My wife, Angela, and I have the great privilege to speak at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways. Many of the couples who come to these events have healthy marriages and are just attending for encouragement or a tune-up. But we’ve also observed another trend: At each getaway, we have noticed that there are always people who don’t want to be there.

In this group, some are there at the request (or maybe demand) of their spouse. A woman once confided in me that she had really messed up. I asked what she meant, and she replied, “My husband would have never come to this conference so I told him we were going clubbing.” With wide eyes, I said, “Clubbing? Wow. How did that go?” I can’t actually repeat what she said next, but the gist of it was “He’s not happy!”

And sadly, there are also couples who are at the absolute end of their rope. Last year, I met a couple who had been married for 56 years and showed up with divorce papers in hand. Even though these couples have gone to the trouble of coming, they don’t really want to be there because they have no expectation that the getaway will actually help.

These couples have given up hope that anything can change. But I think one of the main reasons why is that they’ve been focusing all their efforts on treating the symptoms without realizing there is an underlying disease they are ignoring. They haven’t diagnosed the real problem in their marriage.

A single disease is curable, but if you only see the 20 symptoms the disease is producing, the idea of combatting all those symptoms can feel overwhelming. So how can you sort through the symptoms and diagnose the disease? Here are six suggestions.

1. Pray together. It sounds simple and maybe even silly to some. It sounds intimidating and overwhelming to others. But we wouldn’t be afraid to talk to a doctor if we needed a diagnosis for a physical illness, and we shouldn’t be afraid to humble ourselves and ask the ultimate Doctor for help in diagnosing a relational illness.

2. Acknowledge the symptoms. Approach this like a brainstorming session—nothing is immediately shot down. Making a list like this is neither easy nor fun. Symptoms can be painful and difficult to nail down. We can be tempted to dismiss them as normal, avoid them for the sake of peace, or come at our spouse like a wrecking ball. But this is a necessary step in diagnosing what is really going on in our marriage.

The first time Angela and I went to counseling, I naively said, “I’m sure there are issues with me, but if we only have one hour, we probably need to focus on her.” By the end of the session, though, we had identified a myriad of symptoms, and it was glaringly obvious that I was a big contributor to the main disease.

3. Listen to your spouse. When it comes to preserving marital harmony, perception is reality. If your spouse sees something as a problem, it’s a problem. Let’s go ahead and take “wrong” and “right” off the table. The goal is to understand each other, not to be right or to compete with each other.

I know a man whose wife was battling depression. He kept trying to use reason to talk her out of her feelings. All he accomplished, though, was making her feel irrational and more isolated on top of depressed. She finally told him, “Here’s the deal. I’m in a terrible boat, and I just want you to get in the boat with me.” So the husband climbed aboard. He ceased the reasoning and began to listen, and the boat stabilized.

4. Identify the disease. Once there is a list of symptoms, look for common denominators. Do multiple issues stem from one place? Another way to ask this is, “What is the real issue?” Does your wife get angry when you leave your clothes out and come home late? Maybe what’s really going on is that she doesn’t feel loved. Does your husband complain about the state of the house, but his real frustration is coming from the bedroom? Maybe it’s an even deeper issue of him not feeling respected in the relationship.

Ask why this issue makes you frustrated. The “why” is more important than the “what.” The “what” is just the symptoms, but the “why” is the root cause. A list of 20 symptoms might boil down to just two primary causes.

5. Take a weekend to get away and process. Get away from the stress of your world. Get away from the job, the house, the kids, and especially the phone. Turn on auto-respond and hit the do not disturb button. Go to a hotel, a cabin, the beach, the mountains, or even a Weekend to Remember getaway. The most helpful part of these events is leaving outside stress and being intentional. Consider it doctor-ordered bed rest.

6. Seek help. We would never try to tackle a medical disease on our own, so why would we try to tackle a serious marriage problem on our own? We all need help, and help comes in many forms. It could be a trained counselor, a gifted pastor, or a loving friend. You aren’t the only one with problems. It may take some pride swallowing, but it’s worth it. Seek help.

There is hope

When we were in our 20s, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. We had only been married for three years, and she had just given birth to our first child five weeks before. We felt like someone had kicked our legs out from under us.

But we simultaneously felt hope. We now understood the source of all these weird symptoms and could finally address the underlying disease.

The same is true in marriage. If we only focus on the symptoms, we will be confused and frustrated. Even if we manage to fix the problems associated with one symptom, another one can pop up because we still have not dealt with the root issue.

Hearing a diagnosis isn’t fun, but it is necessary. When we can focus our efforts on eradicating the disease, then there is hope.

Copyright © 2017 by Jim Davis. All rights reserved.