As a pastor, I have walked with numerous couples through marital deserts. These are seasons where the intimacy has dried up, conflict seems to beat down on a couple, and there is no oasis of healing in sight. Sometimes, it seems like the only option is to cut losses, and leave the marriage – and sadly, that is occasionally the outcome. But I’ve also watched God repair marriages that even I feared were beyond fixing. In fact, I’ve been a witness to couples who didn’t just avoid divorce, but in fact began to enjoy intimacy with one another that they had never imagined possible. You may be reading this because you are in that place where your marriage seems beyond salvage – you see nothing but wasteland in every direction. You’ve just found out that your husband has had an affair. Your wife disclosed financial debt that she’d kept hidden for years. Can you survive?
In working with couples, I’ve observed several “make-it-or-break-it” factors. There are no guarantees in love, of course, but these are practices that a couple can take that significantly increase the likelihood of making it through the wilderness to a Promised Land of marital closeness.
You cannot do this on your own. Let me repeat: you don’t have what you need, on your own, to get through this or to fix this. The good news is that God meets us in our lowest points, whether our lowest points are due to our own sin, or circumstance. Ask that God might reveal to you how you have contributed to the breakdown in your marriage. Confess your sin, and seek God’s forgiveness. Seek the strength, the wisdom, and the grace that God only can give. I marvel as I hear couples describe the most impossible circumstances – infidelity, abandonment, or a marriage that has eroded over decades – and then describe how God met them and began to work in their weakness. You will need God’s strength for what is ahead.
You must decide early on that divorce is not an option for you. If you allow yourself that exit, then you will not so much be fighting for your marriage as you will be trying to avoid what you feel is inevitable. Taking the option of divorce off the table forces you work for solutions in the marriage. One major caveat applies, however. This advice does not apply if your safety, or the safety of your family is at risk. If that is not the case, you need to approach your marriage as something that you are committed to fixing, not fleeing.
When couples come to me for marital help, I will almost always encourage them to seek professional counseling. This is true for a couple that is facing a relatively minor rough patch, or a marriage-threatening crisis. Your pastor is a good place to start, and he or she can walk with you along the way. However, most pastors lack the training and expertise of a trained therapist, and so they will be able to refer you to a competent Christian counselor in your area who can serve as a specialist. In all likelihood, there are underlying issues in your relationship that need to be addressed – they may be wounds from your childhood, or they may be a lack of communication skills. It’s sad to me when people deal with problems year after year, and yet for reasons of pride, or fear, they refuse to seek help until a crisis hits. There is no shame in seeking expert help!
Chances are, you have accumulated quite a record of wrongs that your spouse has committed. These wrongs can cut deep wounds in our soul, and they can fester in a marriage. Holding on to this list of grievances against your husband or your wife will make long-term healing nearly impossible. You may have a right to your anger, since you may have been legitimately wronged. However, restoring your marriage depends on your commitment to “forgive, just as in Christ Jesus, God forgave you.” (Eph. 4:32). This process – and it is a process – will take time. The hurt will linger, and the anger will flare up from time to time. But, the gospel demands nothing less than our commitment to letting go of our right to even the score with your spouse.
As you begin to work through the pain and brokenness of your marriage, it’s important that you learn to fight – and to fight fair. Sometimes, marriages reach a breaking point because conflict has never been addressed; fights are left unresolved, and the underlying issues in a marriage have been ignored. I will often tell a couple that a marriage will often get worse before it gets better. That’s because age-old problems come to the surface, and you will be having fights that you should have had years ago. It takes a while to bring these to the surface. But, it’s important to learn to face these conflicts in a healthy way. In fact, this is one reason a marital crisis can be a healthy moment – it forces you to learn good communication. Fighting fair involves, among other things, learning to listen, learning to avoid extremes (“you always…” or “you never…”), leaving the kids out of it (either using them as weapons, or by fighting in front of them), and learning to compromise.
The apostle John tells us in 1 John 4 that love is demonstrated when “God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.” While there is an ocean of beautiful theology here, in a nutshell, John is telling us that God, in Jesus, poured himself out for our good, regardless of what he received. That is, he gave himself, knowing full well that he would be hated and despised by the very ones for whom he was giving. This becomes a pattern for our love for others. Saving your marriage from collapse requires that you demonstrate your love for your husband or your wife, even when they don’t acknowledge it, don’t deserve it, or don’t reciprocate it. To love in this way is to pour yourself into the other person – meeting their needs, putting them first, and serving them before yourself. This is powerful – because it is a picture of the gospel! It is how God poured himself into us, and indeed, how he then enable us to pour ourselves into others.
Perhaps you are sitting in a barren place today. You aren’t sure if your marriage can come back – or even if you have the energy to invest in bringing it back. Don’t give up! God meets his children in the wilderness. With his help, you and your spouse may be on a long, but fruitful journey towards streams in the desert – loving and being loved, as God desires for you.
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Dr. Robert Ritzema
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra