On Keeping Your Marriage From Becoming Troubled

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Dear Will and Meghan,

Thank you very much for the note you included with your thank you note for the wedding gift—although thanking people for thank you notes does threaten to set off a perpetual cycle. We were very grateful to be able to make the wedding, and it was good to see all your people there. We are glad you had a wonderful honeymoon, and that your new home and job and church are all seeming to be a wonderful fit.

Now to your question. Nancy and I have had the dubious privilege of being able to work with numerous men and women who are stuck in troubled marriages. Those troubles are all very different, but they do have one thing in common. This is not your position at all, thank the Lord, but I believe your question shows remarkable foresight.

You asked what steps you might be able to take now that would prevent your marriage from ever becoming troubled. On their wedding day, very few couples see any trouble ahead—but many of them are headed directly into trouble. Being in love at this moment is no shield against troubles in the future. Trouble comes from somewhere. Troubles happen to many couples, and to ask if there are any preventative measures you might take really shows a lot of wisdom.

And there is an answer to the question. That answer can be summed up in the phrase keeping short accounts.[i] Don’t let anything accumulate. Don’t let anything pile up on you. If I were limited to one bit of advice for married couples just starting out, as you two are, this is the advice I would give. If I only had one shot at helping married couples out, this is what I would talk about, this is what I would address. If you do this, you will have a good relationship. If you don’t do this, you won’t.

Moreover, if this becomes part of the culture of your marriage and family, there is no external trouble so great that it will be able to disrupt your marriage—because you are a team and you are in it together. If this does not become part of your marriage and family culture, there is no trouble so trivial that it will not be able to undo you.

So let me begin with a parable, after which I will give you some relevant scriptures, and then suggest a few house rules that will help you keep things picked up in your relationship.

Imagine two families living side by side in the suburbs. Their families have a lot in common. They are good friends, the husbands work at the same company and in the same department, the kids go to the same school, they have the same number of kids, and they both drive the same kind of van. Pretty much everything is the same, except that one house is perpetually blitzed and the other home always appears to be tidy and picked up. One house is bombed and the other one isn’t.

Now obviously, the difference is not to be found in how rapidly things get dirty. The same number of tee-shirts are put on in the morning. The same number of breakfast bowls are used, and the same number of spoons. The same number of shoes are taken off at the door coming in (or not taken off at the door, as the case may be). Allowing for some variations, the houses get dirty at basically the same rate. They accumulate debris at the same rate. Now if the houses get dirty at the same basic rate, then why is one of them clean all the time?

The difference between the homes has to do with when and how things are picked up, put away, or cleaned—and not with the pace of how fast they get dirty. In one home, a breakfast bowl is used, and left on the table. A day later someone moves it over to the end of the counter. The next day someone pushes it a couple of feet toward the sink so that there is room to put some of their other junk there on the counter. Two days later someone helpfully puts the bowl on top of the pile in the sink, and somebody mutters something about getting to the dishes this weekend, which is the time, naturally, for something else, some new distraction, to come up. In the other house, someone uses a breakfast bowl, rinses it afterward, and puts it in the dishwasher.

One house is dirty and the other house isn’t because of how one breakfast bowl got cleaned right away. That one lonely bowl is an illustration of the whole.  

Now five years from now, your marriage is going to be one of those two houses. Right now everything seems great because you just bought a new house, and just moved in, and everything still smells fresh. But moving into a clean house is not the same thing as keeping a house clean.

Your relationship is either going to be picked up and tidy, or it is going to be cluttered. Your relationship is going to be one of those two houses—and which one it is going to be will be a function of how the two of you behave on a day-to-day basis from this point out. In short, it will be a function of whether or not you confess your sins or not.

Confession of sin is putting things in the dishwasher. Refusing to confess them is leaving it out for somebody else to deal with somehow.

Here are some relevant passages:

“He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: But whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy” (Prov. 28:13).

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).

Now this should be obvious, but let me say that that this fundamental principle applies primarily to your relationship with God. Keeping short accounts is in the first instance a vertical responsibility. As we confess our sins to Him in an ongoing way, we are equipped and enabled to confess our sins to one another. The quality of our relationship with God is going to drive the quality of our relationship with others who are walking with God. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Walking in the light is a precondition of fellowship with others, and honest confession of your faults is a precondition of walking in the light. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 Jn. 1:8).

