Could you be directly (or indirectly) ruining what could be great? Here are 8 things that kill your marriage… if left unaddressed.
John and Helen Burns rightly observed that a good marriage is the closest to heaven on earth you can experience. Conversely, a bad or troubled marriage they say can be the closest thing to hell on earth.
Feeling trapped in your own house, unhappy with the thing you once dreamed about, at the end of the rope with this person you supposedly used to love at one point – these can feel like a nightmare without end, and a great source of exhaustion, shame, and pain.
The motiviation for this post was about a month ago reading thousands of comments on the work of Sharon Pope on Facebook, full of people publicly posting about the struggle they have of wanting their marriage to continue but not loving their husbands (overwhelmingly) any more. It really stuck with me to see just how distraught so many people have been feeling trapped in their relationships and wanting to end it.
All of us grew up in environments around other people’s marriages and relationships. In fact the defining character in many models of human development and counselling are centred around the impact the relationship of your parents, caregivers, and significant adults had on you from your earliest years through their own relationships.
We are all shaped by marriages, and in turn now, or in the future, face the challenge of shaping our own.
And the stats don’t lie, marriages are doing it tough. The divorce rate in many countries is quite high with the top 10 countries ranging from 38-87%, and the stats on domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health challenges all reveal many people are doing it tough.
As a married man myself and as someone who has always been passionate about seeing people win in life and love, I endeavour to educate myself on how I can be a better husband with a stronger marriage, and how to help others who are struggling.
Here are 8 things that kill your marriage, but the good news is that it doesn’t have to stay that way. There’s hope, there’s opportunity and there’s a path forward.
Unless someone is willing to get help, the willingness to resort to abuse of your partner is a death knell to the relationship.
In ancient times, the Jews believed even a slave had three basic rights in their marriage – food, safety, conjugal rights. Any violation left them free to go. And that was for the “lowest” people in society at the time – how much more everyone else.
It’s amazing how willing some people are to destroy those basic rights for their partner and then expect to be loved, respected, and supported in return.
If you aren’t safe, especially physically, but also emotionally, sexually, or financially, get help.
A line I hate hearing abusive partners use is that “I haven’t cheated”. Whilst that may be the case sexually, abuse is just as powerful as a form of unfaithfulness as anything else, because you said you would love, cherish and hold, and here you are hating your wife or husband because you can’t resolve the hate within yourself.
Let the record show that the abuser breaks the marriage covenant on their own first.
And look, we all have challenges and reasons why we turn to destructive behaviour, and if you’re the abuser, you should also get help. Deal with the anger, go to the counselling, find out what keeps bringing you back to that dark place. Mental illness is never an excuse for cruelty.
“Porneia” – marital unfaithfulness. Shane Willard did a great expose on this one.
There’s a lot of talk about abstinence before marriage, but perhaps there’s less thought around abstinence in marriage.
I could have put infidelity here, but based on the testimonies of people’s experiences such as those told by researchers and sexologists such as Patricia Weerakoon, Esther Perel, Dr John Gottman or Dr Kevin Leman of Sheet Music, if you’re not having sex with your partner, someone else is much more likely to. Hence, the topic of a sexless marriage needs to be addressed in the conversation first, as people who feel sexually fulfilled are less likely to go after snacks out when they’ve got a banquet at home.
Even without infidelity, the security and health of a sexually fulfilled relationship as Dr David Scharnch hones in on in Intimacy and Desire is that it makes both people more alive. Finding a balance that works for both partners in life is one of the most freeing and empowering things a marriage can offer, and conversely its absence can be bleak and frustrating.
One thing I get asked about a lot by people entering into marriage or interested in getting married is if anything surprised me when I got married. I usually say how important sex is. I mean, you know going into it that it’s going to matter, but I think when you’re married you find out just how much it does matter.
Sex matters to a marriage. It communicates love, safety, and is a physical manifestation of the belief that there is nothing between you and me. We are fully vulnerable and visible and accessible to each other.
When it’s not happening, one or both people in the marriage are having it screamed to them that they don’t matter, even if that isn’t the intention.
When sex is not occurring, the marriage is not doing well. Whether it’s the Reddit DeadBedrooms, the many questions on Quora or forums about how to negotiate this, or even the counsellors and authors from Oprah to Christian wives to sexologists at TedX, there’s enough warnings blaring out to us that this needs to be addressed.
