Dan Trathen DMin, PhD Clinical Psychologist & Certified Business & Life Coach

Danger Signs of an Eroding Marriage

By Daniel W. Trathen, D. Min. Ph. D.

There are many patterns that scripture and marital research would suggest are harmful for relationships. Four key Danger Signs are one way to summarize these destructive patterns of communication and conflict management. While these specific patterns have been identified in sound marital research, they clearly overlap with key principles from scripture. If you routinely demonstrate these patterns, you are likely to have trouble maintaining oneness in your marriage.

Escalation occurs when partners respond back and forth negatively to each other, continually “upping the ante” so conditions get worse and worse. Often, negative comments spiral into increasing anger and frustration–sometimes with the idea of divorce being thrown about. (Proverbs 20:3; Proverbs 29:11)

Invalidation is a pattern in which one partner subtly or directly puts down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other. Invalidation can take many forms, from subtle indifference to name calling to contempt. (Proverbs 25:20; Ephesians 4:29; 1 Peter 2:17)

Withdrawal and Avoidance
Withdrawal is a pattern in which one partner shows an unwillingness to get into or stay with important discussions. It can be as obvious as getting up and leaving the room or as subtle as “turning off” during an argument. The withdrawer often tends to get quiet during an argument, or may agree quickly to some suggestion just to end the conversation, with no real intention of following through. Avoidance reflects the same reluctance to get into certain discussions, with more emphasis on the attempt to not let the conversation happen in the first place. (Matthew 5:23-24; Ephesians 4:25-27)

Negative Interpretations
Negative interpretations occur when one partner consistently believes that the motives of the other are more negative than is really the case. This negative pattern will make any conflict or disagreement harder to deal with constructively.

Negative interpretations are very destructive, in part because they are very hard to detect and counteract after they become cemented into the fabric of a relationship. Scripture strongly calls attention to our tendency to emphasize the negative in others while being blind to the negative in ourselves:

Matthew 7:3-4 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? [4] How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

1 Cor. 13:6-7 “Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; [7] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

The research that identifies such negative patterns mirrors a truth clearly expressed in scripture — there are very clear negative relational patterns that will surely destroy any relationship (e.g., Proverbs 12:18, 15:1, 17:14, 29:22, Matthew 5:22, 7:1-5, Galatians 5:15, Ephesians 4:29, James 1:26, 4:1-3).

1 Peter 3:8-10 “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For, Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.”

The best predictors of which couples will have successful marriages and which will fail have the most to do with how couples handle conflict. The good news is this: all couples can learn to communicate and handle problems and disagreements better. This can make a big difference.

The Biblical model proceeds from the following assumptions: First, marriage is designed by God to be a relationship characterized by growth, nurturance, and the mystery of oneness expressing itself in love. Second, because of sin and the fall, marriages are plagued by the erection of barriers to oneness, most notably those formed out of self-protective motives. Third, the presenting conflict — which in certain forms is very predictive of marital breakdown and divorce — interrupts oneness from occurring because it is not safe for vulnerability to occur in the relationship. If you’re married, you probably need no convincing that learning to effectively deal with issues is important. If you’re engaged, you may be thinking “we won’t need that stuff, we get along great.” But marriage can be a challenge. Learning specific techniques and developing healthy patterns of communication and conflict resolution can help us keep our marriage vibrant and growing over many years to come.

Material adapted from A Lasting Promise: A Christian Guide to Fighting for Your Marriage. Stanley, S. M., Trathen D.W., McCain S., Bryan M., 1998, Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. San Francisco, California.

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