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Marital Strife

Marriage is not a very stable institution-at least in the Western world. Here in the United States the average duration of a marriage is only 9.4 years. More than a million couples are divorced every year. Many who stay together do so out of convenience for the rearing of children and for financial reasons.

Some marriages are happy. In these difficult times, when half of every marriage is ending in a divorce, we sometimes forget that many people do have lasting and mutually satisfying marriages.

Researchers recently surveyed three hundred couples who had been married for at least fifteen years and who described themselves as "happily married.". There were two common qualities found among these couples that could be a key to a happy marriage.

  1. Most frequently mentioned was having a generally positive attitude toward one's spouse and viewing the partner as one's best friend.
  2.  The second key was the belief in the importance of commitment. Marriage was viewed as something people should stick with and work todevelop in spite of difficult times.

In addition, happily married people agreed about aims and goals in life, had a desire to make the marriages succeed, and were able to laugh a lot.

The Bible and Marital Problems

Marriage is one of the first topics discussed in the Bible (Genesis 2:22-25). It is mentioned throughout the pages of Scripture and considered in depth in the New Testament (Matthew 5:31-33; Matthew 19:4-9; Romans 7:1-4; I Corinthians 7:1-11; Hebrews 13:1-4). The purpose of marriage, the roles of husband and wife, the importance of sex, and the responsibilities of parents are all discussed, sometimes more than once.

What does the Bible say about marital problems and ways to help troubled marriages? Almost nothing! That is, not in a direct way but an indirect way. It should be remembered that marital conflict often is a symptom of something deeper, such as selfishness, lack of love, unwillingness to forgive, anger, bitterness, communication problems, anxiety, sexual abuse, drunkenness, feelings of inferiority, sin, and deliberate rejection of God's will. Each of these can cause marital tension, each can be influenced by husband-wife conflict, and each is discussed in depth in the Bible.

The Causes of Marital Problems

In Genesis 2:24, we read that in marriage a man "will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Three verbs in this verse-"leaving," "being united," and "becoming one“ indicate three purposes of marriage.

Leaving involves a departure from parents and implies a public and legal union of husband and wife into a marriage. It also shows the closeness of the couple. There is a great bond between a parent and child, but the relationship between a husband and wife ought to be a greater bond than a parent and child.

Being united comes form a Hebrew word that means to stick or glue together. If you try to separate two pieces of paper which are glued together, you tear them both. If you try to separate husband and wife who cleave together, both are hurt. Ideally, the couple is dedicated to loving, drawing together, and remaining faithful to each other. When such uniting is absent, they have an empty marriage that may be legal but is devoid of love.

Becoming one involves sex, but it goes beyond the physical. It means, that two persons share everything they have, not only their bodies, not only their material possessions, but also their thinking and feelings, their joy and suffering, their hopes and their fears, their successes and failures. This does not imply that two personalities are squelched. The uniqueness remains, but these are combined with those of one's mate to make a complete relationship. When the one-flesh relationship is lacking, the couple has an unfulfilled marriage.

Marriage problems often arise because a husband and wife have deviated from the biblical standards outlined in Genesis 2:24 and elaborated on in later portions of Scripture. Modern psychology, sociology, and related disciplines have clarified some of the ways in which people deviate from these biblical standards for marriage.

Faulty Communication.

In the professional literature, this probably is the most commonly mentioned cause of marital conflict. James 4:1-3 notes that communication problems inevitably result when people pursue self-centered goals, but sometimes problems also come because individuals have not learned how to communicate clearly and efficiently.

Communication involves the sending and receiving of messages. Messages are sent verbally (with words) and nonverbally (with gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, words on paper, images on a computer screen, actions, gifts, or even periods of silence Job 1:12-13). When the verbal and the nonverbal contradict, a double message is sent. This leads to confusion and communication breakdown. Consider, for example, the woman who says verbally, "I don't mind if you go on the business trip," but whose slumping posture, and depression like lack of enthusiasm says, "I really don't want you to go." In contrast, a wife gets a confused double message when her husband says, "I love you and like spending time with you," but never is home, never takes his wife out to dinner, or never does anything to show his love and appreciation. In good communication the message sent verbally is consistent with the message sent nonverbally.

