Can you believe that it has been only a little more than a year since the onset of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak? Seemingly overnight, the crisis threw our individual as well as collective lives into a surreal world of enforced separation and isolation, bringing about great frustration, fear, and, for so many, sickness and even death. In a matter of weeks, the life that we were accustomed to — “normal” life — was derailed, with the pandemic dragging our already full and demanding schedules into a whole new level of disruption. We have all had to grapple with some level of suffering, grieving, and loss.
As a minister, educator, and licensed counselor, I’d like to share a few things that my wife, Denise, and I have been learning in our marriage during this time. First, a word of context: we are empty-nesters. Our (wonderful) children are now grown and on their own, though — thanks be to God — we are all close and supportive of each other in spirit, if rarely in person. That plays into our roles and relationships during this time. The challenges may look different for those with different family situations.We have all had to grapple with some level of suffering, grieving, and loss.
Partners in the Pandemic
Depending on who you listen to, you may hear the pandemic highlighted as the worst thing for marriages in recent history or, in an unexpected report late last summer by the American Family Survey, a surprisingly positive boost to many couples. I think it has been both.
We can all agree that the upheavals have increased our stress. But even increased stress doesn’t automatically break down a relationship; it only exposes any underlying weaknesses lurking below the surface. Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage likens this to when stress cracks in a bridge give way to a collapse. The increased weight didn’t create the weak points; it only exposed what was already faulty but perhaps unnoticed in the bridge’s structure. The same is true in our relationships, and especially in times when our marriages are under stress.
The initial sequestering forced my wife and me to slow down, re-evaluate, and work to partner together. We sensed that if we didn’t work to keep pulling together, the pressures could work to pull us apart. So from the first, we worked to have regular, intentional times together to talk — to process where we each were and what each of us was experiencing in order to help each other, our family, and our friends.
Research shows us that one of the critical aspects of healthy relationships is having “safe attachment,” which means having a place where we are consistently heard, accepted, and wanted. For us, that meant taking time to give each other a safe place to explore and express our concerns and fears. It included identifying and grieving over the sudden loss of so many familiar things — simple things like close proximity with others through everyday activities like in-person work relationships, time with extended family and friends, or the limitations on in-person worship and fellowship. We have rediscovered that letting each other explore and put words to our emotions, even negative ones, is a gift, especially when we provide each other the opportunity to speak and focus on listening and accepting.
Something we’ve always tried to do but have made more of a priority in this time is to encourage each other. Verbal appreciation — not just for special efforts, but for everyday, even mundane things — goes a long way to lubricate the friction points of life. The Gottman Institutes’s research on healthy marriages has noted that a ratio of at least five positive contributions to every negative one is necessary to sustain healthy marital relationships. I personally think that the five-to-one ratio is too low, but it’s a good starting place.Verbal appreciation — not just for special efforts, but for everyday, even mundane things — goes a long way to lubricate the friction points of life.
Doing Separate Things Together
Early on, Denise and I recognized that we each needed both mental and physical space in our daily schedule. Time apart as well as time together has become a healthy rhythm in our daily routines. We both have our revised routines for daily activities, which we have found gives structure to our responsibilities.
One of the surprising benefits of the “new normal” has been the opportunity to renew our friendship by creatively connecting with each other. In addition to regular morning visits over coffee, we’ve become more intentional about pursuing a variety of mutually satisfying experiences. We started taking long bike rides together, and when the weather changed, we switched to walking. We have carved out more time together in the evening, occasionally taking turns to read aloud to each other from new or old favorite books. That included C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle from The Chronicles of Narnia, complete with character voices as we had done when our children were small, which brought back many memories. The reflective and rewarding conversations that ensued became catalysts to recollect God’s faithfulness through the years.
And last, since we realize that we feel the effects of isolation, we have intentionally worked to reach out to family and friends through regular phone calls or Zoom-type gatherings. We have especially focused on those who are more isolated and vulnerable to increased anxiety and depression — if only to assure them that they are not forgotten.
“New” Normal or “Next” Normal?
I never seem to get comfortable adapting and accepting the unexpected. I’m not alone, and it helps to be reminded that this feeling is not new or unique. The Bible is full of unexpected events (even catastrophes) falling upon God’s people — personally, in families, or as a nation. More and more, I’m accepting that hardships are actually necessary for our growth and maturity. It’s always been the case.
Remember in the Gospel of Mark, chapter four, when the disciples are with Jesus in the boat in the storm in the middle of the night, and in the middle of the Sea of Galilee? Could anything have been more disruptive, unwelcome, or terrifying to their already-exhausted lives? The intensity and suddenness of the squall caught even these experienced fishermen off guard. But Jesus was still in charge, and the bottom line of the event was that it took yet another storm for his disciples to realize who Jesus was and their total dependence on him.
Jesus cared for them in the storm. But I also think that Jesus knew he was taking them into the storm, and he took them into it intentionally — not to scare them or punish them, but to teach them about their ultimate need for reliance on him and his ability to meet their needs.
Jesus cared for them in the storm. But I also think that Jesus knew he was taking them into the storm, and he took them into it intentionally…to teach them about their ultimate need for reliance on him and his ability to meet their needs.Can you identify? I certainly can. At least for me, it often takes the “storm” of a new, unexpected, and sometimes terrifying disruption in my life to shake me out of my self-reliant security in my mindset of what is “normal.” Rather than waste too many anxious hours working to avoid the storms, I hope I’m learning to trust God more as he takes me through the sudden upheavals in life. The “new normal” that I’m sensing is that there is really no such guarantee that life can be predictable — not in this life. The “new’” normal is really just the “next” normal — if we can even call it “normal.” To use the words of the American humorist Erma Bombeck, written years ago, “I think that ‘normal’ is just another setting on the dryer.”
The experiences of this past year have given me a new opportunity to learn (or should I say, more honestly, re-learn) a timeless truth: God is in charge. I’m not. But it is actually centered in this truth that we can be secure and settled, knowing that our good God has us, in whatever circumstance and situation, for purposes that he is using for ultimate good. That encourages me to look at the disruptions in daily routines with an inquisitiveness and an anticipation as to what our good God is doing, and to be willing to flex.
God is in charge. I’m not.Helen Keller famously said that “a bend in the road is not the end of the road, unless you fail to make the turn.” Adjusting to the new demands laid on us — a “next” normal — is not only necessary for this difficult time; it may well become a reoccurring requirement for as long as God has us here. Although that, too, may be a source of much good. I suspect we may find some surprising gems that weasel their way into our thinking and routines during the pandemic. These sorts of things become an opportunity to trust our God yet again, to see his faithfulness to carry us through this life as he brings us safely home.