Has quarantine done a number on your marriage? Or perhaps you were already noticeably struggling before this pandemic nightmare began? Sadly, during the past 15 months, nine of my friends have divorced or separated with the latest one occurring during lockdown. All but two of the couples were married well over a decade with some close to two. While I wrote a post about marriage in 2018, I’ve gained some additional insight and want to address the topic again since clearly we are not all living happily ever after.
Though these covenantal relationships ending saddens my heart, they really do not surprise me. Personally, I know how hard marriage is. By God’s grace and mercy I am reaching the milestone of 19 years of marriage today, but the truth is this past year has been the hardest Ryan and I have faced. We have agreed to share the following with you to hopefully benefit your own marriage, give glory to God and His power to heal broken relationships, and highlight the vital role each spouse plays in that work of restoration. A painful marriage doesn’t inevitably have to end in separation or divorce or just be endured till death do you part.
Though Ryan and I learned much in our first round of marriage counseling almost a decade ago, last summer we found ourselves entering round two. While I don’t plan to be a complete open-book, I pray God will use what I do share to aid you on your own bumpy road of marriage.
- Reach out sooner than later. Though it was easier to reach out during round two compared to round one, it was still hard, and I think we waited too long. After initially concluding outside help would be beneficial, I nevertheless waited several months hoping we could avoid the humbling process. That only gave our problems an opportunity to fester, division to grow wider, and pain to increase. The smaller the problem the easier to correct. As with cancer, early detection and intervention are desirable.
- Reach out by yourself if necessary. I have yet to experience or hear of a couple where both spouses at the same time came to the conclusion they needed help. Typically one party comes to that realization first and has to convince the other half. I would encourage you to pray that your spouse will be cooperative, but I wouldn’t wait just because they aren’t on board. If you need help, please get help!
- The problem is most likely deeper than you imagined. Once I finally sought counsel, I told the person I thought we only needed one meeting to sort things out. That is laughable now. Little did I realize the magnitude of our problems and that we would need months of help to fully understand the many roots of our issues.
- Understand God’s love for you. During this painful season, it was essential for me to be grounded in how God loved me, so, for several months I started each morning reading Psalm 139 which is a wonderful chapter highlighting God’s relationship with His children. I do not know if this is a common need among other people, but I mention it since it was a significant part of my experience.
- Document conflicts. Ironically, it can actually be hard to see your own marital problems clearly, especially in the heat of the moment. Keeping a journal of the negative experiences can help you process the conflict (i.e. calm down emotionally and think more clearly), see patterns and triggers, and also provide insight to counselors. The purpose is not to keep a record of all the wrongs done against you (Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs) and to become bitter but instead to examine what the source of conflict is in your marriage and address it. Especially take note of your thoughts.
- Vulnerability is required. For a counselor to see your marital problems as accurately as possible, you must at times remove the self-protective armor around your heart and expose your inner most thoughts and feelings. The process might feel as uncomfortable as sitting in a hospital gown in a doctor’s office. But how else can you receive necessary help unless you vulnerably expose yourself? This was a hard one for me, but God gave me the grace each time.
- Everyone doesn’t need to know. While I needed to be open with my counselor, I didn’t need to be an open book with everyone else as I was working through that hard season.
- Satan will oppose you. Since striving to improve your marriage glorifies God, you can expect Satan to oppose you. Perhaps viciously. For me I experienced intense spiritual attack for months. My faith was severely tested. Don’t give up! “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” James 4:7.
- Things might get worse before they get better. I naively expected that once we started counseling things would naturally get better and continue on that course. Some of the setbacks we encountered were surprising, confusing, and disheartening. However, the counselor assured me that often it gets worse before it gets better. Counseling is like surgery. More pain might be required before healing can be achieved.
- Your spouse needs to change. But, duh, you already knew that one!
- You need to change. This is the hardest truth to swallow in my opinion. Actually, I had entered counseling with a mindset that both my husband and I needed to probably change; I just wasn’t sure in what ways. However, a couple months later as my husband’s negative contributions to our marriage became glaringly obvious to me, I saw him completely as the cause to our problems. Months would pass before I grasped that I also needed to change. As hard as it is to admit, no matter what we are going through and how sinful our spouse is, we are still…as gently as I can say it…also a sinner…which means we still need to become more like Christ…which means we still need to make some adjustments in our own thinking, attitudes, actions, and reactions. To be very clear, this truth is not saying that we are causing our spouse’s sinful actions or that we are equally contributing to the marital problems or that our spouse will change if only we would change first. This humbling truth is simply saying we haven’t yet reached perfection and we must examine how we personally can change. Think of it as pruning. God is not only concerned about changing your spouse, but He also wants to make you more fruitful. I pray you are able to accept this reality quicker than I did!
- Be willing to sacrifice your “rights.” Last summer, I had a few people notice that I had stopped writing on my blog. Part of the counsel I received was to pause my blog. I understood that certain aspects involving my blog were aggravating the situation with Ryan and me and could see wisdom in pausing the blog while we addressed them. However, as the weeks turned into months, I really struggled with refraining from blogging. Didn’t I have the right to blog? I reasoned. After one particular sermon I heard, I realized that while I did have the “right” to blog, exercising my “right” at that point would have been unloving towards Ryan and detrimental to my marriage. Though it might be very hard, I pray you will be willing, out of love, to let go of your “rights” if necessary.