Always remember that there has to be a giver and a receiver in order to have good communication. When it's happening, the flow between you and another feels balanced and in harmony and that is good communication. When you give, the other receives. For two people to communicate, you always need a Giver and a Receiver.

Under integrated or over integrated relationships.

Getting close to another person is risky. We open ourselves to criticism and possible rejection when we let another person know us intimately, become aware of our insecurities, or see our weaknesses. It is not easy to trust another person-even when that other person is a marriage partner.

What is meant by an under integrated marriage is that the husband and wife appear to grow apart over the years. There is little willingness to share confidences, to be vulnerable, or to develop mutual life goals. Instead, each seems to be moving through life independently of the other, with differing needs and goals. In this relationship, there is a tendency, to be defensive, to criticize and put down each other or to manipulate one another. Defensive, self-centered attitudes create tension and push the husband and wife apart.

In contrast, over integrated marriage occurs when a relationship has become so engulfing that both or one of the partners has lost their identities and feel trapped. Both partners blame the other for their problems and neither is able to stand back, look at individual needs and evaluate one's own faults that may be contributing to the tension. In time there may be a verbal or physically violent reaction as both partners try to tear away from the confinement of such stifling relationship.

Interpersonal Tension.

When two people marry, each comes to the marriage with approximately two or more decades of past experiences and ways of looking at life. Each has perspectives that are not shared by the other and sometimes, even when there is a sincere desire for compromise, couples still even have difficulty resolving their differences.

What happens if there is unwillingness to change, insensitivity to the other person's viewpoints, or a refusal to acknowledge the differences? Often there is tension that frequently centers on one of the following issues.

  • Sex. At times most couples have sexual problems. What causes sexual difficulty in marriage? The lack of accurate knowledge (1 Peter 3:7), unrealistic expectations, fear of not being able to perform adequately, differences in sexual drive, inhibiting attitudes about sex, and insufficient opportunities for privacy. Impatience, frigidity, tiredness, and infidelity in turn create more tension, and this further hinders smooth sexual functioning. When these problems are not resolved, marriages almost always suffer.
  • Roles. We live at a time when traditional male-female roles are being reevaluated. This often leads to conflict over what it means to be a husband or wife. The society gives little guidance because opinions seem to be changing so rapidly. The Bible, in contrast, is much more explicit (Ephesians 5:22-25). Often this tension centers on the nature and extent of the wife's work or career goals.
  • Inflexibility. When a man and woman marry, each brings a unique personality to the marriage. When a couple first marries there often is a time of excitement, enthusiasm, and youthful idealism. As the partners grow older and the months turn into years, the marriage must also change and mature if it is to stay healthy. As people go through changes at different stages in life, so do marriages. Marriages must grow through stages if they are to remain stable and fulfilling. When couples are too busy or too rigid to work at building and enriching their marriages, problems are likely to develop.
  • Religion. The Bible warns of problems when a believer and an unbeliever try to live together in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-15). When a husband and wife differ from each other in their religious preferences, the degree of commitment to spiritual things, interest in religion, or expectations about the religious education of children become a major tension problem. Sometimes these differences create tension in other areas such as choice of friends, views of ethics or the use of time on Sundays. Religion can be a binding, strengthening force in a marriage, but when a husband and wife have different viewpoints, religion can also be a destructive focus for marital tension. Notice I said religion, not the Bible. We must not confuse man's religions with Bible teachings!
  • Values. What is really important in life? How should we spend our time and money? What are our goals? These questions concern values. When a couple has similar values, the marriage is often healthy and growing. When values are in conflict, however, the relationship may be one of tension, power struggles, and mutual criticism. Value conflicts are at the heart of many marital problems. This is where the Bible can become a great source of values in which a couple can build a solid foundation for marriage.
  • Conflicting needs and Personality Differences. Most people will agree that we each need food; rest; air and freedom from pain, but there also are psychological needs such as the need for love, security, and contact with others. In addition it seems that most people have unique personal needs (such as the need to dominate, need to control, to possess, to achieve, or to help and rescue others). If one spouse has a need to dominate while the other wants to be controlled, then there may be compatibility. If both are devoted to career building, there can be conflict, especially if one spouse wants to accept a career advancement that will involve a family move and the other spouse resists.
    Personality differences also can create tension. When one spouse is open (freely sharing about one's needs, temptations, attitudes, and feelings) but the other spouse tends to hold things in, these differences can create problems.
  • Money. How are the family finances to be earned? Who controls the money? How is it to be spent? What things are really needed and which are merely desirable? Is a budget necessary? What happens when there is a shortage of money?
    Answers to questions like these reflect one's financial values and attitudes. When a husband and wife have different answers to these kinds of questions, there is potential for conflict.

External Pressures.

Sometimes marital tensions appear or are made worse because of the pressure that comes from other people or from stressful situations. These external sources of pressure include:

  • In-laws who criticize or otherwise make demands on the couple.
  • Children whose needs and presence often interfere with the depth and frequency of husband-wife contacts; sometimes drive a wedge between the spouse. This is particularly true with step-children.
    Friends, including opposite sex friends, who make time demands on the couple and sometimes involve one or both spouses in infidelity.
  • Crises that disrupt family stability and create stress for all who are involved.
    Vocational and career demands that put pressure on the husband/wife, create fatigue, and take time from the marriage.
  • Financial reverses that put pressure on the family budget and lead to worry and sometimes disagreements about spending.

Most of these pressures can be resisted, but each can be a powerful threat to marital harmony.

The Effects of Marital Problems

Bookstores and library shelves are filled with books describing the experiences of once-happy marriages that grew cold, distant, and unhappy. Even as they tell their own stories, the authors of these books show how difficult it can be to separate the effects of marital distress from the causes.

  1. Confusion, Despair, and Hopelessness. Caught in the middle of conflict and watching one's marriage disintegrate, the husband and/or wife often feels overwhelmed and confused about what to do next. Every marriage is built on hope. People marry because they hope that life together will be more effective, satisfying, and purposeful than life alone. Nearly every marriage goes through periods of disillusionment. When this happens, hope is often replaced by sadness, hurt, and anger. The partners feel hopeless and hopelessness feelings are contagious.
  2.  Withdrawal. It is impossible to estimate the number of people who are legally married, and sleeping in the same bed, but who are emotionally and psychologically divorced. The husband and wife may even engage in similar activities and go places together, but there is little warmth, concern, communication, intimacy, love, or interest in one's mate. By withdrawing emotionally from each other, the partners avoid the pain and social stigma of divorce. Conflicts remain but there are few battles, and the marriage persists as an uneasy truce that may extend for a lifetime.
  3.  Desertion. When the marital and family pressures get too intense, some people simply leave. It is difficult to compile statistics on the incidents of desertion, but there is evidence that thousands of mates desert their families each year and leave hurt feelings, confusion, uncertainty, financial pressures and one-parent families behind.
  4.  Separation or Divorce. Divorce might be viewed as the legal termination of a once-promising, hope-filled, and satisfying relationship that has been coming apart socially and emotionally. Even though it is common, divorce is never a happy solution to marital problems. It is used too often and too quickly as a way to escape marital difficulties. Couples sometimes ignore the biblical guidelines for dissolving a marriage (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:1-9).

"Marriage is one of the first topics discussed in the Bible (Genesis 2:22-25). It is mentioned throughout the pages of Scripture and considered in depth in the New Testament (Matthew 5:31-33; Matthew 19:4-9; Romans 7:1-4; I Corinthians 7:1-11; Hebrews 13:1-4)."