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Three Signs of Disunity in Marriage

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

Do you ever feel disconnected from your spouse? Disunity in marriage isn’t always easy to detect. It can disguise itself as a temporary unwanted guest, leaving us saying things like, “When this changes…” or “This is only for a season.” Daniel and I have been married for twenty years and countless times, many unrealized, that we were living a disunified marriage. Mostly in small ways, but there have been a handful of big disunity moments and seasons in our marriage.

How can you tell if you are living in unity or disunity with your spouse? I have seen not only with clients but also in my marriage that there are three main characteristics of living disunified in your marriage.

“I” mentality (disunity through independence)

It takes time to learn how to assimilate with a spouse, learn to work together, and trust one another. The idea of immediately having like-mindedness in every area of life is just not realistic. I am the youngest of four children and the only girl. All I knew to survive in the cruel world of jeering and being the annoying little sister was to be as independent as possible. The idea of “we” was not a natural understanding going into marriage. Independence resembled safety in many ways but it was exclusive.

Becoming a “we” grows as we learn to trust in ourselves and our spouse. Trusting is not defined by co-dependency, which is really a lack of individual identity. Trusting is learning that yours and your spouses wants and needs are equally important. We realize that sometimes we can get those wants and needs met simultaneously and other times we have to take turns, but we know, they will not be denied, dismissed or disregarded.

Laziness (disunity through helplessness)

Laziness is often a mask that covers fears that slowly erode unity. Laziness can pop up in marriages but its reason for showing up is not always as obvious as it seems. Instead of jumping into blaming or shaming your spouse for not showing up in the way you would hope or expect, take a second to think about and even ask what might be going on behind the mask of laziness. I’ve seen couples sit across from me wondering how their marriage has dissolved and the most prominent culprit in the room is apathy not because they don’t care, but because they don’t know how to care. The reasons that primarily come up are either fears such as failure and defectiveness or not understanding their spouse's expectations, simply because they were left unspoken. Just as those lazy moments build, they can also be taken down. If the belief of helplessness has invaded the marriage, the first steps are to communicate what you are thinking and feeling and your expectations. If we are willing to entertain that not every feeling, thought or expectation is an absolute fact but that we can at least begin a conversation with them, then a healthy compromise can be found. Instead of laziness, active participation begins to unfold.

Diverting ownership (disunity through blame)

Defensiveness is, unfortunately, second nature for most, if not all of us. It takes energy and effort to stop ourselves from defending our own righteous perspective and allow for the other person’s perspective and opinions to not only be shared but valued. When we use diversion tactics to fight the “right versus happy” battle to reference Dr. Phil, we wind up being “right” and alone. Partnership requires us to invite our spouse to share our encouragements and critiques. After all, how are we supposed to grow if the closest mirror that has an opportunity to reflect back to us is told exactly how they can and cannot portray us? We must be willing to receive and even seek feedback, especially from our spouses.

If we are not moving toward seeking partnership in our marriage, we are inevitably moving toward disunity. Learning to grow a marriage partnership begins with choosing to be together. Even though the saying is often “distance makes the heart grow fonder,” there is a lot more required of us when we challenge ourselves to make it work. It’s what we expect from our kids when they can’t get along; why don’t we expect the same from us? Just like any relationship, a connection which is the basis for partnership, begins with proximity. Sharing time in the simplest ways allows both spouses to learn how to merge their lives, invite feedback and be active participants in arguably the most growth-inducing relationship in which we could ever partake. Proximity that leads to partnership requires more from us than just being in the same room with our spouse.

When meeting with couples, I look for three ways to assess and help them increase their partnership: How attuned are they to one another, do they know how to be present and are they dreaming together?

We mentality (unity through awareness)

Attunement in marriage is arguably the most important skill each partner can learn. We all have signals that alert us to what we are feeling emotionally, which then triggers a physical response. When I’m upset, as much as I might try to hide my snarky face from Daniel, he can always tell when I’m unhappy. The attunement equation is: Emotions + Body location = Awareness. As we become more aware of our emotions and how those emotions get expressed physically (i.e., stomach cramps, headaches, tightness in our chest…), we learn our body’s warning system.

Along with learning independence from growing up in a home with three boys, I also learned to compartmentalize my feelings. In marriage, I’ve had to learn how to acknowledge and identify my feelings in order to share them. As you learn to attune to your own signals, you become more aware of your spouse’s signals. Partnership is strengthened as we learn to attune to one another.

Being present (unity through purpose)

Being present is less about what you’re doing and more about how you’re doing it. Being present is the act of combining awareness and attunement. If I’m attuned to Daniel’s desire to connect in conversation and yet I’m half focused on an article I’m reading, I’m choosing to know he wants connection but disregarding his need for my full attention. One of the biggest complaints I hear in counseling couples is that their spouse is distracted. Being present requires awareness of what’s going on in your surroundings. This is when you know whether it’s chill on the couch time, or jump in and clean the house up time. When we combine awareness of what’s needed with attunement to what our spouse is feeling, we are equipped to be present in not only a physical way but also a purposed way.

Dreaming (unity through vision)

When we encourage our mind and spirit to dream, we see past our current circumstances and see into the future. We are not dismissive of our struggles, but we also don’t let our struggles rob us of the life we want to live. Establishing a vision creates focused attention not only on goals we want to attain but also on lifestyle choices. We can easily get caught up in identifying end goals and determining success only in accomplishing those goals. If we shift our understanding to use the word “as” instead of “when,” we begin to realize that as we are making lifestyle choices and changes, we are, in reality living out our vision. A dream-oriented mentality encourages couples to dream about tangible and intangible goals. Daniel and I have grown to understand that vacations and exploring the world outside of what we know are just as vital as choosing whether one of our kids tries a new sport or we decide to lay low for the season. It’s not surprising when I hear couples state that they don’t know how they’ve wound up in the state of chaos or conflict they find themselves in, only because most of us aren’t paying attention to how the day-to-day interactions and decisions have the most impact on whether our future vision becomes a reality or not. When we find ourselves in a place where we see signs of disunity and it’s me versus my spouse mentality, dreaming becomes a chore that I can’t see the worthiness of. Establishing a vision for your marriage starts with having conversations about what you both most value and asking whether you are making decisions that align with your joint vision as a couple.

Taking time to answer a few essential questions can help direct your steps: Out of a list of 5-10 values and goals that are important to us, once narrowed down, what would our top 1-3 be? What changes might we need to make in our life that could help us achieve these goals? What elements encourage us to dream (i.e., getting away together, being around others who inspire us, having accountability from a counselor or good friends)? What steps must we take to make those elements a part of our life currently?

Unity in marriage requires intentionality and willingness to work together to accomplish far more together than you could ever alone. As the saying goes, “the grass is greener where you water it.” Growing partnership is a work in progress that will inevitably lead to a flourishing marriage.

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