It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes or breaks a marriage. Even the strongest couples experience hardships that can lead them to seek divorce. Whether burdens are financial or health related, family issues or career related, there is always something that challenges our collective pursuit of happiness. As I reflect on what made our marriage so great, I think it was largely related to our ability to take control of our happiness, despite the turmoil around us.
In recent years, it seems that more and more married couples allow the hardships in life to take a toll on their marriage. Statistics are varied, but it’s been reported that up to 75% of marriages end in divorce when a spouse is ill. Couples who argue about finances have a 30-40% higher chance of getting divorced than couples who don’t (according to US divorce rates and statistics). Nervous? Relax. You can make it work.
I remember once when Dan was in the hospital, we were experiencing a particularly poignant “what the heck” moment, where we wanted to tantrum like small children, screaming, “It’s not fair!” (I promise we never did that.) I don’t remember the reason for Dan’s hospitalization, but I think it was shortly after his first relapse during a round of chemo, and we were still adjusting to the concept of a bone marrow transplant. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t immediately life-threatening, simply a week or two in the hospital for chemo, and, unfortunately, a way of life for us at that time. Because there is virtually no privacy whatsoever in the hospital, our nurse overheard our complaints. She gently and compassionately worked her way into our conversation. In the coveted, most spacious “corner pocket” hospital room on the hematology oncology unit at Georgetown Hospital (Dan was a VIP patient), our nurse gave us some advice that stayed with us through the unimaginable chaos that would soon unfold. In my best paraphrase, she said this:
“You can’t control your leukemia. You can’t control the fact that you’re about to receive poison that will make you sick and lose your hair. You can’t keep us out of your room or discharge yourself from the hospital to make your cancer go away. But you can control your attitude. You can control how you respond to it, and you can control the way it changes your life.”
We all shared an aha! moment right then and there. We processed what she said and spent the afternoon talking about how we could turn our pity to joy. She was right. Cancer was trying to ruin us, and we had to make a conscious effort not to let it.
Being in control of our attitude became somewhat of a mantra for us as we made our journey through the next two years of medical ups and downs. It’s a mantra that is similar to the familiar serenity prayer used to help people work through addiction. Part of controlling our attitude was accepting what we couldn’t change while purposefully changing what we could. We noticed that when we took control, the magnitude of the situation became more bearable. Often, the good truly outweighed the bad. Ultimately, we were better able to cope with the loss, the fear, and the pity that surrounded us.
Dan and I had to look hard to find things to control, especially when our lives felt so chaotic. When I took a leave from work and we relocated to Seattle for his transplant, we were 3,000 miles from anyone we knew, from our own home, from my job, and from our beloved medical team. But, determined to stay in control, we learned to cook because we had the time. We saw every single Academy Award nominee for best picture and chose our own winner (Les Miserables, hands down). We set up daily Facetime dates with our family for comfort. Instead of arguing about money during a stressful financial time, we met with a financial planner who helped us budget our savings during the eight months without income. Rather than lamenting over the fact that we couldn’t drive the one hour it took to see mount Rainer (like all the OTHER tourists get to do!), we sampled coffee from all of the shops within a mile radius of our apartment and recorded our opinions in a tasting journal. We took control. We found happiness. We nurtured our marriage and we fell deeper in love.
Find your serenity. Your hardship may be something simple, but take control of it. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as cancer and hopefully it’s not as tragic as terminal illness. Things happen to us that are out of our control. We will get knocked down. We will fail. Gather courage. Take control of yourself. Take control of your marriage. Nurture it. Make it work. And then find the happiness you deserve.