Disaster watch: How to recognize a marriage crisis before it hits

What happens when you experience a marriage crisis? Do you believe your relationship is doomed, or do you take action to mend what has been broken?

Research shows that working to fix a marital problem often results in spouses feeling far less alienated from one another. According to a study published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, couples who worked through and resolved marital issues via therapy experienced higher levels of healing, forgiveness, trust and satisfaction in their relationships than couples who didn’t resolve problems.

Not only that, but couples who didn’t work towards resolution scored lower on healthy adjustment than divorced couples.

These findings may not be that surprising, so why don’t more couples seek counselling if getting outside help clearly strengthens a marriage?

We chatted with several experts to help you understand what a marriage crisis is, why it’s important  but difficult to ask for help and where to turn when you face crises as a couple.

What’s a marriage crisis?

Monique Honaman, author of The High Road Has Less Traffic: Honest Advice on the Path Through Love and Divorce, describes a marriage crisis as a break in communication, partnership or trust – made worse when couples aren’t motivated to repair this break. “When one or both partners simply don’t care anymore to even try to make the marriage work, and have absolutely zero desire to try, then that is a marriage in crisis,” she says.

These breaks are often unique to the couple’s circumstances, so the solution will be equally subjective to each marriage relationship.

“There’s not a 1-2-3 step for every couple,” says Karin Gregory, an in-house counsellor at Focus on the Family Canada. “For a couple that has weathered a lot of conflict, they may not necessarily consider a problem a ‘crisis,’ where another couple . . . may find that their first fight is, ‘Are we going to be able to stay married? Can I ever trust this person again?’”

Why are we vulnerable to crises, and why is it so hard to ask for help?

Dr. Minnie Claiborne, a counsellor and life coach, says what others might think about the struggling couple can create resistance to outside help. “People tend to not get outside help because they think that they can handle it by themselves and want to protect their public image,” she says. “Christians often think that to do so would be an indicator that they don’t have faith and, in many cases, they don’t know who to turn to.”

As human beings, we’re prone to feelings of anger, bitterness and negativity; this dates back to the book of Genesis, when the Fall resulted in enmity between Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:15). This doesn’t mean we can’t also experience love, forgiveness and healing, but we need to understand that our individual brokenness contributes to broken relationships.

“We need to teach people to think it not strange that the effects of a broken, sinful world most often leave us with emotional and mental damage,” Dr. Claiborne adds. “If not healed, this brokenness is carried into marriage. Teaching this would help to remove the stigma of being perceived as weak or crazy if you need outside help.”

Resolution is possible but requires willingness from both partners in order to be successful.

“If both spouses are committed to making the marriage work, then trust can be rebuilt, communication can begin anew and a deeper partnership can be formed,” Honaman says.

How do you identify red flags in your marriage?

  • Christina Steinorth, a licensed psychotherapist, says that couples can unknowingly head toward a crisis when they’re caught in cycles of unresolved bitterness and constant negativity. “Ongoing bitterness destroys marriages,” she says. “If bitterness exists . . . issues in the marriage will continue to pile up and at some point hit a crisis point.”
  • Generalizations (e.g., “you always” or “we never”) can be indicative of underlying issues of irritability and resentment. “Irritability is one thing,” Gregory notes, “but if everything is sensitive and you’re looking for a hidden agenda under everything they say because you’re trying to dig the nail deeper and get back at them, there’s already an issue.”
  • Are you unwilling to make a compromise for the sake of the relationship? Relationship expert Roland Hinds, author of Are You Right For Me? Whose Choice Is It Anyway?, advises couples to examine if decisions are one-sided with one of the spouses having no say. “There needs to be room for an occasional discussion,” he says.
  • Another red light can be identified based off of where you turn when marital issues arise. “If a couple constantly argues or has lost touch with each other, one member could get frustrated and make a decision to find connection outside of the relationship,” warns marriage and family therapist George James, president of communication group George Talks.
  • Angel Tucker, a certified human behaviour consultant, warns that when your spouse seems to drift away from his or her personality norms, this can be a sign of trouble. “Maybe your spouse is normally a ‘home body’ but suddenly wants a girls’ or guys’ night out with friends on a regular basis,” Tucker explains, “or maybe your spouse normally talks frequently, but suddenly seems distant and disinterested in talking.”

Do you identify with any of these red flags in your marriage? If you need assistance finding a licensed professional Christian counsellor in your region, Focus on the Family Canada has a listing of therapists who have been thoroughly screened; you may also ask for a one-time complimentary consultation with one of our trained and qualified staff counsellors. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800.


Todd Foley is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.

Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.

© 2012 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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