Overcoming Adversity Together


Problems can cause severe strains—or strengthen the bonds—in marriage.

A few months ago a couple came into my office and told me of the tragic death of their twelve-year-old son. They took comfort in the knowledge that they would be together again after this life, but that assurance didn’t relieve the pain of losing him. Their minds and hearts were filled with disturbing questions. How could such a thing happen? Why to their family? They had tried all their lives to live gospel principles and stay close to the Lord.

As they struggled to accept and understand, both suffered depression and then felt ashamed and guilty because they were depressed. Other problems and burdens in their lives seemed to multiply and become more difficult to bear. Even the sweet marriage relationship they had shared began to feel strained.

As the months wore on, they started adjusting to their loss, but their views of life changed. They saw themselves as more fragile and vulnerable, and life as more frightening and unpredictable. But the biggest change I saw was that they began pulling together to comfort and strengthen one another. The tender, loving relationship they had nurtured over the years not only survived, but flourished, and their bond grew stronger as they struggled with this terrible adjustment.

Severe adversity tends to intensify the kind of relationship a couple has before it hits. A close, healthy relationship will generally triumph in a crisis; a weak, troubled one will often falter.

Studies have shown that when couples perceive that their adversity is coming from outside the relationship, the marital bond tends to be strengthened. An attitude of “us against the world” can lead them to draw closer together. But when they perceive that the adversity is coming from within their relationship—where there is blaming and fault-finding—the marital bond is often weakened. (See, for example, E. Wight Bakke, The Unemployed Worker, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1940; and Olsen and McCoven, Families, What Makes Them Work, Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Press, 1983.) The way people perceive the cause of adversity can be an important factor in how they deal with it.

Adversity can be categorized into three different types according to cause: (1) a natural consequence of one’s own actions, (2) a consequence of someone else’s actions, and (3) a consequence of natural causes beyond anyone’s immediate control.

There is broad scriptural backing for the notion that adversity is sometimes a natural consequence of our own actions. In Galatians 6:7 [Gal. 6:7], for example, we read, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” In marriage counseling I see many examples of this.

One man came into my office with his wife, saying he was going to file for divorce, but his stake president had suggested he see me first. Both he and his wife were members of the Church, but both had been less active for many years. A time came when the husband was touched by the Spirit and became converted to the gospel and committed to living its principles. But his wife remained unconverted, and this had caused a rift in their marriage. He was determined to win her over, but the harder he pushed, the more she resisted. The differences between them increased until their relationship began to fail.

“Living the principles of the gospel is the most important thing in the world to me,” he said. “I have wasted a good part of my life, and I want to make up for lost time.”

In sorrow and bitterness, she responded, “We’ve had a beautiful marriage for over twenty years. All that time, we spent most Sundays at the beach or in the mountains. Now, instead of spending time with me, he’s always off doing church work. I don’t complain, and I’ve tried to adjust; I let him live his life the way he wants to. But he is constantly criticizing me. He doesn’t like my friends, and he complains because I don’t want to go to Church, read scriptures, or pray with him. He used to be the kindest, sweetest man in the world. But now he is constantly on my back about something. If the Church teaches him to treat me like that, I don’t want anything to do with it!”

At my suggestion he agreed not to nag her about anything during the next week, in exchange for her agreement to read some scriptures during our next session together. The next week they brought their scriptures, and I asked her to read from section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, beginning with verse 39.

“I don’t understand scriptures,” she said. “Have him read.”

“You go ahead and read it,” I answered, “and I’ll have him explain it to you.”

She sighed deeply and began to read with great hesitancy, but soon started reading faster and with increasing interest:

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. …

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121:39, 41–42.)

It now became this good man’s opportunity to explain those passages to his wife. It was a moving experience to see this sincere, humble priesthood bearer fight back tears as he explained to his wife the gospel principle he had been violating in their marriage.

After two more sessions, this couple had regained the tender, caring relationship they had always shared. She was not yet ready to change her life-style and adopt his dedication to the Church. But he stopped his nagging and demanding, and she became far more receptive to his influence.

