Finding the Root Cause of Marriage Problems Using the 5 Whys

by | Jun 5, 2019 | Resolving Conflict | 17 comments

The 5 Whys and Marriage
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Why are you feeling distant in your marriage?

What if asking “why” five times in a row, based on the answers you were given, could reveal the root problem?

Lately I’ve been critiquing the way that some churches do marriage counseling. I want to get away from the criticisms now and try to build up. So for the month of June, my Wednesday series is all going to be about practical ways we can get to the heart of our marriage issues and grow our marriages! I’ve got my Honeymoon Course launching next Monday to help couples start their marriages well, but I want to help even marriage veterans build their marriages and uncover the root of problems.

Today, for our first post in the series, I want to talk about The Five Whys method and apply it to marriage.

The Five Why method (some people use the 7 whys, because they’re over-achievers) was started by Toyota in the 1950s to identify problems with their assembly lines.

Here’s how it works: You start with the main problem that you’re experiencing, and then you ask, “Why is this happening?” Once you’ve uncovered the reason, you ask why THAT is happening. And you do this five times. This helps to uncover the real problem that is causing all the others.

Here’s an example of the Five Whys from industry:

From Start Up Lessons Learned: The Five Whys

Let’s say you notice that your website is down. Obviously, your first priority is to get it back up. But as soon as the crisis is past, you have the discipline to have a post-mortem in which you start asking why:

  1. why was the website down? The CPU utilization on all our front-end servers went to 100%
  2. why did the CPU usage spike? A new bit of code contained an infinite loop!
  3. why did that code get written? So-and-so made a mistake
  4. why did his mistake get checked in? He didn’t write a unit test for the feature
  5. why didn’t he write a unit test? He’s a new employee, and he was not properly trained in TDD

The benefit of the 5 why method is that you might start out with one type of problem, but then realize that the root of it is an entirely different issue.

In this case, it originally looked like a technical issue. But as they looked deeper, it turns out that it was a training issue, which is a human resources issue.

The strength of the 5 whys method is that it helps you make changes that address the root problems.

Instead of just putting a band-aid on to try to stop the bleeding, you figure out why someone is bleeding in the first place. And then you take concrete steps to solve it.

So now let’s apply the 5 Whys to marriage problems!

I’m going to give a bunch of different examples so that you can see how this may work for you.

Why do we always fight so much in the morning and start our days off grumpy?

Because our mornings are chaos 

Why is it in chaos?

Because the children don’t get up on time, and can’t find their homework, and the laundry isn’t done and nobody has clean underwear, and there’s nothing to make for lunches.

Why does this all happen?

Because there’s no routine the night before to get things ready.

Why is there no routine?

Because we’re spending our nights on Netflix and time wasters.

Why are we spending time on time wasters?


At this point there may be a whole number of reasons! It could be:

  • Because we’re lazy
  • Because we’ve never talked about how to have a good routine to get things ready
  • Because we’re so emotionally exhausted from our jobs that we need to do absolutely nothing
  • Because the kids are so crazy at night and so badly behaved that we’re depressed

And so on. And all of that could lead to very different solutions. But once you’ve identified which one it is, now you can make some plans!

If it’s because you’ve never actually talked about how to make a good routine, you could do that. You could figure out when to go grocery shopping, how to get the laundry done, and you could get the kids involved in getting their homework ready and their lunches ready before they go to bed.

If it’s that you’re so emotionally exhausted from your jobs, you could make plans to get different jobs.

If it’s because the kids are badly behaved, you could seek out some help to deal with their behaviour issues.

The point is that once you’ve revealed the root of the problem, you can now make plans to fix it!

Do you have a hard time asking for what you want?

You can change the dynamic in your marriage and make talking about your own needs easier!

If your marriage is in a communication rut, it’s time for some change.

Here’s another issue:

Why do we have sex so infrequently?

Because when he asks it’s not a good time.

Why is it not a good time?

