Why is it some marriages thrive while others seem to die? Though we might be tempted to think this is an issue of compatibility, more often than not, the truth is much more behavior based. Though no one sets out to intentionally harm their marriage, here are five ways one can destroy emotional intimacy.
- Criticizing Your Spouse: There’s a difference between sharing one’s feelings openly and coming at a person with a spirit of criticism. According to Eric Gayer, the difference lies in our motivation. “Criticism is often motivated by pride,” he says. “[Or the notion that] I have it all together and you don’t.” Pride, when unchecked, leads to selfishness and isolation. Intimacy, however, is dependent on humility, in which we are ready to lay down our rights and concede to another. In other words, marriage is a continual practice in submission. “It can be important to remember that it doesn’t always matter if you are right,” Gayer says. “If you are right, but your criticism has created a gap in intimacy with your spouse, you aren’t working toward the right goal.” The answer? First, take some time to pray over your concern, asking God to cleanse your heart of any false, prideful, or selfish motives and to help you to see the situation from His perspective. If, after you’ve taken the issue to Christ, you still feel the issue must be addressed, do so from an “I’m for us,” stance. If you cannot say that honestly, then you are probably not ready to have the difficult conversation. Second, ask yourself, “Is this issue truly important?” When my husband and I were first married, 90 percent of our fights stemmed from petty annoyances—dirty socks on the floor, burned dinners, and unintentional inconsiderateness. The more we focused on our minor frustrations, the more our hostility toward one another grew. The moment we determined to change our focus and began to see the good in one another, our intimacy increased and those minor issues no longer mattered.
- Focusing On Your Needs Rather than Your Spouse’s: It’s common nature. Most of us are enmeshed in self, and therefore, we have a tendency to view our world and marriage through a selfish lens. The problem with this is, if both spouses are focused on getting their own needs met, both of them will end up in the deficit. But God calls us to love sacrificially, as He loved us. According to Willard Harley, author of His Needs Her Needs, we all have a “love bank,” and as husbands and wives, we are either filling our spouse’s bank or taking from it. When we do or say something harmful, it’s like making a withdrawal, whereas when we love our spouse in a way that they can understand and receive, we are making a deposit. Overtime, our spouse’s bank can become depleted. When this happens, the relationship becomes challenged. We will never be able to fill up our spouse’s love bank if we are focused on how empty ours is. Instead, we need to focus on being an instrument of health and healing, treating our spouse as we would like them to treat us and surrendering our needs to Christ. That’s not to say we can never discuss our needs, but our primary focus must be to meet our spouse’s. If we do this, more likely than not we will begin to see dramatic changes in our marriage, resulting in our own needs being met. If we fail to do this, however, we can almost guarantee our marriage will either stagnate or erode.
- Putting Your Children Before Your Spouse: According to Dr. James Connelly, Executive Director of City care counseling in Omaha, Nebraska, “Families begin with the marriage couple as primary. When a spouse places the child’s needs above either their own or their spouse’s, it creates an unhealthy dynamic in the balance of power.” He acknowledges there are certain life situations, like when a child becomes ill, where this must occur, and yet, encourages us to prioritize our marriage. “This is perhaps a milder version of infidelity; a breach in the vow to give oneself fully and preeminently to each other,” he says. “Child-cheating can result in similar consequences to emotional or physical adultery. To remedy or avoid this dynamic, parents need to recognize and make every effort to meet each other’s needs first, and work in tandem to find ways to meet the needs of their children.” When our daughter was young, I literally failed in this area. I was a new mom, incredibly insecure, and completely smitten with our little girl. My husband and I both were, and though we also loved one another, I tended to push him aside in my efforts to be a “perfect mom.” If he and I were in the middle of a conversation and she needed something, I’d immediately disengage to run to her aid. Often, she’d sit between us at church and during dinner, and before long, my husband began to feel like an afterthought. At times, he event felt like an annoyance. But then one evening, as he started to sit beside me in a restaurant booth, our daughter quickly bolted between us, and I saw a flash of pain on my husband’s face. In that moment, I became painfully aware of how I had consistently devalued him, hurt him, and it broke my heart. I knew if I didn’t start behaving differently, I’d break our marriage as well. From that moment on, I began to put my husband first, knowing if I did that, our marriage would be stronger, and we’d all win.
- Maintaining Harmful Friendships: Our attitude and perception is greatly influenced by those with whom we spend the most time with. For this reason, it’s imperative that we choose our friends carefully. This is doubly important if our marriage is struggling. According to Pastor Gayer, our friend choices can have a huge impact on how we view our marital relationship. “Friends that encourage you to complain about your spouse cause you to look for [their] faults rather than celebrating their strengths.” Early in my marriage, I spent time with a group of women who tended to be negative and critical of their husbands. I noticed, after spending an afternoon listening to their marital frustrations, my attitude started to sour. I returned home frustrated, prideful, and selfish, and often, with boxing gloves on. Instead of celebrating the positives in my husband and our marriage, I began to focus on the perceived negative. As I did, I grew increasingly discontent. The solution? I soon realized I needed to be more selective in my friendships, choosing to build relationships with women who pointed me toward my spouse and Christ.
- Threats: When we read of the first marital relationship in human history, we are told the man and the woman was naked and unashamed. I believe this verse speaks to much more than Adam and Eve’s state of undress and involves a deep and authentic transparency, one where they could reveal who their core selves without fear of rejection and abandonment. To put it another way, love thrives when fear dies. I believe a strong case can be made for the converse as well, because intimacy and self-protection are mutually exclusive. According to Pastor Gayer, threats form a wedge between a husband and wife. “Marriage is intended to be a place of intimacy,” he says, “You are doing life with someone who sees you at your best… and your worst. [Who] knows everything about you; there isn’t much space to hide. Anytime we threaten our spouse with divorce, etc., it creates an atmosphere of fear [instead of] safety. Then [our spouse] is not motivated to be vulnerable with us, and it begins to put distance between us and the person we are supposed to be close to.” Thriving marriages take a lot of intentional care, care that may feel unnatural to many of us. In our selfish, individualistic culture, our tendency is to focus on our needs and desires, leaving our marriage to wither. More than that, we can allow negative patterns of behavior to form an emotional wall between us and the one person God intends us to be closest to. But by avoiding destructive behavior and instead, focusing on those things that foster increased intimacy, we can create the kind of marriage both we and our spouse need. - By Danjuma Iliya.