How does a marriage deteriorate? How does a marriage that starts with a blissful couple in a church fall apart?

This week we’re talking about good decisions and fresh starts, and I want to start with a basic truth:

Most people are not bad.

Yet when I read emails from women who are in terrible marriages, and have been for decades, and they tell me about their husbands, I have to admit that their husbands sound like really selfish jerks.

And yet, in my social circle, I know very few truly selfish jerks. I do know some–and I totally believe that there are narcissists (we’ve had some in our social circle, and they’re horrible to deal with); I totally believe in emotional abuse, and I also believe that abusers often are attracted to conservative Christianity, because it gives them cover for controlling behaviour, which is why abuse is often more prevalent in these denominations (and among the women reading this blog).

Abuse absolutely exists.

And yet, when I look at most marriages (not all) where people are miserable and act selfishly, I don’t think abuse is at the heart of the problem. I think it’s something far simpler.

We’ve trained each other to be selfish towards one another.

Okay, I know that sounds really inflammatory. But let me explain:

I don’t think many of us value ourselves enough to encourage respectful behaviour.

We hear so much how women need to respect their husbands. But you are a valuable person to God who deserves respect, too!

And what does respect mean? It means treating someone as a human being, not as an object to use. It means making room for someone to have alternate thoughts, desires, preferences, etc. It means, in essence, giving someone their due. 

Yet many of us have been trained to think that the only possibly “correct” behaviour is to be nice. And nice means allowing others to be happy and do what they want. It means not rocking the boat or making a scene. Being nice can often be very damaging to a marriage.

How a Marriage Falls Apart: When we start letting little things go and reinforce disrespect, we cause distance. Marriage Deteriorates | How Marriage Fails

Let me tell you the story of one man and two women.

One man married one very nice woman. She cooked dinner every night, focusing on his favourite meal. If he came in late, she didn’t complain. If he tracked mud in all over the house, she said nothing and got out a broom. She washed his clothes, kept the house neat, and raised his children.

And in so doing, she disappeared into the background.

It’s like this really funny video by an Australian comedian. (I’m so sorry but this does have a swear word in it around 1:20; I wish it didn’t, but it does. But it really illustrates what I’m trying to show, so please forgive me! And if you’re sensitive to language, absolutely don’t watch it!).

She did so much around the house without telling him that he became messier because it didn’t have repercussions for him. And he ended up taking her for granted without realizing it.

In my story, because his wife did so much for him without demanding basic respect, he became more self-focused. He began drinking more, because he wanted to. He stayed out more, because he wanted to. And she had quite a miserable marriage.

She died early, and he remarried. And within a few months he had quit drinking and had begun helping out around the house. He was a different person.


Because the second wife didn’t tolerate the disrespect. She knew what she was worth. She wasn’t focused on being nice to him; she was focused on being good in their marriage, which is quite a different thing.

Being good means that you bring out the best in someone, not that you cater to their every whim.

One points people to God; the other points people to pursue their own selfish ends.

A basic principle in Scripture is “you reap what you sow”. We are supposed to bear the consequences of our actions. Indeed, that’s what often drives us to Christ–we see that we need Him because we can’t bear the consequences. But when we stop allowing others to reap what they sow, then we don’t just enable bad behaviour; we inadvertently encourage it because we feed selfishness.

You can actually “train” a spouse to be selfish.

I don’t mean to be simplistic, but humans react to incentives and disincentives. When there are incentives to being selfish (I get what I want) then we will do it; when there are disincentives (If I don’t think about my spouse’s well-being then we don’t get along well and there is distance), then we tend to learn to think of others.

I’m not saying that we should be mean. I am saying that there is a difference between serving someone in love and being subservient. Serving pursues their best; subservience pursues their every whim. One is focused on Christ; one is focused on the selfish heart.

Let me give you another scenario that isn’t focused on selfishness as much as it does brokenness, but has the same effect.

Let’s say that a woman gets married and she carries a lot of sexual baggage and shame because of the way she was raised. She has a hard time being vulnerable with her husband and often pushes him away; she runs away from sex; they have a very strained relationship. He tries to love her regardless. He tries to love her sacrificially. He doesn’t make demands. He showers her with love. Every now and then he tries to bring up the conversation about sex, and she tells him all the reasons why it’s all his fault. He continues to shower her with love, even though he’s getting more and more depressed.

Now, what is God’s best for her? It’s that she deals with her brokenness and learns to live in true freedom.

But what is he reinforcing? That her belief that sex is bad is perfectly valid and okay.

He’s allowing her to continue to be cut off from intimacy because no matter what she does he is showering her with love.

Love means pursuing someone’s best, not giving someone everything they want.

Do you have a hard time figuring out the difference between being NICE and being GOOD? These posts may help!

Yesterday Rebecca wrote a post about the 10 best decisions a couple can make in the first years of marriage, because it’s in those first years that you set the foundation. And I believe that in those first years we often allow so many little things that are toxic–so many little things that represent disrespecting each other and enabling bad behaviour–that we actually contribute to our spouse becoming a more selfish and broken person. We allow them to run away from healing.

Here are just a few examples of what we can do in little things to reinforce treating each other well:

  • At the beginning of your marriage, eat dinner at a table, together. That way one person can’t take food another one cooked and go eat on their own, ignoring the spouse.
  • Certainly get your spouse a drink if you’re getting up to get yourself one. But if your spouse is getting up–ask them to get you a drink, too.
  • If your spouse demeans you or talks to you rudely, call them on it immediately (if you wait, you’ll get in arguments about “I didn’t really say that.”). Just say, “I would appreciate a different tone of voice”, or “I feel insulted when you talk to me that way,” or “Can you ask me that in a different way?”
  • Ask for help. If you need an errand run–ask. If you’ve folded the laundry, ask him (or her) to put it away.
  • If something important is missing in  your marriage, like sex or affection or any deep conversation, then insist on going to a counsellor early. Don’t let it ride.

Look, I completely believe with letting small things go, with believing the best about a spouse, with scanning for things to praise rather than criticize, with routinely showing a spouse love. But at the same time, I think allowing a spouse to routinely dismiss your importance is not a healthy dynamic to set up, and is not good for anyone’s soul.

I don’t know a good way to explain quickly how to find that balance between not become critical but also not allowing disrespect, though I think I did a good job in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage! But maybe we can try to wrestle through it in the comments together? Let’s try!

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