Because he often comes to bed after she’s already asleep.

Why does he come to bed later?

Because he’s not ready to go to bed when she is.

Why is he not ready to go to bed when she is?

Because he’s been playing video games and has adjusted his body clock to sleeping at hours opposite from the family.

Why has he slept at weird hours?

Because he isn’t with the family schedule because he doesn’t spend time with the kids.

He’s never been involved in getting the kids up in the morning, which would require him to get up earlier (and thus go to bed earlier). He’s left the parenting to her, and she has accepted that. Once this is revealed, they could talk about how to get him more involved with the family, which could also lead to him sleeping at a better schedule!

But that same first question–why do we have sex so infrequently–could also lead to very different results.

Why do we have sex so infrequently?

Because whenever he asks she’s in the middle of the something.

Why is she always in the middle of something?

Because she spends her evenings on her own interests.

Why does she spend her evenings on her own interests?

Because she doesn’t have any other time to herself during the day.

Why does she not have any time to herself?

Because her time is consumed with work and children’s activities.

Why is her time consumed with children’s activities?

Because she has overscheduled her kids and hasn’t prioritized her own mental health or her marriage.

Now, it may not be as black and white as both of these examples, where it was obviously one person’s fault. But you can see how asking why can help you get to the root of the issue. In fact, it may be worth asking having the “Why” branch out–maybe the reason they don’t spend the evenings together is partly her issue and partly his issue, and if they each answer their own why questions they may find ways that both of them need to change (and indeed, that’s far more likely!).

Here’s one more very different example:

Why is she constantly disappointed in her husband and dissatisfied in their marriage?

Because she feels upset that he doesn’t lead in devotions; he’s not decisive; and he’s not overly ambitious at work.

Why do these things bother her?

Because that means that he’s not a good Christian husband.

Why does this mean he’s not a good Christian husband?

Because the sermons and the Bible studies at church teach that a Christian husband is a hyper-masculine alpha male.

Why does her church believe these things?

Because the church sees marriage as a set of roles rather than as a partnership between two individuals.

Why does the church see marriage as a set of roles?

Because the church is not a healthy one.

So you can see how they start out with one problem–she feels dissatisfied and criticizes a lot–and they uncover that the root is that they’re steeped in a culture that is working directly against the health of their marriage.

They may have thought the problem was one thing, but it’s actually something quite different.

That’s how the Five Whys method can work for your marriage–ask questions and see if you can uncover the real problem.

If the problem really is a surface-level problem, the questions will show that, too. But what these questions can do is help shift us as couples from an aggressive stance to a problem-solving stance.

What so much Christian marriage counselling seems to forget is that God made you uniquely you for a reason–and the same goes for your spouse! You two together have your own individual calling as a couple, and your own individual giftings and strengths as individuals. And that’s something to celebrate! And that’s why this month I’m focusing on giving practical advice that works in a variety of marriage situations, because many of you (or your marriages) have been put into boxes based on stereotypes that were never what God intended for you.

So practice working together for the common good in your particular circumstance. Marriage should be a practice of “spur[ring] each other on towards love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24), so when a problem comes up, work together to find the real underlying issue so you can fix it together and help each other grow.

How to Use the 5 Whys Method to Uncover the Root of Marriage Problems

What do you think? Have you ever tried something like this? How did it work? Let us know in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Nathan

    This is a good idea. Often, what SEEMS to be a problem is actually just a symptom of something deeper. So keep digging to find what’s REALLY going on, and work to make it whole.

  2. Arwen

    You know Sheila, growing up i used to ask so many, why, questions that i annoyed many people. But those same people will ask me how i was such a good problem solver and how i always managed to know the root causes of many problems. And i’m like duh! All those inquiring why questions i asked helped me. I also find the Bible to be like this too: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Because mankind sinned. Why did mankind sin? Because they found sin pleasing to the eyes. Why was sin pleasing to the eyes? Because satan showed them ways on how it can be pleasing. Why did…….etc. etc. Eventually you will get to the root of the problem.

