The older my kids get, the more I think about arranging their marriages. I’m half joking.
Look, while marriage is joyous and beautiful, it’s also frickin’ hard. To enter into a lifelong covenant with another person is both risky and weighty.
Given this, you would think our churches and communities would prep folks. Aside from “no sex before marriage,” I received little in the way of discipleship about love and sex and, you know, doing life with one person forever.
Hollywood, however, very effectively disciples our kids, starting from a young age. Love, according to the big screen is all emotion and feeling, no commitment, all white picket fences, no hard work. Hollywood also teaches us to objectify our spouse and idolize our relationship.
And these lies we carry into our most intimate relationships, lies that are destined for disappointment and letdown.
There’s good news, I believe. Healthy, thriving marriages have a lot in common. Many of these common threads are counter-cultural. If we’re after healthy relationships, we must address some habits most people accept as normal but are actually quite toxic.
Here are six.
1. Addressing every conflict.
Early in the game, Tiffani and I addressed every conflict. It consumed a lot of our time. And it got us nowhere.
You see, at some point, we both realized a lot of our conflict wasn’t about real problems but about one person wanting to fix or change the other.
While conflicts are unavoidable, it’s your choice to address them. People in healthy relationships learn the difference between petty disagreements and legitimate problems.
One more thing here. Early in our marriage, Tiffani and I took the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:29 seriously, “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”
We would lay in bed for hours trying to resolve conflicts. Very few times was this productive. We were more likely to say something we would later regret. We were also more likely to wake up ticked the next morning because we lost sleep.
My point? Be careful reading and especially applying Scriptures literally. Sometimes it’s good to sleep on your conflict. A good night’s rest gives the conflict some space to breathe and your mind some time to regroup. Resolve it mañana, when both parties are rested.
2. Spending almost all your time together.
In marriages where couples spend almost all their time together, one of two things is probably happening: the relationship has become an idol or one (possibly both) side has deep resentment towards the other.
Yes, a marriage needs space for both sides to grow and mature as individuals. A relationship that’s consumed with itself is not healthy and is usually plagued by co-dependence.
Find hobbies that are just yours. Explore personal interests. Take an occasional trip with friends. I’ve found that occasionally doing these things enhances intimacy with Tiffani. The temporary separation reminds me how much I love her (and the kids). When I do return home, I’m more engaged and present.
3. Keeping a scorecard.
Relationship scorecards exist in multiple forms. Some people keep score of tasks completed, for instance, leveraging their scorecard when they want something (a day at the spa, a break from the dishes, etc). Other people keep score as a misguided form of power and self-righteousness.
“Yeah, maybe I did lie about what time I would be home. But do you remember how you talked to me last week?”
Regardless, scorekeeping is an exercise in toxicity. It’s a never-ending quest by one side to “one-up” the other. And even if you win, your relationship loses.
Early in a marriage, it’s natural to keep score. But as your relationship grows, you learn to stop marking tallies and start working as a team.
People in healthy relationships learn the power of forgiveness. And they unceasingly practice it. This requires a lot of Jesus, especially the grace part. But without forgiveness and grace, your relationship will fall apart.
4. Using sex or trinkets to fix relationship problems.
Throwing trinkets or sex at serious marriage problems is a tragically flawed way to make them go away. Mostly because it doesn’t make them go away.
Tiffani and I, for example, really struggled our first year of marriage. To avoid our problems, we traveled on the weekends. Sometimes to the beach. Sometimes to our parents’ house. Other times to a random city to watch a baseball game or stay with friends. We busied ourselves Monday through Friday. Then we distracted ourselves Saturday and Sunday.
Meanwhile, our problems continued to ruminate and build steam.
Eventually, we started working through them, but not without some difficult seasons.
Relational problems, you see, don’t go away until they’re addressed. If you say something hurtful to your wife, buy her flowers. But don’t give them to her without addressing the reason you purchased the bouquet. Trinkets don’t fix problems.
Healthy relationships are built on accountability and honest, direct communication. If trust is broken, you might need a weekend away. But the majority of your time should be spent rebuilding trust, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.
5. Refusing to accept responsibility for your actions and emotions (and accepting responsibility for the actions and emotions of your spouse)
Why am I having a bad day? Why is my life not what I want it to be? Why am I not happy? Why is our marriage falling apart?
Well, my spouse, of course. She’s the reason.
This has been my greatest problem throughout marriage, the tendency to blame Tiffani for my feelings and emotions.
Marriage gives people an easy scapegoat for their problems, you see.
The truth is that your actions and emotions are yours. If you’re having a bad day and your spouse forgets to give you a hug or say “I love you,” you don’t have a license to blame your day on her. And neither is she insensitive or lacking empathy. You just had a bad day. Don’t transmit the emotions of your day onto your spouse. Learn to recognize and process them internally.
In a healthy marriage, each side takes responsibility for her own emotions and actions. This might be the most underrated player in the quest towards a thriving marriage.
Maybe your spouse is a jerk face. Maybe your spouse is selfish and accusatory. To improve your relationship, though, you must refuse to play the blame game. Instead, you must continue taking responsibility for actions. Continue pressing into God and allowing the Spirit to reveal inconsistencies.
As you become more healthy, I believe your spouse will follow suit. Not on your time, necessarily. But in due time.
6. Being passive aggressive.
Last point, and it’s a biggie. I wrote about the nuances of passive aggressive behavior in a previous post. To this day, it has more views more than any post on the blog.
Why is it so toxic?
First, passive aggressive people are dishonest about their emotions and feelings. With their face fire-truck red, they might slap you for something insignificant like not taking out the trash when you’re actually being slapped for missing her birthday two weeks ago. Passive-aggressive people harbor emotions like this. And even though you apologized the day after it happened (and they said it wasn’t a big deal), they were lying. And now, two weeks later, because of passive-aggressiveness, your jaw hurts.
Lying about emotions erodes trust and transparency, two things all healthy relationships have.
Not only are passive-aggressive people dishonest about their emotions, they also blame other people for them.
See point five.
Third, passive-aggressive people struggle mightily for contentment in relationships.
Passive-aggression erodes self-confidence and relational integrity. These people are never quite sure of themselves. Even in the best of times, they struggle to be present, wondering instead when the marriage is going to fly south. It’s just a matter of time, so says passive-aggressive people, anyway. No need to elaborate on why this is unhealthy.
I would love to hear from you. In your experience, what habits have you discovered to be toxic in a marriage? Leave a comment below.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.