“Help! Our marriage is falling apart! What should I do?”
That is usually the gist of many emails and phone messages that come our way here at Marriage Foundations. Strangely perhaps, our first internal response to these SOS calls is a thought like this: “Awesome! Here comes another opportunity to help a couple get serious about fixing their marriage.” When we get these types of calls, we often get a surge of faith and expectation.
Why would we have such a reaction? “How weird…” you might say. It’s because most folks (including us) don’t usually get serious about the deeper issues in their marriage until they have some type of serious rupture—where it looks like the whole thing is about to blow apart. Although we would strongly recommend a more “maintenance-focused” strategy for keeping marriages healthy, we deal with another reality: Most of us don’t really “get with the program” of marital repair until there is a major crisis—a big blowup, a huge betrayal, the wheels start coming off the wagon, etc. However, when couples reach that place of desperation, they are usually on the brink of making some wonderful changes—despite how things might look at first glance.
Some of the “old school” research shows that there are several seasons in a marriage that seem, on average, to be particularly troublesome – the first year, the seventh year, the fifteenth year, and the 30th year. (Marriages that survive and thrive beyond 30 years have only a tiny chance of ending in divorce!) More recently, we have been hearing from the experts that most couples are now experiencing a major test to their relationship much earlier—on average in the fourth year. We too have clearly seen that change in the landscape in our dealings with couples. Our response? Younger couples need more support earlier than their parents did. That’s one of our favorite places to encourage couples.
The Good News
Although it would be great if we could avoid marital blowups altogether, that is not realistic, right? So, that leaves us with converting these crisis seasons into something positive. That is how God approaches almost everything. He is a redemptive God—through and through. Just think: He gave away his only Son to die on a cross so that all of mankind’s sins could be erased if we would only confess with our mouth and believe in our heart that He did it (Rom. 10:9). Talk about a crisis being converted into something wonderful! Also, think about the Bible hero, Joseph: When his brothers stuffed him into a well, sold him into slavery, and then faked his untimely death to account for his absence, Joseph seized the opportunity to redeem the situation many years later by forgiving his brothers and telling them this: “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…to save many people…” (Gen. 50:20). God does the same thing with people in marital crisis who embrace his Biblical truth: He takes the Enemy’s evil plan and all of our sinful junk and converts them into something good so that our children (and others who may be harmed) don’t have to grow up in a fractured home. If I could put it in a multi-layered formula, it would look something like this:
Sin + Selfishness = Damage to the Marriage
Damage = Crisis + Desperation for Change
Crisis + Desperation = Motivation for Change
Motivation For Change = A Teachable Couple
A Teachable Couple + A Glimmer of Hope = A Man and Woman God Is Eager to Help
So, what if a couple is still in “meltdown” crisis and has not yet reached that place of hope and teach-ability? The first place we start is to ask a couple to go with us on a journey in search of buried treasure. The ultimate goal of this journey is to find and understand your partner’s deepest hurt or point of need and then work together toward healing. If both people will relentlessly pursue that goal, God can do miracles in restoring and renewing their marriage. Ruptured relationships can be fixed only with intentional, targeted effort.
“Buried treasure is found by processing
a lot of ordinary, run-of-the-mill dirt.”– Bob Baker
The Healing Journey
Here are some suggestions (modified significantly but inspired by Dr. David Hawkins of the Seattle area–http://yourrelationshipdoctor.com) on how to start down this road of discovery and restoration of hope:
1. Take Inventory of How You Got To The Crisis Point. You can do this by first writing out an honest history of your marriage. Problems don’t arise out of thin air, and the crisis that puts couples into a freefall of hopelessness is often just the perfect shockwave that forces them to look honestly at the totality of their relationship. Crisis events are usually the result of a long series of poorly handled situations and events. With some honest reflection and space to think, you can very likely put your finger on most of the big issues. When did they begin? What is your part in the problems? What past attempts have you made to remedy the problems? Counseling, confronting your partner with a loving tone, talking to mentors…? The goal is to find your partner’s deepest hurt or point of need…
2. Write Out Your Partner’s Point of View. This begins by forcing yourself to process and articulate your partner’s complaints. One of the first steps in helping a distressed couple is to encourage them to both see the situation from their partner’s perch. For many couples, this is a major turn in the road because they have long since fallen into the trap of spending all of their emotional energy rehashing and reacting to their partner’s shortcomings. It is amazing how much couples can learn when they stop emoting about their own pain and start listening carefully to what their partner is really saying. We often find that the complaints leading to a crisis have existed for quite some time. The crisis is just the roaring flame—the real problem is the fuel beneath it. Lots of people, either consciously or subconsciously, walk along in denial of the underlying issues—and their severity–until something explodes. Remember, when writing this list of your partner’s complaints and point of view, the goal is to find your partner’s deepest hurt or point of need…
3. Review Your Partner’s Complaints and Own What You Can. We call this step, “Owning Your Own 5%.” In other words, if you think your partner is 95% of the problem (which, by the way, is not an unusual scenario for couples in crisis), then you must own your remaining 5% as if it is 100% of the problem. The key here is to let down all of your defense mechanisms, ask God for a strong dose of humility, and come clean with your own junk—no matter how small you may think it is. Take the risk, especially in the protected presence of a trusted friend or counselor, to admit your part of the mess. Resist the temptation to emotionally “write” your partner’s “95% script” and trust the Lord to do what he does best—dealing with the hearts of people we cannot fix, especially our mate. Over the years, we have often asked this question of women whose marriage has failed: “Why?” What went wrong? Why do you think your marriage failed?” The answer we often get is this: “I thought I could fix him.” As you learn to resist the temptation to be your partner’s conscience and to resign the job of change agent, you will start to have more bandwidth to move toward your goal: to find your partner’s deepest hurt or point of need. You will also create needed space for the Lord to work in your partner’s heart.
