Why marriages fail and what to do about itWritten by Larry J. Russell
What's inside this article
By many accounts, researchers report that approximately 50 per cent of first marriages, 76 per cent of second marriages, and 84 per cent of third and subsequent marriages fail.* Sadly enough, those statistics hold true even in the Christian community. Obviously, we have some work to do if we are to emulate the model of marriage that the apostle Paul laid before us in Ephesians chapter 5 when he admonished men to love their wives as Christ loved the church. That model seems to indicate that the relationship between Jesus and His bride, the church, is our example of what a marriage should be.
The master architect of marriage spoke to us through the writer of Genesis that "for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh . . . . The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." We have strayed so far from the loving, fulfilling, contented relationships that God intended for us to have.
However, there is hope! Marriages fail for a reason – the old "sow and reap principle" still applies today. Whatever we put into a marriage will predict what we get out of it. John Gottman, a researcher for many years in the arena of marriage, has written a book entitled Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. In it, he has isolated a particular slide that marriages fall prey to on their way to failure. In fact, his research team has been able to accurately predict, with a 94 per cent success rate, which marriages will succeed or fail based on these principles.
The spiral which leads to marital failure begins with criticism. Complaining, on the other hand, addresses a specific behaviour – a negative comment about something you wish was different than it is. In fact, complaining is one of the healthiest activities in marriage. Criticism, however, attacks your spouse’s personality and becomes a character assassination. Complaints begin with "I"; criticism begins with "you."
When criticism has firmly entrenched itself into your routine of interaction, you sink to feelings and actions of contempt. At this point, you are no longer able to admire each other or remember why you fell in love and married each other. What separates contempt from criticism is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner – now you do it on purpose.
The spiral downward continues when defensiveness sets in. One of the major destroyers of communication in marriage is defensiveness – the need to justify and explain our actions. However, the major problem with defensiveness is that it obstructs communication and nothing gets resolved.
The final stage in the downward spiral of marriage failure is stonewalling. A stonewaller has a stony silence – no response – a wall which cannot be penetrated. Friendship is no longer present. It has been replaced with loneliness and emptiness. At this point, couples have only a six per cent chance of survival without intervention.
God never intended for the institution of marriage to come to this. He set out to create something beautiful between a man and a woman which would provide a loving, caring, intimate, sharing relationship which would span the years of time. So, if you are in this failure spiral, how can you pull yourself out?
First, a little self diagnosis is in order. Which stage of the slide are you in? Once you have determined that, apply these principles to reverse the process:
Instead of disengagement, re-engage. Instead of defensiveness, apply openness. Instead of contempt, show respect. And, finally, show acceptance instead of criticalness. Work on boundaries in your life – understand that it is ok to be different. Develop empathy – seek to know your mate’s heart. Learn to see the positive side of your spouse. Allow for growth – give them permission to fail.
Larry J. Russell and his wife Lorrie are licensed counsellors. They offer marriage intensives through their ministry, Shepherd’s Heart Ministry (Shmministry.com). Their retreat centre north of Toronto operates from May through September annually.
* Based on statistics from the U.S.
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