Top 10 Ways to Screw Up a Marriage

On Jan. 30, The Crossing opened up yet another semester of DivorceCare. As much as we facilitators are hoping to one day “drive ourselves out of business,” it seems that our church – along with thousands of others all over the world – will almost certainly be offering this particular curriculum for some time to come. There is, sadly, no end of marital strife in our community, and as much as we might hope otherwise, Christians are in no way exempt from the confusion and selfishness that contributes to the lifelong destruction of their families.

I want to be very quick to say that marriages are as diverse as the people in them, and that no two are exactly alike. It can be very dangerous to try to apply any set of standards and make a judgment call as to the health of something as complex as a marital relationship. Still, while recognizing that we must treat every fractured relationship as entirely unique and intensely personal, time and experience has shown me that there are, in fact, some leading indicators that a marriage is headed in the wrong direction.

This list is not exhaustive, it was not written with any specific individual(s) in mind, nor is it in any way intended to offend or treat the destruction of covenantal relationships in a flippant manner. Rather, it is intended to memorably make the point that unless we are willing to seriously consider what the Bible has to say about marriage, we will likely twist and turn in our relationships based entirely on worldy standards and untrustworthy emotions. Most of what you will read below is based not so much on Christian books about marriage, but hundreds of conversations with men and women whose lives have been shipwrecked emotionally by the scourge of divorce – myself and my wife Shelly included.

Here, then, are ten common warning signs that your marriage may be headed for the rocks:

  1. Focus solely on what the marriage relationship does for you. Base your assessment of the success of your marriage on how well your spouse is catering to your needs. If you are a Christian, pay some lip service to the idea that marriage is all about mutuality and selfless giving, but be sure to “keep a running score” of your acts of service so that you can be sure you are getting at least as good as you give…and ideally more than you give.
  2. Listen to what our modern culture says about marriage. Do not consult the Bible, but instead consider it hopelessly antiquated, with nothing whatsoever to say to marriage in the 21st century. Instead, your go-to sources for marital wisdom should be your unbelieving family members and friends, television shows, movies, romance novels, magazines in the supermarket check-out line and online chat forums. Keep looking for marital wisdom until you find someone who agrees with what you have already decided must be true.
  3. Rush into a marital decision; ignore any/all warning flags thrown by those who know you best. Whatever you do, do not allow any trustworthy Christian friends into your messes; “keep up a good church face.” Whenever anyone dares to question your choice of a future spouse, freeze that person out entirely.
  4. Talk about your spouse to friends, saying things you’d never dare say to his or her face. “Blow off steam” by speaking poorly of your spouse to another person. Tell yourself that you are actually “preserving the relationship by getting it all off my chest.”
  5. Before marriage, base your selection of a spouse primarily on physical attraction and sexual compatibility. After marriage, place a tremendous amount of importance on the sexual element of your marriage – and your spouse’s physical appearance – even though sexual activity typically occupies less than three hours of a 168-hour week. Make attractiveness demands that are increasingly difficult to maintain as the years go by, your family is blessed with children, etc.
  6. During the inevitable rough patches, begin thinking that “a fresh start with someone new” might solve your problems. Or, look at rough patches as “evidence” that you probably married the wrong person. Stop viewing your spouse as someone who generally has your best interests at heart, and is “on your team.” Instead, begin treating your spouse as an enemy combatant, and start looking around for “safer outlets” for your emotional well-being.
  7. Put others ahead of your spouse – your parents, your children, your friends, career, etc. Allow your children and others to set calendars and priorities for your household.
  8. Maintain “harmless” relationships with people of the opposite sex at work, on Facebook or in other situations where, if your spouse were sitting with you, you wouldn’t talk or e-chat the way you do. As a means of confirming that you’ve “still got it,” share emotional energy with old friends and former lovers via Facebook, Twitter, and/or phone texting; comfort yourself by saying something like, “Hey, at least I’m not having an affair…”
  9. Hold on to your irritations; foster a heart of unforgiveness toward your spouse over day-to-day slights. Allow “the wall” to build up slowly over time. Abandon any hope that the relationship might be healed through prayer, personal discipleship, biblical counseling and/or sacrifice, and allow your hardened heart to drive you to consider pursuing “a fresh start” somewhere else. (See Point #6.)
  10. Keep separate bank accounts. Better yet, maintain at least one account that your spouse does not know about. (Tell yourself it’s “just for emergencies” or something like that.) Think of your paycheck as exactly that – “yours” – rather than a shared resource. If confronted over a lack of transparency on how you spend your money, simply demand your rights and insist that you be given “your” privacy. Forget that God gave you the skills you have to work for a living – not to mention life and breath – and focus on how your hard work earned that money.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, no one should look at this list and pronounce a death sentence on their marriage or the marriage of another. The list is primarily intended to convey the common manifestations of sin and selfishness that routinely inform a decision to separate or divorce. In every case listed above, the underlying problem is a refusal to embrace what Paul says about relationships with each other in general in Ephesians 4, and marriage in Ephesians 5, and to instead cater to our own fleshly desires in one way or another.

But there is hope.

My wife and I have found tremendous help in redefining our own ideas about marriage, looking to God’s Word as The Final Authority in this area and adjusting our own hearts and minds to line up more closely with Scripture. It’s definitely a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of process, but the “payoff” (if you want to call it that) has not been some sort of pious, detached satisfaction with being more in line with God’s will, but instead has been a deep and abiding love rooted in trust, respect, and friendship. When we pursue God’s will in faith, we are not left bereft of existential comfort; quite the opposite, in fact. We would seek to encourage struggling couples with the truth spoken by Jesus in Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

If you are struggling in your marriage and are only willing to read one book on the topic, here, in my opinion, is the short list to pick from:

Also, for what this may be worth, struggling couples might find something of value in this 2010 three-part series written for ESI by my wife Michele:

Ephesians 5:25-33 (ESV)
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

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