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9 Steps to Defeat Isolation in Your Marriage

Every marriage, no matter how good, needs a plan to combat isolation and to bring about intimacy

Isolation is a disease that afflicts every marriage at some point. A husband and wife slowly drift apart in ways they don't even recognize at first. Signs of isolation include the following:

  • A feeling that your spouse isn't hearing you and doesn't want to understand
  • An attitude of "Who cares?" "Why try?"
  • A feeling of being unable to please or meet the expectations of your spouse
  • A sense that your spouse is detached from you
  • A refusal to cope with what's really wrong: "That's your problem, not mine."
  • A feeling that keeping the peace by avoiding the conflict is better than the pain of dealing with reality

If you are starting to observe these symptoms in your marriage, you have begun experiencing the disease called isolation.

Every marriage, no matter how good, needs a plan to defeat isolation and to bring about intimacy. Isolation is like a terminal virus that invades your marriage, silently, slowly, and painlessly at first. By the time many couples become aware of its insidious effects, it can be too late. Your marriage can eventually be crippled by boredom and apathy, and it could even die from emotional malnutrition and neglect.  Follow these nine steps to defeat isolation your marriage:

Step One: Learn about God's blueprints for marriage

If you were to survey couples and ask, "What is your plan for making your marriage work?" you would hear the following response from many of them: "We have a 50/50 relationship. We meet each other halfway. We each do our part."

On the surface, the 50/50 plan sounds fair and reasonable. In reality, this plan is destined to fail. The problem is simple: It is impossible to determine when your spouse has met you halfway.

Many times in a marriage, both partners are busy, overworked, tired, and feel taken for granted. If you try to operate according to the 50/50 plan, at some point you will start accepting your spouse according to his performance. Your natural selfishness will cloud your judgment, and you will start thinking that your spouse isn't doing enough to keep the marriage and the family going. Thomas Fuller captured the thought process that occurs in most marriages: "Each horse thinks his pack is heaviest."

Ultimately, the world's plan, the 50/50 performance relationship, is destined to fail because it is contrary to God's plan.

You can read dozens of books about what people think the plan for marriage ought to be, but since God created marriage, you should find out what His blueprints are for building a marriage. Here are three key principles:

1. To mirror God's image. "After God created the earth and the animals, He said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:25–27).

Your marriage should reflect God's image to a world that desperately needs to see who He is. Because we're created in the image of God, people who wouldn't otherwise know what God is like should be able to look at us and get a glimpse.

2. To mutually complete each other and experience companionship. Scripture clearly outlines a second purpose for marriage: to mutually complete one other. That's why God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18).

Adam felt isolated in the Garden, and so God created woman to eliminate his aloneness. Writing to the first-century church in Corinth, Paul echoed the teachings in Genesis 2 when he asserted, "However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman" (1 Corinthians 11:11).

You need each other. You recognize that now. But if you build your marriage according to God's blueprints, as the years go by you will really appreciate the genius of how God has custom-made your mate for you.

3. To multiply a godly legacy. A line of godly descendants—your children—will carry a reflection of God's character to the next generation. Your plans for children may still be in the future, but if He blesses you with this gift, you will be in for an amazing adventure.

God's original plan called for the home to be a sort of spiritual greenhouse—a nurturing place where children grow up to learn character, values, and integrity. One of your assignments is to impart a sense of destiny—a spiritual mission—to your children. Make your home a place where your children learn what it means to love and obey God. Your home should be a training center to equip your children to look at the needs of people and the world through the eyes of Jesus Christ.

Your marriage is far more important than you may have ever imagined because it affects God's reputation on this planet. That's why it's essential for you to set Jesus Christ apart as the Builder of your home.

Step Two: Reaffirm your commitment

Did you know that marriage was the first human institution God ordained? The second chapter of Genesis describes this drama, which occurred just after God created the heavens and the earth.

Then the Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him." Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18-25)

The first thing to note from this passage is that Adam accepted God's gift totally—he received Eve as God's gift to Him. He trusted God totally, knowing this woman was God's provision for his needs.

Many marriages today are insecure and crumbling because the husband and wife have stopped accepting each other. They have stopped trusting God. Instead they are focusing on their differences and weaknesses.

The end of this passage includes a powerful verse that reads, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). In this one sentence we find three additional guidelines for building a strong and godly marriage: leave, become united, and become one flesh. These are not multiple choice; all three are required for success.

Leaving your father and mother means establishing independence from them, or from any others who may have reared you. It's amazing how many people have failed to do this. They may look very adult and act very mature and sophisticated, but deep down inside they've never really cut the apron strings.

The Hebrew word for "leave" literally means, "forsake dependence on." Many people get married, but continue depending on their parents for money or for emotional support. Dependence on parents undermines the interdependence you are to build as husband and wife. It's important for you to "leave" your parents while also obeying the fifth commandment, which calls us to honor them.

