The more marriage conferences and counseling I do, the more convinced I become that there is one issue, more than any other, that is causing marriages to fall apart today.
Communication? Money? Sex? For decades these issues have been said to be the top three reasons why marriages fail, and there’s no doubt that many marriages have blown up over these issues. But I feel they aren’t number one anymore.
My experience is pointing to one growing complication. When you hear it, you won’t be surprised by what is.
Today’s Number One Marriage Killer: Unresolved Past Issues
Emotional baggage. Because it’s often buried so far beneath the surface, it may not seem to have the explosive force of financial or sexual problems. But the reality is it’s a deadly poison that can slowly eat away at a marriage from the inside out.
Every one of us comes into marriage with a past, a personal history that impacts our future relationships. In fact, everyone comes with various degrees of unhealthiness, unresolved issues and the likelihood of blind spots. For some, it’s scars from physical, emotional or sexual abuse. For others, it’s regrets surrounding past sexual behavior. Increasingly, people enter marriage burdened by broken relationships, marital discord, alcoholism or other significant problems in their family of origin. On the flip side, those blessed enough to come from a healthy family often come with unrealistic ideas about what marriage is or what kind of lifestyle they expect to enjoy.
Some of these issues seem on the surface to be more serious than others. But any of them, if left unresolved, can grow and fester. Eventually, that poison permeates the whole person, affecting their freedom and their ability to think clearly, feel healthy and respond normally. That’s when it really begins to do damage in the marriage relationship.
Sometimes we avoid dealing with these issues head-on, thinking, “Well, maybe it’ll just go away.” Rarely does that happen. Time does not heal all wounds unless we take steps to facilitate that healing. So make a commitment to unpack your baggage. The health of your marriage and the balance of your family depend on it.
Face Your Blind Spots
As you begin to take stock of your life to see how your past is impacting your life today, it’s going to require three things: complete honesty, a willingness to go deep, and a trusted friend beyond just your spouse.
We all have a tendency to minimize our faults and problems. We downplay the importance of things that we don’t like, and in doing so we develop blind spots. Unpacking your baggage depends upon your readiness to admit, “I may have a problem here, and I’m willing to look at it.” You need to openly face your issues. The first step to healing is admitting that there’s a problem.
We have to also be brave enough to go below the surface. Maybe you’ve got a temper problem, and it’s very obvious. You’re kicking in doors, and it’s significantly affecting the temperature of your home. Well, the temper definitely needs to be dealt with. But just as importantly, you need to work to discover what lies behind the temper. Why do you so easily lose it? What brings you to the boiling point? What would it take to change your whole demeanor?
This is where the importance of a real friend comes in. By friend, I don’t just mean someone who will affirm us and reassure us that “It’s not that bad.” I’m talking about someone who is courageous enough and secure enough in our friendship to tell the truth: “You know what, Dave, the anger that you have sometimes – do you realize that you’re pretty selfish, you’re pretty preoccupied with your agenda?”
Sometimes we all need a kick to get us going in the right direction, just as we need encouragement when we are growing. Usually, this kind of accountability is best given by someone other than our spouse. It should be a longtime, same-sex friend who has our best interests at heart.
I know there are issues in my life that I just don’t see, and sometimes my wife is not the best person to help me see those things. I value the friends who play that critical role in my life. There’s a wise saying: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Don’t go for flattery. Get a friend who loves you enough to confront you.
Stop Blaming Others
You cannot unpack your baggage without first owning and embracing it. We naturally prefer to blame others. So many people spend their lives saying, “If only my Dad or my Mom had done this…if only this situation hadn’t happened…it’s not my fault.”
At some point you’ve got to take responsibility for what is yours; you have to take responsibility for today. Yes, other people have let you down, and you aren’t responsible for their actions. But you have a choice as to how you react to it. You can let it drag you down for life, or you can use it to grow stronger. You must decide to move on.
We’ve got to get past the blame game because that doesn’t change things. Many marriages are messed up because they’re stuck on the past – stuck on something someone did to them. Make a decision to take responsibility for your life from this time on. Take the initiative in making choices that will improve the situation going forward. Get the help you need. Don’t let yourself be weighed down by other people’s choices.
Freedom Comes from Freely Forgiving
Forgiveness is the critical final step towards gaining freedom from the hurts of your past. You need to come to a place where you let go of hurt that’s been caused.
No matter how violent it was, how deep it was, how prolonged it was, no matter how much affect there’s been on your life, understand that if you do not extend forgiveness, you are the person stuck with the bitterness and revenge. The person who hurt you will not be affected by your unwillingness to forgive them. But your resentment will rob you of the freedom to love your spouse and kids freely. A bitter person cannot effectively love others.
To let it go will not be easy. The person may not deserve it and may not even have asked for it, but you need to extend forgiveness because of what it will do for you. A huge weight will be lifted off your back. In fact, someone said that bitterness is like a knife in your own stomach, and it’s going around and around, carving you up. When you forgive, the knife comes out.
A marriage is only as healthy as the two people in it. How are you doing today? Are you carrying around 100-lb bags stuffed with the hurts and disappointments of the past? Put them down, and you will be amazed at how it lifts your marriage to a higher level.
Reprinted with permission. Dr. Dave Currie is the National Director of FamilyLife Canada. He and his wife Donalyn live in Abbotsford, BC and are regular speakers at FamilyLife Marriage Conferences.