The 3 Kinds of Marriage Problems–and Why We Shouldn’t Confuse Them

by | Sep 11, 2019 | Resolving Conflict | 12 comments

There is no one-size-fits-all for dealing with marriage problems, because not all marriage problems are alike.

This month, our Wednesday series is all about reducing stress in marriage and getting to the root of what’s really bothering you. Last week we talked about how to uncover the sources of stress in our lives, and today I want to look at the different types of marriage problems that we may experience.

And thank you to the Get Your Marriage On app for sponsoring this series!

When Keith and I started speaking at FamilyLife marriage conferences, we were given a curriculum used by FamilyLife USA for the Weekend to Remember, and we had to adapt our talks to fit the curriculum. But I always found the resolving conflict talk difficult, and it always felt like I was trying to put square pegs into round holes (which is why I’m glad that Canada rewrote the entire weekend and does it very differently now!). Part of the issue was that the conflict talk always focused on when there is a big disagreement, and then it focused on how to give and grant forgiveness. But not all conflict falls into those categories.

Why focus on forgiveness if you’ve just been having a simple difference of opinion, and you’ve had a hard time figuring out how to make a decision? Why focus on how to listen better if your spouse is watching porn or having an affair or abusing you? Different issues require different strategies.

So I’ve been thinking about a better way to picture conflict in marriage.

I’ve talked about part of this before–in this post on Why I’ve Stopped Resolving Conflict. It’s an important one on how to come to an agreement, and it focuses on a key teaching in my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage about the importance of identifying the underlying emotional need and then brainstorming to meet it, rather than squabbling over the correct course of action. That’s actually a lot more productive!

Today I’d like to take that one step further and break down the different types of conflict in a marriage, and why it’s important to deal with them differently.

I think conflicts in marriage can be divided into three different root causes: character issues, personal issues, and relationship issues.

Let’s see what that looks like!

Character Issues: When marital conflict is due to one person’s sin

Sometimes the reason we’re having conflict in a marriage is because one person is doing something wrong. They may be overspending and going into debt, and refusing to talk about budgets. They may be refusing to work, and relying on their spouse to do 90% of the housework and paid work. They may be watching porn or having an affair. They may be abusive, either physically, emotionally, financially, or sexually. (And, yes, men can be victims of abuse, too).

In all of these cases, one person is doing something that is harming the marriage.

How this should be addressed: Boundaries must be drawn so that the spouse doing wrong understands that this will not be tolerated and so that the spouse begins to reap the consequences of their actions. They don’t get to have the benefits of marriage if they are also destroying the marriage. Ideally, people can be brought into the relationship to tell the offending spouse that this will not be tolerated in their wider social circle, either. Counselling can be sought, but it primarily should be individual counselling, especially in cases of abuse, where couples counseling often provides the abuser another way to traumatize the victim.

Where we may go wrong: Unfortunately, a lot of marriage teaching, especially in the church, focuses on being more giving and more selfless (and they often use Bible verses about how Jesus gave up everything to give this message). However, this is taking the biblical mandate to be selfless out of context. We need to remember God’s aim: He wants us to look like Christ. Enabling sin does not help people move towards Christlike behaviour. And God also cares about our welfare! Allowing someone to hurt us does not accomplish God’s plans. As well, counselling in these situations may focus on how to improve communication, or how to spend more time together and have more date nights. But when someone is seriously hurting the marriage, that must be addressed before we work on anything else.


For examples of how counseling can go wrong, see this list of 98 ways a woman can sin against her husband. This list was given to a woman whose husband had been abusive and had been having an affair, and is a great example of handling sinfulness the entirely wrong way. Counseling can be a wonderful tool, but it must be good counseling.

Individual Issues: When marital conflict is due to one person’s hurt and unresolved problems

Some people start marriage with a lot more baggage than others. They were hurt, neglected, or belittled growing up, and so they have little sense of self or little confidence. That may lead to someone who becomes angry at the drop of a hat because they don’t want to be seen as “less than”. Alternatively, it could lead to someone having no drive in life and having difficulty getting a job because they’re so passive. Or maybe they were abused growing up, and have difficulty handling anger or handling any kind of conflict whatsoever. Or perhaps that abuse was sexual, and that sexual abuse is wreaking havoc with their sex life.

We all are a little bit broken, but some people’s brokenness takes a much bigger toll on the marriage. Healing from hurts can often take a lot of time and effort, and it can be quite emotionally difficult to even start that healing process. It requires facing things that you went through that you may not yet be ready to face.

The other problem is that brokenness can cross over and become selfishness. Broken people can become abusive (though not all do). Broken people can become lazy and have a difficult time getting a job, or can have a difficult time doing basic parenting tasks and can neglect the children. Not all sinful behaviour is caused by brokenness, but some is, and so untangling the mess becomes very difficult.

