The pained voice on my cellphone told the story. He desperately wanted his marriage to work, but now, only one option seemed feasible: move out. Caught in deadlocked communication and hurtful finger-pointing, this last ditch tactic was the only solution. He had to escape. His relationship was hanging by a thread.

One year ago this couple made promises on an altar. In front of their friends, family and God, they promised never to give up. They were in love; I knew it. At their ceremony, I could see it in their eyes — the romantic attraction, the commitment. They knew up front that marriage is hard. They knew that a joyful wedding celebration and a fiery honeymoon weren’t necessarily predictors of marital success. They expected challenges.

That phone call indicated they probably were facing the greatest challenge of their new life together so far — marriage meltdown!

Causes of a marriage meltdown

How did this happen? What caused the downward spiral?

Even the best-prepared couples are ill-equipped for shaky finances, dual careers, old baggage, and unmet expectations. Even under “normal” conditions, the best relationships are in for big challenges. And if you add a few stepchildren and ex-spouses, things get really interesting!

None of us expect perfection; things go wrong, stuff happens. Marriage is an education. There are adjustments to be navigated, lessons to be learned, and sacrifices to be made. That’s marriage. That’s normal.

But what do you do when the medical report is not good? When the portfolio collapses? When the spouse walks out? What happens when you miss the red flags and everything disintegrates? What do you do next?

Preparing for a meltdown

When things go terribly wrong, panic sets in. You lose objectivity and communication ceases. The situation deteriorates — fast. When life caves in, you find yourself on autopilot, struggling to stay focused, incapable of making critical marriage-saving decisions.

Knowing that every marriage is destined for intermittent crisis events, doesn’t it make sense to have a plan? Doesn’t it seem sensible to develop a tactical checklist you can rely on when things go bad?

If you had to prepare a mitigation plan for that inevitable break down, what would be your top action items? Imagine yourself deep in a marriage-threatening situation: where would you go? What would you do? Who would you talk to? What steps would you take to save your marriage?

Steps to save a marriage

Here are my top four action items to prepare for marriage breakdown.

1. Don’t do it alone

From a spiritual growth standpoint, the best decision my wife Sheri and I ever made was to join a small group. We had an immediate affinity with our church group, meeting regularly for learning, community and worship — we “did life together.”

As new Christians, our spiritual lives soared, but there was an important side benefit: we developed close relationships. When our marriage got rough, we had friends to call. Through unemployment, surgery, and financial crisis, even death — our group was there for us.

Since then, we’ve cycled through three groups and now, in our ministry, Growthtrac, we have a solid board of directors. These are dedicated friends who provide accountability, support, prayer, and one-on-one assistance when life gets tough.

So who will you call when times get tough? Don’t do it alone. Begin now to nurture some meaningful relationships.

2. Seek assistance

Fortunately, Sheri and I have been good about recognizing when to seek third-party assistance. We’ve been in tight spots, deadlocked in marriage-threatening issues that we just couldn’t resolve on our own.

A professional Christian counselor can provide objectivity and facilitate communication, steering a disaster-bound marriage toward recovery. Counseling has worked for us because we’re not embarrassed to ask for help. Sheri and I don’t think of counseling as a weakness; in fact, we’ve come through the experience stronger and more resilient.

3. Soften your heart

Relationships are most vulnerable when disagreements escalate to the point of deadlock. If you let them, circumstances will quickly spiral to standoff stage — past disagreement, beyond raised voices, to a point where communication stops and the only option seen through the helplessness and hurt is to walk out.

So before you give up, pause and look at yourself. Do you need to ask forgiveness? What are you angry about? Do you need to forgive? Is a headstrong attitude stonewalling your marriage? How might you compromise? Find middle ground.

The reality is, someone needs to give in. Someone needs to soften his or her heart and take a first step toward healing. Relinquish your need to “be right.” Stop the finger-pointing and quit the blaming. Humble yourself and admit that you have contributed to the breakdown. Turn your focus from anger to negotiation and next steps.

Because really, what’s more important: your pride or your marriage? Remember why you got married in the first place.

4. Engage spiritually

The catalyst for a loving, thriving marriage comes from God. It’s easy to disconnect from God — missing church services, skipping prayer and avoiding close friends — when you’re deep in relational disorder. Yet this is the time you most need to be spiritually connected.

Without God, our tendency is to drift into self-sufficiency; we try to fix bad situations on our own. When we operate independently of God, we’re simply surviving, finding temporary fixes. To engage in marriage-saving activities like the ones mentioned above, you need God.

Begin with prayer. Prayer is simply talking to God. Find a quiet place alone and tell him what’s on your mind. Prayer isn’t about being eloquent or using religious sounding words; it’s a conversation. Ask God to show you what he wants to change in you. And then trust him to help you do that.

Praying with your spouse can be awkward even in great marriages, but if you can take that risk, it will pay dividends. Suggest prayer to your partner. Begin by simply sitting together, holding hands and closing your eyes; you take the lead. Come prepared with notes if you need to. Keep it simple.

Has your church attendance been sporadic? Suggest to your spouse that you combine a church service with a breakfast or dinner. Make it a date. In small steps, begin to reestablish your church presence. Make it a weekly priority to get in the car, drive to church, and walk through the door. Your hearts will soften and you’ll begin hearing from God.

You may feel especially distanced from God during this time. Reach out to him. He wants to have a personal relationship with you. That may be the critical missing link that is so essential to you and your marriage.

Giving marriage a chance

The day my friend called, we talked for an hour. I thanked God and breathed a sigh of relief as he wisely decided to give his marriage another chance.

Before ending the call, we set up a breakfast to discuss next steps. Plus, he agreed to unload the boxes from his SUV. The next week, Sheri and I met with this couple, our friends, whose marriage was on the line.

It was a grueling conversation — direct and challenging. But they listened and boldly accepted our counsel. Today there is much work to be done, but because they are steadily pursuing these “basics,” their marriage is different. There is renewed hope.

It is possible to reclaim your relationship. But you need to prepare in advance and be ready to deploy any or all of these steps before your marriage shuts down. These suggestions will not come naturally — they are not intuitive — especially during troubled times. The foundation you build now could make the difference between healing and heartbreak.

If your marriage consists of physical or emotional abuse, you may also need to take measures to protect yourself and your children in ways that are beyond the scope of this article. Please consult with your pastor or Christian counselor to find ways to deal with this situation.

Photo Credit: Taylor L. Spurgeon