When couples come for marriage counseling they often say that communication is their main problem. There typically are deeper problems as well, but communication is a good place to start. Without safe and respectful communication, it is not even possible to work on the deeper issues. One of the largest longitudinal research studies of marriage ever conducted was begun in 1980 at the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at Denver University. Drs. Scott Stanley, Daniel Trathan, and Savanna McCain used the research findings from this 20 year longitudinal study to develop curriculum to help couples function well in their relationships. The primary finding was that the best overall predictor of how well a couple is going to do in the future is how well they handle conflict and disagreements.1
The beginning stages of a new relationship are typically romantic and exciting. This is the “butterflies-in-the-stomach” stage. Each person is on their best behavior and doing all they can to impress the other. They tend to see each other through rose-colored glasses. They have great hopes that this new person in their life is perfect for them. This is potentially their soul mate and “the one.” Sooner or later reality breaks through and each notices a few flaws in their new perfect partner. That’s okay, though, as long as you see it clearly and early and don’t feel the need to change and improve them. No one is perfect. Right? However, it is important to see the real person early on. You need to know who they are before deciding that he or she is “the one” for you. If you see red flags, do not ignore them. Some things are deal breakers. The reason people seem so exciting and perfect at first is that we do not know them or their history. Be sure to take time to learn. Stay emotionally detached and remain objective as you are getting to know someone. This is why sex before marriage is a bad idea. Healthy objectivity stops when sex enters the relationship.
Marriage is all about “oneness” and oneness is good. Two emotionally and spiritually healthy individuals make the best kind of oneness. God created marriage, and it is good! We get married for all the good things of marriage. Therefore, it is important to protect the good from the bad. We need to protect our relationships from the things that will destroy oneness.
The danger signs identified by Stanley, Trathan, and McCain as the greatest predictors of high risk marriages are:
INVALIDATION: Putting down the thoughts, feelings, or character of the other person.
ESCALATION: Responding back and forth negatively with each other.
WITHDRAWAL: Unwillingness to get into or stay with important discussions.
NEGATIVE INTERPRETATION: Making a negative or unfair assumption about what someone is thinking, saying, or doing.
These danger signs are like little foxes running through a carefully cultivated field of crops you have planted and worked hard to nurture and grow. These destructive habits must not be allowed to destroy the good things of your marriage. Choose to handle conflict with love and respect towards each other. Do not vent on each other. Do not dump anger and stress on the people you love at the end of a difficult day. Find constructive ways to anticipate and manage your negative emotions. Protect your spouse and family from the things that destroy oneness. Be sure your home is a safe home and you are a safe person. Pray with your spouse and children every day and say, “I love you.”
“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous . . . . . . bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7
1Christian PREP Leader’s Manual, Stanley, Trathen, McCain, 1997.