How to Know When Your Marriage Is in Trouble

Couple looking sad

You can go directly to specific sections of this article using these links:
Help for various marriage problems
Does your marriage need help?
Is your marriage in crisis?
Is your marriage worth saving?
When a spouse won't get help
Can you do it alone?
How should you approach your spouse about marriage counseling?
How do you find a Christian marriage counselor?

Every marriage experiences problems. No matter how long you have been married — whether one year or 40 years — you will have problems. Marital problems can be extremely intense and painful, and those hurts can cut deeply and last a long time.

The pain caused by someone you care about as much as your spouse may be very difficult to deal with. Most of us have preconceived ideas about how our spouses should treat us. We expect mistreatment from other people, but not from our spouses. As human beings, we often think, feel and behave in ways that are hurtful, even toward those we love. Flawed people treat one another in flawed ways; so no matter how much we care, we'll sometimes hurt each other.

Your marriage isn't doomed because you hurt each other, have difficulty communicating or have disagreements over important issues. Couples have been experiencing and solving problems on their own, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to this day. The more experience and maturity a couple develops in a marriage, the more success gained in managing and solving problems. Through the Holy Spirit, God resides in the marriage of two Christians and gives them the ability to successfully manage relationships in a healthy and productive way (Malachi 2:15).

Ask other couples what it took to build a strong and successful marriage. Rest assured that their strong marriages did not develop overnight. They experienced some of the same problems you have. One reason their marriages are strong today is that they were committed to the idea that no matter what obstacles they faced, they would learn to manage their problems and overcome crises on an ongoing basis.

The principles we're suggesting are not intended to deal with every problem that couples face in marriage. We especially don't want to imply that you should remain in a situation where your safety or the safety of your family is at risk. If you are in a relationship where your spouse displays any of the following signs, please seek help immediately:

  • Abuse: verbal, emotional, sexual, spiritual or physical
  • Symptoms of a significant mental illness
  • Major chemical imbalance
  • Addictions
  • Threats to your safety or the safety of your children

These are not simplistic issues and cannot be dealt with by simply reading an article or a book, or talking to a friend. Seek professional help immediately.

Help for various marriage problems

Marital problems can range from minor to serious to crisis-level, with each requiring a different kind of help. The following examples use fictitious but realistic characters to illustrate how wide-ranging marriage problems can be. Help is available at all levels and can turn even a hopeless-looking situation around in a radical way.

Minor problems

Darrin and Shelby aren't communicating like they used to. They disagree often about how to discipline their kids, and they spend less time together. They recognize the need to refresh their marriage and attend a marriage seminar together at church. After the seminar they begin to find success implementing the tools they discovered.

Serious problems

Erik and Alina are either fighting or withdrawing, and Erik has threatened several times to leave. It becomes clear to both of them that their marriage will not survive without making it a priority to learn to relate in healthy ways. They find a Christian counselor; after repeated visits, they learn to break their destructive patterns.

Crisis

Marissa is devastated to learn that Neil has had an extramarital affair. At first she wants to divorce him. She throws him out of the house. But in time, she realizes that she wants to fight for her marriage. He wants to rebuild their relationship, too. She insists on a separation until they can complete intensive marriage counseling. After six months, Neil moves back in, and both commit to new patterns of behavior and continued counseling.

Diagnosing the core problem

Though problems such as those described above are common in marriage, they can become extreme in a short time. If problems in your marriage have become unmanageable, unhealthy and destructive, or cause extreme emotional distress, you may need someone from outside your marriage to help provide objective help — someone who can address the root problem and not simply the presenting issue, that is, the apparent problem.

For example, the presenting problem might be your spouse failing to control his or her spending. The core issue might be not setting appropriate boundaries.

If a problem causes considerable distress and you don't seem to make progress addressing it, approach the problem from a different angle. For ongoing, unmanageable problems, visit a licensed Christian marriage counselor. It's best to work with someone rooted in Christian values to complement your beliefs — someone professionally trained to work with relationship issues. Not every counselor is trained to deal with complicated relationship problems, nor does every counselor hold to basic Christian values.

