February 14th is a day set aside each year for the celebration of romantic love. We call it Valentine’s Day, when caring husbands and wives assure each other of their affection and commitment. It is a very big deal in my family, and it should also be significant for the men who are reading along with me. Women take this day very seriously. Believe me!
Rather than devoting my letter this month to the ways of expressing romantic love, from flowers to candy to pink hoodie-footie pajamas, I would like to flip this coin over and talk briefly about the threats to lifelong relationships. I call them the “Great Marriage Killers.” Perhaps I can help some of you avoid making one or more of the eleven mistakes that I’ve listed below in this letter.
But first, I would like to share with you something important about this ministry that you may not know. Family Talk finds itself in a precarious situation now as we begin our third year on the air. The reason it struggles is that very few people know we are here. Many of them think I am still at Focus on the Family, and believe that a gift to Focus is a contribution to Family Talk. Some people think I have retired, or that I am working as an adjunct of my former ministry. None of these things are true. Frankly, we need friends who will share the facts with them about this work. We also need some to give as the Lord leads and makes it possible. We are praying every day that the Lord will make it clear what His will is for this ministry, and we will accept the consequences. After all, Family Talk belongs to Him and Him alone. Please consider how you can help us in this mission by coming alongside the ministry in partnership. Thank you to all those who will stand with us in prayer and action.
Avoiding the “Great Marriage Killers”
I have chosen this emphasis because the society in which we live works actively to undermine marital stability. There are dangers on all sides, and we must defend our marital bonds from the forces that threaten them. Any one of the following killers can rip your relationship to shreds if not guarded against almost every day.
1. Over-commitment and physical exhaustion.
Beware of this most common source of marital disharmony. It is especially risky for young couples to attempt to get a college degree, work full-time, have a baby, manage a toddler, buy and repair a fixer-upper house, and start a new business. Amazingly, many young couples make this mistake and are then surprised when their marriages fall apart. They are not giving themselves a chance when the only time they see each other is when they are exhausted! That is asking for trouble. It is especially dangerous to have the husband vastly overcommitted and the wife staying home with a preschooler. A lonely and frustrated woman often becomes depressed, and we all know where that leads. I strongly recommend that you reserve time for one another if you want to keep your love alive. Slow the pace of living and enjoy these youthful years together.
2. Excessive credit and conflict over how money will be spent.
Pay cash for consumable items or don't buy them. Don't spend more for a house or car than you can afford, leaving too few resources for baby-sitting, dates, short trips, and other fun activities. Allocate your funds with the wisdom of Solomon. Constant fights over money are devastating to marital relationships.
There are two kinds of people in the world, the givers and the takers. A marriage between two givers can be a beautiful thing. Friction is the order of the day, however, for a giver and a taker. But two takers can claw each other to pieces within a period of weeks. In short, selfishness will devastate a marriage every time.
4. Conflict with in-laws.
If either the husband or wife has not been fully emancipated from his or her parents, it is best not to live near them. Autonomy is difficult for some mothers to grant, and close proximity to them and their husbands is risky at best. In-law conflict leads to divided loyalties, which forces husbands and wives to choose between spouses and family members. One marital partner is often the loser.
5. Unrealistic expectations.
Some couples come into marriage anticipating rose-covered cottages, walks down primrose lanes, and uninterrupted joy. Life is rarely that uncomplicated. The late counselor Jean Lush wrote, and I agree, that this romantic illusion is particularly characteristic of many American women who expect more from their husbands than they are capable of delivering. The consequent disappointment is an emotional trap. Bring your expectations into conformity with reality.
6. Space invaders.
This “killer” will be difficult to describe or understand in such a brief context, but I'll try to explain it. By space invaders, I am not referring to aliens from Mars. Rather, my concern is for those who make too many demands on their spouses and begin to suffocate them. That destroys marital attraction.
Jealousy by an insecure spouse often produces the pattern I am describing. Love must be free and it must be confident. (For more information on this topic, see my book, Love Must Be Tough.)
7. Alcohol and drug abuse.
Addictions to these and other substances are marriage killers. Don’t let yourself fall victim to them.
8. Pornography, gambling, and other behavioral addictions.
Have you noticed that all human beings are flawed creatures? Most of us harbor tendencies to get hooked on destructive behaviors, especially early in life. Some vulnerable individuals think they can play with enticements such as pornography, gambling, or sexual flirtation and not get hurt. But these diversions tear at the fabric of the family.
