Marriage Problems, Part 4: Trouble in Paradise?
Some of the most challenging marriage problems come from character and personality issues. How can we deal with ongoing challenges within our marriages?
One point we hope we have stressed in this series is that challenges in marriage should not be ignored or “put on the shelf.” Instead, we must take time to really work together on challenges as early as possible, including involving trained counselors when necessary.
Leaving problems unresolved in the interest of “peace” usually results in having to describe our marriages using the word peace with air quotation marks, rather than just saying it sincerely. So, do we want real peace in our marriage, or just a pretend peace?
And not only real peace—but real joy, fulfillment and ever-deepening love?
This blog post will examine six of the most common ongoing and recurring challenges that have appeared in our own marriage or within the marriages of those we surveyed for this series.
Within each challenge, a theme will begin to develop that reveals the root of most marriage problems: pride and selfishness (1 John 2:16). No matter what challenge appears, if both the husband and wife resolve to address and tame their own pride and selfishness, the marriage will strengthen. When loving our spouse is the main goal of our marriage (Ephesians 5:25 and Titus 2:4), the marriage will continue to get happier.
Not fairytale rainbow gumdrop lollipop land perfect, but better.
Challenge 1: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Lousy and counterproductive communication patterns can keep marriages from going anywhere. When two human beings are striving to become one flesh and an effective team, it really helps when they can talk to each other openly and respectfully with words “fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11).
Lousy and counterproductive communication patterns can keep marriages from going anywhere. One pastor noted that a roadblock to addressing ongoing problems within marriage is due to “an inability to establish a different method of communicating with one another (i.e., following the same dysfunctional/default patterns of communication which continue the cycle vs. implementing godly assertiveness and conflict-resolution patterns).”
Another pastor noted this roadblock: “Lack of communication skills [can become] such an ingrained habit, that even though the couple intellectually knows they need to change, they often have difficulty doing so. They are usually so deep rooted in a pattern which prohibits them from even trying to change. The solution would be to begin a new habit altogether. And that is the tough part.”
In response to a question about ongoing challenges they have experienced in their marriages, three survey respondents shared these comments regarding communication:
- “Communication. Use of technology, and differences of opinion in how it should be handled (e.g., one spouse doesn’t see it as rude to be on the phone while you’re trying to have a conversation, and the other does see it as rude).”
- “Communication, knowing what they want, how they feel and responding in a loving godly way when you don’t agree.”
- “Never letting an assumption or annoyance fester . . . talk! Looking for understanding of the other’s point of view or sharing your own is vital to marital joy.”
Action steps: Pay attention to how you are communicating with one another, and change your approach if necessary (even in mid conversation).
If you are like us, you try to avoid being passive (becoming helpless and defeated, and just taking it), aggressive (throwing tact and gentleness to the wind and saying whatever we want, however we want to), or passive aggressive (pretending to be passively bulldozed over and then aggressively exacting revenge through indirect means) in our communication.
We must admit that sometimes we give in to these harmful styles of communication (out of misplaced attempts to avoid conflict or because they are just the easy way out), rather than simply expressing ourselves in an honest and loving manner (being assertive).
Assertive communication is the most effective. That means we openly express our thoughts and concerns in a spirit of honesty, respect and love. To learn more about this form of communication, read “Communication Styles: Assertive Communication.”
Challenge 2: Husband: “You’re wrong!” Wife: “No, you’re wrong!”
“My opinion is not necessarily right” is one of the hardest things for a human being to say, but it is a huge step toward having the humility needed for a good marriage. Marriages can be ground zero for some of our biggest debates and opinionated discussions, because of the proximity and closeness the husband and wife have to each other.
This can be a very good thing, keeping our emotional connection alive and providing stimulating conversation at a moment’s notice for our entire lives. But, if handled improperly, it can also lead to hurt feelings or completely closing up toward our spouse for fear of argument, rejection or outbursts of anger.
Survey respondents wrote the following in reference to challenges regarding different points of view within marriage.
- “One of us is more likely to strike while the iron is hot, and the other is much slower paced and patient.”
- “Seeing child rearing in different ways.”
- “Division on the most important things in life.”
- “Learning patience and that some things are just not worth fighting over.”
Action steps: Choose your “battles” wisely and stop thinking of them as battles. When two people respectfully express opposing ideas and differing viewpoints, with each person taking the time to stop to consider what the other is saying, it allows for a better overall perspective on any topic.