Does your marriage need help?

Marriage problems vary in complexity, and most problems won't need the help of a professional counselor to solve. However some situations indicate you should consider guidance from an expert:

Concern from family and friends

If your family or friends recognize that you have a problem, pay attention. People outside your marriage can often spot a serious problem before you can. Family members and friends often have intuitive hunches or become concerned about your relationship based on behaviors or attitudes you may manifest. Listen carefully if someone expresses concerns about the health of your marriage.

Children's behavior

Another indicator involves your children. Their behavior can often provide a barometer of what is occurring inside a home. You and your spouse may believe that the current level of interaction and health in your marriage is OK, but your children may sense that something is wrong and needs to change

Young children often react to marriage problems by acting out their frustrations. They begin to act out at school, around friends or even at home. Teens will often react to trouble at home by becoming involved in negative behaviors that are out of character for them. Teens typically attempt to deal with the stress of their parents' unhealthy marriage in unhealthy ways.

The present compared to the past

A practical, commonsense indicator that you need counseling comes from comparing the way your marriage used to be to the way it is currently. In the beginning of marriage, most couples spend a great deal of time together, serve each other, compromise on differences, communicate and solve basic problems. If these practices were once commonplace and are now extremely rare or nonexistent, your marriage is likely struggling.

Physical abuse

If physical abuse is taking place in your marriage, the first concern is safety. If you are being physically abused or threatened, get to a safe place. Don't remain in a situation where you are likely to be hurt again. Contact your local abuse hotline or the police. Understand that abuse is never justified or normal.

Addiction

Most addiction problems in marriage — such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and pornography — cannot be solved by the addict or the spouse. Treatment for addiction is a complex and long-term process. It will not just go away. It requires professional help and ongoing recovery. Inpatient treatment is frequently required to beat an addiction. Addiction can quickly destroy a marriage, so don't try to deal with it on your own.

Sexual problems

Because sexual dynamics in marriage are so personal and so much a part of biblical oneness, this area of your marriage should be nurtured and protected. If sexual problems are persistent in your marriage, avoiding or ignoring them will not make them go away. Sexual problems can lead to more severe problems, such as a spouse seeking alternatives for having physical or emotional needs met. As eating properly is essential to good physical health, healthy sex is vital to good marital health. Don't ignore sexual problems in your marriage.

Emotional problems

If you or your spouse begin to experience problems such as ongoing anger, depression, anxiety, abnormal stress, guilt or biochemical problems (e.g., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoia or other psychoses), you need help. Emotional problems are often reactions to something being out of balance with your spouse or in the relationship. Until the core problems are properly addressed, the presenting problems and emotional disturbances will keep reoccurring. One emotional problem left untreated can lead to more serious problems. For example, unhealthy anger can lead to severe depression. Until the anger issue is addressed, the depression will likely continue.

Extramarital affairs

The discovery of an affair is one of the darkest and most painful moments in marriage. The emotional damage and accompanying symptoms that take place after an affair are monumental. There is no hurt or pain like the pain felt by a betrayed spouse. The emotional pain and intensity reflect the experience of an extremely traumatic event. Shock, denial, anger, sadness and other emotions are normal.

When this level of hurt occurs, you need to get professional help. After an affair, most people can't go through the healing process successfully without outside intervention. You experience thoughts, feelings and spiritual challenges never felt before.

Being objective and trying to manage the roller coaster of emotions alone should not be attempted without professional Christian counseling. Marriage intensives are also available. They are specifically designed to help turn around marriages that have experienced crises such as affairs. Ongoing counseling and support are always necessary — even after a couple attends an intensive or crisis seminar.

Realize that an extramarital affair doesn't necessarily mean your marriage is over. As painful and difficult as it can be, an affair could be the turning point in many marriages to help the couple move from dysfunction and pain to health and success.

Withdrawal

Prolonged withdrawal is always a dangerous sign. Withdrawal in a marriage indicates that one or both of you have reached a point of such intense pain that you can't function inside the relationship any longer, so you withdraw physically or emotionally. The natural result of withdrawal is a downward spiral into an apathetic state where you simply don't care any more. Communication, sex, affection and other normal relational necessities become nonexistent.

