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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 26, 2001

Teamwork key to surviving stressors of marriage

• Common marriage stressors
• Working on your relationship
• Keep stress at a minimum level

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Lemays' marriage has survived probably the worst thing imaginable.

Financial problem, sexual dysfunction and difficulties with the children are common marriage stressors. But if couples learn to take punches as a team, they can survive the onslaught of major stressors.

Illustration by Jon Orque The Honolulu Advertiser

Four years ago, Rita "Michelle" Lemay found their 14-month-old son CJ, the East Honolulu couple's firstborn, floating face-down in the pool of their rented home.

Coming home after CJ died to a quiet house void of the ambient kiddie noise was almost more than his father could bear. "I wanted to crawl into a hole," Charles Lemay recalled.

Instead of killing himself, instead of blaming his wife (who had gone upstairs momentarily to use the bathroom), he blamed himself for not insisting they get their landlord to set up an extra barrier. Michelle Lemay blamed herself but never targeted her husband in her pain.

When life deals a couple a tragic or difficult fate — the death of a child or parent, bankruptcy, loss of a job — why is it that in some cases the marriage falls apart, while in others it bonds the couple even more tightly? What can couples do to make sure their relationship survives the onslaught of such major life stressors?

The Lemays have friends who also have lost a child. While both sides of that now-divorced couple still love one another, they can't be together without remembering and reliving the pain.

Charles Lemay has a different sensation when he looks at his wife of more than 12 years. "It's a permanent link," he said.

"She's the only one who could even come close to knowing what I was going through," he said.

So they cried together.

They grieved together.

They stayed together.

'Take the punch as a team'

What the Lemays' marriage had going for it is the same thing Alan Lubliner, a Kaiser therapist, teaches in his workshops for couples: communication.

Couples break apart when the relationship is already weakened by a lack of communication or poor communication, then encounters an extra punch in the gut.

If there's the foundation of a caring, interdependent relationship that is strengthened over time, couples take the punch as a team, Lubliner said.

"It's not 'Oh my, how do I deal with your sick mother?' It's 'Together, we will face your mother's illness,' " he said. "If I know you're my cheerleader, you're in my corner, we can deal with it. 'We're together and we worked as a team.' Often, we don't have that, and when a trauma occurs, we're devastated. 'Not only do I have to take care of what I'm experiencing, I have to do it alone.'"

The breakdown in intimacy often occurs long before the stressor comes along. "You forget that (your spouse) should be the most intimate person in your life," said Lubliner, who advocates the use of "caring behaviors," or acknowledgements and affirmations. "As our stressors increase, our caring behaviors decrease."

Couples begin to not give enough to the relationship: "Like an orchid, you must prune it, give it sun," Lubliner said.

Simple acts of caring

Tom and Pam Shim have been pruning and sunning their marriage for 20 years.

"Caring behaviors" for the Kane'ohe couple include celebrating their "month anniversary" — on the 18th of each month — by doing a little something special, like a nice dinner, or he'll bring roses.

Pam Shim, an Iolani grade-school teacher, once left him a treasure map of treats when she was away at a work seminar. Her husband, a contractor, makes her lunch every day, sometimes tucking a love note inside.

However, they've had their rocky times: He left the seminary to marry the Chaminade College co-ed, and her parents weren't too thrilled about that. Then, there was the time he was laid off and crashed the car on the same day. And when they found out they couldn't have children.

Any one of those would be enough to stress a less-solid marriage, but these two had erected theirs on a sturdy foundation of love and respect. Plus, he does dishes.

As they talk, they are touching: Her knee rests on his. He takes his hand off her leg to talk, then returns it to its place, lightly.

"You keep rediscovering each other and falling in love all over again," Pam Shim said.

Don't sweat small stuff

Christine Heath, a licensed marriage and family therapist and executive director of the Hawaii Counseling and Education Center, said that in every relationship, some rain is bound to fall. The two most common, she said, are differences over children and money.

"If they handle them in ways that are healthy, they come out stronger," Heath said. "If they get insecure and blame each other and focus on things they don't like about the other, then the relationship gets weaker."

Don't sweat the small stuff, Heath advised, and, quoting from the title of the Richard Carlson book adds: "It's all small stuff."

"You realize there's a commitment that requires a lot of changing on both parts and tolerance on both parts," she said. "As human beings, we don't always do things gracefully. Maturity is to not always be bothered."

There are inherent stressors particular to the island way. To cope with the high cost of housing, many families work multiple jobs and then also have the job of raising their children.

"We try to do a lot and not get tired and not get stressed by that," she said. "It's hard."

Another one particular to Hawai'i is 'ohana housing: Tutu lives in one house on the property, parents in another, siblings out back. The more proximity, the more people, the more potential difficulties.

"This frequently causes problems because the younger generations do things differently, which causes more upsets," Heath said.

The fun in 'putzing'

"Enjoy each other" is the advice from Phil and Carol Ruth Geissal, who've been married 21 years. This is his third marriage; they have a combined family of seven children.