As a Christian, I know sometimes people try to use the Bible as a reason why this is okay, and yet even pro-singleness Paul instructed the Corinthians that sex shouldn’t be abstained from even if it’s for a spiritual reason, and even if you do, it should only be for a very short time to avoid a rift between you forming. Plus Peter and the Song of Songs all show us the power and importance of the marriage bed.
Avoid the rift. There’s a lot of great resources and help out there on getting this sorted. This is one of the most pronounced things that kill your marriage, and if you don’t think this matters, ask your spouse how they’re really feeling about it. More on 9 Obstacles to Sexual Utopia.
The easiest person in the world to be resentful towards is your spouse. Esther Perel points out in the modern marriage, people expect their partner to be their best friend and passionate lover and financial equal and the one they make their decisions with and their adventure buddy and and and and and.
It’s a lot of things to want to experience through one person. As a result, any of those multiple areas where your expectations may start to lack, and resentment starts to bubble away underneath.
It starts out as something dumb they said that they didn’t realise they said. Then they keep saying it. Then the way they clean. Then the way they don’t. Then the way they sleep. Then this then that then this.
Dr John Gottman puts forward in his research that the number one thing people fight about is “nothing”. As in, usually it’s not about the thing you’ve blown up about, it’s about all the things along the way that you haven’t.
One of my favourite quotes from Zig Ziglar is that “Many marriages would be better if the husband and the wife clearly understood that they are on the same side”.
When you hate or resent your teammate without talking to them about it, without seeking a resolution, or without being willing to forgive or let slide those little things that really don’t matter at the end of the day, resentment could be thing that kills your marriage.
Be solutions focused. Be proactive. Be direct. Tell them or ask them what’s going on, don’t assume.
#4: Failure to handle season changes
I was really surprised after becoming a parent that my wife and I have had the most disagreements than we’ve ever had in our whole relationship so far. Usually a few minutes or an hour later we realise we weren’t even angry at each other (John Gottman’s “Nothing”), we were burned out from a lack of sleep or a bout of crying.
I was somewhat relieved, but also confronted, to read that the overwhelming number of divorces occur within the first year of having a child, and also that marital satisfaction drops below unmarried levels.
Parenthood is just one of many dramatic season changes that occur over the course of life. Injury, surgery, death, trauma, changes in income, a lack of purpose or direction, external pressures – there are so many seasons and big events in life, especially when you look at the 60-70 years that a marriage could potentially span over.
Additionally, people change over time. I regularly remember the challenge put forward by Bishop TD Jakes in his Before You Do series – that your spouse may be busy given you what you used to need, not knowing you are now not who you were.
We have to adopt a seasonal and longterm mindset if we’re going to be successful over a seasonal, longterm marriage. Change is guaranteed, and hopefully you can determine in your heart and capacity that your commitment to your spouse is also just as guaranteed.
#5: Not building a common base
In the words of Pastor Mark Ramsey, drift happens. You hear in all the movies and books and personal testimonies of how people just drifted apart over time, and drift is the natural state of every relationship.
Unless you decide to be intentional about building commonality.
If you don’t already share common interests, or a common platform for making decisions, or a common worldview, you’re going to need to develop one in order to stay together.
Imagine trying to build a house with two different foundations – different material, different strength, different expectations. The house will tear apart. We need a common foundation, and to continue to build and find the common ground, as the years go by.
I already mentioned resentment, and unforgiveness is its big brother.
Once again from TD Jakes’ Before You Do – “you cannot sustain a lifelong love without forgiveness”. Anyone and everyone who’s been married longer than a week will know this is true.
We all have to forgive things about each other. Sometimes someone is just in a bad mood or is tired or frustrated and they’re talking out of that. Sometimes they genuinely forgot. Sometimes they lashed out of anger or hurt. Sometimes they just really bad a stupid decision. But now they’re repentant.
And then there are the big things we do to each other. The broken plates that don’t go back to normal after an apology. If we’re committed to the future and can see an unrepentant heart, forgiveness is absolutely necessary.
If you hold it against them forever, or continue to escalate the issue in your own heart, that’ll be the thing that kills your marriage. We are called to forgive the way that we’ve been forgiven.
Just a minor note on that – that we aren’t forgiven if we refuse to forgive others, or if we remain unrepentant about destructive behaviour. Food for thought before someone wants to abuse the mercy card.
#:7 A lack of support
There are some things that happen in a marriage that you won’t survive on your own.
We all need community, friendship, mentors, guidance, and accountability. This never changes.
