"No matter who you are or where you've been--God loves you."
By Bill Kuntz
I used to have that message on my answering machine. I think it's something we all need to keep in mind that no matter what sin we have committed, no matter what we've done, and no matter where we've been, God, like the father of the prodigal son, has his arms open wide to take us back. Although many of you may have very strong, happy marriages, some of you are divorced. Most likely, some of you are separated. Some of you may be in marriages that are devoid of hope, believing that nothing short of a miracle can save your marriage. Perhaps you know other people in those situations. Some of you may be in your second or third marriage. It is possible that some of you may be living with a mate out of wedlock, perhaps feeling torn between your fears of entering a marriage that could fail, and your desire to please God. Perhaps you know people in that situation. I think it's important whatever your situation, no matter how much relational pain you've endured, or how much you've put others through, to realize that God offers you his healing and his forgiveness.
Many of us need to take responsibility for mistakes, for hurtful actions, words in our past, and ask Christ to forgive us and change us. I like the song that we sang about God reigning over our thoughts and our words. How important that is when it comes to marriages and relationships. A lot of the counseling I provide centers on helping people deal with the damage, scars, and wounds that have been inflicted by careless or angry words.
Often it is the negative thoughts that Satan wants us to believe about our relationships, which can destroy them. Some of you may need to be forgiven and to feel Christ's forgiveness for your past mistakes. Others may mainly need to feel God's comfort and healing from the wrongs that were done to you. But it's important to remember that none of us are guiltless. I've got a double-jointed thumb, and it helps me to remember whenever I point my finger at someone I'm also pointing back at myself. So that's a little subtle reminder that God gave me to keep me humble. We all need God's grace.
Without forgiveness no marriage can survive for long. No human relationship can exist without some degree of hurt, some disappointment, and also some sacrifice. C.S. Lewis once said, "If you never want to get hurt, encase yourself in cement." I think that's really the truth in today's world especially. There are a lot of hurting people. And not only do we need to receive God's forgiveness; we must also forgive those who have hurt us, or those who might still be hurting us now. I think it's important, though, to realize in cases of physical abuse, if either you or someone you know is being physically abused, that you need to tell someone about that and/or protect yourself. That's a situation that shouldn't be allowed to go on without some type of intervention.
I want to share a couple of quotes with you. "A man may be a fool and not know it... but not if he's married." There's another one by Zsa Zsa Gabor; she said, "a man in love is never complete until he is married... then he's finished." Most of us who are married or have been married know that marriage is difficult at times. The statistics that I am most familiar with are 50% of first marriages still do end in divorce in the U.S. About 60% of second marriages end in divorce. So the odds get worse and not better the second time around. The divorce rate has more than doubled since 1960. One out of three American children now have divorced parents. So it's a pretty grim picture in the United States.
Why do so many marriages end in divorce? I'll just list of few of the reasons: because of the hardness of our hearts, our selfishness, because we allow ourselves to consider divorce a real option, because we have accepted the world's ideas about marriage (the Hollywood images, the unrealistic expectations). Some people get married now with the idea, "so long as we both shall be happy and in love" instead of, "till death do us part." I think the idea of irreconcilable differences is one that is unfortunate. I don't really believe in that myself. I think it's usually the way we handle our differences that cause marital difficulties, not the differences themselves. Believing that a marriage will fail can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many people give up and lose hope. With Christ in our lives, however, we should never lose hope. We should never give up on our marriages. Deep wounds, suppressed anger, unforgiveness can all bring down a marriage if they are not dealt with. A lack of commitment, disillusionment, conditional (rather than unconditional) love, are also problems in marriages. The thought that a different marriage partner can bring true happiness and fulfillment is a lie that I think Satan would like us to believe.
Dr. James Dobson has identified 12 "marriage killers":
  1. Overcommitment and physical exhaustion
  2. Excessive debt, and conflict over how money will be spent
  3. Selfishness
  4. Interference from in-laws
  5. Unrealistic expectations
  6. Inadequate personal space
  7. Alcohol and substance abuse
  8. Pornography, gambling and other addictions
  9. Sexual frustration, loneliness, low self esteem and infidelity
  10. Business failure
  11. Business success
  12. Getting married too young
18- and 19-year-olds who get married are 1.5 times more likely to divorce than older people, and 14-year-olds through 17-year-olds are twice as likely to get divorced when they marry.