The adversity this man was experiencing in his marriage was a result of his own actions. When those actions changed, the adversity ended. In such situations, people bring calamity on themselves. If they interpret their self-inflicted adversity as being someone else’s fault, the picture is distorted; obvious solutions are ignored, and the problem gets worse. But if they can see that these problems are the natural result of their own actions, they may feel guilt and remorse—which could lead them to repentance, to the Lord, and to some solutions.

A second type of adversity is that which results from someone else’s wrongful actions. For example, while driving to school, a healthy, righteous young woman is hit head-on by a drunk driver and left as a quadriplegic. The heinous crimes of rape, incest, murder, child abuse, and spouse abuse also fall into this category. We live in a world plagued by sin and error; most of us suffer some adversity and pain through no fault of our own, but as a result of the actions of others. This type of adversity is also recognized in scripture: “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Matt. 18:7.)

In-law problems sometimes fall into this category. In-laws generally tend to be supportive and helpful; mother-in-law jokes are foreign to most people’s actual experience. But I recently saw an exception. The husband, an only child, had a doting and devoted mother. Throughout his life, she had tried to make him happy and comfortable—and was unwilling to give up that role when he married. She was openly jealous of his wife; she was not only critical and belittling, but made several open attempts to break up the marriage and get her son to come home.

His young wife was devastated. She honestly tried to build a good relationship with her mother-in-law, but anything she did only brought on more hostility. The husband tried to mediate between his mother and his wife, but had little success. The situation got worse over the years, until the mother and the wife could barely speak to each other.

Then the man’s father died. Left all alone, emotionally devastated and financially destitute, the mother asked her son to let her live with him. His wife protested, fearing it would destroy their marriage. But he couldn’t bring himself to refuse his mother’s plea, and finally the wife reluctantly agreed to invite her to stay with them temporarily.

From the moment the mother moved in, the wife felt alienated, criticized, and, at times, viciously attacked. The two-month stay to which they had originally agreed stretched into six months, and there seemed to be no end in sight. The son tried to keep the peace, but tension mounted and things got progressively worse.

In this case, the offense was beyond the young wife’s control. Her adversity was not the result of her own actions, but the result of hurtful acts of another person. Unfortunately, she allowed her mother-in-law’s behavior to make her resentful and angry; she began to develop a bitter, spiteful attitude and to nurture a growing hatred.

When this couple finally came in to see me, the tension between them was almost unbearable. Their marriage was at the point of shattering. I tried to help them see that although his mother was acting unfairly, they didn’t have the power to change her. Nor could I change her in my work with them. The same is true for most of us: When adversity comes as a result of the acts of others, we often can’t do anything to change it. But that doesn’t mean there is no solution. Again, the answer is found in a basic gospel principle.

Shortly after Christ spoke about offenses in this world (quoted above), Peter asked him, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

“Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:21–22.)

The commandment to forgive the offenses of others was given as much for the welfare of the injured party as for the benefit of the person being forgiven. Anger, bitterness, and vengefulness are more hurtful to the person harboring them than to the person who is their object.

In this instance, an attitude of Christian forgiveness broke the cycle of resentment, bitterness, and anger. These good people were able to forgive each other and the mother-in-law, and this marriage was able to resume and grow in strength and love. Today this man and woman live together happily, and the son maintains a good relationship with his mother, who lives in her own apartment away from the family.

In this world where every kind of sin and depredation is committed, everyone must learn to forgive. We must do this whether or not the offending person repents or suffers the consequences of his wrongful acts. Only when we have truly forgiven can we achieve a healthy sense of well-being. Feelings of anger, indignation, and hostility are natural when we’ve been wronged. But by achieving a true sense of forgiveness, we can let go of those emotions, put offenses behind us, and avoid the lingering bitterness and resentments that destroy peace of mind.

The type of adversity that is caused by another person must not be confused with the other two types. Forgiveness requires a recognition that someone has done wrong. Responding to the wrongful acts of others as if we are solely responsible distorts the picture and does not allow the cleansing process of forgiveness to take place. And to deny that someone is at fault or that a wrong has been committed would be equally distorted.

The third type of adversity is that which is no one’s fault. When asked whether a certain man had sinned personally to bring on calamity, or if it was due to the sins of his parents, “Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” (John 9:3.)