4. Don’t Pass Up the Grief Process. If either partner has taken a big hit—such as learning of an affair, discovering their partner is addicted to porn, or finding out that the house is about to be foreclosed after the bills have been hidden for months—keep in mind that they have sustained a loss about as significant as the death of a loved one. Thus, they need to be allowed time to work through the stages of grief. Here is the classic cycle of grief:
Shock stage: Initial paralysis at hearing the bad news.
Denial stage: Trying to avoid the inevitable.
Anger stage: Frustrated outpouring of bottled-up emotion.
Bargaining stage: Seeking in vain for a way out.
Depression stage: Final realization of the inevitable.
Testing stage: Seeking realistic solutions.
Acceptance stage: Finally finding the way forward
For more information on grieving, from a Christian perspective, check out http://www.focusonthefamily.com/lifechallenges/emotional_health/coping_with_death_and_grief/understanding_the_grieving_process.aspx
5. Remember That Marriage Restoration is a Process—Not at An Event. The so-called “offender” in marital ruptures (the perceived bad guy) will usually want the process of restoration to move a lot faster than it normally can. Thus, he or she must ask for God’s extra grace in allowing the other person to find recovery at their own pace. Rushing the process (“Why can’t you just drop it and move on? You keep beating me up about it”) will probably have the opposite effect. In general, the deeper the betrayal the longer it will take for forgiveness and soul healing to occur. Here’s the good news: Just like a broken bone, if you don’t rush the process and let it heal on God’s timetable, it will often grow back even stronger than the original fracture. (We learned this from our family doctor when our daughter, Christie, rolled off a bed and broke her collar bone at about age 5).
6. Be Alert to the Presence of Previous Soul Wounds. Although we teach entire workshops on this one issue, here is the bottom line: When we have taken a big hit in our marriage, we usually respond with anger. Since anger is a secondary emotion (usually fueled by deeper emotions) it is important that we get in touch with the underlying emotion (such as a feeling of hurt, betrayal, inadequacy, inferiority, fear, etc.). Once that emotion is identified, then we need to determine whether the level of anger is being fueled by the “steroid effect” of a prior wound—often from childhood. Pre-existing, unresolved soul wounds from an earlier time make it much more difficult to recover from a marital rupture—at least until they are taken to the Cross for healing. For more on this whole topic, see www.soulhealinglove.com, and watch for our upcoming workshop and couple retreat events on this subject.
7. Launch or Step-up Your Prayer Life and Seek Counsel. While facing a volatile marital crisis, you must maintain proper perspective—keeping focused on the fact that you can work only on yourself, can only change yourself, and cannot change your partner (as discussed above). To get and keep this perspective, you need to cry out for Godly wisdom in prayer and to seek the wisdom of a trusted counselor or mentor. You need to embrace and stand on the promises of God. Here are three verses which have helped many couples to find “the way back” to a God-honoring marriage:
Rom. 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peaceas you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”
Mt. 19:26: “Jesus…said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ ”
8. Zero-In on Your Mate’s Deepest Hurt or Point of Need. What does she (or he) need right now? Using their complaints as your starting point, consider what your mate needs right now. This can be a bit difficult, because what they need may be something you don’t want to give, such as space. Reeling from an emotional crisis themselves, your partner may want you to allow them some space to consider how they feel about you and the marriage. They may want you to show acts of kindness that you have long since failed to show. They may demand that you go “take care of YOUR issues” and then they might be willing to talk about your future as a couple. When a person is over-compensating (out of their wounding) with unreasonable requests, you may need to “over correct” with good for a season even though you consider the requests unfair. Broken trust demands a whole series of over-corrections to get it restored. Trust is often a big part of your partner’s greatest point of need (Rom. 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”)
9. Finally, Be Willing to Carry Out a Behavior Change Process. With the help of a trusted third party, you should write a “behavior change plan” for both partners which is designed to enhance the environment for meeting your partner’s greatest hurt or point of need. Keep in mind that even small changes can have a powerful, positive impact on the healing process. Every positive interaction with your mate has the potential to change your mate’s opinion about you. Be patient and allow God’s timing to unfold just like you would if you had a broken bone or a brain concussion. Our motto in this regard is: “Think small, and think often.” A lot of “littles” soon add up to a “big.”
“Forgiveness is essential in the recovery process. Remember that forgiveness is a two-sided coin. One side is the “act of the will” aspect. The other is the healing side. In addition to deciding and declaring to forgive someone, we also need to seek healing for the wounds associated with the acts forgiven”—Bob Baker
If you need some help with this process, you can reach us at www.FreshStartMarriage.com.