What are sources or marital conflict? I taught a class on conflict resolution recently, and tried to discover four of five main sources of conflict. I found I could not. However, I think some of the main ones are:
  • Miscommunication, misunderstanding
  • Power struggles and attempts to control
  • Selfishness
  • Critical or callous remarks
  • Assumptions that we make
  • Hurt and anger which are improperly handled
  • Fear and defensiveness
  • Unhealed emotional scars from childhood or previous relationships
  • Broken promises and irresponsibility
  • Displacement of stress and fatigue
  • Poor time management
  • Pride, believing you are right
  • Impatience, jealousy, envy and unforgiveness
Dobson says that the healthy Christian marriages have at least three common threads: Christ-centered homes, commitment and communication.
I want to share a little sideline about how easy it is to find fault. I'm sure that many of you have been guilty of complaining too much and finding fault with your mate. At a wilderness area in Wyoming visitors left the following comments on cards regarding what they wanted the wilderness caretakers to fix. "The trails need to be wider so people could walk holding hands." "The trails need to be reconstructed." "Please avoid trails leading uphill." "Please pave the trails so they can be plowed of snow during the winter." "Please install chair lifts in some places so we can get to the wonderful views without having to hike to them." One person said a small deer came into his camp and stole a jar of pickles. Was there a way he could be reimbursed? "Reflectors need to be placed on trees every 50 feet so people can hike at night with flashlights." "Escalators would be nice on steep up-climbs." "Too many rocks on the mountain."
I guess it's human nature to complain. What's so important in marriage is to be thankful for the partner that we have and to be aware of the blessings that we have. The scriptures say that a good wife is a gift from the Lord. I believe a good husband is also a gift from God.
One of the most thoroughly researched books on marriage is "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail" by John Gottman. He's a Jewish psychologist, and he's found some of the key problems in marriage based on 20 years of research. I'll summarize a couple of points from John Gottman's book. He says, a lasting marriage results from the couple's ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in every relationship. It's important that couples learn to settle disagreements without escalating conflict. When they can do that it actually strengthens their marriage. They can build their marriage on successes. Conflict is inevitable so we need to learn to deal with it especially in our marriages.
There are four things that he identifies as problems in marriages, calling them the "Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse":
Criticism--attacking someone's personality or character rather than a specific behavior. It's okay to complain once in a while, but when you start criticizing, that's not a good thing. Criticism is much less specific than complaining. It is more global and it has more blaming in it.
The next step downhill is contempt, which involves the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your spouse. When contempt begins to overwhelm your relationship, you tend to forget entirely your spouse's positive qualities. That's when you get into a negative mindset and it's very difficult to see the good things in your spouse.
Defensiveness can be the next step down the slippery slope toward divorce. Defensiveness is a tendency to escalate a conflict rather than resolve anything. Denying responsibility, making excuses, disagreeing with negative comments, cross-complaining (the rubber-man, rubber-woman technique where whenever your spouse complains against you, you turn it around to fit her/him.) Repeating yourself, whining, negative body language, rolling your eyes, a false smile, all those things are harmful when it comes to communication.
Stonewalling or withdrawing is the last of the four horsemen. This is more common among men than women. Some men like to avoid confrontation at all costs. About 85% of stonewallers are men. Basically they just remove themselves by turning into a stone wall. They don't react when their spouse is upset. They may actually remove themselves physically from the confrontation. Those are some of the things not to do.
A friend of mine who is divorced asked what I recommend in terms of keeping a balance. Here are a couple of lines from my response to him: "Keeping God at the center of our lives is, of course, the key to balance and strength. Ecclesiaties says, 'a three-fold cord is not easily broken.' With God in the center of a marriage, it can withstand the pressures and attacks that the world, and our own sin, and the devil bring against it."
Strips of braided fabric can illustrate the three-fold cord. Two of the strips represent a married couple. When there is stress in our lives, the tension in our marriage can be very difficult and can put a lot of strain on it. When one of us makes a serious mistake or calls the other one a name, it puts on more stress. Pretty soon, when stress is sufficient, the marriage made of two frail individuals without Christ is either going to disintegrate or become damaged. But add a third strip representing Christ. When our marriage becomes wrapped around Christ as well as each other, our trust becomes more in Him and than in ourselves. Our marriage is then less subject to our individual frailties.
God does do miracles. There have been cases when divorced couples have been brought back together by the power of God. A lot of separated spouses have been brought back together. With God at the center of our marriage, anything is possible. We can have not only a strong marriage, but we can become a witness to the world. The Bible talks about marriages being representatives of Christ's love for the church. As Christians, our marriages should reflect that kind of love, the love that Jesus has for His church.
We need the healing power of God's love in our lives. I want to share a verse I really like. I encourage couples to meditate on it. It's First Corinthians 13, verses 4-5: "Love suffers long and is kind. Love does not envy, does not parade itself, is not puffed up, does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, does not provoke, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." When I think of that I think of Christ's love--agape love.