How this should be addressed: When the brokenness is not causing abusive behaviour, but simply self-destructive behaviour or relational problems, two things are needed: a ton of patience and love, and encouragement to get qualified help. Love unconditionally. Let the spouse know that they are safe. But also tell them that you care about them, and you don’t want to see them stuck. You want to help them as they get healing. In many ways, this is part of the “in sickness and in health” vows that we make at the wedding. Some people have much more sickness, and that sickness is not always physical. When the brokenness is also causing sinfulness, as above, then boundaries need to be set and individual counseling should be pursued to deal with the harmful behavior first. Then, any true healing will have to also address the underlying causes.

Where we may go wrong: We may get the wrong kind of counseling. Rachael Denhollander said, about abuse victims and trauma survivors, that she has never met anyone who went to biblical counseling who did not come out worse off. Find a licensed counselor (preferably one who is also a Christian) who understands trauma and knows evidence based treatments.

Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?

There’s a huge difference between the two. And if you don’t get it right–you’ll never be able to feel truly intimate in your marriage.

There’s a better way!

Relationship Issues: When marital conflict is due to two people seeing the world and their relationship in different ways

Then there are just the normal differences that any couple has–you have different love languages or different emotional needs. Because of that, you don’t always feel loved. Maybe you’re very different personalities (I have a great series on the MBTI and marriage which can point out some of these big differences!). Or maybe you’re simply disagreeing on a decision, and you can’t seem to figure out what to do.

How this should be addressed: Take the emotional needs quiz below! It’s a great tool to help you identify what you each need to feel loved that goes beyond love languages. Figure out what personality type  you are so that you can understand each other better and make allowances for each other. Follow the game plan I laid out in 9 Thoughts that Can Change a Marriage for coming to agreements when it seems like you’re at an impasse. If necessary, talk to other people or get some couples counseling to help you connect more.

Where we may go wrong: One person may decide to just “give in” and be giving, and may do this repeatedly, thinking that by surrendering more they are doing the right thing in their marriage. However, when this imbalance keeps up, year after year and decade after decade, the drift can get worse. We should be showing grace, letting little things go, and not insisting on our own way. However, if this is taken too far, with no consideration given to one person’s needs, then giving in can actually cause more problems. Like I talked about last week in my post on how to build a good marriage, both people matter in a marriage. You can’t have intimacy if one person’s needs are consistently being ignored. If this is the case in your marriage, talk about it. Be bold. And seek counseling if necessary.

Another potential landmine that I’ve seen repeatedly is that, if there’s a disagreement, it’s assumed that you should just do what the husband wants because the wife is to submit to him. However, this both misunderstands submission and short circuits what God may be doing in the marriage. It’s far better to seek His will, not just to do the husband’s will.


Confused about how to make decisions? You may benefit from:

So there you go–the 3 different types of conflict in marriage, and how they should be dealt with.

We should not use a one-size-fits-all approach, like “you just need more date nights!” or “you need couples counseling!”. No, sometimes you need individual counseling. Sometimes you need to be more giving; sometimes you need to be bold and draw boundaries. When you treat abuse as if it’s just a disagreement, you make the abuse worse. But when you treat a simple disagreement, or not understanding love languages, as if it’s a big sin or evidence of selfishness, you create a whole host of other problems.

Get Your Marriage On!

Have you tried the Get Your Marriage On app yet? I talked about it last week, and I think it’s a super fun way to enhance your marriage.

Get Your Marriage On! The Marriage Counseling App that is Fast, Fun and NEVER BORING! Frankly, we could all use a tune up time to time. But it’s more than just counseling. It’s for any couple that’s looking to connect with their spouse better.

And I have to tell you, I was so impressed with the teaching in its resolving conflict module. If you’re having a decision that you just can’t make, or if you just can’t see eye to eye, Get Your Marriage On can help walk you through it.

They do a great job of integrating the amazing (and healthy!) marriage research from the Gottman Institute, incorporating the concepts of Perpetual vs. Solvable problems; how to prevent what Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen”, including flooding (which often shuts men down especially); how to actively listen; and more. And they include Gottman’s research, too, that the most successful couples are those that allow your partner to have influence–especially when MEN allow women to influence them. So they work directly against this idea that the man has to make all the decisions. It really is focused on a healthy marriage.

It’s a fun app to go through, with teaching videos and quick exercises, but also lots of games and conversation starters. For all of you who don’t want to sit down and read a whole book, this has bite-sized videos and immediate action steps so that you can learn small bits, put them into practice, and move on.

So thanks to Get Your Marriage On for sponsoring this post!

Next time you’re experiencing conflict, ask: Is this about us? Is this about my spouse’s sin? Is this about me being selfish? Or is this about one of us being broken? And then handle it accordingly!

What do you think? Do you find these distinctions helpful? Where do you find that you usually go wrong? Let’s talk in the comments!


Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


Recent Posts

Want to support our work? You can donate to support our work here:

Good Fruit Faith is an initiative of the Bosko nonprofit. Bosko will provide tax receipts for U.S. donations as the law allows.

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

Related Posts

Who Is the Focus of Marriage Teaching?