Ongoing withdrawal is one of the most difficult states a married couple can be in — and is one of the most difficult states to get out of. As long as there is some type of interaction, including healthy arguments, there is still some level of concern or care in the marriage. But withdrawal is a sign that one or both spouses have given up.

Counseling is typically needed to redirect the couple to the basics and start over to rebuild the trust, concern and emotion vital to the growth and functioning of a healthy marriage. And if counseling didn't work previously, there is no reason to believe that trying a different type of program or counseling in the future won't work.

Destructive patterns

Do you continue to follow the same destructive pattern? If you continue to experience a problem and the same reactions surface repeatedly, you likely need outside help. Doing the same thing will only net you the same result. Getting into a rut is extremely easy for a couple. The only way to get out of a deeply ingrained pattern is to change course and responses. Calling an experienced Christian therapist could be the first step to pulling you out of the rut.

Some patterns can be altered without outside intervention. For example, a wife may consistently complain and nag as soon as her husband walks in the door from work. If she is made aware of this unconscious habit, she could become motivated to break it. Simply learning to give her husband a few minutes to unwind after arriving home may also precipitate a willingness on his part to respond to his wife with a better disposition.

Negative spiritual relationship

The Bible teaches that a marriage is systemically connected to a couple's relationship with God. If your marriage is unhealthy, it will eventually affect your spiritual life. The apostle Peter writes:

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. … Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:1-2,7)

Marriage problems can obstruct healthy access to God and the spiritual blessings that flow from it. If your marriage is causing you a tremendous amount of pain, you will most likely not focus on your relationship with God. You may even say and do things that are out of character and dishonoring to God. Pain has a way of overriding our values, instincts and even our beliefs.

For example, no matter how well trained and mildly tempered a dog may be, if you stand on his paw long enough and with enough intensity, he may bite you. The same is true with pain: If you stay in it long enough, your thoughts, beliefs and behavior can be negatively (and dramatically) affected.

If your marriage is unhealthy, your walk with God may be as well. It is difficult to have one right and the other wrong. The way we perceive and treat each other affects how we perceive and respond to our heavenly Father.

Is your marriage in crisis?

A marriage crisis typically occurs when an unusual amount of stress or unresolved conflict causes the level of anxiety to become too intense for the couple to manage. As a result, anger, resentment, dissatisfaction, frustration and hopelessness take control of the relationship. The couple typically continues interacting negatively or disengages completely from each other, and the relationship shuts down. This is usually the place in the crisis process where a couple looks for help from a counselor, minister, friend or family member.

Is your marriage worth saving?

Without a doubt, your marriage is worth saving! Divorce does not typically solve personal or relational dysfunctions.

If you have children, the impact of your divorce will affect them their entire life. Most children do not want their parents to divorce, in spite of their parents' arguments and basic problems.

Findings from a study of unhappy marriages conducted by the Institute for American Values showed that there was no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married. Even more dramatically, the researchers also found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed together reported that their marriages were happy five years later.

When people hear about these findings, their response typically is:

All that research is well and good, but I have tried everything I know to do, and my spouse simply will not agree to get help. I have cried, begged, threatened and pleaded, but nothing works. So what do I do? I can't do it on my own. There is nothing else I can do.

Maybe there is.

When a spouse won't get help

Three of the most common reasons one spouse gives the other for not seeking help in the marriage are:

