriage so it made things worse. I can relate to the tension that intimacy, or lack of, can create. For us, a lot of it had to do with expectations and not knowing how to communicate in a loving way. We are still a work in progress, but as you say, when tension is not there, the relationship improves. Letting go of our pain can sometimes cause more pain because we feel justified and that makes it harder to let go. When we do, a door to healing is opened. Sometimes we just have to learn to let go of things that aren’t really important in the big picture and savor the moment.

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