Who is the person who is most likely to read a marriage book and try to get help with their marriage? Someone whose marriage is a source of strain. If you're in a great marriage, you don't need to read a marriage book. You might read one if you're part of a small...


We welcome your comments and want this to be a place for healthy discussion. Comments that are rude, profane, or abusive will not be allowed. Comments that are unrelated to the current post may be deleted. Comments above 300 words in length are let through at the moderator’s discretion and may be shortened to the first 300 words or deleted. By commenting you are agreeing to the terms outlined in our comment and privacy policy, which you can read in full here!


  1. Dana

    When you find out that a spouse has been unfaithful and boundaries should be set, what all does this include? I am experiencing this right now. He is acting as if nothing happened! My whole world has been rocked! I have no idea HOW to act now.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Dana, I’m so sorry you’re walking through this! So sorry.

      Boundaries in Marriage goes through a lot of this, especially in later chapters about handling sin. And they have a chart of appropriate boundaries that you may set in these cases. Remember that boundaries are limits on what you are willing to do. That could include, “I am not willing to attend church/social functions/family functions as a couple until we deal with our couple issues.” Or “I am not willing to share a bedroom until we deal with our couple issues.” Or “I am not willing to continue to live together and act as if nothing is wrong until we attend counselling together.”

      In other words, if you’re not a happily married couple, you do not have to keep up the pretence that you are. It’s okay to live out the truth–that you are a couple in crisis that needs help and that there is a crisis that needs to be addressed. I would strongly urge you to see a licensed counsellor (not just a church counsellor, but a licensed one) who is qualified and experienced in handling adultery, and who won’t just rush the healing process.

    • Sheep


      I’m so sorry for what you are going through. Having gone through this myself, I guess the first lesson that you are going to have to learn is that it is not your responsibility to do everything humanly possibly to save your marriage. I made that mistake in the beginning and all it did was make things worse.
      The first steps in saving your marriage are his to take, and that starts with real, deep down, soul wrenching repentance. If he is acting as if nothing has happened, then this hasn’t happened. Until this happens, the best gift you can give him and the best way to show him love, is to give him the gift of consequences. He has committed adultery and this is probably the most serious offense that can be committed in marriage. He has violated the marriage covenant in a way that Jesus declared it as being grounds for divorce. That is not something that you can pretend it didn’t happen.
      For you, I would suggest going to a counsellor for personal (not marriage) counseling. You have and are suffering extreme trauma and a counselor can help. Also, you don’t have to keep it a secret to save his reputation. Sin flourishes when it is not exposed to the light. This doesn’t mean you need to run him down or gossip, but neither do you have to suffer in silence.
      Don’t fall for the lie that wants to put blame on both people in a marriage. Were you a perfect wife? I’m sure not, but nothing you have done gives him the excuse to commit adultery. That was a personal decision to sin and to violate everything marriage is. Until that is dealt with, the marriage can’t be healed.
      I highly suggest going to and checking out the blog section. There is lots of great information there that will help you as you start this journey. Sheila also has a ton of great information on this as well.

    • Beth

      I couldn’t locate the emotional needs quiz you mention in today’s post. Would love to take a look!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Hi Beth! If you go to this post, the optin to download the exercise for free is near the bottom! You just enter your email address. 🙂

  2. Arwen

    Number 2 is sooo me. That’s why i have been to counseling and working on myself for 10 years! I didn’t want to drag my dysfunctional past into the future. I praise God He gave me the wisdom and guidance that a marriage wasn’t going to fix me. That i needed to heal in other ways first before i wrecked my future marriage and family. So much of the futures problems could be avoided if we dealt with the present problems first. Thank you for this article. It spoke to me so much!

  3. Lindsey

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article! 🙂 I also believe that most marriages will experience all three of these issues to some degree or another. When that happens we have to remember that what worked last time likely won’t be effect for a different issue.

    As a side note, is something going on with your mobile site? The inset, shareable quotes on this article are overlapping the text of the article in places so that neither can be read. I’m not sure if anyone else had that issue, or if it’s my phone, but I didn’t have this issue before on your mobile site.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, Lindsey! I’ll check out the mobile version. Appreciate the heads up!

  4. Ashley

    Good post! I think what can muddy the waters is when a marriage is having 2 or even all 3 kinds of issues. It gets more difficult to navigate. You can spend time trying to focus on your “normal” marriage problems, when the focus really should be on the boundaries and dealing with sin. Another reason to see someone who is actually qualified to help unravel all this!

  5. Nathan

    Sheila, I definitely agree with your advice to Dana about seeing a LICENSED counselor. Too often, a church counselor will just tell you to tough it out or that, as the wife, it must somehow be your fault.

    In any case, Dana, I’m so sorry that this is happening, it’s NOT your fault, and I’ll say a prayer for you.

    • Dana

      Thank you all for the advice and kind words. I have needed to go talk to someone for some time now. He has been withholding sex and affection for years now. I always had a gut feeling something was going on. I still do not know the whole truth and I probably never will. All I do know is that our marriage is a lie and he is a stranger to me.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *