The Most Destructive Dynamic in a Marriage

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Marriage is not what we pictured when we declared our vows before our friends and family.

We don’t always know why, but we keep doing something that causes disconnection. Sabotaging a healthy marriage is the last thing we want, rather you crave a intimate and life-giving best friendship with your spouse. The problem is, we struggle to put our finger on what is interfering and therefore don’t know how to change it. Authors James Sells and Mark Yarhouse shed some light on this common pattern of behavior. They explain it is more destructive than disrespect, neglect, even infidelity. So, what is it?!

The most destructive dynamic in a marriage is causing pain and then disregarding it. It sounds like: “You hurt me when…” and the other spouse responds, “That’s not what I meant” or, “Yeah, well you hurt me when…” These responses that so easily fly out of our mouths are fine examples of disregard. Disregard feels like you do not care and you did not hear or understand the pain I am feeling. Wow. I’ve seen marriages survive infidelity when there was great regard for pain. I think these experts are right – disregard is the most destructive element in marriage.

So what do we do? We choose to regard well.

To regard well, you must focus on the right thing. Don’t burn up all energy on simply not causing pain. As much as we would like to eliminate it, we will continue to inadvertently cause pain. I have tried to be perfect, and I just can’t do it. When it happens, it is unhelpful to feel like you’re a bad spouse. Rather, you’re human (shame! I hate it!). Additionally, we do not start off trying to hurt our spouse yet it is easy to feel like they are trying to hurt us. We think, “How could you say that and think it wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”

I have a rule when wrestling with my six year old son. If he gets hurt, he’s allowed to get mad, but he’s not allowed to think I tried to hurt him on purpose. Anchoring to that truth has noticeably improved our wrestling, and it will greatly benefit your conflicts. Our interpretation of these moments impacts how well we accepts our spouse’s regard for our pain.

Our best investment of our energy and time is to focus on regarding pain well. It starts with imagining what your spouse is feeling. It is being intentional with your tone and body language. Stop what you’re doing and give your undivided attention. You could say something like, “I imagine that feels tough, or was hurtful. It make sense to me why you are upset. I feel sad this happened to you”.

Boom! So simple, right? Not always for me.

I find it a lot harder when I’m hot and bothered in a conflict, I instinctually react with defense when I experience pain. And, there is often pain when there is conflict. Protecting ourselves against pain is one of the reasons we have survived as a human race. This defensiveness is hard wired in us by God. However, you can chose your defense, I challenge you to choose something other than aggression or avoidance.

Choosing a response you want will likely require you to take these steps. Take a 30 minute break if tensions are building and you’re finding it hard to regard pain. While alone and regulating your emotions, anchor to these three thoughts:

  1. My spouse was not trying to hurt me.
  2. I am not hurting more than my spouse. Her (or his) pain, although may be different, is equal to mine.
  3. This is a crucial opportunity for me to build health in my marriage.

These are not dismissive statements, but almost always true and help me stop focusing on me.

This is helpful even when the pain isn’t your fault. If you’re a habitual problem fixer (like me), focus on regarding pain when your spouse just wants you to listen to something you did not cause. It’s much easier when it’s not your fault. For example, your spouse comes home from a night out with her friends, and is upset. After you find out what happened you just simply respond with, “That sounds like it was painful. I get why you are upset. I feel bummed (or angry) that happened to you.” And then zip it. Don’t try to spin the hardship in a positive way or offer solutions, just acknowledge the pain and show that it matters to you. Your only job is to be with your spouse, yet it will require such self-control to refrain from old habits.

You deserve the marriage God pictured when he designed it. So, lets partner with him in bringing about change. May our destructive patterns be exposed and may we find new ones that yield a booyah marriage. May we become professional pain regard-ers. As a result everyone in our life will benefit.

Nick Tompkins