Courageous Steps When Nervous To Explore If Your Marriage Is Healthy
Is my marriage healthy? I’ve interacted with individuals who believed it is an overreaction to explore whether a marriage is safe or not.
They believed no marriage would survive if we all analyzed power and control dynamics or unchanging negative habits in marriage. That no spouse would survive such deep levels of scrutiny.
I believe individuals who are nervous about putting a relationship under a microscope don’t understand there are different types of “marriage problems.” Different types of microscopes, so to speak.
There are “toxic, corrosive, exploiting patterns of relating” type of marriage problems and “non-corrosive growth-related problems between two empathetic honoring spouses” type of problems.
If we’re confused or unsure about our starting points (the state of our marriage), then we might feel disjointed or afraid about messing with what’s under the hood.
In this post, I want to share some thoughts, mainly geared towards spouses who consider themselves to be in healthy marriages, who think sometimes we (marriage and abuse advocates) make too big of a deal about what constitutes a good safe marriage.
Keep in mind that individuals in harmful marriages tend to think they are experiencing everyday marriage issues. Until they start to listen to their bodies and emotions, get some clarity around what’s actually going on, and then they see their problems for what they are.
Notwithstanding, in this post, I am addressing a situation where someone is uneasy with conversations around power and control. The thoughts could also benefit someone who’s received pushback for their stand on safety in marriage.
Is My Marriage Healthy?
Let’s talk about what to do when you feel it’s an overreaction to explore if a marriage is passing the safety test.
1. It’s okay if you don’t want to explore possible growth areas in your marriage.
It’s perfectly okay if examining your relationship dynamic is not something you wish to do now.
It’s okay because we all have the power to choose that. We get to decide whether to act on something. Or not. We have the freedom to live the way we want, and if that includes not exploring areas of possible growth.. that’s a choice too.1
2. Just because you don’t wish to explore possible areas of growth in your marriage doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t.
If you are comfortable with how things are in your marriage, that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t get the opportunity to explore.
In other words, we shouldn’t be damming up the channels for everyone simply because we don’t like/are not particularly keen on what’s coming down the pipe. It is possible to step aside and let it pass us, allowing others to experience what they want to.
3. If control and unequal power dynamics are present in your marriage, it doesn’t mean you have to address that right away.
One of the problems with stressful Christianity – founded and fuelled by high-control church cultures and fundamentalism – is the notion of certainty about everything.
We think we have/must have answers for all life and relationship problems right away. We gather our Bible verses, positivity, prayers, and rules, and it’s absolutely terrifying to still find ourselves in the land of uncertainty, despite our arsenal.
We feel the pressure to move from 0 to 100 MPH because that’s our usual mode: Fixes. Answers. Certainty. Formulas.
The idea of exploring the health of a marriage is super unsettling because we’re running into these very unknown and very unstable headwinds. And that makes us very uncomfortable.
Here’s an idea that might help: moving from 0 to 100MPH is indeed not always a good idea. There are exceptions. For example, a woman who thinks she’s in danger and leaves her home. It’s a life-saving choice to leave, Fast, but needed.
Here I’m talking about spouses who feel anxious about exploring the health of their marriage, and they are not in any danger as far as they can tell. Moving according to your capacity is a good idea.2
You don’t have to dive into the deep end (if there’s a deep end): you can start by exposing yourself to new information without the pressure to “fix” anything. And stay within your capacity, taking small step(s) at a time.
4. When and if you gain bandwidth, and wish to take other steps, how your spouse responds to your concerns clarifies your spouse’s character (and the state of the marriage.)
This is the goodness of a growth process. Either way, you win.
If you indeed have normal issues (versus persistent unrelenting harmful patterns), you can work on these issues individually and as a couple and get yourselves to a healthier place. Not every spouse who begins to explore the challenging problems they’ve been ignoring is dealing with abuse.
Sometimes, someone just needed to take responsibility for something. A new awareness was required for that to happen. Difficult conversations need to be had. Someone was hurt and was in protective mode for the longest time. Individuals needed to self and co-regulate (Vs. escalating.)
Remember, healthy spouses ARE still different people who need to continue learning, communicating, growing, and bearing fruit.