"Marriage, living with anybody, is something you work at all the time," said Phil Geissal, who runs Camp Mokule'ia. "It helps to have a strong faith and to believe in each other. Each one has to be flexible."

They've had their challenges, of course.

"Our children are all grown and adults, and yet there's still that challenge," he said. "They're never really away from home. They're sort of like bungee cords. They come back when they need help."

They cared for each other's ailing parents. And they've moved around a lot, quitting jobs and starting over.

"Carol Ruth has been most flexible in those stresses," Phil Geissal said. "If you look at the list of stressors, we've had 'em all.

"Yes, we've gotten frustrated with them. Yes, we've gotten frustrated with each other. But we've been flexible enough to let them work out, to bring things to a point where it's back to us, it's back to understanding the giving we're doing for one another. Time together is very important."

They like to play cards and drive around the island, — "just putz," he said. "We can kill more time doing nothing. We can be gone for a day and wonder what it was we really did, just enjoying one another's company."

Caring for self

Caring for another means learning first to be able to care for yourself, Lubliner said. "You need quality personal time, quality time with your lover and quality time with your family," he said.

Phil Geissal agrees.

"We know that understanding ourselves and being able to accept yourself is probably the biggest part of any relationship," he said. "Before you can like anybody else, you have to like yourself."

And when the going got too tough, the tough got counseling. "We've seen a therapist talking about us as a couple, and about us individually," Geissal said.

Sharing the responsibility

The Lemays didn't get counseling after their son died, though they know that option is still open.

And they've learned a lot about their relationship. Charles Lemay knew it was OK to let down with his wife, even cry. He had a lot of pain over the "why?" questions but they both guarded against allowing the pain to turn to anger at one another.

"We didn't withdraw into ourselves or grieve by ourselves," he said. "We shared the responsibility of being strong."

If one woke up a mess, the other tried to be the caretaker. Sundays, after church, were his time to cry. At night, right about the time of CJ's bath ritual, was hers.

Now there are two other children in the family, and the experience helped both to rediscover their faith. Charles Lemay imagines his son in heaven, an angel who had been so happy a baby because he knew he only had a short time on this earth.

"The last thing CJ would want for us would be for us to lose our marriage," he said.

• • •

Common marriage stressors

  • Financial problems
  • Difficulties with the children
  • A death in the family
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • In-law clashes
  • Illness in the family
  • So-called "seven-year itch" (feeling stagnated)
  • Midlife crisis
  • Moving
  • Use of drugs/alcohol
  • 'Ohana: Living in a multi-generational family situation
  • Difficult work situations (working different hours, several jobs, etc.)

Sources: Hawai'i marriage and family therapists

• • •

Working on your relationship

  • Kaiser offers workshops for the public:

    Couples Communication I: Sept. 11 to Oct. 2 and a second session, Oct. 9 to Oct. 30; $90 (discounts for Kaiser members); 432-2270.

    Joyful Relationships: schedule to be announced; $72 (discounts for Kaiser members); 432-2270.

  • Hawaii Counseling and Education Center also offers workshops for the public:

    Healthy Relationships workshop: 6-8 p.m. Nov. 2 and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 3, Windward location to be announced; $100; 254-6484.

• • •

Keep stress at a minimum level

Christine Heath offers these tips for reducing stress in relationships:

  • Make it a priority to live in a positive, healthy and calm state of mind.
  • Reduce commitments when they start to create pressure and anxiety. We can think of a lot of things to do with ourselves and/ or with our children. Don't try to do everything.
  • Spend quiet time together.
  • Focus on the positive in each other. The more you think about the good things, the more good things you will experience.
  • Evaluate your lifestyle and see what areas are creating tension and pressure. Be creative about what you can do to change things to slow it down or be less complicated.
  • Listen more and talk less. Slowing our minds down to remain in the present helps to ensure good communication and creates a feeling of connectedness.
  • Get enough sleep, exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet.
  • Remember that being in the feeling of love is healthy and fun. Think about feeling love, and then express it often in word and deed.
  • Don't entertain thoughts that are demeaning, disrespectful or otherwise negative.
  • Remember to laugh at yourself and at life.
  • Remember that we all suffer from our humanity and have our moments. Let go of the negative ones; cherish those that are special.
  • Recognize that we all come from different backgrounds and see life differently. Appreciate your differences and learn from each other.
  • Don't discuss problems when you are tired or upset. Wait until you are feeling better to discuss how things can be changed.
  • Assumptions are frequently wrong. Check things out, ask for feedback and don't expect your spouse to read your mind.
  • Ask yourself if you want to be happy or right. Be the peacemaker and don't hold grudges.
  • Don't use drugs unless prescribed by a doctor. If you drink alcohol, do it infrequently and never to excess.
  • A happy loving relationship is the natural by-product of living in a healthy state of mind. When you are both feeling calm, positive and loving, there is no stress in that moment. Make those moments become your life.