Ten keys for building rock-solid relationships that go the distance
Believe it or not, 85 percent of Americans still get married. Why? Because God created us that way. At the core of who we are, we long for safe, loving, committed relationships. You don’t have to look very far in the Bible to realize that He also wants to bless our love and marriage.
What’s troubling today is that the majority of couples eventually break up. Research estimates that between 40 to 50 percent of today’s marriages end in divorce. If you count couples that separate but don’t divorce, the statistic is even higher. The snowball effect? Tragically, one in three children now live in single-parent homes or do not live with their parents at all.
Behind pasted-on smiles and closed doors is a lot of brokenness from love gone bad. As a pastoral counselor and marriage and family therapist, I’ve sat and talked with countless clients, and over and over again I hear the same cry of the heart: “All I ever wanted was for someone to love me.”
The truth is that so much today is tearing at and compromising marriages—pornography, work demands, money challenges, personal differences and painful pasts. As a result, it’s hard to keep our hands clasped and enjoy life with the one we love. Before long, anger festers. Hearts wander. And love grows cold.
The good news is that God longs to bless and heal our marriages. Marriage is close to the heart of God. As the Creator of marriage, God yearns for us to taste of the love and intimacy that He desires for us. There is no question that He desires to clothe every marriage with beauty and to bring redemption and healing. The church is His voice, and His hands and feet. We cannot be silent.
More than 80 percent of couples get married in a church. This means that faith communities have huge potential to strengthen marriages from the very beginning, and help couples in crisis gain support from pastoral and professional counselors. Pastors and ministry leaders can help stem the tide of the divorce epidemic by making the church a safe place couples can run to for hope, healing and restoration.
Taking a stand for marriage means becoming a voice to educate, encourage and empower couples in our churches and communities. Here are several ways to divorce-proof families.
Teach couples how to communicate. Communication is essential for working through conflict and building intimacy. Surprisingly, most divorces are not the result of affairs or addiction. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that the most likely predictors of divorce involve negative communication patterns that develop between couples—criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling, eventually leading to emotional disengagement.
Many marriages plummet because of a host of “little things” that add up, and eventually explode (Song. 2:15). Equip the couples in your church with a toolbox of relational skills. Educate them on the reality of conflict in every marriage, and constructive ways to respond in order to deepen intimacy—not destroy it.
Preach on marriage, family and sexuality. Too often, the church has skirted the complex issues facing marriages and families today. But Scripture is not silent on issues like anger, selfishness, lack of love and respect, addictions, pornography, and infidelity. God’s Word offers clear direction and hope for building healthy marriages. A lot more preaching and teaching should be aimed at helping families work through these relational challenges. And it’s time for us to not only address what we’re against, but more importantly, what we’re for—love, honor, intimacy, forgiveness, patience, kindness and tenderness.
Reframe marriage as a covenant, not a
contract. The U.S. divorce rate is triple that of other countries, including the U.K. and France. Why? One clue might be the common lack of waiting periods for divorce. Divorce-proofing the marriages in your church includes helping couples remove the option of divorce as an “easy out” when things get rough. No matter how much two people love each other, every marriage will go through times when it feels like they’ve “fallen out of love.” All couples will go through times when they don’t feel close and intimate. In these moments, it’s critical that couples remember what marriage is all about and why they got married in the first place. Marriage is a covenant before God, a promise “for better or worse”—not just a contract of convenience based on emotions.
Talk about love, and fighting for it. Our culture presents a very unrealistic, damaging view of love. Hollywood brings us story after story where the relationship is effortless, every moment is romantic. Dirty diapers, stressful jobs and bad hair days are strangely absent. Any couple that’s been married for more than a few years knows just how unrealistic this portrayal of marriage is. It’s often been said that anything worth having is worth fighting for. Love, intimacy and connectedness in marriage won’t just “happen.” It takes time, intentionality and a willingness to consider our spouse’s needs. When couples learn to fight for their relationship and understand the often-neglected aspects of true love, including commitment, sacrifice and unselfishness, they will discover a whole new dimension of their relationship.
Celebrate and embrace the “God” factor. Tragically, research shows that there is little difference in divorce rates inside and outside of the church. What are we missing? Many marriage programs focus on “steps to marital bliss” or “how to have the marriage you’ve always dreamed about,” reinforcing unrealistic expectations and failing to address the true soul of marriage—spiritual oneness. As pastors and church leaders, we must encourage couples to take steps to grow spiritually, and find personal healing rather than expecting their mate to “fix” them. Let’s reclaim Ps. 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (ESV).
When a man and woman each pursue a deep, intimate relationship with God—rather than spending their time and energy pointing out his or her flaws—the Holy Spirit can work to heal, change and transform them individually and as a couple.
Develop a marriage ministry and premarital program. This might include young couples’ Sunday school classes, small groups, marriage retreats and conferences, as well as date nights for couples. Research shows that solid premarital counseling programs can lower a couple’s divorce rate by at least 30 percent. Be sure your church adopts a reputable program. Distance and online programs such as the American Association of Christian Counselors’ (AACC) pre-marital program and Genesis 2:24: Getting Love and Marriage Right the First Time are becoming increasingly popular. These programs, taught by some of the nation’s leading experts, help engaged couples build a solid foundation for their future marriage.