The Bible says to avoid foolish disputes and contentions that lead to nothing good (Titus 3:9). These kinds of arguments do not build a marriage, they weaken it. With differing opinions and backgrounds, it is helpful to have ground rules and “breaks” when necessary while discussing them, so it doesn’t become foolish striving to no end. If emotions are running high in a conversation, agree to pause the conversation until a later time when feelings have calmed.
Agree that each person is allowed to speak uninterrupted and agree to listen with a goal of understanding. As in counseling, it can be helpful to repeat back what your spouse said to make sure your understanding is accurate. For example, “What I am understanding you say is . . . Am I understanding correctly?”
Challenge 3: “But what about what I need?”
When discussing various needs within a marriage, the problem isn’t that needs exist, the problem is often that it seems like your spouse is not fulfilling your need. Whether real or perceived, this can lead to some very toxic thoughts and communication.
One pastor noted that the main challenge that can lead to divorce is when “couples stop trying! Marriage takes work.” We have to keep putting in the work, striving to meet our spouse’s needs. We will fail (sometimes miserably), but as long as we keep working and trying, then things can get better and there is hope. Another pastor noted that “the marriage is doomed” when one or both parties just stop trying.
Respondents to the survey noted that “treating each other with patience, kindness and respect” was challenging. It definitely is when someone is feeling mistreated, hurt or like his or her needs aren’t being met.
Action steps: Have regular check-ups with each other about how each one’s needs are being met. Ask each other things like: “What can I be doing differently to make our marriage stronger?” Then, make some plans for how to implement some new actions into your routine.
It is very important to not make the unbiblical and unfair requirement that your spouse be a mind-reader and know exactly what you’re feeling and what your needs are at any moment. It can be very tempting to think “if he or she really loved me and cared, then he or she wouldn’t need me to tell him or her that something is bothering me or what I need.”
These kinds of thoughts are usually more fuel for contempt rather than solutions for the present. We should say what we mean, and then after that, do what we say.
Challenge 4: “It’s the big things and the little things.”
One pastor stated: “The marriage ceremony begins with, ‘Marriage is a natural union but a divine institution.’ The point being—for a marriage to really work, God must be involved!
One very big problem that can happen to anyone is forgetting to prioritize God and His way of life in the marriage. Prayer, Bible study, meditation, occasional fasting and serving others are necessary for individual’s lives to be spiritually working. These are some of the big things that must be present for a Christian marriage to survive and thrive.
One very big problem that can happen to anyone is forgetting to prioritize God and His way of life in the marriage.Still, even if the big things are in place, other little things can build up over time. A thousand “needles” of annoyance can eventually turn into a “sword” of contempt. One survey respondent wrote that “annoying habits” were a challenge to the marriage.
Action steps: Seek to understand why big, spiritual priorities may not be happening, and work together to get them back in place. Help each other find the time to make God a priority and then work on the little things.
Employ tact and gentleness when discussing what has become annoying to you and what is growing into a negative pattern. It is important to not bring up a problem in the heat of the moment. Wait for a time of calm to bring up a serious conversation.
“Sweat the small stuff”—or it might become a much bigger issue down the road.
Challenge 5: “We’re growing apart.”
As marriage progresses, especially when kids come along, the togetherness that was there for the early years can start to wane. Busy schedules, exhausted days, constant attention to child rearing and other factors can lead to statements like: “I barely saw you today” or “I don’t think I even hugged you today.”
Some of those surveyed wrote that the feeling of growing apart was a major challenge.
Action steps: Schedule time together doing things that you both like. If you have lots of activities you like to do on your own, but your spouse does not, there may be a temptation to think: “Well, they need to get something they like so they can enjoy stuff without me.” That might be true, but it doesn’t solve the problem of lack of togetherness. Try to have a golden time at some point in each day (when the kids are asleep and TV/devices are not on) to reconnect with conversation.
Challenge 6: “You never . . . You always . . .”
Many of us have fallen into the trap of using phrases like “you always” and “you never” when having a heated talk with our mates. We know in our minds it is hyperbole to make a point, but it can be responsible for some of the most hurtful statements in a marriage. Often these kinds of statements come from built up anger and emotional volatility.
These statements almost always make a situation worse and are usually based on feelings, not reality.
Action steps: Take time to think and reflect to make sure reality rules in our marriages rather than perception and feelings.
Addressing the challenges
All these challenges, and others (such as disagreements on finances, strained in-law relationships, etc.), must be acknowledged and addressed as soon as possible. It might be helpful to identify the problem and ask ourselves out loud: “This is hurting my marriage. Why am I doing it?”