How Does A Marriage Crumble? (Part One)

ScribblesCrumblingOne of the cool things I get to do as part of my regular gig is officiate at weddings. That means I go to a lot of weddings. It also means I’ve met with a lot of couples before their ceremony to talk about the marriage that follows. Mostly I really enjoy these sessions. They can be challenging, often amusing and usually insightful. We’ll spend part of a couple sessions talking over the ceremony itself, what the bride would like, what the groom’s expectations are (typically: something short) and go over a basic outline of what goes into a wedding ceremony. A few weeks ago I met with a couple and as we talked over their ceremony I asked, as I always do, if there was anything they wanted in the ceremony that I hadn’t thought of or they hadn’t brought up yet. The bride thought for a few seconds and I could tell there was something on her mind.

“Well…” she was trying to find the words, “do you usually do a homily (ed. “Homily” is the fancy word for “sermon”, “meditation” or “talk”, whatever your tradition is more familiar with…)in the ceremony?”
“Yes, usually, it’s not real long but I’ll share a few thoughts…”
“Could you, well, I don’t want to tell you what to say…but…well…”
“Just go ahead and I’ll tell you if it’s a problem or not…”
“We were just at the wedding of some friends and the first thing the pastor said in his talk was that half of all marriages end in divorce. Could you not bring up divorce at our wedding?”

I smiled at the conflict about her strong feelings about ‘divorce’ getting into the ceremony and her obvious desire not to offend me. I assured her the word wouldn’t be found in my homily or any other part of the ceremony. What bride wants to hear about divorce on her first day of married life? Compounding that is the fact that half of all marriages do NOT end in divorce. A lot do, but not 50%, despite how many times you’ve seen that quoted. It came from a faulty interpretation or application of survey stats.

But still, a lot of marriages do end in divorce. An even higher number go through really hard times. There’s still another group that never end in divorce but despite the legal contract the relationship stopped being a marriage a long, long time ago. Lately I’ve been wondering “Why?”

In the Christian Church there is still a lot of baggage that goes along with divorce. In the Catholic Church marriage is a sacrament and while we Protestants have “downgraded” marriage from a “must have” we’ve still kept divorce on the “must not have” list. Pretty much the unforgiveable sin. Someone said the Church would forgive someone who killed their spouse faster than they would someone who divorced their spouse. At some level I really do believe that’s true. In part, the absence of one spouse is much easier to deal with relationally than the ongoing presence of “the first (husband/wife)”. That one can be much more uncomfortable and a whole lot less of a “testimony” than a wife killer who’s repented. I’m not saying this is a right, good or Jesus way of thinking, just something anyone in the Church can observe for their selves.

In the Church our favourite thing to do is to blame either the devil or the world. The old “urban legend” that gets regularly trotted out: ministry type is on a plane (the speaker who claims to have had the experience personally or someone they know) next to someone who eventually spills the beans that they’re a witch on assignment to “pray” for the break-up of Christian marriages. Google it, it’s appearing on a blog near you as “just happened”. Rarely have I sat down with a couple in the midst of marriage troubles who are desperately trying to stay together but find some inextricable, unexplainable and irresistible force that is ripping them apart. It’s usually him or her or them. That’s the other side of my gig that isn’t so much fun. I’ve sat and talked with couples who didn’t want to be a couple any more. Many times. Some have ended in divorce, but not all. I’ve heard the devil invoked as an instigator of these troubles but I haven’t had a conversation yet that ended with neither the husband or wife naming specific actions, words or deeds, by the other person, that didn’t get more credit than the presence of the evil one.

What causes a marriage to crumble?

There isn’t one simple answer to that question. I can tell you that it’s NOT the devil or the evil world we’re in though. Those two may get invited in to the situation and make things worse but they aren’t the answer to the question. Sorry.

In terms of issues, my experience would make a list that includes:
1) One of the two has radically changed their sense of who they really are.
2) Money – lack or abundance thereof. Either way.
3) Changing the rules. This relates to #1 but basically one of the two tries to change or break out of the unhealthy system they’ve been living in. Sometimes this works out, often it does not.
4) Sex. This is such an intimate part of us and so tied to our view of ourselves, others and even of God that conflict here is often a deal breaker – and we fee tremendous pressure NOT to talk about it!
5) Communication. Probably at the top of the list if this was in ranked order. If healthy communication is in place a lot of stuff can be worked through but without it, nothing will get worked through even if you manage to sweep enough under the rug to keep living under the same roof.

A long time ago I sat in a day long workshop on suicide. During the day, one of the presenters gave a powerful and helpful picture on “why” someone commits suicide that I’ve found is also true when it comes to “why” a marriage crumbles. He drew a stick person up on the board and then in the shape of an arch over the stick person he wrote words describing issues in their lives (grades, work, co-worker, parent’s expectations, fear, and so on). Finally he drew one tiny problem over all of them – turned down for a promotion at work – manageable, but on top of everything else it created an emotional avalanche that overwhelmed the person.

