Some of the most popular TV shows and movies over the past decade revolve around zombies – those undead beings that feast on the truly living. Zombies aren't real (are they?!?), but too many marriages resemble zombies. These marriages aren’t “dead” in the absolute sense, but they are without any true and meaningful life. The only people clueless that the marriage is dead are the husband and wife who continue to go through the motions, walking around as if their marriage were still among the truly living.
In the movies, it’s usually some strange virus or mysterious plague that transforms a healthy human into a walking dead. In real life, it’s no great mystery what sucks the life out of a marriage. The number one cause (as well as numbers 2 through 99) is simple: selfishness. When we think the purpose of the marriage (or the purpose of our spouse) is to make us happy, we turn the marriage from the loving and life-giving thing it’s meant to be into a zombie-like relationship. Most marriages don’t die an instant death; they slowly turn from being an other-centered relationship to a walking corpse.
No marriage is perfect, but I believe most marriages can be far more alive than they are. In nearly 25 years of marriage and ministry to couples, I’ve noticed three specific death-dealing habits that suck the soul from a marriage. Each of these flows from a selfish heart and reinforces selfishness in the marriage. These are truly deadly habits, so if you want to avoid having a zombie marriage, you need to shoot these habits in the head.
1. Talking down your spouse in front of other people. The best piece of advice Holly and I ever received came in our first year of marriage. A dear saint of a woman overheard one of us say something unflattering about the other and bluntly responded: “If your spouse were here, I doubt they'd want you to say that.” Once the initial shock of such honesty wore off, the truth of the statement set in. It’s been a guiding principle in our marriage ever since.
Saying unkind, embarrassing, or mocking things about your spouse to others is a marriage killer. Sometimes this takes on the form of confessing your spouse's sins, or tattling on your spouse to friends or family members. I’ve even seen some couples air their dirt via Facebook. Yikes! If you’re tempted to talk down your spouse to others, ask yourself, What makes me want to do that? What do I gain from putting them down? What’s another, more healthy way to show up?
2. Competing with your spouse. I’m always perplexed by couples who try to one-up one another. The problem with one-upping is that it usually requires putting down. To have a winner requires having a loser. Competing sends the message that “I’m better than you,” which is the exact opposite of what it takes to have a healthy marriage.
Couples compete in lots of ways: Who will get their way with the money? Who’s going to do the dishes? Which movie will we see? Whose decides what color to paint the dining room or whether the recliner stays in the living room? Whose family will we see for Christmas? And the list goes on. When couples compete with one other, nobody really wins. Great marriages are those in which each spouse lifts up the other one and seeks the spouse’s success over his/her own. When you really love someone, their win is your win.
3. Extreme Compensation. Okay, so I don’t know exactly what to call this, but I sure know what it looks like. This is the habit of treating one another poorly and then making up for it by going to Cancun (or buying a new television, or going on an expensive date, or whatever). The problem isn’t the trip or the television or even the money these things cost; the problem with this habit is that it pushes the marriage toward the extreme corners of life. It’s like a bulimic person who gorges and then vomits, except in the marriage a brief time of gorging compensates for an otherwise nauseous marriage.
I know one husband who constantly works later than he needs to and brings the stress of work home in the form of a sour and demeaning attitude toward his wife and children. He also makes really selfish choices with money. In layman’s terms, he’s a shitty husband. He tries to make up for being a jerk by taking his wife on a cruise once in a while or buying her expensive jewelry. In counseling, she confessed that this makes her feel like a prostitute. Talk about a deadly habit!
Healthy marriages have ups and downs, but they are not lived primarily at the extremes. They go up or down from the middle, day-to-day, real world average. And this average life is good; it doesn’t need to be compensated for through extreme acts. Vacations, breaks, and treats are fine when they come as part of a healthy, loving relationship. However, when they are used as a way to compensate, they hurt instead of helping.
In the made up world of movies, there’s only one thing to do with a zombie: kill it with a shot to the head. Fortunately, there are better options for a zombie marriage. You can breath new life into an undead marriage. It takes a lot of work and real change, but it’s worth it. If you’re not sure where to start, try these four things:
1. Prayer. The only cure for selfishness is humility and the only way to be truly humble is to humble yourself before your Creator. Go before God and confess your sins (not your spouse’s sins), ask for forgiveness (from God before asking your spouse), and ask God to help you forgive your spouse (even if your spouse hasn’t asked for it). Healthy marriages start with healthy people, and a right relationship with God is the only way to become truly healthy.
2. Commit to loving the real person who is your spouse. The notion that of all the billions of people in the world there is one perfect person for you is a load of crap. The person you married is not perfect and is not perfect for you; he or she is an imperfect person in uncountable ways. If the only person you can love is a perfect person, you’re the problem. So get over it and fully commit to loving the real person you married.
3. Wield Words Wisely. As the book of James reminds us, words can either build up or tear down. You don’t have to be verbally abusive or throw curse-filled tantrums to do damage (although those will certainly do lots of damage); biting comments and snarky remarks do plenty of harm. On the other hand, words of affirmation and honor grow your love and strengthen your marriage. If you want a great marriage, you have to learn how to talk (and how to shut up). A great husband uses his words to say kind, loving, honorable things to and about his wife. Likewise, a great wife uses her words for the good of her husband.
4. Loyalty. In my book, the number one factor for having a strong marriage is loyalty. Loyalty is much, much more than simply not cheating on your spouse. (BTW, if you are sleeping with, flirting with, or finding companionship with someone other than your spouse, you’re more than disloyal – you’re committing adultery and you should stop immediately.) When you’re loyal to your spouse, they can depend on you to have to have their back and can trust you to never, ever intentionally hurt or harm them. In any circumstance, if you're not sure what to do, just do what a loyal spouse would do and you can't go wrong.
My concern is that there are so many zombie marriages these days that too many couples assume it’s perfectly normal and okay. It’s not. God created marriage to be one of life's greatest blessings, not a curse. Let me encourage you to expect more, to strive for more, and to breath life into your marriage. If you'd like help, let me recommend three great books:
- The Meaning of Marriage, by Tim and Kathy Keller
- Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman
What about you?
What habits do you see contributing to zombie marriages? How zombie-like is (or was) your marriage? What habits have you found do the most to create a great marriage? Leave a comment and add to the conversation.