Many people, like Job, suffer in this life for no apparent reason. This type of adversity can be very hard to understand. Job’s friends, for example, assumed that he was suffering as punishment for some terrible sin he must have committed. The book of Job, however, makes it clear that Job had done nothing wrong. Sometimes, suffering admits to no rational explanation.

At times I hear statements like, “The Lord must really hate me to have allowed this to happen to me.” Or “I must have done something terribly wrong to merit this kind of punishment.” Statements like these distort reality. Disastrous circumstances in people’s lives are not distributed on the basis of justice.

I saw a couple not long ago who were going through a crisis because of a drainage problem on their property. Through a complex series of events connected with heavy rains, the foundation of their house was deteriorating. They knew it would get progressively worse unless it was corrected. Repairing it would mean a disruption of the family and a major expense.

The wife was primarily concerned about protecting the family and their home. The husband was worried about the expense involved and how it would affect their budget. As they sought a solution, she became more and more anxious to get the work done as soon as possible, and began phoning builders to get estimates on the job. Her husband felt he could do some of the work himself, and the job as he saw it was much less extensive than she was assuming. He perceived her phoning the builders as meddlesome and not helpful. As time went on; she got more and more agitated, feeling that he was dragging his feet. And he got more and more upset, feeling that she was fighting his efforts and trying to impose her own solution. By the time they came to see me about this, they couldn’t even talk to each other about it. There was so much agitation and pain within their relationship that they couldn’t focus on the crumbling foundation of their home.

In this situation the initial cause of adversity was from natural causes. It was no one’s fault. Once we were able to resolve the problems they had created for themselves, the solution to the original problem was relatively simple. They agreed on a plan and got the work done. It was expensive, disruptive, time consuming, and inconvenient but there was a solution. The key was in correctly identifying and labeling the nature of the problem.

When they stopped accusing, blaming, and criticizing each other and focused their energies on the defect in the foundation of their house instead of the defects in the character of their spouse, they were able to cooperate in deciding on an appropriate course of action.

As with the other types of adversity, it is important to understand the real cause of the problem. If adversity comes from forces beyond anyone’s control, it is destructive to feel personally guilty or ashamed because of it or to place blame on someone else. In these instances, agonizing over what we did wrong, or trying to figure out who else is at fault, is fruitless.

Severe adversity can raise some very vexing questions. And there aren’t always adequate answers to all of these questions. Unfortunately, some members of the Church have allowed their testimonies of the gospel to be shaken by the painful, adverse experiences of life. But the example of Christ makes several things clear. First, since Christ was perfect and committed no sin—but still suffered it is clear that adversity and suffering are not always the result of our own sins.

Second, even though Christ prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39), and later said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), his suffering continued. It is clear from this that God will not always prevent disaster, relieve suffering, or provide immediate support and consolation, even for the most righteous.

Third, even though his crucifixion was grossly unjust and completely unjustified, Christ’s attitude toward his tormentors was, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.) For us, the obligation to forgive any and all wrongs is for our own benefit and peace of mind, as well as for that of our oppressors.

Fourth, Christ’s suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross is only part of the story. He was resurrected, his wounds were healed, and he lives triumphant in peace and glory. Each of us who sincerely strives to live the gospel has the same promise.

Scripture, history, and personal experience all confirm that adversity is a part of life. Apparently it is an important and useful part, because few people escape it, and God makes no excuses or apologies for it. Fortunately we are not asked to understand, justify, or explain it—but only to endure it and learn from it. As the Lord said to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7.)

Understanding these three types of adversity and keeping them separate can help us effectively deal with them. If adversity comes as a natural consequence of our own actions, we may—with the Savior’s help—be able to correct it through a process of repentance and improvement. If it comes through the action of others, we may not have any control over it, but a Christlike attitude of forgiveness can help to soften its emotional toll. If it comes about as an unavoidable, natural occurrence, it is important to recognize that no one is to blame, to accept it as a part of life’s experience, and to try to learn and grow from it.

Adversity can cause severe strains in marriage and put heavy burdens on families. But with the help of a loving Heavenly Father, we can build and nurture—even during the hard times—a loving, supportive, forgiving marriage relationship.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Chris Creek

Larry K. Langlois, a marriage, family, and child therapist, teaches a parenting class in the Pasadena California Stake.