Being united to your spouse means forming a permanent bond. It means committing yourself to a lifelong marriage. Unfortunately, commitment is the missing ingredient in many marriages. Many people bail out of marriage when the relationship changes or becomes more difficult. But in God's original plan, there were to be no escape hatches, no bailout clauses in the contract. When God joins two people together, it is for keeps. As the marriage vows say, "'Til death do us part."

The final directive in this passage, to "become one flesh," refers not only to the physical union of a husband and wife in marriage, but also to every other area of life, including spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social. The Genesis passage goes on to say that Adam and Eve were "...both naked and were not ashamed" (Genesis 2:25). They felt no fear or rejection. Instead they felt total acceptance by each other. Being bathed in the warmth of knowing that another person accepts you is what makes marriage a true joy.

When a husband and wife truly leave, become united, and become one flesh, they experience what I call "oneness," which is the opposite of isolation in marriage. This is a true unity of body and soul, a total commitment to God and to each other.

Remember what we said earlier about the world's "50/50 plan" for marriage? To experience oneness in your relationship you need to commit to the "100/100 plan." This plan requires a 100 percent effort from each of you to serve your mate. Rather than, "You do your part and I'll do mine," each spouse needs to say, "I will do what I can to love you without demanding an equal amount in return. I am committed to this relationship for a lifetime, and I will do whatever it takes to make our marriage work."

Step Three: Deal with your selfishness

Frankly, many couples beginning marriage underestimate how selfishness can threaten a marriage. During courtship and engagement, we do everything we can to attract and please our loved ones. We make ourselves out to be the most kind, loving, compassionate, sensitive human beings on earth. Then, once we are married and the conquest is complete, our natural selfishness, independence, and pride begin to bubble to the surface.

Suddenly we are experiencing conflict, and we're shocked that this ideal love is not as pure as we imagined. Each of us wants our own way. As James 4:1-2 tells us:

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?  You lust and do not have; so you commit murder.  You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. ...

Marriage offers a tremendous opportunity to do something about selfishness. Someone may say, "There is no hope; I can't get him to change," or "What's the use? She'll never be any different." Barbara and I know there is hope because we learned to apply a plan that is bigger than human self-centeredness. Through principles taught in Scripture, we have learned how to set aside our selfish interests for the good of each other as well as for the profit of our marriage.

The answer for ending selfishness is found in Jesus and His teachings. He showed us that instead of wanting to be first, we must be willing to be last. Instead of wanting to be served, we must serve. Instead of trying to save our lives, we must lose them. We must love our neighbors (our spouses) as much as we love ourselves.

A marriage is built when two individuals deny their selfishness and yield to Jesus Christ for the purpose of loving and serving their spouses. Jesus Christ will begin the process of building your home if you submit to Him.

Step Four: Begin to pray with your spouse

While I was still a newlywed, I asked my mentor, Carl Wilson, for his best words of advice about marriage. Carl, who had been married for many years and had four children, said, "That's easy. Pray daily together."

Because I really wanted to succeed as a husband, I immediately applied Carl's wisdom. I went home that night and instituted a spiritual discipline that we have maintained consistently since our marriage began in 1972. This daily habit has helped us resolve conflicts and keep the communication lines open. Most importantly, it has demonstrated our dependence on Jesus Christ as the Lord of our family. When you invite God into your marriage on a daily basis, He will change things.

God intends for marriage to be a spiritual relationship consisting of three—not just a man and a woman, but the two of them and God, relating spiritually and remaining committed to the other for a lifetime. Wouldn't it be natural for God, the One who initiated the relationship, to want a couple to bring their troubles, worries, and praises to Him on a regular, daily basis?

Step Five: Develop your relational skills

Did you know that you can develop your skills in relating to others just as you can develop skills in golf, cooking, or painting? Most of us develop some bad relational habits over the years, and we need training and practice to develop skill in practical, yet vital, areas of marriage, such as:

  • Adjusting to your differences
  • Resolving conflict
  • Listening to each other
  • Speaking the truth in love
  • Communicating expectations
  • Forgiving each other

Your determination to improve your skills in areas like these will show just how serious you are about revitalizing your marriage.

Step Six: Spend focused time together

A wife wants a husband who will sweep her off her feet, carry her away to the castle, and say, "Let's spend time together." Focused attention is like precious gold in a relationship.

In addition to regular dates with your spouse, make sure you plan for getaways. How long has it been since you spent extended, focused time with your spouse? Not just an evening at a fantastic eatery, but a couple of days away from your usual environment to catch up with each other? In too many marriages, the demands of the ordinary grind seem to overwhelm the possibility of extraordinary excitement.

Because of our fast-paced culture, we need to pause once or twice a year to rest, count our blessings, and dream some dreams. Barbara and I take what we call planning weekends, an opportunity to evaluate our marriage and parenting and, if necessary, redirect plans.

