It’s your billionth fight about the same thing. And you’ve noticed your go-to script involves throwing out the d-word like a threat.
Back when the temperature in your marriage was pretty hot, you could have never imagined things could get so cool.
But how do you know things have gone from bad to worse? What should you do if you think your marriage is dying?
Here are seven signs your marriage is in trouble and suggested steps toward bringing it back to life.
SOS #1: You don’t mutually respect each other.
Ask yourself: Do I still respect who my spouse is?
Sometimes, the size of a person’s weakness and failure swell beyond our ability to see what’s valuable about them. Or simply see their humanity.
Steps toward a solution: Forgiveness, as impossible as it may seem, begins to expel the poison of disdain, which kills from the inside.
Even without the other party’s apology, we carry the power to choose not to dwell on weakness. It’s often a choice we must make over and over again: To forgive, foregoing gossip, choosing to move toward this person, despite their flaws, and choose to do good to them which they don’t deserve.
But your neural pathways of frustration, and even disdain, with your spouse are likely well-traveled. It takes time to reroute your brain, reminding yourself your spouse is more than the sum of their weaknesses.
When you’re tempted to marinate in your spouse’s prolific shortcomings, think of three ways you’re thankful for them.
It may sound trite, especially if you feel like your marriage is dying. But if you could shift your focus away from anger and hurt, and toward hope. Could it be worth it?
SOS #2: You don’t respond to each other.
You may not be listening well. You may not feel received when you’re divulging a part of yourself.
Even in the small things, you may be tempted to respond with a mental Whatever.
There’s an often self-protective, spreading callous we feel when protecting ourselves even in the small interactions, ceasing to let ourselves be moved, pulled, pushed, or affected by one another.
Steps toward a solution: Evaluate why you’re self-protectively (or otherwise) unyielding. What are you trying to preserve or communicate?
Is it your independence or sense of self? Your revenge to your spouse for feeling like your marriage is dying? Your sense of safety or superiority?
(If you sense this protectiveness in your spouse, what can you do to understand what lies beneath? Where did they initially feel loss, hurt, or betrayal in an intimate relationship—even if it wasn’t yours?)
That preservation doesn’t have to be at the expense of responsiveness. How could you set healthy boundaries while still remaining soft and moveable?
SOS #3: Another relationship consistently takes priority.
It could be the kids. Your mom. A friend. Or you’ve found yourself confiding in someone of the opposite sex; it feels so good to have someone ask what you feel or think.
Steps toward a solution: When your marriage isn’t priority, everything else topples amidst the imbalance.
Maybe it’s your kids. Of course you love them, and of course parenthood’s demanding. Yet kids weren’t made to run the show. (Neither were mothers-in-law. Or your boss, no matter how many figures in your paycheck.)
What relationships do you need to establish boundaries around so your marriage stays primary?
SOS #4: You frequently indulge certain types of negativity.
Marriage researcher John Gottman, in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, partly predicts divorce by the successive appearance of what he calls “The Four Horsemen”. They’re
- Criticism: different from complaint in that it negatively addresses character and personality rather than an isolated event.
- Contempt: superiority over your partner.
- Defensiveness: Unfortunately, Gottman points out, this rarely results in the other person backing down or apologizing.
- Stonewalling: One partner tunes out impassively, looking away or down without a sound.
Steps toward a solution: Often, a lack of graciousness indicates darker issues swimming beneath the surface. A much greater failure of a spouse might sap all extra wiggle room for kindness and resilience. We may strain to remain civil if we feel like our marriage is dying.
Researcher Shaunti Feldhahn suggests The 30-Day Kindness Challenge for revolutionizing fractured marriages stuck on negativity.
- Don’t say anything negative to or about your spouse, even to a friend.
- Find one thing positive and praiseworthy. Tell your spouse and one other person.
- Perform a small act of kindness or generosity for your mate, even when you don’t feel like it.
SOS #5: You’ve stopped having sex—especially fulfilling sex.
No, sex is not the be-all and end-all. For seasons (small children, late pregnancy, hormonal or fitness issues, radical prostate surgery), it may wane.
