Editor's note: This article by Kevin A. Thompson originally appeared on his blog, kevinathompson.com. It has been reprinted here with the author's permission.
Marriages fail for a variety of reasons.
Some buckle under the weight of bills that can’t be paid, while others suffer due to an inability to handle financial prosperity.
Some wither from an absence of time spent together, while others suffocate from spending every waking moment together.
Some stall because neither spouse is growing or developing, while others separate because each spouse is growing too quickly but in opposite directions. (See "Three People You Should Marry")
There is not a guaranteed formula for why marriages fail or succeed.
But there are some predictable characteristics. A few common patterns emerge as a relationship begins to dissolve.
The initial symptom is subtle.
The first sign your marriage is in trouble is when you turn toward others rather than your spouse.
Part of a healthy marriage is having healthy friendships with other people. We should not expect our spouse to meet every emotional or relational need we have. No single person can be everything to us. We need a variety of relationships. (See "My Best Friend, Not My Only Friend")
But our spouses should be our first person. They should be the primary relationship in our lives. Before we nourish any other relationship, the marital relationship should be our main focus.
Nearly every marriage begins this way. The excitement of romance compels us to turn toward one another in nearly everything. We are excited to spend time together. We can’t wait to share good news with one another. We seek the thoughts and opinions of each other.
In every area, we engage the other person and share our lives with them.
Whenever this stops, our marriage is in trouble. And only we will know it.
It is such a subtle shift in personal desire that no one else will be able to see it happening. We may not even realize it at first.
Good news comes, and instead of calling our spouse, we call a friend. Then we read an interesting book and find ourselves texting the book recommendation to a co-worker rather than our spouse. None of this really shows anything until we notice that these are not isolated events. Instead, in every scenario where we used to turn toward our spouse first, we turn toward someone else.
This pattern is the first sign a relationship is in trouble.
What’s the danger?
The danger is two-fold:
1. There is a reason when we stop having our spouse be our first person. Maybe we have been rejected too many times. Maybe we have lost respect for them. Maybe we no longer trust them. Whatever the actual cause, something has occurred that makes us leery of engaging them with both the good and bad in life.
2. By failing to make them our first person to engage, celebrate with, share our life with, and turn to in good times and bad, we are robbing the relationship of positive interactions. Negative interactions are guaranteed in a marriage. It is impossible to prevent relationship rubs, frustrations and disagreements. The bad is guaranteed. The good is not. It takes intention to ensure our marriages have positive moments. We must seek out our spouse and intentionally invite them into our lives in order to have positive interactions with them. To the extent we relate to our spouse in positive moments, we will be able to endure negative interactions. If the only engagement you ever have with your spouse is negative, your marriage will die.
When you are in trouble
When you recognize your marriage might be in trouble, there are several steps you can take to get back on track.
Be intentional. Create positive moments within your marriage. Before calling your friend about the good news, call your husband. Before telling your buddy about what happened at work, tell your wife. Invite your spouse’s opinion about a business situation. Go out of your way to bring them into your life.
Identify the cause. Spend some time in deep reflection to notice what you feel and think whenever you are tempted to turn to someone other than your spouse. What do they give you which your spouse does not? Are you afraid of rejection or denial? Do you fear you might be ignored? Are you feelings fair? Are you placing upon your spouse an expectation caused by another person? (See "5 Keys to Save a Marriage")
Change the scenery. Sometimes a relationship can slip into bad habits, and a simple change of routine can get it back on track. A vacation can reunify a couple. Choosing a new restaurant or going for a walk can inspire conversation. A new activity can cause a couple to create new habits. Changing the scenery may not influence a marriage that is deeply in trouble, but it can greatly assist a relationship that has simply slipped a bit.
Get help. If you are struggling to identify the source of problems or if you cannot form new patterns of behavior that reconnect you as a couple, you need to get help. This doesn’t mean your relationship is in shambles; it simply means you can use the assistance of another to make your marriage better. (See "13 Questions to Gauge if You Need Marital Counseling")
The good news about the initial sign that a marriage is in trouble is that at least one of the spouses can recognize it. With a little introspection, they can see that something is wrong. Once a problem is identified, specific steps can be taken to improve the relationship.
As someone who regularly works with couples, I’m not nearly as worried about a couple who notices this first sign. Everyone has moments in which their relationship isn’t as strong as they wish. My biggest concern is about the couple who recognizes the first sign and does nothing about it.
Kevin A. Thompson is lead pastor of Community Bible Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He runs a blog dedicated to leadership, marriage and parenting (specifically parenting a child with special needs). Along with his wife, Kevin is co-owner of JThompsonMMC, a full-service media and marketing company based in Fort Smith. He is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and Oklahoma Baptist University.