When overall healthy couples are scared that their marriage isn’t perfect or some of the behaviors present in their marriage bring shame or anxiety, it’s important to remember that abuse is not behavior. It’s entrenched patterns. It’s not a one-off wounding but a cycle of wounding.3
If you start educating yourself and it starts to hit home that the problems you are experiencing are far from typical, that’s still a win for you.
It won’t feel like a win at that moment. But then you’re free to focus on the important thing: the individual, not the relationship. For example, you can explore possible next steps to facilitate your safety versus spinning your wheels trying to change a relationship where the other person has checked out of their responsibility.
Is My Marriage Healthy? The Healthy Marriage Check Up
If you’re nervous about asking “is my marriage healthy?” it’s important to remind yourself that human beings are made to grow. Thus relationships are meant to grow.
Spouses need to befriend curiosity because that’s what an authentic, truthful life looks like. Ditching evaluation is the stuff that paves Lala-land.
And nobody benefits where truth is denied or suppressed.
Again, no rush. No quick “inspection and fix.” (Ever attempted to run a 5k straight from your couch? Not fun. You need to build ability and endurance.)
Overall, a healthy relationship should be able to survive a compassionate health checkup.4 A healthy marriage should survive seasons of sitting with ourselves, our problems, and our angsts, having honest, courageous conversations about them, and getting help as needed.
If these seasons never bear any lasting fruit, if it’s eggshells, placation, and feeling diminished all the time, then that’s information you can use to make decisions for your next step.5 Either way, you win. Either way, you have clarity.
"People with good ethics, a desire for fairness, and a conscience that requires they apologize when wrong can usually have good relationships. All they need is a few problem-solving, conflict resolution, and communication skills. But if those character traits don't exist in one spouse, then it doesn't matter how many problem-solving classes you take, it's going to fall apart." Gretchen Baskerville, The Life Saving Divorce.
Bottom line: Curiosity is a good thing. Living in truth is a good thing. Give yourself permission to reflect, attune and make changes where necessary. You are worth it.
Foot Notes: Links might be affiliate.
1. There are consequences to choices made or not made. So while we have a choice, our actions or inaction have effects, now or later.
2. “Move within your tolerance level” also applies to spouses in harmful marriages. There’s also an invitation to courage but, within that, compassion for ourselves and our capacities. Here’s a helpful blog post exploring why women can’t up and leave a bad marriage: “But Why Doesn’t She Just Leave Him?” 40 Reasons Women Stay in Destructive Marriages
3. For more clarification on how abuse looks like, check out this free resource, Is it Abuse? by Sarah McDugal
4. Books to help well-adjusted couples uncover unhealthy patterns and map a path to a healthier relationship: 1) The Great Sex Rescue, 2) She Deserves Better (this book is for moms and daughters, but also great for reparenting one-self), 3) Systems of Love & Honor: A Guide to Recognizing Safe Relationships
5. If you think your marriage is harming you, please seek help from a professional therapist trained in trauma and abuse. You can also seek Clarity Coaching or read books like “The Life-Saving Divorce: Hope for People Leaving Destructive Relationships” or “It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: A Christian Woman’s Guide to Hidden Emotional and Spiritual Abuse”. You can the authorities or an abuse hotline in your country:
- Canada: 800.799.SAFE (7233)
- United States: 1-800-621-HOPE (4673).
- United Kingdom: 08 08 16 89 111
- Australia: 1800 015 188
- New Zealand: 0800 456 450
- Kenya: 0-800-720-072
- Nigeria: 0800 033 3333
- South Africa: 0800 428 428
*Sometimes, you need support on the body level to address the pain areas in your life or marriage. For small quick exercises and bite-side info to support your nervous system as you explore, check out Sarah Jackson Coaching on Instagram to help with anxiety or stress.
I love the information in your emails! They are so clarifying in my marital situation. I feel so much tension released reading your explanations of an abusive marriage versus healthy ones. The information is like a refreshing shower cleaning out all my wrong thought processes of thinking I need sacrifice myself to save my marriage.
I still struggle to find a beginning point of doing an about face and making it known to my husband. When do we talk about things AGAIN? And when is it OK to do what I need to do to strengthen myself without involving husband? And what does that look like?
Thank you so much for your dedication to strengthening good marriages, and good individuals in bad marriages.