It’s so strange to me how many people pull away from all their family and friends when they start dating, get engaged, get married, have a child. This is the most dangerous thing you can do for yourself and all your loved ones. He who isolates himself rages against all sound judgment.
I remember hearing from a well respected pastor in the Brisbane area who specialised in counselling couples through infidelity for many decades. He mentioned he would really struggle as people would come to him at the point their relationship was already terminal, after there were very few options remaining and a lot of destruction was irreversable.
The best time to get help is before something goes wrong.
On the topic of counselling, I know we’ve been really helped by seeing some trained professionals for negotiating through some challenges in our marriage, particularly when we had some people and external factors who were pressing both of us to our limits. And even if it’s not for “something big”, a listening ear and a professional can really help you go from good to great to amazing to marital bliss. We’ve loved to learn with some trained experts in order to do things better than ever before.
There’s also a lot of great books, online resources, courses, seminars, conferences, and video material on marriage out there. A lack of education can be just as destructive when a problem arises. If you don’t know the answer or you don’t go looking for it, this “small” thing may become the thing that kills your marriage.
And as a personal one, please don’t ditch your friends. I’ve had too many friends disappear from everyone’s lives for years only to reappear a few years later with major struggles because they tried to do life as an isolated little island. We were made for each other and I continue to see the healthiest marriages are those who involve two people who remain connected in regular community.
#8: When one person gives up
A marriage can survive many things, and yet it is only truly over once one person gives up. Even moreso when both give up.
This is even further reinforced by many countries legal requirements stipulating a No Fault Divorce policy, meaning that if someone has simply lived outside of the house for 12 or more months, only one person is required to enact the end of the marriage, and the law reinforces this.
While it does often (not always) take two to contribute to the problems and challenges in a marriage, it really only takes one person to give up to end things for good.
The number one question I ask anyone who comes to me thinking about breaking up with someone is this:
Will you have this problem again with the next person?
The reality is many of the challenges we face in our marriages are inherent to longterm relationships with any person, not always specifically with this person.
If it’s a matter of completely different direction, abuse, a lack of safety, consistent unrepentant infidelity, well no, not every marriage with every person is going to be like that.
But all marriages are the same in many ways, especially in requiring you to lay down your life for your spouse. To love them the way you’ve been loved. To treat them the way you want to be treated. To love and respect them to the full measure they can be given.
All marriages require you to learn to communicate. To stop running. To change.
People think they don’t have to change for love. This is absolutely untrue, and if you refuse to change, you’ll be alone again and again until it clicks that any meaningful thing requires two giving their best effort.
Robert Fergusson in the book Making Connections That Work makes a brilliant comparison between relationships and bridges. He says in order to build a bridge, you need both countries or sides to agree and build towards a common centre. Or at the very least, they need to be open to accepting the traffic once the other side completes the work.
If one doesn’t, the bridge won’t go ahead, or it will be fraught with continual strife.
Relationships require maintenance. They require consistency. They require work and sacrificial love and a lot of help and patience. But there is no richer reward than having a marriage that works.
If you give up today, are you sure you’re not going to be going around the same issues again at the next relationship?
As TD Jakes pointed out, the fact that divorce rates increase significantly for second and third time marriages (using US statistics, but it’s from 50% to 64% then to 74%) infers that things unaddressed the first time remain unaddressed the next times as well.
If we don’t face those things today, here, and make it work today, here, with her, with him, we might just have to go back to the beginning and do it all again.
The truth is there are so many other things that kill marriages – indifference, lack of interest, escalating anger, the use of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in dealing with complicated problems, managing finances incorrectly or the strain of affording a life… so many things.
But these are some I personally continue to see and read about.
You’ve probably picked up a lot of book references throughout. The good news is there are so many great books and resources out there that are often my main inspiration for my writing, way more than mentioned here.
I would implore you if you’re at the end of your rope and not sure what to do, to get help. The shame of getting help is nothing compared to the shame of having it all fall apart, or struggling to live with a life you don’t want.
See a counsellor. Start learning about how men and women are different. Read a book. Watch a talk. Go to a conference. Talk to someone who has a different view to yourself and see why. Invite your friends in. Turn the lights on.
Poet George Eliot wrote, “What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life–to strength each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?“
A good marriage is very possible. A great marriage is also possible. Before you succumb to the things that kills marriage, try something you haven’t tried yet.
My heart’s prayer is you find the love you crave, and even moreso that you discover your ability to help another do the same.