Sometimes, when life gets stressful, we feel like everything is going wrong.

Everyone is picking at everyone else. You’re late for everything. Your relationship with your mom is messed up. You and your husband never have time alone and your mad at each other constantly.

You look at your life and it seems like the whole thing is one big mess.

But what if there’s a common denominator to a lot of what’s going wrong? What if it’s not that everything is going wrong, but that one thing is spoiling everything else?

We’re talking about NOT doing marriage on hard mode this month. We’re looking at how sometimes we can make marriage harder than it needs to be (and helping people in truly difficult marriages hopefully identify that and see that there’s a big issue that needs to be addressed). 

Today I want to talk about how to identify the big thing that may be causing ripple effects throughout the rest of your relationships. 

I once heard a story about the Ritz Carlton hotel. I don’t remember all the details, but the hotel was trying to be the best in the world. When a problem comes, they’ve trained their staff to ask “Why?” seven times to get to the root cause. They want to get at the source of the issue and solve it.

In one particular case I remember hearing about, rooms weren’t getting cleaned fast enough.

Why? Because there weren’t enough clean towels.

Why? Because they couldn’t move the dirty towels to the laundry on time.

Why? Because the service elevators were clogged.

Why? And so on and so on.

They discovered the kitchen was getting huge deliveries at the same time the laundry needed the elevators. They changed the time of the kitchen delivery and the backlog disappeared.

A tiny change. A big difference.

What if it could be like that in our marriages, too? 

Sometimes there’s one thing that, if we could take care of it, would clear up 80% of the conflicts in our marriage. So what would happen if we asked why? 

Let’s try asking “why” to get to the root of the marriage issue. 


Example One: They always pick at each other as soon as he gets home from work. 

Why? Because she’s spent the day exasperated at him.

Why? Because her morning was so hectic and it’s really hard not to be late for work. 

Why? Because she’s always barking orders at everyone to get lunches and get dressed and even though he tries to help, he’s getting ready for work too.

Why? Because the kids won’t behave in the morning and there’s always too much to do.

Why? Because it’s hard to get them out of bed and they’re grumpy.

Why? Because they often go to bed late.

Why? Because we don’t do the bedtime routine well because we’re so exhausted and grumpy with each other. 

What would happen if this couple dedicated the next two weeks to moving the kids’ bedtime routine earlier, and doing it well, rather than rushing through it, so the kids go to bed peacefully? And then they could get up earlier and have a less stressful morning.

Example Two: She’s frustrated that he never initiates sex and expects her to do all the work. 

Why? Because he used to initiate but was always turned down.

Why? Because he initiated in a way that totally turned her off–he’d start pawing at her and grabbing her when she was enjoying a movie, and she found him very intrusive and annoying. 

Why? Because he was desperate to know that she actually wanted him, because it seemed like she was always swatting him away. So he was trying harder to prove that she did want him–and failing.

Why? Because she had stopped kissing him or almost all physical affection.

Why? Because whenever they kissed, he’d try to move it to the next level, and she got tired of always being expected to have sex if she showed him any affection. 

What would happen if this couple took two weeks and just kissed with no expectations of anything else? Or if they talked about the importance of non-sexual touch? Then they could go back to a baseline where she didn’t feel that she always had to run away from him.

Example Three: Despite the best budgets, they always overspend each month.

Why? It tends to be on takeout and food, unplanned at the last minute.

Why? Because they’re exhausted and they can’t figure out what to make for dinner. 

Why? Because there’s nothing fast to make in the fridge.

Why? Because they don’t meal plan or grocery shop regularly, so they never know what they’re going to have for dinner until that night. 

Why? Because on the weekends they’re so tired that they want to just relax.

Why? Because all their weekend evenings are taken up with either studying for the next exams or else volunteering on praise band and at church. 

What would happen if this couple cut back on their volunteering activities during this busy season of their school life, and gave themselves a night a week to grocery shop and meal plan and just breathe?

Sometimes asking these why questions can help us unravel why we’re picking at each other or why we’re pulling away from each other.

We can see what started the dynamic and stop it before it gets going.

Lots of times there’s one issue in our marriages that is affecting everything else.

It can be, like in the first example, logistical–we’re simply not organized enough or we’re not getting enough sleep, and that’s flowing over into other areas of our lives. It can be, like in the third example, that they’re just too busy and something’s going to break. It can be about relationship dynamics like in the second couple.

Other times it’s very common issues that come between you, like in-laws, money, video games or hobbies, mental load, or something else.

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If you already know what the issue is, rather than asking why, ask, “then what?”

Help your spouse see what happens when the issue isn’t resolved, like this:

An example of a “Then What?”

Trigger: She talks with her mom for hours on a Saturday and when she gets off the phone she’s grumpy because her mother is very difficult. 

Then What? She tries to fix something in the house in a frenzy–rearrange furniture, clean a ton, get super organized–because she feels inadequate after talking to her mom.

Then What? She gets upset because the family doesn’t buy in to the changes that she wants to make. 

Then What? She starts snapping at the kids and at her husband, and gets sad. 

Then What? The kids start snapping at each other and won’t do their homework or chores. 

Then What? Her husband often wants to retreat by going for a jog or doing errands to get out of the house.

Then What? She feels abandoned and that her family doesn’t love her, and her family feels distant from her. 

What would happen if she told her mom that she couldn’t talk to her on Saturdays, and spent the morning on a fun outing with the family instead?

Show your spouse the ripple effect of whatever you feel is bothering them. Even go back and forth with your “Then What?” scenarios, so you can see how out of control and ridiculous they can get!

And then maybe we can find that all this picking and fighting we do at each other isn’t because we don’t have a good relationship. 

It’s because of one root problem which we can actually fix.

And I hope these exercises can help you do that!

A Quick Trick to Identifying the Root Problem in Your Marriage

What do you think? 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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