Confession of sin to God calls for a scrupulous honesty with Him—no attempts to blow sunshine. The word for confess in 1 John 1:9 is homologeo, which is a compound word. The prefix homo means same, and the verb logeo means to speak. When you confess your sins to God, you are “speaking the same” thing about them that He is saying. You call it the same thing He calls it—no attempts at varnish or spin or trimming. Lust is lust, anger anger, and malice malice. This is the foundational discipline, and it enables you to confess your sins to others with all requisite honesty. Now when you confess sin to fellow creatures, honesty is of course required, but you should not treat them as though they were God, capable of knowing and understanding all the thoughts and intents of the heart. But you do treat them as a fellow believer who has every right to expect honesty from you—and this is particularly the case with a spouse.

So here are a handful of “house rules” that Nancy and I settled on very early on. It was either when we were engaged or first married, I forget. But we have sought to live this way for a long time, and much of it now is simply the air we breathe.

When you get out of fellowship with one another (what we called “bumps”), these house rules apply. But a bump is not a difference of opinion. A bump happens when you have a difference that is accompanied by irritation, annoyance, anger, frustration, or pique. That is what I mean by “out of fellowship.” When you are out of fellowship—that is what must be addressed.

So first, when you have had a bump, do not separate until it is resolved and you are back in fellowship. Do not go your separate ways until you have addressed it. No going to work, no going shopping. “Addressing it” means addressing the out of fellowship part, and not necessarily the occasion for getting out of fellowship. So for example, if the occasion had something to do with the checkbook and a snarl at the bank, you are not prohibited from separating until you can arrange to meet the bank manager. You just can’t separate until you are back in fellowship.

Second, do not let anyone into your home if you are out of fellowship with each other. If you just had your bump, and the doorbell rings, don’t open the door until everything is put right again. Just like your mother used to pick up the cushions on the living room floor on her way to answer the door, so you also should pick up the clutter in your relationship before anybody else comes into your home. If you say that you should answer the door because it is raining out, I would reply, “Well, fix it then.” Then answer the door.

Third, don’t go into anybody else’s home if you had a bump in the car on the way over there. Science has shown that 80% of all marital bumps happen in the car. If you are going to a party, or a Bible study, or some other event, don’t go into the presence of others with something between you. Just don’t.

Fourth—and this might seem pretty extreme, but it is not—work out a little sign language signal so you can put things right if the bump happens when others are already around. Say you are at a party and one of you says something that comes out wrong—and science has shown that 80% of the time this will be you, Will—and you don’t even have to look to see if it was a bump. You finally peek, and sure enough, there you are with the rest of the party chattering away happily, and the two of you are out of fellowship.

Of course, if you said something really lame and awkward, and everybody at the party gasps and goes white in the face, the restitution needs to be just as public as the offense was. You get everybody’s attention and seek forgiveness publicly. But this is almost never how it happens. Just the two of you are out of fellowship, and everybody else is just at a party. This is when you catch the other person’s eye, and deliver the hand signal that means “that was bad, I was wrong, please forgive me, explain later.” When this hand signal is sent, the rule also entails that the offended party doesn’t get to play dumb, but must return the signal, which means “you are forgiven.”

You might ask why you can’t just say you’re sorry in the car on the way home. The answer is that by the time you get to the car there will be fifteen things to deal with. The principle is that sins are like grapes, they come in clusters. You don’t want clusters. Deal with every bump as it happens.

And last, don’t ever have sexual relations when you are out of fellowship. What God has given you as a wonderful sign of union and communion must not be turned into a mere biological act that helps to seal a life of hypocrisy together. You shouldn’t be sexually close unless you are spiritually close, and you cannot be spiritually close unless you are confessing your sins to one another.

One last thing, and this is very important. Confessing your sins to one another, when you are relating to one another in good faith, is a crucial spiritual discipline for your home. Doing this does establish peace in the home. But sin is defined by the Scriptures, and not by someone’s feelings getting hurt by some inadvertence. When sin is being defined by God through His Word, then you must be quick to confess, quick to put things right. But do not ever confess something, as though it were a sin, simply as a way of smoothing someone else’s ruffled feathers. If you do that then you are establishing a culture of manipulation in your home instead of a culture of spiritual honesty. Will, if you get home from work three minutes later, and Meghan is peeved about it, confession is necessary, but it should come from Meghan, not from you. And Meghan, if Will gets home and dinner is five minutes late and he gets peeved about it, confession is necessary, but it should come from Will, and not from you. Confession should be of sin, and not applied as an oil that keeps the machinery of someone else’s sin running smoothly.

There is a lot more than can be said about this whole subject, but I think I have touched on the basics. Like I said earlier, if you live honestly with one another, as two forgiven (and therefore forgiving) sinners, you should do very well indeed. God bless.

Cordially in Christ,


[i] For anyone who wants to pursue this topic further than what is addressed in this chapter, you can refer to my book Decluttering Your Marriage.