We’ve all heard it. Someone, somewhere gave another human marriage advice so spectacularly bad that we cringed a little bit inside. Usually this someone was on a reality show. Or at a relative’s wedding.
Those unfortunate platitudes are easy to spot and just as easy to brush aside. Slightly more dangerous, however, are those bits of advice that seem very applicable and true on the surface, but become somewhat problematic if you look at them a little closer. Here are 6 examples of marriage advice that aren’t so great:
- “Don’t go to bed angry.”
This one is very common and, at surface level, makes a lot of sense! It’s actually based on Scripture: “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26 ESV). This is a wonderful principle, encouraging us not to sin by holding on to anger and then behaving badly to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In other words, work hard to resolve your anger as quickly as possible, and do not allow it to fester in your heart and create distance in your relationship with Christ and others. Here’s where this truth gets distorted: many couples interpret this to mean that they cannot go to bed until they are finished arguing! I’ve worked with countless couples who wearily recount to me the all-night-long battles they’ve fought under the well-meant banner of “don’t go to bed angry.” Y’all, if you’re still fighting at 11pm, 1am, or 3am, it’s past your bedtime and the sun set hours ago! The more exhausted you become, the more likely you are to say something you will regret later.
Try This: take a break, take a breath, and give your anger to God.
You need sleep. Your spouse needs sleep. But God keeps watch, and He does not need sleep: “He will not let your foot be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper.” (Psalm 121:3-5a ESV) Take a time out from each other for a few minutes and breathe deeply, working to calm your heart rate down. Then, remind each other that you are on the same team, that you love each other even when you are struggling. Agree to a time to reconvene and seek a resolution together (and actually follow through). Then, go to bed and trust that God will still be with you tomorrow.
- “Don’t fight in front of the kids.”
As with most of these, there is an element of truth. Spouses should not shout at each other (ever) but especially not in front of the kids. Everyone’s heart rates go up and kids brains try to adapt in unhealthy ways to survive the stressful environment, leading to problems that can follow them into adulthood and their adult relationships. This effect is magnified exponentially if there is physical violence in the home, domestic violence being witnessed by children is something most states now recognize as a criminal offense.
However, if all conflict, including minor disagreements, is resolved behind closed doors, a child can make some unhealthy observations. If they think that their parents never argue, they can begin to feel as if disagreement is unhealthy, something to be avoided, not worked through. If they witness the beginning of a disagreement (for example, dad comes home late, mom is visibly upset) and the couple retreats behind closed doors to resolve the issue, then the kids don’t get to learn what healthy conflict resolution looks like!
Try This: when appropriate, model healthy conflict resolution for your children.
Having a discussion over dinner or in the living room, keeping voices calm, using good, clear language, being honest, and allowing children to see a parent accept responsibility for hurting someone else – wow! Aside from getting to witness those crucial skills in action, kids learn that having a good relationship doesn’t mean that you never disagree, but that you work together to overcome it when you do.
Side note: If you and your spouse struggle with conflict resolution, even in private, consider working to improve your communication and resolution skills before trying them out in front of the kids. A pastor or a couples counselor, marriage books, seminars, and conferences can be big helpers here. Church staff can give you some guidance regarding which of these they recommend!
- “Don’t walk away from a fight.”
It makes sense, right? Don’t just hang up the phone, storm out of the room, or slam the door in your partner’s face – that’s just running away (and hurting them further), right? Correct! But what if you’ve been fighting for so long that you’re either exhausted or so angry that you can no longer think straight? Danger! Warning! You’ve entered the High Risk Area – you are now much more likely to trip one of the many live wires around you that could explode this conversation and damage your relationship further. Until you calm your heart rate down (below 100 beats per minute), your brain and body will continue to think that you are under threat, and you will continue to respond defensively and offensively. In other words, your Fight or Flight response has been tripped, and you are a pair of loose cannons!
Try This: call a Time Out.
If you OR your spouse enter the High Risk Area, call a Time Out. You should head to separate rooms for an agreed-upon amount of time (20, 30, 45 minutes, etc.). While you are apart, your first task is to work on calming down so that you can think more clearly. After that, think about how you want to speak to your spouse when you reconvene. What are they trying to communicate to you? What are you trying to communicate to them? Then, very importantly, COME BACK TOGETHER. Many spouses fall into the trap of just stopping the argument without resolution – this is just running away from the fight and from your spouse. This communicates to the other person that they are less important than your desire to avoid conflict. The key element of a time out is that it is a pause, not a full stop.
Pro tip: have a conversation planning to do this ahead of time, at a time when you are both calm. Agree upon how you will call a Time Out (will you say the words, use a code word, etc.) and how long you wish your Time Out to be.
- “Don’t sweat the small stuff/Pick your battles.”
This, too, is true to a certain extent. If you said something every time your spouse did something to annoy you, your relationship would most certainly deteriorate. However, this attitude can frequently become problematic when it is interpreted as “just let everything roll off my back.” Too often, people become so used to overlooking issues that they pick no battles at all. They do not communicate any issues or struggles to each other, which means that they are not aware of their partner’s need for them to change their behavior. They suffer in needless silence. That is, until the pressure on the pressure cooker reaches a critical point and the “brushed-aside” battles come roaring to the front, creating one big mega-battle that is actually a dozen small ones all happening at once. It’s confusing, it’s hurtful, and it’s difficult to resolve.
Try This: pick some battles.
If something is truly bothering you, think about why that might be. If your spouse continuously drops their clothes next to the laundry basket rather than in it, despite your repeated requests for them to change their behavior, you might begin to feel not only annoyed, but resentful or angry. At that point, the issue is no longer the socks on the floor but the fact that your spouse has not listened to you or heeded your request for change that was important to you. Seeing a sock on the floor reawakens those feelings and can begin to color the way you interact with your spouse. This is a battle worth fighting. Sharing those vulnerable feelings with your spouse allows them to understand your needs and gives them the opportunity to love you better next time.
- “Have plenty of sex to keep them interested!”
Is there any truth to this bit of advice? Yes! The Bible commands husbands and wives: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5) Sex is an important part of a healthy marriage – a beautiful, God-ordained way of bringing a husband and wife together in physical and emotional intimacy, relieving stress, bringing pleasure, creating children, many other benefits. When a couple’s sex life is struggling or even nonexistent, this can lead to temptation, as the natural needs that God created in a husband and wife to enhance marriage go unfulfilled.
However, there are a couple of problematic things going on here. First: Sex should not be the only thing keeping you interested in your marriage. Sex is one thread of the beautiful tapestry that is God’s plan for marriage. As a therapist, the health of a couple’s sex life often serves as a barometer of the health of the rest of their marriage. Frequently, for example, when a couple is struggling with emotional intimacy, their sex life is struggling, as well. Sex alone is not enough to make – or keep a relationship healthy.
Second: “Keeping them interested” implies that you might be at fault if you are not “interesting” enough to keep them from becoming interested in someone or something else. Though, as we’ve already discussed, depriving one another of sex can create an environment of temptation (and should therefore not be done except by agreement) the choice to sin remains our own. For example, if a spouse chooses to engage in pornography or an affair while there is an unhealthy abstinence from sex between the spouses, that spouse still made the choice to engage in those behaviors on their own. We do not control the actions of anyone but ourselves.
Try This: talk about what your needs are.
If you aren’t using words and direct conversation to communicate about your sex life, now is a great time to start. Just like the other needs/desires in your marriage, your spouse may not know what you need if you don’t speak the words! If your sexual needs differ (as they very often do), discuss how you can work as a team to make sure that both partners feel heard and that their needs matter. For example, if one spouse has an expectation that sex will happen every other day and the other spouse is content with once per week, without communication, this can lead one spouse to feel neglected and the other to wonder why their spouse is angry or distant. If they are honest and vulnerable with their expectations, they have the opportunity to work together to resolve the issues to both their satisfaction, even though it might be difficult at first. Without honest conversation, distance and discord only grow.
- “Happy wife, happy life!”
Well, wouldn’t that be nice? But a marriage is about two partners. This well-meant bit of advice encourages focus on one partner’s happiness as the crux of marital bliss. Though it is half of the truth, this becomes problematic when it encourages the other spouse to repress or ignore their own needs in favor of the other person. As a culture, men are more likely to repress or ignore their own emotional needs, later becoming frustrated when they are unhappy or distressed with no clear understanding of why that might be. A “happy wife, happy life” mentality can encourage this problematic behavior. Similarly, women are generally more aware of their emotional needs but will frequently avoid sharing with their spouse if they do not want to aggravate a tense situation or believe that their husband will not hear them.
Try This: pay attention to your needs and talk to your spouse.
Marriage is about BOTH of you. When your spouse is vulnerable with you, they are giving you an opportunity to love them better. It’s a roadmap! If you need a little help getting started, consider taking the 5 Love Languages quiz online (https://www.5lovelanguages.com/quizzes/). It takes only a few minutes and can provide insight into the ways both you and your spouse give and receive love and frequently illuminates previous misunderstandings! For example, if you try to show love to your spouse by cleaning the house, doing their laundry, or serving them in some other way, but they are asking most to just sit down next to you and talk, you will likely both be frustrated that your emotional needs weren’t met despite your best intentions. If you know your spouse’s primary love language is Quality Time, the next time you want to really shower them with love, you might put down the housework and just visit with each other.