Old-time miners used to keep canaries down in the mines where they dug. Before there were sophisticated instruments, the best way to detect the slow leak of poisonous gas was to have a canary—with tiny lungs—serve as an organic “meter.” If the canary died, poisonous gas was likely leaking out and the miners got above ground as soon as possible.
So, what are the “canaries” for marriage? What are some of the signs that a marriage is really in trouble?
1. You Pray for God to Change Your Spouse Instead of Asking God to Help You Bless Your Spouse.
The “default” attitude of consistently asking God to change our spouse is destructive in two ways: It fosters a spirit of selfishness and irritation, which will eventually destroy affection, and it makes us focus on what our spouse is doing wrong (which we can’t change) instead of on what we can do right (which we can change).
You realize you married a person who, in the language of the Bible (James 3:2), “stumbles in many ways,” right? Which means there will always be something to “change” about your spouse. But waking up with the desire to bless (i.e., serve) our spouse changes us into nurturing people instead of condemning people.
Nurturing people maintain empathy, which protects passion and affection. Condemnation is not only ineffective as a change agent, but it tends to make us feel negative. There is no guarantee you can ever change your spouse, but it is certain that you can bless your spouse, so focus on the possible.
2. You Define Your Spouse By What They’re Not Rather Than By What They Are.
The way our brains operate, we start to take the status quo as “normal,” which means our default position in marriage is to take the positive aspects of our spouse for granted (“that’s just the way they are”) and instead be acutely aware of what they’re not doing (but what we think they should be doing). If we don’t fight this, we’ll gradually grow more frustrated with our spouse, because even when they improve, that improvement eventually becomes the status quo, which we then start taking for granted.
Ask God to make you newly sensitive to the particular blessings of being with your spouse that you have become blinded to out of familiarity.
3. You Increasingly Look Forward to Seeing Someone of the Opposite Gender.
When we find ourselves particularly excited to see someone of the opposite gender to whom we’re not married, it signals that we’re “thirsty,” relationally speaking in our marriage. I never think about Gatorade when I’m sitting at home, but in the middle of a long run, I crave it.
You can rarely be too ruthless in the face of a growing infatuation—shut down that relationship as much as possible and force yourself to refocus on building your marriage. Being excited about seeing someone other than your spouse frequently signals that the marriage has become too “utilitarian” and that the two of you need to reconnect.
4. You Live in a Sexless Marriage.
Now, there are a lot of reasons that some couples might struggle with their sex lives, and not all of them are warning signs for your marriage. Past trauma, emotional scars and even physical ailments can all get in the way of sexual expression, and hopefully, anyone wrestling with those issues is patiently working with their partner to find healing.
However, as a general rule, when two spouses care about each other and want to serve each other, sex is a natural expression of their love. When this stops, there is often some relational poisoning that the cessation of sex can point to. Keep in mind, therapists define a “sexless” relationship as about 10 times a year (or just about once a month). If you’re even close to that, without a physical reason, your “canary” could be very sick. And remember, the answer is not necessarily to just start having more sex. The answer to open up a healthy, honest conversation.
5. You Spend More Time Thinking About How Your Spouse Could Love You Better Than You Do About How Well You’re Loving Your Spouse.
Throughout the Bible, both Christian husbands (Ephesians 5:25) and Christian wives (Titus 2:4) are told to study the fine art of loving each other well. Few spouses ever fulfill this charge; all of us fall short of these ideals, and yet we, who fall short, often fixate on how our spouse falls short.
Here’s the thing: we can’t dictate what our spouse does, but we can impact what we do. If you want a Christ-honoring marriage, focus on doing your part and let God take care of your spouse.
6. You Can’t Remember the Last Time You Laughed Together.
Couples usually consider “fun” as an essential aspect of continuing a dating relationship. If a couple never had any fun on a date, it’s highly unlikely you’d see the two of them get married.
Well, unfortunately, the same principle often applies in marriage; when the fun stops absolutely, after a while couples decide they want to stop being married. A sense of humor is high on most people’s “desirable” list, but that doesn’t mean you have to be Jerry Seinfeld or Tina Fey—it just means you need to be intentional about planning activities that the two of you enjoy together.
7. You’ve Stopped Being Totally Honest With Each Other.
Lying kills intimacy; by definition, you can’t be “intimate” (vulnerable, accepted and known) with someone you’re lying to.
Usually, we lie because we’re ashamed about something. But we should fear the sin more than the exposure and view marriage as an opportunity to become more like Christ via confession and accountability. That’s the only route to long-term acceptance and the satisfaction of being known and accepted and loved. This is one of the biggest payoffs in marriage—as well as one of our greatest fears.
8. You Stop Resolving Conflict and Become Friends With Resentment.
Saying “it’s just not worth it anymore” to resolve a conflict and expecting it to go away is like feeling a lump in your breast and saying, “If I pretend it’s not there, it won’t get worse and it can’t hurt me, right?”
Conflict is inevitable, but it can be positive if it reveals values and leads to greater understanding. When you stop caring enough to resolve a conflict, you’ve stopped caring altogether. Like cancer, resentment left untreated grows.