  • "We don't have that kind of problem" or "Our problems are really not that bad." That's the denial response. If your spouse requests counseling, your marriage is probably worse off than you think. Your spouse is apparently in enough pain to seek relief from it in some way. If your spouse is hurting to the point of taking this action, you need to join him or her in solving the problem. If your spouse has a problem, you have a problem.
  • "We can't afford it." Most Americans can afford whatever they really want. If we can afford cellphones, hobbies, eating out, health-club memberships, designer clothes and daily visits to premium coffee shops, we can afford marriage counseling or an intensive designed to save our marriage. A question to seriously consider is "Can we afford not to go to counseling?" If you don't go to counseling, what will be the outcome? Can you live for the rest of your married life with the outcome?
  • Another common reason your spouse might reject counseling is that he or she simply is not hurting as much as you are. Your spouse is not where you are on the pain scale. The typical response shown by the motivated spouse is a sense of frustration or unhealthy responses such as nagging, pouting, arguing, accusing, angry outbursts or simply being bitter. But unhealthy responses like these only cause wounds to deepen and the other spouse to move further away from the relationship. You can't "nag" your spouse into getting help.

On the spiritual side, a possible factor that could prevent you or your spouse from getting needed help is pride. Many marriages are failing and are eventually destroyed because one or both partners are too prideful to admit that they have a problem and may be wrong. The same tenacity and stubbornness that often keeps a person in a marriage can lead to a level of pride that prevents that person from receiving the proper help when in trouble. Pride can stand in the way of progress like a sentry guarding a castle. Nothing can get past it or move beyond it.

One of the greatest things you can do for a troubled marriage is to be willing to say, "I'm wrong. I'm sorry and I realize this problem has a lot to do with me." This attitude is the opposite of a prideful attitude. It says, "I know I must be willing to change if I expect my spouse to change. I will do whatever it takes to save and change my marriage." This could mean committing time, money and energy to a counseling relationship that will hold you accountable for your growth and progress.

A heart dominated by pride says, "I would rather allow my marriage to die than admit I am wrong." A heart driven by biblical love and commitment says, "I will do whatever it takes to salvage and rebuild my marriage. I will give up everything I own. I will change jobs. I will mortgage the house. I will do whatever it takes, because I know my marriage is that important."

Can you do it alone?

What if one spouse is willing to go to counseling and the other is not? Should the willing spouse go to counseling or seek help without the other? In most cases, the answer is definitely yes. Your marriage can be helped immensely if you initiate change.

When one spouse stops trying to change his or her partner and stops pointing fingers, making accusations, and withholding affection and attention, the energy often shifts to self-improvement. When you make positive changes, it allows positive changes to occur in your spouse.

The fact is, you cannot change your spouse, but you can change yourself. Often the most obvious point of movement in a conflicted marriage is self-movement. Changes you make to improve yourself and marriage can effectively produce healthy responses in the other spouse.

You can encourage your spouse to communicate better by learning to communicate better yourself. You can coach your spouse to respect you by respecting him or her first. You can teach your spouse to stop complaining with a bitter spirit when you break the pattern of complaining and develop a new spirit. Setting better boundaries for yourself often leads to better boundaries for your marriage.

Your husband or wife may not be willing to read books, go to seminars or go to counseling at this stage; but if you take the first step, your changes may positively influence your spouse.

Think of your decision in practical economic terms. Ask yourself: If I take no course of action or even pursue divorce, how economically advantageous will that be? The average cost of divorce in the United States is about $15,000. After divorce, many women are forced to live below the poverty line while attempting to raise their children.

Divorce is not the answer to most problems. Divorce is not the best solution to being unhappy or unfulfilled. It typically creates more problems than you can ever imagine and will have a long-term effect on your children, as well as generations to come. Therefore, the question is: "Can you afford not to go to counseling?"

How should you approach your spouse about marriage counseling?

Common mistakes in approaching your spouse

  • Showing disrespect. You can't change a person by tearing him or her down. The most natural response for that kind of approach is negative. How do you feel when others treat you disrespectfully? Does it make you want to do something for them? Does it make you want to show affection? No. Showing disrespect will only discourage your spouse from seeking help.
  • Losing control of your anger. Anger is often a way of punishing your spouse when he or she does not give you what you want. It's not only ineffective in producing a long-term change in how your spouse behaves, it also destroys any threads of love or feelings that may still be evident. Sure, if your spouse doesn't respond to your requests, the temptation exists to respond in anger; but if you don't get the response you want, getting angry and sparking a heated argument won't help.
  • Blaming your spouse. Don't accuse or point fingers. Don't resort to exaggerated or over-generalized language such as: "You always act like this! You never do what I ask you to do. You just don't care anymore. It's always your fault. You always do this or always do that." That type of language isn't valuable in solving the problem. It only creates more issues to deal with and more wounds to heal in the future.

