The pained voice on my cell phone told the story. He desperately wanted his marriage to work, but now, only one option seemed feasible: Move out. Caught in deadlocked communication, hurtful finger pointing, and a rapid marriage meltdown, this last ditch tactic was the only solution. He had to escape. This relationship was hanging by a thread.

One year before this couple had made promises on an altar. In front of their friends, family, and God, they promised never to give up. They were in love … I could see it in their eyes—the romantic attraction, the commitment. They knew upfront that marriage is hard. They knew that a joyful wedding celebration and a fiery honeymoon weren’t necessarily predictors of marital success. They expected challenges.

That cell phone call indicated they probably were facing the greatest challenge of their new life together so far: Marriage meltdown!

How did this happen? What caused the downward spiral?

Things go wrong

Even the best-prepared premarried couples are ill equipped for shaky finances, dual careers, old baggage, and unmet expectations. Even under “normal” conditions, the best relationships are in for big challenges. And just add a few stepchildren and ex-spouses and things get really interesting.

None of us expect perfection; things go wrong, stuff happens. Marriage is an education. There are adjustments to be navigated, lessons to be learned, and sacrifices to be made. That’s marriage. That’s normal.

But what do you do when the medical report is not good? When the portfolio collapses? When the spouse walks out? What happens when you miss the red flags and everything disintegrates? What do you do next?

When things go terribly wrong, panic sets in. You lose objectivity, communication ceases; the situation deteriorates—fast. When life caves in, you find yourself on autopilot, struggling to stay focused, incapable of making critical marriage-saving decisions.

Knowing that every marriage is destined for intermittent crisis events, doesn’t it make sense to have a plan? Doesn’t it seem sensible to develop a tactical checklist you can rely on when things go bad?

Let’s do some risk management.

If you had to prepare a mitigation plan for that inevitable breakdown, what would be your top four, bottom-line, action items? Imagine yourself deep in a marriage-threatening situation. Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you talk to? What steps would you take to save your marriage?

Here’s my Top Four list:

1. Don’t do it alone.

From a spiritual growth standpoint, the best decision Sheri and I ever made was to join a small group. We had an immediate affinity with our church group, meeting regularly for learning, community, and worship—we “did life together.”

As new Christians, our spiritual lives soared, but there was an important side benefit: We developed close relationships. When our marriage got rough, we had friends to call. Through unemployment, surgery, and financial crisis, even death, our group was there for us.

Who will you call? Don’t do it alone. Begin now—nurture some meaningful relationships.

2. Seek assistance.

Fortunately, Sheri and I have been good about recognizing when to seek third party assistance. We’ve been in tight spots, deadlocked in marriage-threatening issues that we just couldn’t resolve on our own.

A professional Christian counselor can provide objectivity and facilitate communication, steering a disaster-bound marriage toward recovery.

Counseling has worked for us because we’re not embarrassed to ask for help. Sheri and I don’t think of counseling as a weakness. In fact, we’ve come through the experience stronger and more resilient.

3. Soften your heart.

Relationships are most vulnerable when disagreements escalate to the point of deadlock. If you let them, circumstances will quickly spiral to standoff stage—past disagreement, beyond raised voices to a point where communication stops and the only option seen through the helplessness and hurt is to walk out.

Before you give up, pause and look at yourself:

  • Do you need to ask forgiveness?
  • What are you angry about?
  • Do you need to forgive?
  • Is a headstrong attitude stonewalling your marriage?
  • How might you compromise?
  • Why did you get married in the first place? Remember?

Someone needs to give in. Someone needs to soften his or her heart and take a first step toward healing. Relinquish your need to “be right.” Stop the finger pointing, quit the blaming. Humble yourself and submit to the possibility that you contributed to the breakdown. Turn your focus from anger to negotiation and next steps.

What’s more important, your pride or your marriage?

4. Engage spiritually.

The catalyst for a loving, thriving marriage comes from God. It’s easy to disconnect from God—missing church services, skipping prayer, and avoiding close friends—when you’re deep in relational disorder. Yet, this is the time you most need to be spiritually connected. It might be time for you to turn toward God.

Without God, our tendency is to drift into self-sufficiency; we try to fix bad situations on our own. When we operate independently of God, we’re simply surviving, finding temporary fixes. To engage in marriage-saving activities like the ones mentioned above, you need God.

Begin with prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God. Find a quiet place alone and tell Him what’s on your mind. Prayer isn’t about being eloquent or using religious sounding words—remember, this is a conversation. Ask God to show you what you need to change about yourself. And then ask Him to help you do that.

Praying with your spouse can be awkward even in great marriages, but if you can take that risk, it will pay dividends. Suggest prayer to your partner. Begin by simply sitting together, holding hands and closing your eyes; you take the lead. Come prepared with notes if you need to. Keep it simple.

Has your church attendance been sporadic? Suggest to your spouse that you combine a church service with a breakfast or dinner. Make it a date. In small steps begin to re-establish your church presence. Make it a weekly priority to get in the car, drive to church, and walk in the door. Your hearts will soften and you’ll begin hearing God.

You may feel especially distanced from God during this time. Reach out to Him. He wants to have a personal relationship with you. That may be the critical missing link that is so essential to you and your marriage.

My friend and I talked for an hour the day he called my cell number. I thanked God and sighed a breath of relief as he wisely decided to give his marriage another chance.

Before ending the call, we set up a breakfast to discuss next steps. That next week Sheri and I met with this couple, our friends, whose marriage was on the line.

That was a grueling conversation—direct and challenging. But they listened and boldly accepted our counsel. Today there is much work to be done, but because they are steadily pursuing these “basics,” their marriage is different. There is renewed hope.

It is possible to reclaim your relationship. But you need to prepare in advance and be ready to deploy any or all of these steps before your marriage shuts down. These suggestions will not come naturally—they are not intuitive—especially during troubled times. The foundation you build now could make the difference between healing and heartbreak.

Copyright © 2002 Jim Mueller and Growthtrac. All rights reserved.