But sex is a microcosm of your relationship. It naturally occurs when you’re connecting in other ways.
Some refer to sex as a thermometer, but not a thermostat. It’s taking the temp of your relationship, but it lacks some oomph to be able to actually affect a great deal of change when you’ve got other issues.
Steps toward a solution: Think deeper. What’s beneath your lack of desire?
Treat a lack of enjoyable sex as a symptom, and seek to understand the disease.
As with any conflict, first seek to acknowledge 100% of what you’re contributing, even if you think it’s only 1% of the problem.
SOS #6: (At least) one of you struggles with addiction.
Addiction is tough to wrap your head around because, as addict Stephen King writes, “[Addicts] build defenses like the Dutch build dikes.”
Whether it’s alcohol, shopping, gambling, work, eating (or not eating), lying, porn, opiates—addiction is like having another person in the relationship. Because addictions are progressive, shrouded in denial and chaos, and often flirt with codependency, marriage with addiction can feel like quicksand.
Steps toward a solution: Honesty about reality is a must (hence the first step of any 12-step program: admit you have a problem). But too often, we assume divorce is the only option when it feels like the marriage is dying.
What if it isn’t? Can couples make it through addiction to the other side, stronger and more unified than before?
In her book Contemplating Divorce, licensed counselor Susan Pease Gadoua reminds spouses, “The threat of divorce is not usually enough to get an addict in the throes of their addiction to stop. It’s almost never a function of their love for their mate, rather it is an indication of the level of progression in their addictive illness.”
Again, addictions are a symptom of a deeper hunger. To treat only the physical issue is to ignore the root system of issues beneath the addiction.
So professional help is a must, despite the stigma. You need someone (or a group) specializing in addiction and recovery. And remember that there will need to be a plan for the entire family, including yourself, because treating the addict alone will not heal the dysfunctional system perpetuating the addiction.
SOS #7: You’re isolated.
We’re talking daydreaming about someone else, or even entertaining notions of divorce.
Or you might be holding back your emotions, or simply withholding yourself, so you’re no longer truly present.
Or perhaps one of you has simply stopped caring or investing.
You haven’t slept in the same bed for three years. You live in the same house, but the silence feels smothering. Or perhaps you’re more like roommates, coexisting because it’s just easier.
Steps toward a solution: Your marriage isn’t an island. And you don’t have to go it alone.
Let a friend in on what’s going on–one who will encourage you to stay married. And the earlier the two of you find counseling the more effective it’s likely to be.
And the more likely you are to find the marriage fulfillment you dreamed about when you held hands years ago and made promises you intended to keep for life. (“I hope my marriage is just okay,” said no one ever.)
Another option: Consider a marriage conference like FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® . Thousands of attendees have responded like this husband:
It came at the right time to help us while we were recovering from huge problems. It recreates in us the urge to let God take over our life and marriage. (Husband, married 20 years)
It’s not dead yet
Don’t give up. No matter how much you feel like your marriage is dying–or even already dead. It doesn’t have to be over. Your pain, issues, and even failures don’t have to tear you from each other.
Of course it won’t happen overnight. (The issues didn’t either.) It will require suiting up for one of the greatest and most worthy battles of your life.
But the battle is not against your spouse. It’s the two of you against the issues.
And the victory won’t just benefit the two of you; generations will thrive from the work, sacrifice, and honesty you pour in to this front.
From the point you said “I do,” marriage is an act of faith in something bigger than both of you. But it’s not primarily faith in your spouse. What could happen if you let in Someone bigger?
Allow for a moment that God could have designed marriage, in general and in yours specifically, no matter how much you’re sure one of you screwed it up. No matter how much you feel your marriage is dying. Allow that perhaps God is a credible source after all—more than the magazine you picked up grocery shopping, or your well-meaning friends, or your own head that occasionally feels like it’s drowning.
What could your marriage become?
Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to the U.S., continuing with Engineering Ministries International. Find her—“The Awkward Mom”—at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.