Why marriages fail, and how you can have a better marriage.
By Dennis Rainey
A woman once shared with me her view of marriage:
“It’s as though I’m scanning a desert with a pair of binoculars. Everywhere I look I see bodies strewn about in various stages of death and dying — divorce, isolation, abusive and decayed relationships, all types of devastation. After viewing this I ask myself, Why would I want to begin that journey?”Many students today are asking the same question. Although they deeply desire the security and joy of a lifelong relationship, they fear marriage. One new bride said in a Newsweek article: “I had watched my parents’ marriage fall apart, and I didn’t know if I could keep one together.”1
No generation reaching the age to marry has ever brought with it more baggage related to family breakdown. In the United States more than one million children each year experience the breakup of their families.2
A large number of students remember experiences like this:
Mary: One afternoon she came home from school and met her father coming out the door with a suitcase. He was leaving the family. “I’ll be back to see you, Honey,” he said. Mary’s father kissed her on top of the head and left. She hasn’t seen him since.
Robert: His parents divorced when he was five. He has lived with his mother who married three other men and drinks way too much. His first stepfather beat him up one time when Robert spilled a Coke in the car.
Carrie: Her parents are still married but heavily focused on their lucrative careers. Her dad and mom seldom attended her orchestra concerts during high school, and now that she’s away at college, she rarely speaks to either of them. When the family communicates, usually it’s by email or messages on their answering machines.
Philip: During junior high Philip was awakened one night by the sounds of his parents arguing. He heard a crash and a scream. Philip found his mother in the kitchen bleeding from a knife wound. Philip called the police and they arrested his father. Philip, his mom, and two younger sisters went to live in a shelter. He doesn’t know where his dad lives.
You Can Have a Better Marriage
You probably know people like Mary, Robert, Carrie, and Philip. Your own experiences may be similar to theirs or even worse. Maybe your home boiled with conflict, disharmony, and unrest. As a result, you’ve thought a lot about whether you should get married — you don’t want to end up in a relationship filled with pain and disappointment, and cause an emotional earthquake in your own children. You like the idea of sharing your life with someone who loves you, but if you’re honest, marriage is pretty scary. You may ask yourself, “Will I ever be able to get beyond the damage my family did to me? Will I be able to experience a happy and healthy marriage and family?”
The answer is unequivocally yes.
I have worked with an organization that helps families and have seen thousands of marriages succeed that looked hopeless. God has a way for broken people to experience whole relationships. More on that later.
Marriage–Worth the Problems
With all the problems and pain, why do people still want to get married? Even though marriage receives so much bad press these days, walking the aisle is still very popular exercise. A recent Louis Harris survey found that 96% of college students want to marry or already are married. Ninety-seven per cent agreed with this statement — “Having close family relationships is a key to happiness.”3
So even though about one in four of American adults age eighteen and older are divorced,4 the possibility of having a good, lasting marriage makes nearly everyone willing to give it a try. Just why is marriage so appealing?
The truth is that no one wants to be alone. Although we make a big deal out of “doing our own thing” and insisting on individual rights, we all long for the security and warmth of an intimate relationship with someone who is crazy about us. We may say we “want to be alone” and desire “some space,” but our stronger desire is to share some space with someone who loves us.
And although sexual attraction is an important part of our desire for intimacy, these longings to connect deeply with another person are not just about sex. This fervent desire to be known and appreciated by someone else is how we were designed in the first place.
Why Do Marriages Fail?
Why is it then that so many people, who want and need to be close to someone, end up divorced, often filled with anger and disappointment? Many who marry attempt to achieve a strong, enduring bond based primarily on emotions. In most relationships the love and acceptance continue as long as the other person is meeting a certain level of expectation. If the feelings are warm, a husband and wife can enjoy one another’s company, overlook a partner’s troubling or annoying traits, communicate adequately, and still express affection.