Approaching your spouse the right way

  • Begin by approaching your spouse at the right time and in the right manner. Choose a time when he or she is not distracted or too stressed or tired.
  • Approach your spouse in a nonconfrontational manner. An angry tone of voice or condescending "parent-to-child" approach will only cause him or her to shut down.
  • Make sure you bring up the topic in a nonthreatening way. If your communication pattern has digressed to the point that when you bring up this topic your spouse becomes defensive and "blows up," you may consider writing him or her a letter to be read when you are not present. This gives your spouse time to think about what was said and respond without all the emotions.
  • Don't say, "You need counseling." Recognize and admit that you both have problems, and they must be addressed as a team. Say, "We need counseling."

You may try statements like the following to encourage your mate to join you in getting help for your marriage:

  • I'm concerned that if we allow this problem to continue, it will only get worse. I can't go on like we have been. I need help more than anything. I know you are uncomfortable with this, but so am I. It's embarrassing and even frightening to me. I realize, however, that if we keep doing the same things in our marriage, we'll get the same results.
  • We need outside intervention and direction. A trained Christian therapist is capable of helping with issues and dangers that we can't deal with on our own.
  • I know God wants us to do better in our marriage, and our children deserve a more stable home environment than this. It's obvious that if we don't get help, we're making the decision to continue in a painful marriage. I believe there's hope for us, and it is possible to have a healthy marriage like we used to.
  • I love you with all my heart, but I'm tired and need your help and support on this. If you won't go for yourself, would you go for me? Let's talk about it after dinner tonight.

These nonthreatening approaches take some of the pressure and blame off the other partner. They typically open doors to the possibility of getting help instead of closing doors by using negative approaches.

How do you find a Christian marriage counselor?

The key criteria for selecting a Christian counselor involve the counselor's credentials and faith.

Just because a person refers to him- or herself as a counselor doesn't necessarily mean he or she is properly trained. A counselor should be licensed by the state in which he or she practices. Also, if you're experiencing marriage problems, you may want to look for a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). MFTs have specific training in relationship dynamics. Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) have specific training in dealing with individual problems, but many also have experience and training in marital issues. You may also look for someone who has specific experience in working with couples in crisis.

You can ask questions that will help you decide if a particular therapist is a good fit for you:

  • "What type of license do you have?" The most common types of licensure include: Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Psychologist (usually a Doctor of Psychology or Psy.D.), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and Psychiatrist (M.D.).
  • "In which state is the license held?" The license should be from a state licensing board, not simply from a professional or national counseling association. The counselor's license should also be from the state where the therapist is currently working.
  • "Is your degree from an accredited university?"
  • "What other credentials do you hold? Professional memberships?"
  • "Do you have specific experience in working with couples in crisis? What type of problems have you worked with?"
  • "Are you active in your faith?"

Here are some questions to help determine a therapist's level of faith:

  • "Are you recognized and recommended by the local church community?"
  • "Do you attend church regularly? What activities are you involved with at church? Do you teach a class or participate in service activities?"
  • "Who is your minister or pastor? Would you be uncomfortable with my talking to your pastor?"
  • "Do you have a statement of faith?" (Do the counselor's beliefs conflict with yours?)
  • "What do you believe about marriage and divorce?"
  • "Do you encourage reconciliation and offer therapeutic services to couples toward that end?"
  • "Do you use prayer and Scripture in your practice?"

If a counselor seems reluctant or uncomfortable in answering these questions, seek other recommendations from trusted Christian advisers such as church leaders, staff, Sunday school teachers, denominational boards, etc.

Focus on the Family offers a free referral service and a network to over 1,000 licensed therapists who are screened and evaluated for their beliefs, expertise and ethical practices.

Copyright © 2006, 2019. Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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