Speaking personally, I've found it best not to permit myself to even sample certain vices, knowing that I can never become addicted to them if they are never granted a toehold in my life. For example, Shirley and I have gone to gambling resorts when attending conventions or passing through towns where there are casinos. Never on these occasions have I put so much as a nickel in a slot machine, even though two or three rolls of coins were provided with hotel reservations. I refused to use them for the same reason the hotel manager left them in my room. He knew that if he could open the door to incidental gambling, I might make a habit of it. That is why I wouldn't play his game.
Likewise, Shirley and I are teetotalers when it comes to alcohol. I know that will sound strange to many of my readers. Perhaps it will make more sense when you know that Shirley’s dad was an alcoholic, and the pain inflicted on his family was horrendous. Obviously, many people enjoy wine with their meals—and that is entirely their business. But we decided early in our marriage that if we took an absolutist position on alcohol, we would never have a problem with it. We also concluded that if our children never saw us inebriated, they would be less likely to drink excessively themselves. I am not recommending that everyone follow our lead in this regard, but there would be fewer addicts and subsequent divorces if more people did.
As a member of the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, I listened to testimony by those who thought they could jazz up their sex lives with obscene materials. They discovered that the stuff they were watching quickly began to seem tame and even boring. That led them to seek racier, more explicit depictions. And then they journeyed in time down the road toward harder and more offensive materials. For some, it became an obsession that filled their world with perversion and sickness. I won’t describe where pornography can lead to avoid telling you more than you want to read. All I can say is that often when the door is opened to explicit material, a monster can come charging out.
The restrictions and commandments of Scriptures were designed to protect us from evil. Though their warnings are difficult to believe when we are young, it is tragically true that, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). If we keep our lives clean and do not permit ourselves to toy with evil, the addictions which have ravaged humanity can never touch us. It's a very old-fashioned idea. I still believe it makes sense.
9. Business failure.
Making risky investments and then losing them does bad things to men, especially. Their agitation over financial reverses sometimes sublimates to anger within the family.
10. Business success.
Sudden wealth is almost as fraught with danger as failing miserably in business. The writer of Proverbs said, "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread" (30:8).
Edward Fitzgerald said it another way: "One of the saddest pages kept by the recording angel is the record of souls that have been damned by success." It's true. Those who profit handsomely sometimes become drunk with power and the lust for more! Wives and children may be forgotten in the process.
11. Getting married too young.
Girls who marry in their teens are more than twice as likely to divorce as those who marry after 20 years of age. 1 The pressures of adolescence and the stresses of early married life do not mix well. Unexpected babies can bring emotional pressure on the young, too. I suggest you finish growing up before taking on the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.
These are the devastating marriage killers I've seen most often. But in truth, the list is virtually limitless. All that is needed to grow the most vigorous weeds is a small crack in your sidewalk. If you are going to beat the odds and maintain an intimate, long-term marriage, you must take the task seriously. If you are not careful, the natural order of things will carry you away from one another, not bring you together.
Let me explain this phenomenon with an illustration excerpted from a book I am about to publish. It will be titled, Dr. James Dobson’s Handbook of Family Advice. I wrote,
Imagine, if you will, two little rowboats crossing a choppy lake. A man sits in one, and a woman rides blissfully in the other. They have every intention of rowing side by side to the other shore, but then they begin drifting in opposite directions. They can hardly hear each other above the sound of the wind. Soon the man finds himself at the northern end of the lake, and the woman bobs along toward the south. Neither can recall how he or she drifted so far from the other or how they can reconnect.
This simple illustration has meaning for couples who embark on life’s journey. They stand at the altar and pledge to live together in love and harmony “til death do us part.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. Unless their relationship is maintained and cultivated, it will grow distant and estranged. In a sense, this is why romantic little rowboats often drift toward opposite ends of the lake.
The question to be raised is, how can husbands and wives remain in the same proximity for a lifetime? The solution is for them to row like crazy. Take time for romantic activities. Think not of yourself but of the other. Avoid that which breeds conflict and resentment. And listen carefully to the needs of your partner. These are the keys to harmony and friendship.
Let me say it again: it is difficult to keep two rowboats floating along together. I know because this illustration occurred to me when I was fishing one day with a buddy. He was in his rowboat and I was in mine. The wind blew us in opposite directions and we wound up 200 yards apart. We learned that the only way our “little ships” could be kept together was for both of us to row, row, row our boats.
I’ll ask you, the reader, how will you beat the odds that could wreck your marriage? How will you build a solid relationship that will last until death takes one of you across the Great Divide?
There is only one answer: give your marriage and your children the priority they deserve. Let nothing squeeze them out of first place. Then take these beloved family members to the Lord in prayer every day of your lives together.
God’s blessings to you all. May the peace of Jesus be with you in the days ahead. And Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
President and Founder
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