Healthy relationships take work. Healthy marriages that people want to stay in don’t just happen, although we think they do. We think two people magically just work together, never fight, never have an issue or disagreement to work through, but they do.
So, where do things go wrong? How can a friendship that was working so well, a marriage that seemed so right all of a sudden seem all wrong?
Here are five ways relationships go from working to broken:
1. It’s too much work. Healthy relationships take a lot of work. It means being patient, listening, hearing someone out, and putting your wants and privileges aside. That’s work.
2. It hurts too much to face their past or do the hard work. As we’ll see later, almost every fight in a relationship is not about what you are fighting about. You are fighting with a past incident, a hurt you haven’t dealt with, a person you see in the person in front of you. They remind you of your dad, your mom, they said words similar to an abuser or someone who you were supposed to trust. Healthy people face their past and in the power of Jesus see it redeemed. Unhealthy people use their past and stay the victim instead of finding healing. This is hard work and can be incredibly painful. In any argument you have to ask the crucial question, “Are we actually fighting about this? What are we really fighting about? Who am I really fighting with?”
3. They’re lazy and selfish, they want the other person to do all the work and all the changing. Just like #1, being lazy and selfish in relationships is easy. Serving, putting in the work, putting the other person’s needs and wants first takes work. Often, too, we want the other person to put in the work to become the healthy person while we stay unhealthy. “I’ll hold on to that incident and bring it up whenever it suits me. I’ll remind them of my hurt instead of dealing with my hurt.”
4. They think they are better than their spouse or the other person. Sometimes people are in an unhealthy relationship because they think they are less sinful than the other person. They look down on them. They wouldn’t say this, but they hold the other person’s sin in contempt, thinking, “How can they not see that? Why do they struggle with that?” They turn up their noses at the thought of putting in the hard work to reconcile with a spouse or a friend. They will say it is the other person’s fault, but deep down they are the least sinful person they know.
5. Confuse what reconciliation means. Reconciliation doesn’t mean you are friends with everyone. You might need to protect yourself from an abusive situation, and you may need to protect your kids as well. Reconciliation does mean that you don’t hold it against the person anymore, that you don’t bring up the past. You stop saying, “Remember…?”
So what do healthy couples do?
They do many things, but here are a few:
1. They grow close to Jesus. This may seem obvious, but if you stray from Jesus, stop reading your Bible, feel your relationship with Jesus suffer, lots of things go wrong. Your desire to fight sin goes down. Your desire to serve your spouse goes down. Your desire to love your spouse goes down. Your desire to stay pure goes down, all because of one thing. Couples who make it to the end keep God at the center of their marriage. They grow together spiritually, they take control of their spiritual lives and don’t leave it to chance. They read solid books together, they pray together, they have a plan for how they will disciple their kids (they don’t leave that to chance either). They attend church together, are in a Christian community and serve to use their gifts and talents. God is not some figure that appears periodically in their marriage but is what the marriage and family revolve around. Men are asking how they can help their wife grow and become all that God has called her to be.
2. They protect their marriage. This is something couples kind of stumble through. They take their vows, wear rings, but too many don’t protect themselves when it comes to their minds, hearts and eyes. Yes, they make sure not to sleep with someone they aren’t married to, but everything else is fair game. A couple who lasts does not do that. The only thing on their menu is their spouse. They protect their eyes, they aren’t looking at porn, they aren’t fantasizing about that girl at work or the guy in the movie. They aren’t dreaming about their romance novel, they aren’t acting out (even with their spouse) in their mind. They act out with their spouse (and only their spouse). They make sure nothing will tear them and their spouse apart.
This isn’t just about vows and promises but about the priority you place on your relationship compared to other relationships. Your kids matter and you love them, but your kids come after your marriage. One of the fastest ways to go from a great marriage to being roommates is placing your kids above your spouse. One day your kids will be gone, and you will have only your spouse. At this point, most couples split because they no longer need to stay together for the kids, and they have nothing in common. Don’t let that happen. This doesn’t mean you neglect your kids and not do anything with them, but it means they come after your marriage. If you’re not sure where you stand on this, here are 10 ways to know you are putting your kids in front of your marriage.
3. They pursue each other. Pursuit is what got you married (because you started pursuing when you dated). Pursuit is what keeps a marriage healthy, and pursuit is the first thing to go out the window of most marriages. The couples who last don’t leave this to chance. They make time for their spouse, they have a yearly getaway with their spouse, weekly date nights and they do fun things with their spouse. I’ve never had a couple who did this tell me they regretted it. I’ve had lots of couples tell me how they long for this. Here are some ideas for doing date night at home, some rules we have for date night and some help for when date night falls apart.
Know that affection is the first thing to go and fight against that. Affection is what goes first. Kissing when you say goodbye, holding hands, snuggling. Life is busy, you know your spouse, you have them now, your kids are climbing all over you, you are running late, you are tired and want to sleep, you are worried if you snuggle he will want sex and you just want to go to sleep. All of these things happen to couples who couldn’t keep their hands off each other at one time. Fight this. When you kiss, kiss for 5-10 seconds. Throw some tongue in when you are just saying hello or goodbye. Gross your kids out. Hold hands in the car. Kiss at a red light. Snuggle at night. I’ve said this before and people tell me I’m wrong, but I’m not: the amount of sex you have, the amount of affection you have, is one of the best barometers for where your marriage is. Show me a couple with little affection and little sex, and I will show you a couple going in opposite directions.
The relationships that are healthy and growing take intentionality, and they take specific choices. Otherwise you drift into unhealthiness.