The getaway is effective in keeping our communication current, and it's just plain fun. Without any of the everyday distractions, we can concentrate on romancing each other. I can give Barbara flowers and speak tender words. She can give me undivided attention as I unwind and share from the heart. We can stay up talking, munching snacks, and listening to music, and know we don't have to face a demanding schedule the next day.

Step Seven: Attend a Weekend to Remember® marriage conference

This is one of the greatest investments you will ever make in your marriage. Over the course of this conference you will learn more about God's blueprints for marriage, about practical principles for improving your relationship, and you'll come to a fuller understanding of biblical roles for husbands and wives. And you'll learn all of this during a weekend away from all the distractions of everyday life.

Step Eight: Start or attend a couples' study using the HomeBuilders Couples Series®

God made us as people not only to relate to one another in marriage, but also to relate to other couples. One expert describes the pace and lifestyle of what we experience as "crowded loneliness." We have many casual relationships, but few who really know what is going on in our lives. We need friendships and the kind of encouragement that comes from a small group of people who hold us accountable to keep growing in our marriages and families.

The HomeBuilders Couples Series is a home-based small group Bible study for several couples to discover together different parts of God's blueprints for marriage. This would be a great way to develop relationships with people in your church who can grow with you in your marriage and even become accountability partners for you. It is possible that there is a mentoring couple just for you in that group. Find more information about what studies are available and about leading a group on our web site or call 1-800-FL-TODAY.

Step Nine: Depend on God's power to build your marriage

Why aren't more marriages successful? The problem is that believers who enter into marriage don't use all of the resources and tools God makes available to build oneness in their homes. As Psalm 127:1 tells us, "Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it."

There are two key ingredients for living a dynamic Christian life, whether you're single or married. These ingredients have even more significance when you apply them to the oneness you are trying to achieve as a married couple. I'll put them in the form of questions:

  1. Are you and your spouse part of the family of God?
  2. Are both of you allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and empower your lives?

Read carefully, because what I'm about to say is the most important statement I make here: Unless you answer yes to both of these questions, you will lack the power to build your marriage with the oneness God intends.

God's ideal plan is that both partners in a marriage know Him personally, that they are first part of his family before they try to build a family of their own.

Many people call themselves Christians but have never truly known God. If you believe you fall into that category, you might start by reading "The Secret to Building a Great Marriage and Family." Many of you may know Christ, but the troubles you've experienced in your marriage have led you to realize that you are not experiencing Him to the fullest. An important question for you is: If Jesus Christ walked out of your life right now, how would your life be different tomorrow, or next week? If you realize that your actions, thoughts, and words would be no different, you need to come to grips with the fact that Christ is not Lord of your life.

What each of us needs in our own marriage is something to defeat our selfishness. On more than one occasion I can recall wanting to be angry at Barbara and yet at the same time facing the realization that my life is a temple of God, that the Holy Spirit lives in me with the same power that raised Christ from the dead. The Spirit helps me control my temper, impatience, and my desire to say things I would later regret.

I still fail, but I have found that as I inwardly yield my will to God, the fruit of the Spirit grows within me. Isn't it interesting that the deeds of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21—immorality, impurity, strife, jealousy, drunkenness, etc.—produce isolation in marriage? But as we submit to Holy Spirit's control of our lives, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, etc.—move us toward oneness.

The dreaded "D" word

There is so much more to learn about how to defeat isolation in marriage, but let me leave you with this exhortation: Don't use the "D" word! Don't even think of divorce. Too many marriages begin to unravel when one of the spouses mentally entertains the possibility of divorce.

Marital commitment demands perseverance. For your sake, for the sake of your children, and for the sake of our culture, you need to remain committed to the covenant you made before God. You need to maintain the perseverance of couples like J.L. and Hilda Simpson, godly Christians who wrote me a profound note:

"I was 15 and J.L. was 17 when we married. We are now 61 and 63. We could have divorced dozens of times but because we love each other deeply, and because God hates divorce, we didn't want to bring the curse of divorce into our family, so we didn't."

Barbara and I have been married since 1972, and we have had our share of illness, tragedy, and disagreements—but we have never mentioned the word "divorce." That word has never passed through either of our lips. May I challenge you to do the same? 

© 2002 by FamilyLife, all rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 

Meet the Author: Dennis Rainey

Dennis Rainey

Dennis Rainey is the president and chief executive officer of FamilyLife, a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ. Since the organization began in 1976, Dennis' leadership has enabled FamilyLife to grow into a dynamic and vital ministry that offers families blueprints for living godly lives.  Dennis is host of FamilyLife Today radio program and has written numerous books.  He and his wife, Barbara, live near Little Rock, Arkansas.  They have six children and many grandchildren.

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