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Is your marriage equipped to deal with the times in life when you are pushed beyond your capacity?

The death of a dear one? Injury or sickness? A baby who doesn’t sleep? Loss of a job? Your relationship will experience rough times. But if you have practiced habits that connect you, those habits will be able to support you when your resources run out.

You already have habits in your marriage. The question is not do you have habits. The question is are those habits setting you up to make it through tough times or not.

My husband and I didn’t always have great habits. I have felt invisible to him at critical moments in my life, but it’s different now. And I’m grateful. Here’s a recent example of how good habits mattered when a true crisis arose.

Our friends, Todd and Mary, were through-hiking 486 miles of The Colorado Trail and they invited us to join them on a short leg of the trip. My husband and I both said yes within minutes of the invitation: a good sign.

It was an ambitious goal for three and a half days: 54 miles at more than 12,000 feet above sea level.

I started out trying to keep up with our friend, Mary: a woman who makes it onto the podium at Ironman competitions and triathlons. But I couldn’t keep up and I began to fall behind.

Falling behind is something we can all relate to. Behind at school. Behind on housework. We all have a mountain of ambition that our body doesn’t seem to want to climb; at least not fast enough.

I felt embarrassed that I was slowing my friends down. It’s uncomfortable to wait at 12,000 feet. The moment you stop hiking the cool breeze attacks and your muscles begin to stiffen. My friends cheered me on and had only smiles, but I saw them shake the waiting out their legs as they began to hike again.

As a child, my father took our family hiking and canoeing every summer. He was proudest of us when we carried a heavy load across the portages in the Canadian Boundary Waters and my identity of love got wrapped up with being strong.

On The Colorado Trail I felt weak.

At 12,000 feet, after 16 miles of up-up-up-up followed by down-down-down-down my knees began to shake. My 24-pound pack felt far heavier in the afternoon than it did in the morning.

My knees swelled and I started to cry. I cried because each step was an effort. I cried because I was concerned about the clicking sound in my knees. I cried because my pride was taking such a beating. I should be able to do this I kept thinking. Everyone else is doing it. I shouldn’t be so weak.

But I was the only one thinking I was weak.

Todd and Mary were filled with words of encouragement, “It’s amazing how you can jump into this altitude and just start hiking so hard.” My husband hiked behind me, matching my pace. Occasionally – perhaps when he heard me sniffling – he’d say, “You have so much mental fortitude.”

At the end of the second day we told our friends to push ahead. They had a schedule to keep. I didn’t want the pressure of keeping up.

The third day I felt better and, for the first ten miles, I was busy taking pictures and marveling at far we could see. It felt great to look at the furthest ranges and know I was there just yesterday.

Then the swelling and the breathlessness overwhelmed me again. When my husband, who had gone ahead to scout, announced that he didn’t think this lake was the best place to camp. I shook my head. Violently.

“OK,” he said aware that I just couldn’t go another mile, and he began to extol the benefits of the pointy side of our tent and how it would make a great wind block.

We filtered water, heated it, rehydrated our dinner and went to sleep.

Heavy and thick is how I’d describe my legs that fourth morning when we woke. I wasn’t looking forward to another 16-mile day; but there’s no arguing with reality: that’s how far away our car was. 16 miles and a gain/loss/gain of 1,500/4000/2,300 vertical feet. Hills that equaled hurt for my knees.

The steep rocky terrain strained my quadriceps, but it was the pressure of the downhills that made my knee ache.

We marveled at the evidence of avalanches we saw on the hill across from us, unaware that those logs had littered the trail ahead. When we got there my pack shifted back and forth as I crawled over and under the spree of fallen trees.

I continued to hike. Then my knee wobbled. The first rule of First Aid rang in my head: don’t get injured in the back-country.

I adjusted my backpack and the tears returned. This time it was more than discomfort. I think I realized I wasn’t going to be able to finish the hike and the blow to my ego was more painful than my swollen knees.

I surrendered to reality and called, “Dave.”

Here is where the habits we’ve cultivated in our marriage really paid off.

  • My habit: I don’t complain much.
  • My husband’s habit: He regularly goes into the mountains and does hard things. When I’m with him, he checks in frequently to make sure I’m having fun.

His habit of checking in with me made me feel safe to reach out to him. My habit of not complaining made him take me seriously when I did need to say something was wrong.

A habit creates a foundation.

My husband, who was a few steps ahead of me heard me call and stopped immediately. He turned around. “Are you OK?” he asked. But he saw that I wasn’t and followed up the question with, “Here, let’s take some things out of your pack and put them in mine.”

The lighter weight felt great. Until my knee wobbled again.

Dave stopped as soon as I called him again and with excitement in his voice he said, “Here, I’ll just strap your whole pack to mine.”

Carry my whole pack? Carry everything for me? I started to protest but I couldn’t deny that my body felt flooded with relief. “Really?” I asked as tears welled up in my eyes.

He smiled. “Really.”

He strapped my pack to his and carried it up-up-up-up and down-down-down-down over eight miles. When we finally got to our car, I was the tired one. I was the one hurting.

Sometimes in marriage you will carry the load for both you and your partner. Sometimes your partner will carry the entire load. Both are challenging.

I am not diminishing the heavy load my husband carried up-up-up-up and down-down- down-down, but I think it was harder for me to accept his help than it was for him to give it. I needed to accept my own limitations. That’s a heavy burden.

Partnerships work best when both members are giving people. In order for one person to give, the other must embrace receiving.

The foundation of our habits helped me receive more graciously.

Every adventure we’ve taken in the woods my husband’s prime concern has always been is my wife happy? I was the only one concerned about carrying my fair share of the weight. Not him.

Because he’s seen me sing songs as I carry heavy packs and smile after getting tossed into a river filled with icebergs when our raft flipped, he knows my identity is wrapped up in being strong and cheerful when the chips are down. Consequently, he made a point of not just taking my pack but acting as if I was doing a favor for him by allowing it.

Over three decades we’ve shared many struggles. We’ve carried each other’s loads several times. Sharing struggles and sharing the load is what has bonded us together. Those shared experiences allowed us to say with sweat or with laughter, we’re in this together, and together we’ll get through it.

How about you? Does your partner see your hurt? Your happiness? Is your mate by your side or devoured in a world all their own?

I’d love to have you join me as I teach an 8-week class Habits for Your Happily Ever After.

Sharing the load is one habit we’ve honed over the course of our decades-long relationship. I’d love to include you and your significant other as we study the other habits that will keep you headed toward your personal happily ever after.

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Rebecca S. Mullen
PO Box 346
Mesa, CO 81643