What are the warning signs of a troubled marriage?
His call came three days before Christmas. No preliminaries. No greeting. Just a flat, desperate statement: "This is John. Linda and I are getting a divorce."
Twenty-seven years invested in a relationship. Three children. And now, those final, heartbreaking words.
The danger signs were there, but he had ignored them. Linda had told him outright, "I'm very unhappy in this marriage." He had replied, "That's your problem; see a counselor."
We winced at those words. Marriage difficulties are never one spouse's problem. John knew that intellectually, but he refused to recognize it emotionally.
And so they divorced.
We had not seen the warning signs, nor had their closest friends. As we reflected on how this could have happened, we looked at Scripture and found four "marriage preservers," or scriptural principles that, if followed, can help keep a marriage afloat. These preservers are built around the concepts of loyalty, communication, faithfulness, and forgiveness.
We also came up with behaviors that indicate a marriage may be "taking on water" and have suggested some steps to repair the leaks.
The first marriage preserver is the most basic one: loyalty.
Are You Loyal?
Scripture says, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3, KJV). The hurt of disloyalty is difficult, if not downright impossible, to heal (except by the grace of God).
One woman told me, "When my husband's boss verbally attacked me and my husband failed to come to my defense, I was so hurt that I couldn't look him in the face for weeks. I still shudder when I think of it." And from one sad husband, "She always took the children's side against me."
Instead of the attitude of "you and me against the world," disloyalty makes a spouse feel insecure, unsupported, and betrayed.
Your marriage is "springing a leak" if the following behaviors sound familiar:
How do you plug these kinds of leaks?
The goal of oneness includes becoming one in body, heart, vision, goals, and commitment to God. Sometimes it is simply a matter of keeping openness with one another a priority. But when two people get so busy that they neglect their relationship, it's easy to become irritated with one another and find excuses not to spend time together. This leads to a lack of enjoyment in each other's presence and an ever-widening emotional chasm.
One of the best ways to become one and stay one is never to criticize, correct, or interrupt your spouse in public. If you think this might be impossible to do, memorize together 1 Cor. 13:7 in The Living Bible: "If you love someone you will be loyal to him no matter what the cost. You will always believe in him, always expect the best of him, and always stand your ground in defending him." Review it often!
If you're feeling like you don't have much in common, start becoming "one" again by playing together. Men rank companionship as the number one desire for a relationship. If you can have fun together, you're on your way to better communication.
How do you begin? Get together and brainstorm every conceivable interest each of you has ever had or might have. Go over the list and pick one or two you'll enjoy doing together. Then put it into action.
Another step toward oneness is to pray together every day for a few minutes, perhaps before you go to sleep. With arms around each other (it may be forced at first, but that's okay!), take a couple of minutes to thank the Lord for something. At all costs, avoid preaching to one another in your prayers.
Sometimes "becoming one" is a more complex issue. This is usually because a spouse's behavior, which may be typified by cruelty, unkindness, or deep anger, stems from a prior dysfunctional relationship—perhaps during childhood. The person may need the help of a godly counselor to work through it. Seeking help for this type of behavior is not optional for a Christian. If a person is sensitive and obedient to God's Holy Spirit, he can be freed from negative patterns of behavior.
Do You Communicate Well?
Scripture says, "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion" (Prov. 18:2, RSV). Each of us has a desperate need to be heard. When someone, especially a spouse, doesn't listen with ears and heart, we feel unloved and emotionally estranged from that person.
I asked one troubled wife who said she had never been happy in her marriage, "What one thing could your husband do right now to make you feel loved?" She thought for only a moment before confessing, "If he'd listen to me—ask me about my day, how I was... anything!"
This devastating rejection results in feelings of loneliness, frustration, and an increasing lack of desire to talk at all.
Just as damaging is a failure to resolve conflict. "We never learned to resolve differences," one man told us in hindsight. "I'd get angry and she'd retreat. I thought I'd won, of course. I had to shout louder as the years went by to get her to retreat. By the time I realized the extent of her unhappiness, she'd met someone else."
One minister suggests that a couple shouldn't get married until they've had at least one good fight! He says it's important to find out if each knows how to resolve conflict in a healthy way.
If any of the following behaviors occur regularly, your marriage is springing a leak:
Learning to Talk It Out
The cardinal rule in resolving conflict is to refuse to win. The goal is to work through the conflict to the satisfaction of both parties. It should be a "win-win" solution arrived at through patience, kindness (both fruit of the Spirit), and compromise. The ability to resolve conflict can be learned if each party is willing to ask God for wisdom and, if necessary, seek the help of a wise friend or counselor.
