For years, counselors and authors globally have studied the principles behind what makes a marriage work and what leads to marriage problems. They have produced numerous theories and millions of books have been written on the subject. This reveals the reality that marriage is harder than it looks.
When a person meets a future spouse, they tend to see only the positive – they are overcome with “being in love” and this effectively blinds them to the other person’s less desirable traits. In his wisdom, God has made dating and courting in this way to ensure that marriage occurs – and then, once that lifetime covenant has been sealed, the fun process of getting to know your spouse begins.
There is little wonder that the first year of marriage is notoriously difficult, as two sinners come face to face with their differences in a way that will lead to their mutual sanctification. Sanctification is, unfortunately, often an unpleasant experience, and many common marriage problems arise.
What is important, however, is how these issues are handled, rather than the issue itself. Here are some core underlying marriage problems that go to the heart of what makes marriage difficult:
1. Poor conflict resolution
In Dr. John Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. Gottman says that how a couple fights says a lot about the quality and stability of their relationship. He says that the techniques employed to end a fight – “repair attempts” – and how these words are delivered or received can be used to predict the longevity of the marriage.
The fact of the matter is that it’s not about whether or not you and your spouse fight; it’s about how you fight. He even goes as far as saying that most marital arguments cannot be resolved; it’s about learning how to handle conflict that might last throughout your married life.
Some of the expressions used as repair attempts include: “That felt like you were insulting me” (avoiding direct blame through the use of the word ‘felt’), “please say that more gently” (reacting calmly), “I love you” (reminding your spouse of your core state of loving each other), and “You make a good point” (speaking to the words used rather than the emotional tone used).
If you can learn to incorporate some of these statements into your disagreements, you will go a long way toward solving marriage problems before they spiral out of control.
2. Lack of respect
Usually, at the beginning of a marriage, conflicts arise out of simple misunderstandings. If the conflict is not repaired quickly and the pattern of disagreement falls into criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (one or both partners withdraw from each other desiring to protect themselves from insults), a loss of respect will occur between the marriage partners.
As a result, marriage problems worsen and the spouses feel defensive, so even when nothing negative is intended, one partner reacts to perceived insults. The partners find themselves arguing frequently, and the opportunity for a harmonious relationship diminishes. Without respect, marriage is bound to end in unhappiness – whether this means divorce or continuing in a lonely marriage.
If you find yourself without much respect for your spouse, or if you feel that they are disrespecting you, ask God for him to change your hearts so that you can build a stronger path toward mutual care, remembering the characteristics that first drew you together.
Rebuilding respect can start with some encouraging words, a compliment, or an affirmation of something that you appreciate about your spouse. Words in a marriage are extremely powerful, and we can choose whether we use them to build each other up or allow them to tear us down and apart.
The truth is that marriage problems exist because of our innate selfishness. As Christians, we should not be surprised by this, but our sin blinds us to the true depths of our depravity and it is often only when we are forced to live in proximity to another person that our true nature is revealed. Too often, we ask ourselves, “what am I getting out of this marriage?” rather than “what can I give to my marriage.”
This requires a complete reboot. It isn’t merely about changing outward behavior but also being honest about how we have conducted ourselves in our marriage. A godly marriage is built on sacrifice, where we are prepared to put aside our own desires in order to show respect and love for our spouse.
A good place to deal with our selfishness is on our knees – if we ask God to expose our hearts and blind spots, he will surely answer this prayer in a way in which we are convicted by our sin and spurred on to act in a way that is consistent with the fruits of the holy spirit. We have full access to God’s gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – all we have to do is ask for his help.
4. Inability to communicate
Marriage problems are frequently a result of poor communication. The topic of communication has also received much publicity. It boils down to the words that we speak to our spouses and how we listen to them. Underpinning good communication is a heart that desires to communicate in a godly way.
Some good practices to promote better communication in marriage include listening when your spouse speaks, rather than just waiting for a pause so that you can interject (or worse, interrupting); exercising self-control in the words that you choose, and choosing to listen more and speak less. It’s important to avoid expressions like “you always” and personal attacks. When communicating be respectful and consider how your spouse will receive your words.
5. Buildup of resentment
Resentment has been called the “silent killer” of marriages, as it slowly builds up as a result of small irritations and unresolved frustrations. The spouse who feels resentful has been holding on to unpleasant feelings for a long time, and the feelings now taint every area of the marriage. Any sense of appreciation or joy is diminished.
The Bible has a lot to say about bitterness, which is intimately related to resentment. “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it, many become defiled,” exhorts Hebrews 12:15, ESV.
Paul addresses the Ephesian church by saying “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, ESV). Bitterness and resentment in marriage are so destructive that they should never be allowed to take root. They must be banished or put away as soon as they become apparent.
Every one of these marriage problems feeds into each other and so, if you are struggling in your relationship, it is likely that one or more of the above issues are present. The good news is that no marriage is beyond repair, and even if one partner decides to take the issues to God and work on their own character change, significant improvements can occur.
Ultimately, how we conduct ourselves in our marriage should be about our obedience to God, who has instructed us to show unconditional love and respect to our spouse. This of course is only possible with God’s help.
“Just Married”, Courtesy of Drew Coffman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Committed”, Courtesy of Zoriana Stakhniv, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Broken Heart”, Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Wedding Ring”, Courtesy of Engin Akyurt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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