As humans, we don't usually love quite like that, unless God is in our lives, changing us into the image of His Son. I think we're called to have that kind of self-giving, self-sacrificing love, not only for God but for our spouses and for one another in the church. Here's another translation of that passage by Eugene Petersen in "The Message:" "Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always 'me first,' doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others gravel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back but keeps going until the end. Love never dies." That's the kind of love that we're called to have for one another.
The Bible also says that God hates divorce. In Malachi 2: 10-16 we read, "have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another? The Lord is acting as a witness between you and the wife of your youth. Because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are His. Do not break faith with the wife of your youth. I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel. So guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith."
Parental divorce is now the strongest predictor of teen suicide. Children of divorced parents usually get less education than kids of parents who stay together. Children of divorce are less likely to graduate from high school. They're more likely to leave home earlier than others. Children of divorced parents are more likely to live together before marriage, and once they marry, they are more likely to divorce. The poverty rate is 5 times higher in single-parent homes. Children living with one parent are 20-40% more likely to develop health problems and more likely to be injured accidentally. There is a higher percentage of runaways in this group. There is a higher rate of delinquency among children of broken homes. Young boys often have nightmares and "father-hunger" after their fathers leave home. Teen boys are often aggressive, involved in gangs and have emotional difficulties when their parents are divorced. Young girls are anxious and feel guilty. In their teen years they are more likely to be sexually active and become pregnant. They marry younger and are more likely to separate and divorce. Many children of divorced parents experience depression, drug and alcohol problems, a diminished ability to form lasting relationships. And children whose parents divorce before they reach the age of 21 are shown to have shorter life spans. Their life span averages 8 years shorter than children of parents who remain married. I think one big reason God hates divorce is because divorce hurts children.
Divorce hurts the adults involved as well. A common stress test places death of spouse and divorce as the most highly stressful events in an adult's life. Feelings of anger, hurt, rejection and fear often result in profound depression and sometimes end in suicide. Practically every type of terminal cancer occurs at a higher rate among divorced people. Divorced individuals are more likely to get heart disease, arthritis, infectious diseases and severe injuries. Divorced people are twice as likely to be depressed as married people. The suicide rate among divorced men is four times higher than the rate among married men. Fatal car accidents are 3 times more common among divorced people. As one depressed and divorced client told me not too long ago when on the verge of tears, "why do I hold on to a marriage like it's such a big deal--like it should last forever?" Perhaps the answer is because it should. That is God's plan.
I don't want anyone to feel guilty. God is a God of healing and second chances. Whatever your past, don't stay under self-condemnation. But realize that God does hate divorce, particularly the pain it inflicts on the children and adults involved.
Satan, on the other hand, loves divorce. He has been attacking the family ever since the beginning of time. We are now living in the "Age of Self." Everything is judged by the question: "What's in this for me?" It is time, I believe, for Christians to be transformed in our thinking. We need to return to Christ and ask, "what will best glorify God?" Not just, "what's best for me?" Couples, families, and churches can point the way to Christ as He is seen in our love for one another.
In Genesis 2:4 we read, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and shall be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
In Matthew 19:3-9, the Pharisees are asking Jesus about divorce, and He says, "There are no longer two but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate." The Pharisees then asked Him, "Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus responds with, "...because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you whoever divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman, commits adultery."
We read in Ephesians 5: 21-33: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as unto the Lord. Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Everyone of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." Every once in a while a client will ask me if I believe a wife should submit herself to her husband. I guess I do, but I also think the husband needs to be submitted to the wife. It's really easy for the men to think I'm the boss here; whatever I say goes. I think there may be some situations when the couple cannot agree. In those cases, I believe the husband should decide, but he is wise if he defers to what his wife wants most of the time.
As husbands, we are told to love our wives as Christ loved the church. Christ went to the cross for the church. He died for the church. He poured out his life-blood for the church. So we as husbands are not off the hook with this verse. We need to submit ourselves to each other out of reverence for Christ. It's a beautiful picture - two submitted individuals loving and giving because they love God and each other. And I think it's important that even in our love for one another that we do not allow that love to become higher than our love for God. One of the best things we can do for our spouse is to love God, just as one of the best things we can do for our children is to love our mate and love God.
Dr. Notarius and Dr. Markman have written a book which is also based on 20 years of research with 1,000 different couples, both happy and unhappy. In this book they conclude that relational success depends on the ability of two people to manage the conflict that inevitably occurs. They believe that destructive marital conflict can not only be cured, it can also be prevented. They offer 6 simple truths:
First, realize that every relationship contains a hidden resource of hope. Even when things seem hopeless, there is hope.