You can begin by writing out in two or three sentences exactly what the conflict is about. Resist getting hysterical or historical. In other words, stick to the immediate problem as calmly as possible, even if it means leaving it for a short time and tackling it again later. Resolve to work through the issue, no matter how long it takes.
Are You Faithful?
Scripture says, "For unless you are honest in small matters, you won't be in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won't be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?" (Lk. 16:10-11, TLB).
God puts a premium on every kind of faithfulness. But the three areas that cause the biggest problems are a failure to keep one's word, disagreement on finances, and sexual unfaithfulness.
Sometimes it's the seemingly small things that hurt and defeat us. One wife lamented, "I can never count on him to do what he promises. He says he'll pick up the kids but he doesn't show up. He says he'll be free to go on a family outing on Saturday and makes other plans—or had them even before he promised. I really can't count on him for anything."
In a similar way, fiscal irresponsibility poisons trust in a relationship like few other issues. Scripture says, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith" (1 Tim. 5:8). When a husband fails to provide for his family (if he is physically able), a wife feels unloved and uncared for.
One tearful wife said, "For much of our married life, he hasn't supported us. When the economy took a downturn, his work brought in next to nothing. But he wouldn't take a job he felt was beneath him. So we've lived off what little I can make, and we've borrowed from relatives. It makes us both feel rotten, but he won't do anything about it."
Wives, too, can deeply hurt their husbands by financial irresponsibility. "I make it, she spends it," said one husband. "In fact, when I don't make it, she still spends it."
Your marriage is springing a leak if any of these behaviors sounds familiar:
All of these "leaks" are devastating to a marriage, but perhaps no other infidelity can capsize a relationship as quickly as sexual unfaithfulness. A husband or wife who commits adultery has shattered his or her spouse's trust and will pay the consequences either of separation in spirit or separation by divorce.
The "leaks" leading up to sexual infidelity include:
God puts a premium on every kind of faithfulness. If you have a problem with not doing what you say you'll do, apologize to your spouse for this unfaithfulness and pray with him or her about it. This will keep communication open, and could motivate both of you to work on your relationship. Also, you may want to ask a close friend to pray for you and keep you accountable.
If you have a problem with finances, consider getting help from consumer credit counseling. The books or cassette tapes by Larry Burkett and George Fooshee give excellent financial help. You can find these at a Christian bookstore.
If you have been sexually unfaithful, restoration is a long and complex process. You and your spouse will need professional biblical counseling and accountability through a confidential support group.
The problem is that we are so awfully human! We do what we don't want to do and then we get caught in the traps Satan loves to set. What then?
Do You Practice Forgiveness?
Scripture gives us this marriage preserver: "[Forgive] one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Eph. 4:31, KJV).
Someone has said that a good marriage is the union of two "awful good forgivers" and it's true. When we talked with two couples one sunny afternoon we saw this principle worked out in their marriages.
The wife of one and the husband of the other had an affair. Both offenders were contrite. Both sought their spouses' forgiveness. Both vowed it would never happen again. As we listened, we felt each was sincere. But one spouse forgave while the other wouldn't. Only one marriage survived.
The marriage that ended in divorce had begun to spring leaks long before the adultery occurred. Because a pattern of forgiveness had never been established, the affair easily capsized a boat that was already unstable due to:
We need to forgive each other regularly—on a daily basis, if necessary. But it's not sufficient to just say the words. It takes a change in attitude.
Forgiving from the Heart
The person needing forgiveness must ask for it in sincerity. But it's equally important to forgive from the heart. To say "I forgive you" and continue to be resentful and bitter toward the offender is hypocritical. Resentment pushed just below the surface inevitably erupts at the slightest mistake. Only with the Holy Spirit's help can we put up with one another's frailties and extend to our spouses a portion of the boundless grace God has poured on us.
One in the Spirit
The heart of God must ache to see a Christian couple torn apart by emotional or actual separation. But there is hope. God can heal a broken marriage if you give Him all the pieces. It will mean getting down on your knees to confess disobedience to God and offenses toward each other.
It will mean committing yourselves to your marriage all over again in the sight of God and others.
You will need to work through your differences, no matter what it costs or how long it takes.
Most important, it will mean forgiving each other for past hurts and sins.
If you do these things, then the God of all hope—the God who heals, cares, and leads you step by step—can and will forgive. He will turn you around, bring your paths together, and truly make you one.
– Discipleship Journal.
We Believe in the Power of Prayer
In Matt. 18:19, Jesus said, “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”
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