If Not For Relational Skills, My Marriage Would Be Dead

A few years back I had the chance to climb a large sand dune in western Michigan. I was excited for the climbing adventure. After an hour of trekking up the sand, I reached what I thought was the crest of the dune. Imagine my surprise when I reached the top and discovered another series of hills to climb! This sight was not the gorgeous panorama of Lake Michigan I was expecting to see. The pattern continued for several more hours. I wondered if I would ever reach the top. Eventually, I caught a glimpse of Lake Michigan and the beautiful coast I was waiting to see, but it required great effort and perseverance to get there. Lately, this “climb” is how my family has been feeling with our various weaknesses, ailments and struggles. We are waiting, hoping and praying to reach the top of this vast hill we have been climbing for some time.   

My husband and I have been in an extended season of weakness. For over 2 years now, our family has been grasping the hope that life will be easier around the next bend. Like the sand dunes, we reach the bend only to discover another hardship around the corner. From moving multiple times to ongoing health issues popping up for each family member, we are feeling pushed beyond our capacity. The strain has taken a toll.

In spite of our intentionality to practice relational skills, we have encountered unfortunate fallout that includes the peace levels in our home fluctuating along with the joy levels in our marriage. In the midst of the adversity, my husband and I are reminded that each of us processes hardship differently. 

When I feel stretched beyond my ability to cope well, I long for connection. I recharge by talking and spending time with my friends. When I feel maxed, my tendency is to become louder in order to get my needs met. My husband, however, is much different. When Chris feels stretched, he pulls away and retreats. Chris craves quiet time and wants to be alone. He recharges by rest and space. Chris is more easy-going than I am, and he likes a quiet, low energy environment when he feels “crispy” as he puts it. I am a high-energy responder while Chris is a low-energy responder. (1) or those of you familiar with attachment styles, I have a tendency towards distracted attachment while Chris has a tendency towards dismissive attachment. You can learn more about attachment styles, by reading Chris’ book Transforming Fellowship. This means I push and pursue while Chris pauses and pulls back. 

With these dynamics, our styles clash. How we navigate our seasons of strain is polar opposite. Just this past week we encountered what felt like a glorious clash and, without years of practice using relational skills, I am sure the results would have been a doomed and dying marriage. These are sobering words to write, but it was our painful reality. 

After last week’s hardship, I felt hurt, hopeless and rejected. Chris felt the need to withdraw and find some space to quiet. We pushed each other’s buttons in an interaction, and we thoroughly triggered each other. It is safe to say we plunged out of relational mode! We saw the other as someone to be defended against rather than an ally or partner. We were missing each others’ hearts in a profound and painful way. 

In the past, I would not have had the skills to recover from this kind of rupture. In the past, Chris would not have had the skills to come back from his retreat. I would have attacked to meet my needs, and he would have given up to meet his. The hurt and hurdles felt massive. 

Normally, we have a fairly fast turnaround time when we have a conflict or a misunderstanding. I can count on one hand the times we had some sort of eruption in our 15 years of marriage that took more than an hour to resolve. Even though this recent episode took longer to repair, we were thankful to use our relational skills to recover and return to joy and peace. Even though this time it took 3 days, we again felt like allies and glad-to-be-together partners!


When things first went south, I started crying out to God to share my feelings. I was having trouble perceiving His nearness to me, so I focused on some things I appreciated until I warmed into relational mode to sense Immanuel’s peace. Once in relational mode, I was able to receive God’s peace along with some perspective on the situation. Now I could better see my part in the frustrating fall-out. Each time I lost my peace during a conversation with Chris, I took my feelings back to Jesus and asked for His peace once again. I also reached out to trusted friends to receive the connection I craved that Chris was unable to offer in these moments. After some time of taking my hurts to Jesus and refreshing my peace, Chris and I were able to have important conversations while maintaining our peace. Because of this peace in the midst of our pain, we repaired and returned to joy. 

For Chris, he needed to find some space and quiet himself to receive God’s peace and perspective. Chris also used appreciation to return to relational mode. Once relational, Chris could receive Immanuel’s insight into his role in our slippery situation. 

