Your Marriage is Suffering From a Common Cold, Not Mad Cow Disease

2:27 PM


I like chicken noodle soup, long naps, a warm bed, and extra rest. But I hate colds. They are annoying, sometimes nagging, and always inconvenient. They are terrible. But they are not the bubonic plague and if you are otherwise healthy, colds are not deadly. Could you imagine if we acted like common colds were a de facto death? Can you imagine the mass despair that would be utterly pointless? It would be crazy.

Common Colds, Marriage, and Divorce 
Believe it or not, this is actually happening right now with marriage. Way too many people act as if their common-cold-type marital problems are terminal. Every marriage encounters difficulty, but too many people are freaking out that their marriages are doomed because they’ve hit a couple (rather normal) bumps in the road. All marriages come across an occasional pothole, a nagging cough, or a lingering itch. But it would be terribly foolish to end a marriage for any of these reasons. Notwithstanding the normative nature of these common cold types of problems, they’ve been embraced by many as valid reasons for divorce. Consider some of the reasons people have given during therapy for pulling the plug on their marriage:

-"I'm not happy.“ 
-"I love him, but not in love with him." 
-"We are just not that compatible." 
-"She's changed.” 
-“We don’t communicate very well.” 
-"We've grown apart." 
-“We would be happier with someone else.” 
-“My husband is a nice guy, but boring.” 

Obviously, these people are in some level of pain and discomfort, and I don’t want to invalidate their pain. Their circumstances are certainly less than ideal and marriage can be really hard. But let’s be honest, do you know anyone with ideal circumstances? If you think you do, you don’t know them very well. These statements simply reflect certain marital realities: spouses are different, we do things differently, we have different ideas and desires and interests, and learning to work through these differences is really hard. We refer to some of these issues as “common-colds” of marriage, precisely because they are common and initially not that severe. It would be hard to find a couple who didn’t experience some of these issues in some degree at some point in their marriage. In fact, it would be hard to find a couple who was able to avoid any of these colds throughout the entirety of their marriage. Marriage simply isn’t that easy. It is normal for marriage to be hard and emotionally uncomfortable at times. We all suffer from colds occasionally. 

Unfortunately, divorce for these types of "soft" reasons appear to be increasing in popularity. In one study on the reasons for divorce in the United States, 12 of the 17 reasons given for divorce were common-cold type reasons, such as incompatibility, growing apart, lack of communication, feeling unhappy in marriage, and a loss of love. Would your great grandparents have considered these as legitimate reasons for divorce? Not likely. And probably not even your grandparents. Another study discovered that the majority of marriages that ended in divorce were low-conflict marriages (meaning they didn’t fight that often or feel hostile toward one another) but ended their marriages because they felt emotionally distant and wanted to seek happiness elsewhere (as a side note, these are considered "good enough" marriages and research has found that this type of divorce is particularly harmful to children). 

And we haven't even discussed those who come to accept the symptoms of these common colds as "just the way things are in marriage" and decide to just live with things the way they are. To embrace the reality that common colds will come and go is a good thing. This is part of having realistic expectations. It is not realistic to assume that these symptoms are destined to last forever. That type of thinking will either push you towards divorce or just make you miserable.  

Physical Sickness is Annoying, but Marital Sickness is Even Worse 
Now I have to be honest. I told you I hated colds. And I do. But the common colds of marriage bother me even more than the common colds that produce a runny nose. I would much rather experience the headache that comes from a physical sickness than the heartache that comes from a marital sickness. I don’t think that individuals who choose to divorce for these types of reasons are simply weak people who are not tough enough to hack marriage. Marital sickness hurts, sometimes really bad. Unmet expectations produce a lot of psychological distress and emotional pain. It can be hard to live joyfully in these circumstances. It can be hard to feel contentment in a marriage when the loving feelings are more up and down then they used to be. It can be hard to feel loved when your partner doesn’t want to have sex as much as you do or feel happy when some conflicts never seem to get resolved. But these are common issues in marriage that all couples need to work through while managing their symptoms, not reasons to sign the death certificate on your marriage. Not even close. 

Common colds vary in their severity and symptoms, but they are always unpleasant. The same goes for marriage. Some people struggle with more colds than others. The same goes for marriage. Some people make choices that make it more likely they will develop a nasty cold. The same goes for marriage. Some people have learned to cope effectively with common-cold symptoms, while others have not. The same goes for marriage. Some people make choices that minimize (or maximize) the length and intensity of their symptoms. The same goes for marriage. 

I fear that too many people are unaware of common marital difficulties and believe their circumstances are too dire or too unique. Too many people suffer needlessly because they have failed to see their problems for what they really are: common, typical, minor marital bumps in the road. The symptoms of the common cold are uncomfortable and annoying, but not meant to be deadly or permanent. Could you imagine suffering from cold symptoms the rest of your life? Or pulling the plug because you have a bad case of the sniffles? That sounds terrible and foolish and in marriage, entirely pointless. There is a better way. 

For the next few weeks we are going to identify some of these common marital colds and share some ideas and principles that will help you cope with their symptoms more effectively. So in the meantime, stay warm, take a nap, get lots of rest, and enjoy some chicken noodle soup.

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2 comments

  1. I love the colds analogy. A recently divorced friend of mine spoke with me at length with what went into the breakup of his marriage and as he spoke I thought to myself, "It sounds a lot like my marriage except everything got taken to an extreme conclusion." Good to find this and see you writing!

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    1. It's really sad when that happens, and it happens too often. Thanks for reading Stephen!

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