A crumbling marriage is rarely that one issue. Even if the “issue” is infidelity. It’s usually a pile of issues. When things finally go south the presenting issue, “We don’t have enough money to buy the kids new shoes for school…” that erodes what everyone thinks is a “great marriage” seems trivial and easily dealt with – “Here’s $100, get the kids some shoes and stay together.” Is only, well, too little too late. They’ve been building their little marriage chalet at the base of a beautiful snow covered mountain and that one little flake just started an avalanche that crushes everything and everyone in its path. Taking care of the flake right now just won’t help.

Sadly, what I’ve seen is that most people, particularly church people, see the destruction and think the problem is divorce and just deciding not to get a divorce is the answer but deciding not to get a divorce doesn’t really remove the weight of all that snow. “Divorce” is just the name we give to something that’s already happened.

To be continued…


About brianmpei

Stumbling towards what comes next.
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15 Responses to How Does A Marriage Crumble? (Part One)

  1. Lori McDonald says:

    Love this.
    Going through this process myself, this applies to me.
    And I don’t know after hours, days and months of trying to figure it out, what to make of it.
    In my situation, I think the biggest mistake we have made is not putting our friendship first. Thinking that if we just move on and give up that life is bound to get better. I think we are both wrong about this. Getting closer and not further apart has got to be the answer for us. Relationship is hard, as you have said many times, but the rewards are greater than the losses. I have to thank you and CC for being there for me and my family. We may not have made it through this time without you.
    You are wise.

    • brianmpei says:

      Lori, thanks for your kind words and for sharing your struggle. It’s hard and I’m glad you feel like we are with you.

      “Getting closer and not further apart…” that’s the thing, eh? I think that’s where we often lose the plot. In a world that pursues all things “maintenance free” we try to do a marriage that way and it just doesn’t work. Even if we manage to stay married.

      Thanks for being my friend and letting me share life with you!

  2. Leaha Beaton says:

    relly injoyed this. cant what to read the reast of it.

  3. onemansbeliefs says:

    Interesting blog…

    You asked, “What causes a marriage to crumble?”

    I believe the answer to that question is simple and can be answered in one word…


    • brianmpei says:

      Hi Oneman, thanks for stopping by. If you stop by again you’ll see that I don’t think it is simple. And while “selfishness” is certainly the root of all sorts of problems, including the crumbling of a marriage, it’s not always the problem.

    • Ian says:

      Selfishness can be traced to a multitude of things. The investigation of any issue, (selfishness being the root), or say even mental health, will identify other items that will require more immediate attention before such a large and common problem be improved.

      • brianmpei says:

        True enough Ian. We could lump a whole – almost everything? – under “selfishness” if we needed to I suppose. The tricky thing is that in real life we find that “normal” is a relative term.

  4. Michelle says:

    My marriage puts me in the first category on your list. I have changed and am continuing to change in profound ways which is causing a lot of stress. We no longer have a shared vision for our life together. I guess the trick is to avoid the knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes things don’t work for A LONG TIME but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong to remain committed. I am not in a dangerous or abusive situation so I have the luxury of time. Your last post was about the McChurch, well I see a lot of people entering the McMarriage these days. When the marriage stops serving our needs (friendship, fidelity, financial security, emotional satisfaction…) we file our complaints and move on.

    I’m learning that it’s not all about me. It would be nice if my husband had the same priorities but our preferences, beliefs and interests are radically different. Our views of the world and goals in life are seemingly incompatible. However, if I am willing to accept the situation, compromise, modify my vision and put HIS needs FIRST (even if I don’t think they are important) we are able to live with some peace and satisfaction. And oddly enough there IS peace and satisfaction in surrendering.

    • brianmpei says:

      Well said Michelle! You can’t lose if you never give up! And you make an important distinction I hope to develop later on when you said you’re “not in an abusive or dangerous situation.”

      McMarriage indeed. And we can add McFriendship or just go all out with McRelationships.

      Thanks for stopping by and adding some wisdom!

  5. sherry says:

    Hey Brian,
    thanks for sharing I always enjoy reading what you have to say.
    you really are a blessing to many

    • brianmpei says:

      You’re welcome Sherry, and thanks for stopping by and your kind words. You are a friend and blessing to a whole bunch of people and have weathered not only your own storms but stood by many who’ve been through their own storms.

      • sherry says:

        Thanks Brian
        your kind words are so appreciated they almost made me cry.
        blessing on you my friend

  6. hmmm…I think i know this couple that didn’t want you to focus on divorce at their wedding…. 🙂

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