How to Know When Your Marriage Needs Some Work
The importance of preventive care
Think of the random conversations you’ve had in the past month of your life. How often have you heard people tell you in passing that they are going to a doctor’s appointment? An evaluation meeting at work? The gym to work out? The coffee shop to study for the upcoming exam? The yard to clip the hedges? The mechanic for an oil change?
The answer is, you’ve probably heard these things a lot in the past month. Why? Because all of life requires maintenance.
WHY WE’RE ALWAYS MAINTAINING
We all know that nothing in life runs smoothly without regular upkeep. Everything around us seems to decay before our eyes unless we frequently intervene. The Bible locates the source of this “everyday decay” experience in the fall of man—where sin first entered the world and fractured man’s relationship with God, with one another and with the world.
Before the fall, Genesis tells us that life was not always in a state of deterioration. The ground was fruitful. Work was not toilsome. Things didn’t remain in a constant state of decay requiring tireless upkeep. If humanity is a car, all of its working parts didn’t break down over time.
If we’re honest, this state of affairs is what every human heart longs for and wants to return to—a world where the things we touch cooperate and flourish at our hands, a world free of material decay and relational static. But now, after the fall, we see that though God still offers beauty and meaning in this life, the world is fallen and broken, and we experience the frustration of decay that needs our attention everywhere we look.
Think about it. In our careers, we get yearly evaluations to keep us fresh and growing. In education, we have routine exams to maintain and test our knowledge. In fitness, we must consistently work out to see any sort of physical change or maintain our strength. In health, we go to the doctor for annual checkups. In child rearing, we have to repeat the same principles over and over to reinforce them because over time, children forget.
In communication with peers, we habitually revisit conversations to remove the miscommunications. Our dogs need regular grooming, our teeth need regular brushing, our house needs regular cleaning, our sheets need regular changing, our lawns need regular mowing and our vehicles need regular oil changes. It’s an underlying principle we all know is true: All aspects of our lives demand maintenance or they will inevitably break down.
So why do we not assume this very same principle with relationships—especially marriage? If we clearly don’t expect a car or a career to run smoothly for 60 years with no regular maintenance, why do we expect this of a relationship? Why do we give more routine attention to our vehicles than our spouse? Why does our lawn get more regular upkeep than our marriage? Isn’t romance also impacted by the fall? Shouldn’t our marital experience also require consistent evaluations, checkups and oil changes? Certainly so.
So why don’t we usually assume our marriage needs a checkup sometimes? I think it’s because our culture idolizes romantic relationships, demanding that attraction and true love should last the test of time with no intervention necessary. It’s the one part of humanity that our culture says should never experience rust, decay or static. Yet when we look around at the divorce rate, reality TV shows and even our own families, we see that just the opposite is true—deterioration abounds.
GOING IN FOR AN OIL CHANGE
I propose a rather simple idea: Take your marriage in for regular oil changes. Assume that it will break down over time if you don’t. What I mean by “oil change” is this—go to a counselor on a regular basis. Depending on the marriage, the frequency could change, but the point is to go enough to keep track of how your marriage is running, dealing with any problems along the way.
My husband and I do this. We are actually going this week. Sometimes we hear something like “Hey, it seems like everything is running smoothly. See you next time!” Other times we hear something like, “Hey, it seems like Issue X is really frustrating Ashley while Issue Y is confusing for Cole. Let’s dig into that a little more so it doesn’t mount into something more down the road.” Because of the fruit this has borne in my own life, I am a strong advocate that every person (and marriage) should have a counselor.
The key to understanding regular marriage maintenance is to remember that an oil change is not the same as engine repair. It’s not an indictment of things gone wrong; instead, it’s evidence that you’re taking care of a God-given gift on a regular basis, before things go wrong. Instead of viewing counseling as the last resort once things are wrecked, see it as preventive care.
These check-ins give us a thumbs up if we are doing well, or give us helpful, third-party counsel if a problem has arisen since the last time we came in. They help us evaluate where we are and make plans for the future. They keep us from getting to the blown engine by helping us see the everyday “wear and tear” in our marriages that we unconsciously ignore sometimes.
Remember: Decay is part of the fallen world. It’s built into the fabric of everything, and to pretend like things in your marriage won’t naturally break down without maintenance is to fool yourself. If we evaluate and discuss our marriage or relationship regularly, giving it an oil change every few thousand miles, we likely won’t have to bring it in for emergency repair later.
Instead of letting the miscommunications, unspoken resentment or confusion mount over time, resulting in total combustion, we can deal with them head-on as they come to us, season by season.
Don’t wait until the point that your marriage has a blown engine, expecting that it should have lasted a lifetime without thoughtful upkeep. Prioritize the health of that part of your life right now, just as you would any other area of your life. If you don’t come up with a maintenance plan now, and the engine blows one day, your counselor will ask you the same thing any good mechanic would—why haven’t you come in before now?
OTHER IDEAS FOR MAINTENANCE
While going to counseling is one form of marriage maintenance, I’d like to offer some other practical ways to invest and maintain your relationships on a yearly basis.
Schedule a getaway. This could be a couple’s retreat, a vacation where you map out your dreams or a conference that focuses on one or more parts of marriage: communication, budgeting, life goals, spiritual connection, the list goes on and on. And before you scoff about something like this, consider that you’d probably go to a career-advancing conference.
Why not a marriage-advancing one? Is your career more important than your marriage?
Second, do premarital counseling if you are tying the knot soon. So many things I learned in premarital counseling are bearing fruit in my own marriage to this day!
Third, seek out a mentor. Whose marriage do you admire? What seasoned couple can show you the ropes of the things you are dealing with now? Plan time to meet with them throughout the year, whether that be formal or informal.
If you don’t see any marriages like this around you, it’s time to start building friendships with those older than you. Only trusting those your age is a trap of the blind leading the blind. Find someone a few steps ahead of you, and follow.
Last (and arguably most important), build a solid community with consistent Christian friendships. Yes, you can see a Christian counselor three times a year, and that will surely help. However, if you don’t have authentic friendships with those who will actually keep you accountable to practicing the things the counselor suggests, you won’t make it in the day to day!
Anyone can make it through a counseling session. The same is not true for daily living out the hard stuff. Who in your life asks you hard questions about your marriage? Who notices the unhealthy patterns you bring into relationships and calls you out on them? Who encourages you when you have victories? Who even knows the ins and outs of your relationship? Who will ask you if have kept your oil-change appointments?
We have not reached the day when all forms of decay are finally removed from human relationships. Until then, keep up the oil changes, and enjoy the ride we call marriage.