But when the feelings cool, one or both find they have no reserves or capability to love an obviously imperfect person. Now needs are not met, which causes hurt, which promotes defensiveness, which reduces positive communication, which heightens misunderstanding, which provokes conflict, which fuels anger and bitterness. If forgiveness and reconciliation do not break this downward spiral, the ability to love one another is paralyzed.
This pattern in nearly all relationships may be avoided for awhile as long as the tough issues that provoke selfishness do not exist or are obscured. But sooner or later reality hits. In spite of a couple’s best intentions, they eventually realize that two independent people cannot both have all of their needs met all of the time.
So, How Can You Experience a Better Marriage?
For a relationship to succeed, teamwork is required and both persons need to deny many of their personal wishes. Self-sacrifice must replace selfishness. Sometimes one person in the marriage can do this reasonably well, but eventually patience runs out. Self-sacrifice is not natural; selfishness is. Why is this so?
If we lived in a world where people were perfect, then their marriages would hum along in total harmony, just the way God wanted marriage to work in the first place. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Quite honestly all of us are affected by our tendency toward selfishness and “sin.” What is sin? We often choose to do the wrong things not the right things. We can be selfish, mean, hurtful, bitter, arrogant, unwilling to forgive, and so on. It’s no wonder husbands and wives struggle to get along.
An I-want-my-needs-met attitude in relationships breaks down a necessary spirit of cooperation. The negative cycle begins and continues until intimacy is lost and a marriage begins to crumble.
Let’s face it, we all need help — some inner strength that enables us to love another person the way we must if a marriage is going to have a chance.
Our selfish, sinful behavior not only separates a husband and a wife, but it also separates us from God — our greatest source of help. As the Originator and Designer of marriage, He knows how relationships work. He wants us to first have a relationship with Him, and then look to Him for direction.
Not only does God help us with problems and challenges we face on a daily basis, but He also offers healing for scars and wounds we have collected from the past. For instance, He provides complete forgiveness and cleansing from wrong choices we may have made as teenagers in a relationship with the opposite sex. God loves us and wants us to enjoy the benefits of being His child, which include His help in our marriage.
I would like to illustrate this with two scenarios involving a typical husband and wife. In the first example, our couple (I’ll call them Jon and Lisa) do not acknowledge any dynamic involvement of God in their lives. In Scenario B, Jon and Lisa have more than a relationship with each other, they also have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Scenario A: Showing Why Marriages Fail
It’s Saturday morning and Jon wants to play golf with his buddies. He rolls out of bed and tells Lisa that he’s leaving and won’t be back until about 4 p.m. Lisa complains, “You promised we could go on a picnic today!”
“I never said that,” Jon says, his voice on edge. “Anyway, I haven’t played golf in two weeks. It’s a beautiful day. I’m out of here.” Jon slams the door on the way out.
Lisa feels snubbed and after shedding some tears, she stomps angrily through the apartment and throws the pillows on the couch across the room.
“I’ll show you, Jerk,” she yells. She calls a girlfriend and makes a date to go out for lunch and some shopping. At the mall Lisa buys $300 worth of new clothes — she needed a new outfit, but by buying a few “extra” things she knows Jon will hit the roof. Their credit card is now nearly maxed out.
Meanwhile, Jon is finishing his golf round. He stops with his buddies for a drink at the golf club bar. One drink soon leads to two. Jon notices how attractive the waitress is. As the young woman is giving Jon his third drink, he whispers a flattering remark in her ear. The woman acts insulted, but her smile indicates that Jon has scored some points. The next time she returns, he notices her phone number on the napkin placed under his drink. Jon tucks the paper in his pocket.
Jon arrives home at 5 p.m., walking with a bit of a wobble. Lisa is watching TV with the volume turned high. He notices a pile of packages on the couch. Angrily he switches off the TV and points at the packages. Lisa swears at him and walks to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. They argue far into the night. Jon ends up sleeping in the guest bedroom.