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“Root Cause Analysis:” a Boring Name For an Exciting Tool That Can Get to the Bottom of Almost Any Marriage Problem

Why are you feeling distant in your marriage?

There’s a methodology called “root cause analysis” that says when you’re trying to find an answer to something, ask why 5 times in a row. So what if we applied that to our marriages? How could some “root cause analysis” change things?

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 root cause analysis and apply it to marriage.

Root Cause Analysis (known as the “5 whys”) 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 root cause analysis 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 root cause analysis 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 root cause analysis 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 root cause analysis 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.

Read Next on Thriving Marriages  "My Husband Doesn't Care"

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

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 root cause analysis 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 counseling 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.