    I didn’t even know there was a method for this type of inquiring souls. I love this article. Pinning it!

  3. Emily

    I really like this.
    It can work well with kids, too:
    Why do you not want to go to bed? (which, after 5 rounds, turned out to be a desire to be treated as “older than” his little sister, and had nothing to do with “not being tired” – we solved it by allowing him to brush his teeth *after* their bedtime story instead of before it, and he feels heard and they’re still both in bed at a reasonable time!)

    • Arwen

      Emily, obviously i don’t know your son, but i would have pressed him further. Because to me it sounds like he has pride issues. I would have asked him further why being treated equally with his younger sister is a problem for him, not in those exact words. But had you pressed on further i bet you, you could have found the root cause of why he finds it problematic to be humble. Not criticizing, just observing from the info you provided.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with an older child wanting to be treated like they’re older. Rebecca certainly wanted certain privileges that came with being older–including a later bedtime. I don’t think it’s always pride. Sometimes it’s just that desire to be acknowledged as an individual and not just part of a group, which is an important emotional need we all have.

        We always did it that being older should have both rewards and responsibilities. My problem (which maybe Rebecca will chime in here for) was that I often concentrated more on the responsibilities than the rewards. So I expected more from her and asked more from her without giving her more rewards than Katie (like the ability to stay up later). So she had to come to us and talk to us, and she was reasonable, and then frequently we were, too. But it was a source of consternation for her–that she was expected to act more grown up, but then not given any acknowledgment that she was.

        • Arwen

          I agree Sheila, it’s not always a problem, but my inquisitive mind would have like to know. I work with kids and i see them all the time enjoying having one-up on the other kids based on their age, gender, income, height, etc. Not speaking on Emily’s son but with one of my own i would have simply asked to make sure the motives of my child were legitimate. But most defiantly i agree with you.

          • Nathan

            > > I often concentrated more on the responsibilities than the rewards.

            This likely happens very often. For example, a childhood friend of mine was five years older than his younger brother, and had to do a lot more chores around the house, but they both got the exact same allowance.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      YES! I love this. I think we often assume children are being difficult when really there’s an underlying emotional need they have that we just have to identify. And that’s part of treating them like human beings.

    • Becky

      I’ve never heard of this strategy, but I agree that it sounds brilliant for both marriage and parenting! (If I can get reasonable answers from the 4 and under set, lol.)

  4. Ashley

    This is great! Self-knowledge and introspection are important here too. We can really fool ourselves sometimes.

  5. CS from NY

    I like this. I myself frequently do this when my wife is upset to figure out what I did and what is the root sin issue I need to address. It has been eye-opening.

    One thing though: overachieving aside, I think sometimes you may need to go deeper than just five levels. The second example, where the woman didn’t have enough time to herself and was consumed with things for the kids was very probably because the husband was selfish and not involved. That’s not the wife’s fault.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Totally agree! You may need the 7 whys (as the Ritz Carlton uses). I do think, though, that sometimes women can be way overinvolved with the kids and it ISN’T on the dad. I’ve seen women do that to themselves. (I’ve seen it the other way, too. But it’s like Tolstoy said: “Happy families are all the same. Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.”)

  6. Natalie

    This is brilliant! Don’t know why I haven’t heard of this concept sooner. I’m sharing this with my husband. Let’s see if we can implement it into our lives & understanding our struggles better.

  7. Hi

    I just wanted to say thank you, you are helping me so much with my marriage. I recently started following you on Twitter and I am so grateful to see someone standing up to all the church bullies!! I always wondered why church marriage seminars always made our marriage worse, now I see a hope and real results with your advice. THANK YOU!!!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad!

  8. Sue

    I cannot seem to read the writing in the blue blocks. The background is almost the same colour as the text. Just thought I’d mention.

    • Connor Lindenbach

      Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I have resolved the formatting issue!


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