Chris and I share our struggle with the hope our story encourages you. Life is hard. Our marriages can feel demanding and difficult. Parenting is tough stuff. All of us have struggles and pain. Each of us needs relational skills and a community to practice with. Have you practiced appreciation as a habit? Are you seeking Immanuel’s peace and perspective for some of the thorny issues in your life? When we practice skill-based habits in the good times, we have them available during the lean seasons. I hope you are enjoying the reminders THRIVEtoday is sending out this month about appreciation. The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages is an excellent resource to jumpstart your marriage joy and connect with other couples. (2) May Immanuel equip you to insert the extraordinary habit of appreciation into your life and relationships.   

  1. Recognition is Skill 16 of the 19 skills. 
  2. The happyhappymarriage website offers a free 6-day devotion along with opportunities and resources to take your marriage to the next level. https://happyhappymarriage.org/

Wanted: Joyful givers looking to increase their joy and bless others. THRIVEtoday is a non-profit ministry. Like all non-profit organizations, we are dependent on the generosity from year-end giving to continue bringing you great content and practice opportunities for relational skills. If you have been blessed by my blog and/or other resources from THRIVEtoday, would you consider making a year-end donation to the THRIVEtoday ministry?

Please share:

Comments 8

  1. Joanna Leonard
    November 22, 2019

    Dear Jen,
    Your words are beautiful and your transparency refreshing.
    Just this morning while interacting with my husband Holy Spirit reminded me of skill 16- recognizing high and low energy responses.
    As you shared yours and Chris’ attachment styles and the struggles you have faced together I realized I could put Lannys and my name in place of Chris and Jen and the story would be very similar.
    I am also so thankful for Thrive Today and the 19 relational skills you both teach. We are excitedly looking forward to Track 2.
    Thank you for your courage to share the great “stuff” with us. We love and support you both in your mission.

    1. Jen Coursey
      November 22, 2019

      Thank you Joanna for your encouragement! It can be vulnerable to share real life, but real life is where relational skills are best in action.

  2. Kathy Sturgis
    November 22, 2019

    Dear Jen,
    This is one of those “remember” moments for me. As I started read I kept thinking, “she must have a guest writer…surely she is not talking about herself!” You see, my mindset is once I get this all learned and my husband is willing to start learning we will live perfectly. Oh, my! how your post brought me back to the realization that I am learning these skills to use on a moment by moment journey continually till Jesus comes or God takes me home. The journey is about returning to joy and rest in every situation because we are not Home yet! Thank you for the reality check, the sweet honesty and the certainty that God has given these skills to make our life doable until He Gloriously redeems all things. Happy Thanksgiving. Your family and ministry is one of the feathers in my Thanks giving bird for this month. Hugs

    1. Jen Coursey
      November 22, 2019

      Amen Kathy! Relational skills give life many sweet moments, and also make it doable in the hard ones, but nothing can make life perfect this side of eternity.
      Thank you for sharing your revelation!

  3. Jeff Newburn
    November 23, 2019

    Jen, thank you so much for your authentic sharing! This takes a lot of courage to be so vulnerable. But the truth is that all of us have these struggles. I have a dismissive attachment style and Sharon distracted, so we certainly identify with the challenges our opposite styles rub against each other. You guys are a great example of using the skills and not becoming stuck. Bravo! We love and appreciate you!

    1. Jen Coursey
      November 23, 2019

      Thank you Jeff! Yes, this is common for many people. We have always said we teach and train these skills not because we use the skills perfectly, but because they have changed our lives.

  4. Linda Kimbrough
    November 26, 2019

    Amen and amen to all of the other comments! I, too, tend toward distracted and my husband, Lane, to dismissive. We, too, traveled thru a series of sand dunes this past weekend. Encourages me to have Jesus remind us of His way and His workings in the 19 Relational Brain Skills. Also gets me excited for all He has in store for the THRIVING Marriage retreat here in San Antonio in February!

  5. Carrie E.
    November 26, 2019

    Thanks for sharing your journey in such a way as to also provide a skeletal roadmap of how to maneuver such a challenge in our own lives. I appreciate your candidness and the reminder, as Kathy mentioned, that even once our spouse is on board that there will be challenging times. Would love to hear from other readers about how to maintain hope and joy even when our spouse is not willing or engaged in the relational skills yet.

Write a comment