Mistakes That Can Sink Your Marriage

Let’s face it. There are no perfect marriages and certainly no perfect spouses. Every marriage goes through problems and challenges. I’ve often claimed that Cathy and I have a “high maintenance” marriage. For the record, I believe we have a great marriage and I’m so thankful for it! But what I’m saying is that our marriage, like many, takes ongoing work to keep it in good order. Many marriages today suffer shipwreck simply because not enough effort is put into staying on course or making course corrections along the way. Too often, some common mistakes are made and then repeated over and over and over until one or both spouses feel that they don’t have any hope of rescuing their marriage.

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. David Hawkins, a noted relationship expert and author about his book, 9 Critical Mistakes Most Couples Make. In the interview, Dr. Hawkins speaks about these most critical mistakes couples make. I want to pass them along to you with some thoughts on how to avoid making them. If you haven’t made these mistakes, they’ll serve as obstacles to steer clear from, and if you’ve already made some (or all) of the mistakes, I hope you’ll be encouraged to learn from your mistakes, and make changes, in order to keep your marriage from sinking.

Mistake #1: Pushing the Plunger. Do you remember the old movies where explosives were placed and then long wires are run to a big black box? Then, to detonate the explosion, some person would pull up a long “T” handle from the black box and then push it back down…and kaboom! That handle is the plunger! In marriage, when we are not wise to keep watch over ourselves, in our attitudes, actions, and in our communication with our spouses, we set off explosions, so to speak, in our marriages. When harsh words, opinions, and judgments are carelessly, and often angrily thrown about, they cause devastation to our relationships. Dr. Hawkins says that we dare not think that if we “explode” on our spouse once a week, or even once a month, that this doesn’t take a toll on our marriage. So, stop pushing the plunger. Develop the skills of self-discipline, of knowing when to take a time-out, and of recognizing when you are feeling defensive, to keep yourself from exploding on your spouse.

Mistake #2: “Whistling Dixie.” Dr. Hawkins describes this as “Making a molehill out of a mountain.” Avoid denying or minimizing big problems in your marriage relationship. Too often, spouses feel that something is wrong, but try not to upset the applecart. They fear making circumstances worse when their spouse is facing a huge issue. This is classic co-dependent behavior. So instead of “whistling dixie,” take a time-out, seek good healthy advice, and professional counseling when necessary to help you discern whether this indeed is a molehill or a mountain. If it’s a mountain, you’ll need the courage to take the next steps in order to deal with the issue, lovingly confronting your spouse, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Confrontation isn’t fun, but remember, sometimes before freedom comes pain.

Mistake #3: Speaking Greek. We’re talking about the lack of clear communication here. Dr. Hawkins believes many wives speak vaguely to their husbands when sharing their feelings and opinions about their needs, wants, and problems. Clear, concise, and consistent communication is what is needed, as men can easily become frustrated and even angry when they don’t understand what their wives are attempting to say.

Mistake #4: Playing God in the Marriage. Some husbands and wives result to shame-based communication with their spouse, using a parental-style tone, one that is critical and belittling. It’s okay to be angry with your spouse, but how you respond in your anger makes all the difference in the world to the marriage relationship. Shame-based communication generally triggers instant defensiveness on the part of the receiving spouse, which usually results in either angry and escalating retorts, or withdrawal from communication. So do your marriage a favor and avoid lecturing language such as, “I can’t believe you…,” “You always…,” “You never…,” “How come you…”

Mistake #5: Kicking a Dead Horse. All marriages have good experiences and bad experiences, if married for any length of time. Everyone has wounds. But too frequently spouses keep dredging up offenses from the past, sometimes from years before. This is what Dr. Hawkins refers to as “kicking a dead horse.” To avoid this mistake, learn to deal honestly and responsibly with relational wounds in your marriage. Deal with them. Remember, there is no perfect marriage. Extend forgiveness and move on and leave the past in the past. If you’ve suffered the trauma of abuse or infidelity, at the hands of your spouse, be aware that healing takes time. Guard against bitterness. Get professional help. You can still move forward. But more often than not healing is a process, not an instantaneous fix.

Mistake #6: Living in the Trenches. In the hustle and bustle of life, it’s so easy to get caught up with our own interests and challenges and to ignore those of our spouse. This is a common, yet destructive mistake! Learn to be a champion of your spouse. Make it a priority to demonstrate interest, to listen, and display empathy. Dr. Hawkins says, “If you don’t make your mate feel very special, somebody else will!”

Mistake #7: Living with Paper Fences. Here, we are talking about boundaries. We need to have a healthy sense of who we are and of who our spouse is. Don’t make the mistake of trying to mold your spouse into your own vision of who you wish he or she should be. Don’t jump to assumptions about what your spouse is thinking. Demonstrate healthy boundaries by being respectful of who your spouse is and of what he or she thinks. Learn to assert your own healthy boundaries.

If you have trouble asserting your own boundaries, work to learn to become comfortable in your own skin. Tell people who you are. Tell people what you think. Learn to say no when others violate your boundaries or want you to act or behave in ways that don’t reflect who you are.

Mistake #8: Using the Untamed Tongue. Resist the urge to speak in anger. Angry words and yelling usually result in angry responses and induce a cycle of escalating conflict. This isn’t to say that you cannot or should not speak the truth or share your feelings, but learn to speak with grace and love. You must own your actions and take responsibility for how you respond, so again, watch yourself and employ the skills of self-discipline, taking a healthy time-out when you become aware of your feelings of anger or defensiveness.

Mistake #9: Being Distant. Many marriages today are on the rocks simply because couples have drifted apart and have little or no sense of connection and intimacy. Perhaps you sense that your spouse is pulling away and is responsible for the growing distance in your marriage. Still, learn to be intentional in seeking ongoing connection and attachment with your spouse. You have to be proactive in this area. You can’t expect to change your spouse, but you can be actively working on creating affectionate, warm, and encouraging environments in your home, which can have a huge influence on him or her.

Sometimes we avoid change thinking that the pain of correcting behavior is going to be so great that we wind up settling for discomfort that we already know. So often, nothing changes until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of changing. But, don’t put off change if you have been making these mistakes. It might be painful, but preserving your marriage and taking it to a better place, is well worth the pain and effort!

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Jim Burns

Jim Burns is the president of HomeWord. He speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. He has close to 2 million resources in print in 20 languages. He primarily writes and speaks on the values of HomeWord, which are: Strong Marriages, Confident Parents, Empowered Kids, and Healthy Leaders. Some of his most popular books are: Confident Parenting, The Purity Code, Creating an Intimate Marriage, Closer, and Doing Life with Your Adult Children. Jim and his wife, Cathy, live in Southern California and have three grown daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi; three sons-in-law, Steve and Matt, and Andy; and three grandchildren, James, Charlotte and Huxley.

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