Why Do Marriages Tip Over and Fall?

      Heading west on I40 between the Oklahoma/Texas border and Amarillo, you will see a water tower on the north side of the road that leans precariously at an angle to the northeast. It looks like it will tip over at any moment. It’s been that way for the 45 years I have traveled past it on the way to visit family and friends, from my home in Oklahoma to the town in west Texas where I grew up. It appears the owner is not concerned about it reaching a tipping point or he would do something about it.

      When someone calls me about needing counseling, it is usually because they see the relationship reaching a tipping point. The marriage appears to be leaning and he/she is concerned that one more action might force it to tip over and be destroyed. They believe something can be done to straighten it up. Reverse engineering is the process of taking something apart to understand how it works. The process allows engineers to create new products and to improve existing ones. We will employ lessons in natural law and reverse engineering, to guide the effort to renew a well-built marriage, starting with Newton’s Three Law’s of Motion to clarify why marriages tip over and fall. 

      Newton’s first law of motion states that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This tendency to resist changes in a state of motion is inertia*. Like the 45-year-old water tower. Marriages cannot, I believe, survive in a straight line, because they are best understood as curvilinear, like the motion of the earth around the sun or a car turning to change directions. As we will see, this curvilinear line for each spouse is understood as compelling each other to change and adapt regularly to stay in a natural, rhythmic motion (Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion). This law also tells us that there will always be resistance to change. All the couples I have ever met for counseling had someone who was resistant to altering their course. Frequently, the one who contacts me believes it is the other partner who is unable or unwilling to change. To the one who contacts me, inertia is clearly unacceptable. Often, they stop counseling because they apparently decide that inertia feels permanent, is acceptable after all, or because of Newton’s 3rd law (which we will get to after his 2nd law).

      Utilizing Newton’s second law of motion, we know that the force (energy) of an object moving in a circular path always acts towards the center of the circle. Centripetal force is the curvilinear center-seeking force of a relationship*. Without getting over my head into physics, it appears that a couple is in an orbit like two planets around their centering force, the sun. They are in a centripetal, curvilinear center-seeking relationship together. A helpful illustration for this is turning a corner together in a car. Centripetal force will prevent their automobile, that is turning in a curvilinear motion around a corner, at appropriate speed, from flying into the ditch. However, centrifugal force acting on a vehicle turning with chaotic, excessive force, will propel it into the ditch. The law of centrifugal force tells us that if a marriage is curvilinear but not centered, then chaotic interaction of thoughts, feelings, and behavior can force it away from the undisturbed path it is on. Christianity provides the center to keep them moving together uniformly. Married life is full of opportunities to successfully adjust to chaos with centripetal, recentering force, or tip over into the ditch from centrifugal, disturbing force. Natural law teaches us to recognize tipping points that obstruct the outcomes we need and want. Reverse engineering allows us to restore our marriage center if both spouses agree to do it, which leads us to the next law of motion.

      Newton’s third law states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. If object A exerts a force on object B, object B also exerts an equal and opposite force on object A. In other words, forces result from interactions*. The consequences of this natural law on marriage relationships should be evident. A wife wants her husband to change, but the husband doesn’t think he needs to change. The husband likes things the way they are and pushes back. Or, if one spouse wants to take a different path, a genuine tipping point may be about to happen, and the relationship may end up in the ditch. One spouse may take this potential seriously while the other reacts with a flippant, or oppositional response. Constructive, humble interaction to challenge each other with well-designed, centering arguments, will cement a unified, energetic motion. Passive wishing that a teetering relationship won’t tip over risks collapse. The energetic motion of hopeful, active listening, and assertive collaboration, which will likely cause some honest pushback, adjusts and restores the curve.

      The tipping point is usually a series of small incidences of displacing marriage standards from their central place, that might predict a more epoch marriage altering collapse. Sometimes there is a ginormous event that makes moving back to the center very difficult or unlikely. To change metaphors, but relying on natural law, a marriage dies from a thousand unattended paper cuts or a ginormous, unrepaired, or irreparably gashing event. Small repetitive incidences of miscommunication, unmet expectations, occasional neglect or abuse, and incremental loss of affection, friendship and intimacy are seemingly insignificant, but because they are prolonged, they are painfully and destructively accumulative. Infidelity or chronic threatening behavior is like a ginormous stab wound, usually fatal to the relationship. To return to the structural engineering idea, small cracks or catastrophic events can have destructive effects on marriage architecture. Reverse engineering for a satisfactory relationship with skilled energy, no stab wounds, and minimal papercuts from interaction mistakes, is a sufficient commitment to obeying the natural laws of motion in a marriage. 

      Containment is the action of keeping something harmful under control or within limits. It is waiting out offending marital cracks, hoping they will go away eventually. It is alarmed passivity — an awareness of the dire consequences of what appears to be a continued descent into chaos, combined with a sense of powerlessness to do anything fundamental about it. Mere containment that is fearful of the challenge of deconstructing inertia, or is in despair because a spouse can’t or won’t change their straight-into-the-ditch lifestyle, forges a perpetually lawless, structurally weak, meager marriage. Please obey the natural law of motion to achieve solid, confident marriage outcomes and prevent a final, catastrophic, tipping point.