Marriage is at once awesome, wonderful, and difficult. Awesome and wonderful because it was designed by the Creator for us to reflect His image.1 Difficult because it brings a flawed man and woman together into the most intimate and lengthy relation existing on earth between humans. Moreover, these two selfish and otherwise imperfect human beings sometimes seem to grow more flawed and selfish as the marriage goes along. No wonder “dysfunctional marriage” sometimes seems like the trending phrase of the day or year.
The word “dysfunctional,” used in regard to relationships, refers to a breakdown of that which is normal. In marriage, to be sure, it is normal for two imperfect human beings to disagree, especially in a relationship as intimate as marriage. Hence, every marriage has the potential to become dysfunctional if couples don’t take care of inevitable challenges that will arise in their relationships.
But how does one know if one’s marriage has reached the point of being dysfunctional, or is just going through inevitable challenges that are a part of married life? Too often couples ignore problems by focusing more on the immediate event that has emerged, rather than really thinking through the actual issues facing them. Sadly, too many couples wait too long to think things through together. Their resentment for each other becomes so deep that they stop operating as a team and resort to living as separate individuals.
This is the point at which the relationship becomes dysfunctional. There are, of course, multiple factors that contribute to a relationship becoming dysfunctional, including abuse, addictions, abandonment, and psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, and clinically assessed personality disorders. Nevertheless, many marriages experience dysfunction because couples have stopped communicating with each other, and are either unwilling or unaware of how to manage their differences with genuine love and respect. They yell and scream at each other rather than finding helpful solutions together that can assist their marriage to become more functional. Subsequently, as a quick solution (they think), they head to the divorce attorney, claiming irreconcilable differences.
Successful couples learn over time to diminish destructive or negative patterns in their relationship. Each partner focuses on what they can do to be a better spouse and looks for their partner’s positive attributes.
It isn’t so much that they married the wrong person as that each one just stopped being the right person.
We regularly invite premarital couples to (1) list 12 reasons they love and want to marry the other person; (2) keep their lists in a safe place; and (3) pull them out when times get difficult, as a reminder of what it is they loved about each other. Usually those reasons still exist, but lie buried under the rubble of daily living.
So the good news is that dysfunction can be repaired. Frustration, contempt, and isolation do not have to lead to divorce: people can choose to fight for their marriage. But it requires couples to begin to see their marriage in a different light. They need a new way of thinking about their marriage and their spouse. There is no perfect marriage, because there are no perfect people. Yet couples can grow in their experience of the oneness God intended for marriage, and restore their relationship to what they dreamed about on their wedding day.
Here are six functional behaviors for getting a marriage back on track. Introducing at least one of them will likely bring prompt improvement in a marital relationship:
1Drop the “dysfunction” label: your brain is wired to believe what you tell it. Insisting that your marriage is dysfunctional will bring you to believe it. Here’s a question to pose to yourself: “Do I have a good marriage with some dysfunctional times, or do I have a lousy marriage with a few good times?” It’s the proverbial half-full or half-empty glass. Couples who are willing to find the good in their marriage and in their mate will more easily resolve conflict, and have a more satisfying marriage. So start telling yourself that you have a great marriage: you and your spouse will begin to believe it. Any marriage can be turned around if the couple believes in it and is willing to save it and make it grow stronger. Jesus was right when He declared, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23).
2Pray like crazy for your marriage and your mate: God, the Creator, invented marriage. Therefore, it is both wise and absolutely essential to keep Him at the center of your marriage. We don’t mean just paying lip service to this, but establishing and maintaining a meaningful relationship with God and constantly acknowledging His presence as individuals and also as a couple. Ask God to heal your marriage, and then expect a miracle. God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). And here’s another question: If you believe God is always present, would you say all the things you say to each other? Wouldn’t you want to impress Him with how kind, patient, loving, and forgiving you are? Given our daily appeals to God to forgive our sins and favor us with His grace and mercy, how can we do less for our mate? Don’t we want the same healing for our mate as we want for ourselves (2 Chron. 7:14)?
3Learn and practice effective communication skills: however obvious this may seem, it is neither instinctive nor easy. Most of us have been developing, from birth, faulty or erroneous methods of communication. We bring our communication patterns—good and bad—right into marriage. But even the good patterns that work with family and friends may not work in our marriage, with our spouse. Therefore, each partner needs to be willing to adjust their relational and communication styles in ways that can enhance the marital relationship. Disagreements happen in marriage mostly because couples are talking over each other, and neither partner has stopped to listen to the needs, wants, and hurts of their mate. Many marriage issues can be resolved by patient listening and commitment to understand each other. As James 1:19 counsels: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
4Find out what your spouse likes and keep doing it. And find out what your spouse doesn’t like and quit doing it! Prior to marriage, couples take great pride in being their best selves—the best boyfriend or the best girlfriend. They pull out all the stops to find out what the other person likes, and shower them with their heart’s desires. But after a year or so of marriage the special treatment fades away, each begins to feel taken for granted, and people begin to fear that they’ve married the wrong person. It isn’t so much that they married the wrong person as that each one just stopped being the right person. To make matters worse, they begin to do the very things their spouse dislikes. The golden rule would go a long way toward turning these marriages from fading to flourishing: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).
5Forgive often: marriage, life’s most intimate relationship, may involve hurt sometimes—intentional or not.2 Learning to forgive each other is learning to live together. Sometimes the hurt is careless. But sometimes it is nasty retaliation for pain they may be experiencing that has left deep and lasting scars. Sometimes we can ignore an injury. But sometimes we neither can nor should. Forgiving someone who has harmed us is the hardest part of loving. But we cannot continue to truly love without it. Forgiveness is much stronger than always being trampled, absolving the guilty, or simply forgetting. Forgiving begins my healing from another’s hurts and from the need to punish them. It also pushes us toward new and deeper union as God’s power moves the guilty one to repentance through knowing I have forgiven them and they are able to forgive themselves: God’s love wins us over because we come to appreciate that even as we are causing Him pain, He is extending pardon to us (see Rom. 5:8).
6Laugh a lot: laughter abounds in physiological and neurological benefits: it reduces stress and blood pressure; stimulates the immune system; bonds couples together, and keeps the relationship fresh as they find things to laugh about and stop stressing about the small stuff. “A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Prov. 17:22).
Functional marriages involve married couples willing to confront life’s relational challenges and work together as teammates and allies. Together, couples must fight the enemy that threatens to destroy their oneness with each other and God. All humans struggle. Becoming united in marriage sometimes seems to augment that struggle after the honeymoon. But all marriages can experience ever greater joy and ever deeper love through the power and saving grace of Jesus: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Willie and Elaine Oliver are the husband-and-wife team that directs the Department of Family Ministries at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Reach them at family.adventist.org.