"And they live happily ever after…." so ends the fairy tale. This is also the hope and aspiration of those who enter marriage fully convinced that they are the right person for each other. They are deeply in love and believe that their love will see them through any rough patches. Any breakdown or failure in marriage couldn't be further from their minds.
Yet in recent years the number of marital breakdowns has been on the rise. Marriages which started well may not necessarily end well. Some couples drift apart gradually and subtly. Others watch helplessly as their spouses stray, unable to hold them back. Many are not spared the pain of betrayal.
A failed marriage is a hard blow, a dream shattered. It leads to lifelong heartaches and broken families. Children are not spared either, and they can suffer deep emotional hurt and confusion.
Making marriage work takes hard work. Yet it's worth every effort to strengthen and protect a marriage. It is marriage that sustains love and not the other way round. Marital breakdowns are not planned, neither do they just happen.
Over the years there are telltale signs of stress and strain on the relationship. Many a marriage can be saved if problems are addressed in the early stages. Unfortunately, couples in distress often seek help too late. Too many hurtful words have already been uttered. Too much damage has been done. Reconciliation, though not impossible, is difficult.
It pays to recognise the potential pitfalls, so that a couple can make efforts to avoid them.
Question 1: Would you identify some of the major "marriage killers" that are most responsible for the high divorce rate that plagues today's families?
Answer: It would take perhaps fifty volumes to describe them all, and even then we would only scratch the surface. Any one of the following "dragons" can rip a relationship to shreds if given an opportunity to do so:
Over-commitment and physical exhaustion: Beware of this condition. It is especially insidious for young couples who are trying to get started in a profession or in school. Do not try to take on a course, work full-time, raise a family, renovate the house at the same time.
It sounds ridiculous, but many young couples do just that and are then surprised when their marriages fall apart. Why wouldn't they? The only time they see each other is when they are worn out! Husbands and wives must reserve time for one another if they hope to keep their love alive.
Excessive credit and conflict over how money will be spent: We've said it before. Pay cash for consumable items or don't buy. Don't spend more on a house or a car than you can afford, leaving too few resources for dating, short holidays, etc.
Selfishness: 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 inevitable for a giver and a taker. But two takers can claw each other to pieces within a period of weeks. Selfishness will devastate marital partners in short order.
Unhealthy relationships with in-laws: Some parents may want to continue to feature in all aspects of the young couples' lives and you may need to agree some ground rules to avoid friction.
Unrealistic expectations: Some couples come into marriage anticipating endless love and unmitigated joy. There is no way a marriage between two imperfect human beings can deliver on that expectation. Women with this romantic illusion expect more from their husbands than they are capable of providing. The consequent disappointment is an emotional minefield.
Space invaders: By space invaders, I am not referring to aliens from Mars. Rather, my concern is for those who violate the "breathing room" needed by their partners, quickly suffocating them and destroying the attraction between them.
Jealousy is one way the phenomenon manifests itself. Another is a poor self-concept, which leads the insecure spouse to build a cage around the other. It often suffocates the relationship. Love must be free, and it must be confident.
Sexual frustration and its partner, the greener grass of infidelity: It is a deadly combination!
Business collapse: Failure in work does bad things to men especially. Their agitation over financial reverses sometimes precipitates anger within the family.
Business success: It is almost as risky to succeed wildly as it is to fail miserably in business. Edward Fitzgerald said: "One of the saddest pages kept by the recording angel is the record of souls that have been damned by success." It's true.
Alcohol and substance abuse: These are notorious killers, not only of marriages, but of the people who indulge excessively.
Pornography, gambling, and other addictions: It should be obvious to everyone that the human personality is flawed. It has a tendency to get hooked on destructive behaviours, especially early in life. During an introductory stage, people think they can tamper with various enticements, such as pornography, gambling, hard drugs, etc., without being hurt.
Indeed, many do walk away unaffected. For some, however, there are a weakness and a vulnerability that are unknown until too late. Such people then become addicted to something that tears at the fabric of the family. This warning may seem foolish and even prudish to my readers, but I've made a twenty-year study of those who wreck their lives. Their problems often begin in experimentation with a known vice and ultimately end in death … or the death of a marriage.
These are a few of the common marriage killers. But in truth, the list is virtually limitless. All that is needed to grow the most vigorous weeds is a small crack in the sidewalk. If you are going to beat the odds and maintain an intimate, long-term marriage, you must take the task seriously. The natural order of things will carry you away from one another, not bring you together.
Question 2: What do you consider to be the greatest threat to the stability of families today?
Answer: It would be a phenomenon that every marriage counsellor deals with regularly. The scenario involves a vulnerable woman who depends on her husband to meet her emotional needs and a workaholic man who has little time for family responsibilities. Year after year she reaches for him and finds he's not there. She nags, complains, cries, and attacks him for his failures -- to no avail.
He is carrying the load of three men in his business or profession and can't figure out how to keep that enterprise going while providing what his wife needs. As time goes by, she becomes increasingly angry, which drives him even further into his work-day world. He is respected and successful there. And thereafter he is even less accessible to her.
Then one day, to her husband's shock, this woman reaches a breaking point and either leaves him for someone else or files for divorce. It is a decision she may live to regret and one that often devastates her children -- although by then the marriage is long gone. It was such a preventable disaster, but one that millions of other families will be victimised by in coming months.
Question 3: That description is scary to me because I can see my own marriage in what you said. I have to work long hours just to make ends meet, and I rarely see my family. We have a baby and a toddler, and my wife is pretty unhappy with me. But what can I do? If I'm going to be successful, we have to sacrifice for a while.
Answer: Your self-discipline is admirable, and I hope you reach your goals. A word of caution is in order, however. No amount of success is worth the loss of your family. You and your wife are in a high-risk category for marital problems.
The bonding that should occur in the first decade requires time together -- time that can't be given if it is absorbed elsewhere. My advice is to work out a balance which may require you to hold on to your dreams but take a little longer to fulfil them. Success will wait, but a happy family will not.
This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and extracted from "The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide" by Dr. James Dobson with permission.
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