- Counselors are not God. The temptation when reaching out for help can be to look to a person to solve all your marital problems. God might use that person to help you, but it is important to remember that person is not God. Just as you need to change, God is still in the process of changing your counselor as well. Additionally, they have limitations being neither omniscient nor omnipresent. You provide them with a snapshot of your life, but it is impossible for them to fully comprehend what is taking place in your home or to completely know your heart and intentions. Their application of biblical principles to your situation is based on what they have seen, heard, and understand and also their own experiences, education, training, understanding of the Bible, and current mindset. Consequently, no matter who you have chosen as a counselor, sift what you are told through the sieve of God’s Word. You are responsible for being discerning with all counsel you receive.
- God is for you. Numerous times God displayed that He was with me and helping me. He comforted and strengthened me over and over with His word. He used various people to strengthen and encourage me as well. I cannot guarantee that if you reach out for help, you will eventually be once again in a happy state with your spouse. But I can guarantee that if you cry out to God, cling to God, trust God, and obey Him, you will end up happy yourself. While Satan wants to devour you, God wants to give you joy and strength. God is for you! Our responsibility is to keep seeking God with all of our hearts. He will show you the next step to take and the next step and the next step. The path might get very dark and you only see the faintest outline of the next step, but courageously take that revealed step and experience your loving Father faithfully guide you all the way.
- Hope still exists even when it feels otherwise. To be clear, I am not talking about the hope that your spouse will change. Sadly, your spouse may never change and you might experience even more pain than you are now. We must face that reality. But no matter the depth of your emotional agony present or future, God is always in control and working for your good. This hope requires eyes of faith. If you lose this essential hope and focus solely on your pain, you quite possibly might also lose the very will to live. In my lowest moment on this journey, God sustained me with the reminder that for “me to live is Christ.” I had reached a place full of pain, but something about persevering in that pain was allowing Christ to live through me and that small nugget of powerful truth gave me the will to keep going. Fill your mind with His Word so you never lose hope!
- Take your problems to God. Our counselor recommended journaling prayers which became a very helpful practice for me. When I was facing a hard moment, I learned to pour out my heart to God with pen and paper and cry out to the only one who could see me at that moment anyway and the only one who had the power to truly help me in that moment as well. Automatically texting a person was a more natural reflex for me, but I had to learn to first take my problems to God. Sometimes He was the only one I needed to inform after all.
- Healing is a process. After having knee surgery, my healing took months and included a lot of physical therapy. The same principle is true with healing a marriage. I am so thankful for all that God took Ryan and me through the past 12 months. We are in a very good place now. Actually better than before. I had heard that was possible but couldn’t imagine how that could be. We’re now a witness that it can actually happen. Praise God. However, it was quite a process to get here. God used many different people and circumstances over many months. There was not a magical moment in time when everything instantly improved. Restoration required countless little moments with a few big moments thrown in here and there.
- You aren’t back at square one. Finally, after months and months of help, Ryan and I had made noticeable progress. Then we had a particular conflict that made me think we were right back at square one and had accomplished nothing. Not a good feeling! Thankfully, a mentor corrected my vision. No, we weren’t back at square one. Conflicts will continue to happen because we are still two sinners, but we have made progress. I find it encouraging to consciously notice specific ways we have improved. For example, I can see that we are much quicker at conflict resolution. As our counselor said, “That is huge!”
- Accept your story. We may have grown up with the fairy tale dream of a perfect marriage but then we say “I do.” No matter what God has allowed into your life, I pray you will accept your story and learn to glorify God in your unique set of circumstances. Accepting does not mean being passive, overlooking offense after offense after offense and doing nothing, or just falling into a pit of despair. Accepting is seeing reality and taking appropriate wise action. And if the problems don’t diminish despite intervention, you fight to accept that hard part of your story and trust that God is working in your story. Trust that God has a purpose for your pain. Ultimately the bottom line is: will we trust God no matter what is happening in our marriage?
I’ll stop with number 19 in honor of my 19 years of marriage, but there is one story I’d like to share. During all of this, the diamond on my wedding ring was chipped. Ryan was able to use the insurance proceeds to purchase a new diamond for my ring and took the chipped diamond that was reduced to practically no monetary value (amazing how one chip can do that!) and had a sentimental necklace made which doesn’t show the chip at all. He presented me with the necklace and even romantically got down on one knee with the ring. You can check out my double diamonds in the picture. The necklace reminds me of God’s overwhelming faithfulness to us and ability to carry us through the hardest of seasons. The new diamond in the ring represents a fresh start for Ryan and me with all the knowledge we have gained this past year.
I pray this post has been helpful and that you will have courage to do your next right step. God loves you. He sees you right this moment and He wants the very best for you. And the very best is that you become exactly like Christ and intimately know Him. He is your perfect protector, refuge, friend, counselor, and comforter. He is for you no matter how your marriage is doing!