Train and equip an army of marriage coaches. Every couple needs encouragement and guidance in their marital journey, especially those who are in the early years of marriage or going through times of difficulty and distress. We now know that marriage coaching and mentoring efforts make a huge difference and help prevent divorce. Every church should have at least 10 well-equipped marriage coaches to come alongside of couples. Featuring the nation’s most respected marriage leaders and teachers, the AACC courses—Marriage Mentoring, Marriage Works, Marriage Coaching and Premarital Coaching—offer an affordable, flexible, cutting-edge approach to train marriage mentors and coaches within your church.
Develop a strategy for troubled marriages. Couples who are struggling with more serious issues like financial ruin, pornography, sex addiction, substance abuse and infidelity need a safe place to talk about it and get help. Your church needs a counseling and intervention strategy in order for it to be a place for hope, understanding and healing. If you can’t develop a Christian counseling center at your church, you can certainly network with competent professional Christian counselors and ministry leaders in your community.
Reach out to victims of divorce. Standing for marriage does not mean judging or excluding those who are victims of divorce. Rather than a battleground, God desires His church to be a place of hope and healing. We must minister to individuals who carry the soul wounds of divorce. Jesus weeps over every divorced couple, and He longs to touch the broken, hurting and calloused places in their hearts. Bible-based programs like Divorce Care and AACC’s Life After Divorce offer a safe place for those who have been divorced to share their burdens, experience healing and find a new start.
Invest in your own marriage. A core helping dictum is that “you can’t give what you don’t have.” People see into our lives as leaders, and they make decisions about whether or not they will trust and listen to us based on the way we live. Focus on your marriage. Make it a priority. They say one of the best ways to determine your effectiveness as a leader is to ask your children. How would your kids describe your marriage and family? Fight for the strength of your own home by setting ministry boundaries in order to spend time with your spouse and invest in the lives of your kids. When you focus on your Judea, your ministry will spread to Samaria and then to the ends of the earth.
We can stop the divorce epidemic by committing ourselves wholeheartedly as the church to building rock solid relationships that heal the soul of marriage—God’s way.
Tim Clinton is the president of the nearly 50,000-member American Association of Christian Counselors, the largest and most diverse Christian counseling association in the world. He is professor of counseling and pastoral care, and executive director of the Center for Counseling and Family Studies at Liberty University. Licensed in Virginia as both a professional counselor and marriage and family therapist, Tim has authored 17 books, including his latest, God Attachment: Why You Believe, Act, and Feel the Way You Do About God. Tim has been married 30 years to his wife, Julie.
INCREASE YOUR EFFECTIVENESS IN MARRIAGE MINISTRY
Every Christian leader should never stop growing. Continuing education and professional development is an absolute must if you’re going to have effective ministry in this day and age.
If you desire to be better equipped and increase your effectiveness in marriage and family ministry as well as divorce care, don’t miss the American Association of Christian Counselors’ (AACC) first annual national Marriage America Conference on April 12-14, 2012 in Orlando, Fla.
With the theme of “Rock Solid Relationships,” the gathering is a movement that is calling pastors, counselors, marriage and family advocates, and couples to embrace the beauty and sanctity of marriage as God intended it.
Conference speakers will include well-known marriage and relationship leaders such as Gary Smalley, Emerson Eggerichs, Gary Chapman, Ted Cunningham, Tony Perkins, Les Parrott and Bishop Harry Jackson—the guest editor of the January-February 2012 issue of Ministry Today.
In addition to pre-conference workshops and 16 specialized tracks, the conference will also feature research and legal teams sharing the latest findings in science, law, theology and the clinical area regarding marriage and family issues.
For more information or to register, visit aacc.net/conferences/marriage-america/ or call 1-800-526-8673.
Help for The Hurting
What to do when a marriage does end
Here are some key elements that are required for a healthy recovery when couples divorce.
Emotional needs. During and after a divorce, most people feel as if they are on an emotional roller coaster, vacillating between desperation to get the spouse back no matter what and feelings of anger and revulsion toward the spouse. People who go through a divorce are extremely vulnerable. They need close accountability with a friend or counselor who will help protect them from making poor choices or from moving forward too quickly into new relationships.
Time. The grieving process takes time—at least two to five years. People typically go through stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. The final stage is acceptance, when they learn to be satisfied with the changes that God has allowed them to experience and to move forward in a productive new lifestyle.
Social needs. Divorce ends a primary relationship and often many social relationships as well. Divorced people should wait at least two years before involvement in romantic relationships.
Spiritual needs. Most Christians who go through a divorce feel guilt and shame. Divorced people need to hear the truth that God loves, forgives and offers full fellowship with Him. Divorce has negative consequences, but God can take the worst things in life and use them for good.
The need to forgive. Another part of spiritual healing comes through divorced people forgiving themselves and those who have hurt them. True forgiveness means that they are able to rise above the pain from those who have wronged them, pray for them and wish them well. At some point, they make a decision to forgive—but the process of forgiveness may take a lifetime.
Giving back. The final step of recovery, following the teachings of Christ, is to focus on giving back to others (2 Cor. 1:3–7). Giving to others too early in the process will only lead to new pain. In the proper time, comforting with the comfort that has been received can give divorced people purpose, meaning and fulfillment.