Secondly, realize that one negative "zinger" will erase 20 acts of kindness. Gottman in his book says you need to maintain a minimum of five positive comments or actions for every one negative comment or action. Drs. Notarius and Markman maintain that one negative can wipe out 20 positives in a relationship. So if you can just stop the negatives, that can make a big difference. And part of that, I think, is to learn when to stop. I teach couples a lot of times to call a "time out" before they are about to lose control or say something they shouldn't. They make a commitment to come back and finish the discussion later, but they need to take time to calm down and cool off.
The third simple truth is that little changes in the individual can lead to huge differences in the relationship. So many times couples come into my office pointing their finger toward each other and each trying to change their spouse. One of the paradoxes that I have found to be true is that if you accept someone where they are, then they are free to change. But if you try to change someone, you create a condition where they may feel the need to sabotage their attempts to change for the better, because they feel they are being forced to change. So, we need to love and accept our spouses right where they're at--no conditions. In that atmosphere, there's a freedom to change.
The fourth simple truth is it's not the differences between partners that cause problems but how they handle the problems when problems arise. Some people say, "we're just too different." Some people say, "we're too alike." I've heard both comments in my counseling office. But really, it's how you relate to each other and handle the inevitable conflicts that makes the relationship either successful or unsuccessful.
The fifth simple truth is that men and women fight using different weapons, but suffer similar wounds. The idea that men are from Mars and women from Venus has some truth. God made us men and women differently. But even men who are stoic and macho feel pain, too, and we need to be aware and sensitive to each other.
The sixth simple truth is that partners need to practice relationship skills in order to become better at them. Gottman says when you learn how to manage conflict that will positively impact your marriage. Sometimes it takes a lot of practice before couples get better at this.
Dr. Harvey, in the book "The Change of Heart," says there are four steps to reconciliation. I think these steps are valid in our relationship with God as well as our spouses. We have to first be able to say, "I'm wrong." That's probably one of the hardest things to say for anyone. Secondly, we need to be able to say, "I'm sorry." Thirdly, we need to show the other person we have changed. We can't just say the words--we have to do it. The fourth thing is to be able to say, "I am committed." I think a good marriage begins and ends with commitment. None of us know what is ahead in our relationship, but with a strong sense of commitment and with Christ in the center of our marriage I believe we can handle whatever comes our way.
In my own experience, I have found a few other things to be helpful in marriage. We need to keep romance alive. Sometimes couples get married and then forget they can still have fun together. They need to go out on a date once in a while. I think regular nights out or time together for every couple is essential. I recommend a date once every week or every two weeks. It should be a fun time when serious topics are not discussed. Also, when a conversation becomes heated, it's important to take time out from it with an agreement to take the conversation up at a later time and not just let it go. Also, powerful affirmations like "I love you," "I appreciate you," and "I appreciate it when you..." should not be neglected.
Here is a story from "Love Stories from the Heart." It's called "Extraordinary People." Larry and Joanne were an ordinary couple. They lived in an ordinary house on an ordinary street. Like other ordinary couples they struggled to make ends meet and provide for their children. They were ordinary in another way, also. They had their squabbles. Much of their conversation concerned what was wrong in their marriage, until one day when a most extraordinary event took place. "You know, Joanne, I have a magic chest of drawers. Every time I open it, it's full of socks," Larry said. I want to thank you for washing them all these years." Joanne peered at her husband over her spectacles. "What do you want, Larry?" she said. "Nothing! I just want you to know how much I appreciate the magic drawer." This wasn't the first time Larry had said something odd, but Joanne decided to put these remarks away in the back of her mind along with the previous ones. Later, Larry said, "Joanne, that was a great meal. I appreciate all your effort. I bet over the past 15 years you have fixed over 14,000 meals." A little later, Larry said, "Gee, Joanne, the house looks spiffy." Another time, "Joanne, thanks just for being you." Day in and day out, Larry continued to focus on the positive. Then one day, Larry said, "Joanne, I want you to take a little break. I will do the dishes." "Why, thank you, Larry." Joanne's voice sounded a little lighter, and her self-confidence felt a little stronger. A little later, Joanne said, "Larry, I want to thank you for going to work and for providing for us all these years. I really appreciate you. I love you."
I want to give each couple a homework assignment. I want you to show and tell your spouse ten times each day how much you love them. There may be times you don't feel like it, but remember that loving feelings will usually follow the loving words or actions.