Marriage Is The Real Problem

Coffee MugIf you’re married, you fight.

And you probably fight with the best of intentions, trying to bring about a change in your partner that is good and healing. The only thing is, your partner isn’t the problem.

Marriage is.

Marriage is a mess, and until we become partners standing with each other, facing off against the problem of marriage and life and a crumbling world, we will face off against each other, and nothing will change, and nothing will be healed…

Several years ago, a couple sat down in my office and told me they’d been fighting viciously since their last appointment.* I asked what they’d been fighting about, and I silently flipped through my mental filing cabinet: in-laws, the kids, money, sex, or just fighting about fighting?

Not much surprises me anymore, but what they said next caught me completely off-guard.

“We fought about the color of your coffee mug.”

The color of my coffee mug.

He insisted it was purple. She insisted it was blue.

Actually, the mug is both, depending upon how the light hits it and your personal perceptions of color. And yet they had been embroiled in a week-long battle. Arguing a point that doesn’t have an answer. Seeking victory in a game that cannot yield a victor. Trying to solve a problem with no definitive solution.

We live our marriages in this way. We make this crazy-strange commitment to entwine our life with another’s life. Forever. And we quickly come to discover the insanity of this. We think and communicate differently than our partner. We celebrate holidays differently. We grieve differently. We vacation differently. We have differences of opinion about life and love and parenting and politics and faith.

And the color of a coffee mug.

But instead of deciding the problem lies outside both us, between us, we decide the problem exists within our partner. We blame them for the differences, and the struggle, and the pain, and the messiness of life. And our homes become a battlefield, as we try to fix the problem we are married to. At best, wives walk on eggshells trying not to wake the sleeping giant, and husbands sneak around like little boys trying not to get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

How do we rescue our marriages from this endless cycle of blame and conflict? How do we find sanity in the midst of this crazy commitment?

When I was in high school, “magic eye” posters were all the rage. They were posters of apparently random and chaotic color. Except. If you stared into them long enough, stared past them, the colors collided into coherence, and an image emerged from the randomness. Something meaningful emerged from the chaos.

I think we need to look at the marriage altar like we would a magic eye poster.

We need to stare past the glitz and glamour of the wedding day, stare past the false promise of life-long satisfaction and personal gratification, stare past the false hope of turning chaos into order with the exchange of two metal rings. And as we look more deeply into the marriage altar, we may glimpse a new image emerging from the randomness and chaos.

We may see the wedding altar for what it is.

An altar of sacrifice—a place our egos are meant to die.

If we can look long enough, and if we can embrace this image of the wedding alter, we may yet have a fighting chance of standing with our partner, rather than constantly facing off against them. As our egos die—and our need to be right and powerful and safe dies with them—we may become free to embrace a radical kind of acceptance. We may be free to accept…

Our spouse is another flawed creature, with whom we are trying to solve the real problem of life and living.

Our lives are stressful and chaotic and sometimes no one is to blame for it.

Our partner is not responsible for taking away all of our loneliness and inadequacy.

The redemption of this life is not found in being right, but rather in being together.

I wonder if this is the purpose of marriage:

That couples might transform marriage into an entirely different kind of ground zero. That armies of married people might stand side-by-side and march out into the world, armed with a sense of unity, a willingness to sacrifice themselves for something bigger, and a commitment to love others regardless of the cost to ourselves. That we might decide, finally, to find an enemy worth fighting against.

Enemies like hunger and homelessness and parentlessness, and conflict itself.

Tonight, one in seven people on this planet will go to bed hungry.

Tonight, in the wealthiest country in the world, more than a million people will be without shelter.

In the time it took you to read this post, approximately fifteen African children became AIDS orphans.

In 2012, a record-setting 275 Chicagoans have been murdered, primarily due to gang violence. Says one Chicago police officer, “Instead of a bullet with somebody’s name on it, we have a bullet that reads ‘To whom it may concern.’”**

For the most part, we can put these kinds of statistics out of our minds.

Until we go to a Batman premiere.

And then the denial crumbles, with the world around us.

And yet, tonight we will go to bed with our backs to each other, fighting about who started the fight, who is most responsible for the kids’ disrespect, or who left the toilet seat up.

Or the color of a coffee mug.

Let’s stop blaming each other, and let’s find an enemy worth fighting against. Let’s put our egos to death, and let’s stand with our spouses.

Somewhere right now, there is a person, not so different than you, with an empty stomach and empty pockets. Or, a family with no family, and no place to lay their heads. Or, a kid dying for a story to live and a set of parents who will narrate it for her. Or, a teenager with no authority figure except his gang and his gun.

The world is aching for people who have learned the freedom of unity and compassion, who are ready to wield them like weapons, firing salvos of love into dark and crumbling places. Your marriage is meant to be the training ground.

And in the midst of the training, may you learn that your partner is not an enemy combatant. You may come to know them as another freedom fighter, one who will always have your back, one who will never leave you alone in the trenches.


Your thoughts? Has marriage challenged you to be sacrificial? Or to unite against something besides each other? We’d love to hear your story in the comments!

About the Blog: The next Tuesday Tip will continue to focus on nurturing “empathic joining” around problems in marriage, rather than treating each other like the problem. Subscribein the sidebar and receive the tip in your email inbox!

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Photo Credit: Photo taken by David Clinton, MA, LCPC

And always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift.

*Permission granted by couple to share story.

**Statistics and quote taken from July 11, 2012, issue of the Sun Times.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

29 thoughts on “Marriage Is The Real Problem

  1. It looks blue to me! (I couldn*t resist)
    As I sit with my own marriage, as I sit with couples in counseling or often with one half of a couple, I thank you for the image of marriage as our training ground. Good pre-marital counseling helps point out some of the possible areas of conflict, though, as your coffee mug illustration shows, there is no way we can predict all of them. Training ground? Yes, definitely, and also ground to develop and refine our sense of humor so we can link arms and face the world. Kelly, thank you for this.

    • Hilarious, because I thought the picture made it look more purple! Thanks for your thoughts about humor. My master’s thesis actually looked at the ways couples use humor to de-escalate conflict! And I recently came across this website:

      • What’s hilarious about that is he (Mark Gungor) has linked to several of your articles. That’s how I got here, and I’m very thrilled by your writing and how it focuses on sacrificial marriage. God bless ya and keep it up.


        • That is funny, Amanda! I need to reach out to Mark…we seem to be on the same wavelength!

  2. Wow! Thank you for your articles; I found this one really good. I agree with you; a big part of the benefit of marriage is learning to communicate, be selfless etc. “An altar of sacrifice—a place our egos are meant to die. Wow! I just want to be grateful that I have someone who shares life with me!

    • Yes! Mix together some humor and some gratitude, and let them fuel the fire that burns up our egos!

  3. A very welcome piece of perspective. Seriously. And I agree with Catharine about the humor! Don’t leave home without it!

  4. The one thing that all divorces have in common….marriage!

    BTW I love your blog posts and how the content is frequently centered around stepping back and looking at the bigger picture of patterns of behavior that we as couples/parents/individuals have been living in but not really seeing.

  5. Wow, All I can say is that early in my marriage we would argue about how to fold the towels. Of course he folded them the wrong way or so I thought. It is now when I look back at that I laugh that I thought that it was so important. Today I am just glad someone folds them. It is safe to say that we worked through all the crazy things I thought were important until I learned that everything does not have to go my way for it to be the right way. Today we would take bets on who was right on the color of the mug and the winner picks the date night place. I really love your blog because it causes me to think about the early part of my marriage and to recognize how much our marriage has changed. I am truly blessed to have my best friend and partner to have my back…because those kids grow up and you really need a united front to survive the teenaged years.

    • I really appreciate your story. What an encouragement to those of us in the earlier stages of the married life. Especially those of us still anticipating the teenage years. 🙂

  6. Actually, the mug is cobalt blue 😉 I agree totally with you Dr. Flantastic. All too often we forget about the world’s issues, and feel that an argument over the color of a mug is the most pressing issue of the day. The times that I am away from my best friend (my wife), are the times that I truly realize how vulnerable I am without her. I would give anything just to be around her, to feel her skin or hear her voice. The old saying “distance makes the heart grow fonder” can be true if people want it to be. By being apart, I realize how vulnerable I am without her; how on November 27, 1999 I traded up my individuality for a fortified union with an amazing partner. Unfortunately, due to circumstance and time, we forget the promise of the “Deep Magic” that was created on our wedding day and our blissful “Narnia” (marriage) freezes over, often without the thaw it needs to survive. I’ll stop for now, you all get the point 😉

    • Thanks for this beautiful reminder. And, folks, this guy isn’t talking about a weekend away. Three tours in Iraq, right? Thanks for your service to your country and your family, Jason.

  7. This is so very true, and wonderful to read
    We as parents need to pass this info on to our children before the night in shinning armour carries them away on their wedding day.
    Life , marriage , has its ups and it’s downs .. So as I tell my children… Enjoy the ups to the fullest because there will be downs … Simple rule of life. And with Gods help the downs will be ok too!

  8. Jason and Ktina and Kelly,
    BLUE being the operative word, no matter the descriptor…

  9. Marriage is the union of two imperfect sinful people whom with God’s grace can live the self-sacrifice that the sacrament requires. I am reminded of my all-male Catholic high school’s class on marriage and family required for all seniors. I refer back to it often. Marriage is not a contract but a covenant. A contract is an exchange of goods and services, a 50%/50% relationship. If you don’t fulfill your part of the contract, you can be sued or the contract dissolved. Marriage is a covenant, not an exchange of goods and services, but an exchange of persons. It is a 100%/100% relationship. You give yourself to your spouse, and your spouse to you. The Old Testament covenant was such an exchange. I will be your God, and you will be my people. We were taught that the 100%/100% relationship meant that when your spouse was incapable of giving 100%, it was up to the other to make up for it. To give and truly not count the cost and do what love requires. Given our self-centered natures, so much grace is needed when the true sacrificial love is demanded. As a husband and father who tries to live this sacrificial love, I am reminded and challenged by the line recounting the Last Supper in the Eucharistic prayer in the Mass, “a death He freely chose.” I contemplate this often especially in those moments when I don’t feel like acting in love. It is good for me to be regularly reminded that I too, out of love, have chosen freely a similar death.

    • I couldnt agree more with you. Well said and you called it when you said ‘two imperfect sinful people whom with God’s grace can live the self-sacrifice that the sacrament requires.” I am grateful that my husband has continued to give 100% even when I did not deserve it. But then again that is Grace.

    • Thank you for sharing, Matt, and for your dedication to sacrificing for your family!

  10. Thank you for this web sight! The key for me is to experience this way of living and not only to read about it.

    • Yes, Mickey! On Tuesday, I’ll have another tip about how to actually experience the kind of sacrifice described in the post. Thanks for reading!

  11. Thank you very much. My opinion in Marriage (very short) that it is a sacred relationship, and often the couples are best suited to each other, and will never find better ones. And I agree with you about the sacrifice because it is the best solution.

    • Ali, it’s good to connect with you through all the social networks. Welcome aboard and thanks for your thoughts here!

  12. I just had a fight with my wife a couple months back. This really caused
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