Our marriage “problems” are only symptoms of the actual problem in our relationships with Christ. In my own marriage, for instance, the “problem” looked like I did not have enough time for my wife and children, but that was only a symptom. The problem was that I would not obey the Holy Spirit’s conviction to put my family ahead of the church, make my wife a priority, spend more time with my children, etc. Plus, I was being consumed with anxiety, versus trusting Christ like I should have. In other words, the marriage problems I was experiencing were directly connected to my relationship with Christ.
A couple’s marriage problems can only be fixed by focusing on their relationships with the Lord
This is why any biblical marriage counseling must address the husband and wife’s relationship with Christ. Couples I counsel are often confused when they share marriage problems they are experiencing and I respond by asking:
- “What does your time in God’s Word look like?”
- “How is your prayer life?”
- “Tell me about your involvement in the church?”
A wife will say, “I just told you my husband yells at me. Why are you talking about his time in the Word?” Because the hope is that as a husband reads God’s Word he will become convicted of his sin and repent. He will become a more patient and loving leader. I do not have the power to change a husband’s heart (and apparently neither does a wife or there would be no need for counseling). A husband can only become a new man through a relationship with Christ.
Likewise, a husband will respond, “I just told you how my wife humiliates me in front of our friends. Why would you mention joining a small group?” Because other believers can provide accountability, vulnerability, and transparency. You can learn from others and be challenged by their examples. When you are not involved in the body of Christ, you will not receive the encouragement and exhortation God wants you to have. You will feel alone, as though you are the only couple having these problems. You will not have anyone in your life through whom God can regularly speak to you. We are made to have fellowship with other believers, and when we do not have it, that lack manifests itself in other areas, including our marriages.
Two situations I have witnessed a number of times…
A husband and wife are having marriage problems. They submit to Christ, and soon their marriage problems improve. Why? Did their difficulties simply disappear? No, those difficulties had been symptoms of the real problem—Christ was not supreme in their lives. When they put Christ first, the marriage problems were shown only to be symptoms.
Conversely, I have seen a couple plugged into church. The husband and wife pray and read the Word together. They are doing well spiritually, and their marriage is healthy. Then, for various reasons, they:
- Get distracted from the Lord and their priorities shift
- Start wavering in church attendance and spiritual disciplines
- Fall out of fellowship
Soon their marriage suffers. Why? Their relationship with Christ was suffering.
So remember: Marriage “problems” are really only symptoms—or negative consequences—of not having Christ as the focal point in the marital relationship. If couples want a strong, healthy marriage, they need a strong, healthy relationship with Christ. When a couple’s relationship with Christ is weak and unhealthy, the marriage will be weak and unhealthy.
Handle marriage problems with these three encouragements
If we’re going to have healthy, joyful relationships, we have to learn to handle marriage problems that inevitably arise. These frustrations can actually increase as we become more familiar with the Bible! Since the standard set by God’s Word is so high:
- A husband could easily become frustrated that his wife is not more respectful or submissive as God’s Word commands.
- A wife could as easily become frustrated that her husband does not cherish her or provide the spiritual leadership God’s Word commands.
This is illustrated by a situation that took place years ago when I was teaching on marriage. While talking about husbands loving their wives, a woman stood up in front of everyone and criticized her husband for the way he mistreated her. I could have interrupted and said, “Can we pray for you two?” or “Why don’t we talk about this after the study?” Instead, I was caught so off guard that I did the worst thing possible—nothing! I simply stood there with my jaw dropped while the angry wife finished berating her husband. After that I decided it was important to give people encouragement for handling marriage problems…
First, handle marriage problems by remembering your own weaknesses.
Instead of keeping a mental account of all that your spouse does wrong, remind yourself of your own struggles. Instead of focusing on your spouse’s failures, focus on your own. We all have plenty of weaknesses to work on without obsessing over the weaknesses of our spouses. When we start to feel frustrated toward our spouse, we should think back about the ways we’ve failed. This will humble us and diffuse the frustration we’re feeling.
Second, handle marriage problems by thinking of ways to help your spouse grow.
The Bible is not split into one section for husbands and another for wives. The passages on marriage, such as Ephesians 5:22-33 and 1 Peter 3:1-7, contain intertwined exhortations for both spouses. This encourages a husband to be familiar with the instruction for his wife, and a wife to be familiar with the instruction for her husband. If a husband knows what is expected of his wife, and a wife knows what is expected of her husband, they can help each other fulfill their biblical responsibilities. We should ask ourselves:
- How can I help my spouse be a better husband or wife?
- How can I encourage my spouse to fulfill the role God has given him or her?
- Is there anything I can do that will make being married to me easier?
If you cannot think of any answers to the last question, you are not thinking hard enough!
Third, handle marriage problems by turning them into prayer.
Take any feelings of hurt, betrayal, or disappointment, and pray that God will help your spouse grow in the area that is upsetting you. Pray also for God to help you be as forgiving and gracious as necessary. When it comes to our spouses, we far more likely to complain, gossip, yell, threaten, pout, or ignore than pray. If we would spend as much time praying for our spouses as we do on these other things, our marriages would be much better. Instead of focusing on:
- What your spouse does wrong
- How you shouldn’t be treated the way you’re being treated
- How you deserve better
Every time you start to feel frustrated, pray for your spouse.
Why you should actually embrace marriage problems!
Have you ever considered that tension in your relationship can be a good thing? Often God is introducing areas that need to be improved. He wants you to embrace these marriage struggles. The best way to do this is by asking each other tough questions:
- A husband might say, “Outside of the Lord Himself, do you feel like you are taking second place to anything in my life?”
- A wife might ask, “Do you feel like I respect you?”
Then there are right and wrong ways to respond to these questions:
- Imagine a wife answers that she does not feel that she is the supreme relationship in her husband’s life. He should not try to talk her out of the way she feels or persuade her to see things differently. This will make her feel even more misunderstood.
- Imagine a husband answers that his wife makes him feel disrespected. She should not argue with him and try to convince him he is wrong. This will make him feel even more disrespected.
Instead, each spouse should listen to the other, apologize the right way, and try to make the appropriate changes. When couples ask each other these difficult questions, they should expect some painful discussions. That’s great.
A helpful way to view marriage struggles…
Some years ago I hurt my lower back. It’s a recurring injury that reminds me I’m getting older, so I returned to the chiropractor. If you have ever been to a chiropractor, you know they can be pretty forceful. There’s pushing, twisting, snapping, and popping. Sometimes you’re left feeling sore, but this is supposed to happen. That is how the chiropractor makes adjustments and straightens things out.
What if you went to the chiropractor and all he did was rub your shoulders, pat your back, and tell you everything looked fine? Maybe after that, he sat next to you and asked how your day was going. How would you react? I know how I would react: “This is not why I came here. I know if you are going to help me, you are going to have to apply some pressure and do some pushing and pulling. There is going to be some tension. There will even be a little soreness afterward.”
Likewise, if we are going to embrace our marriage struggles, there will be some discomfort. There is going to be some struggle and frustration. We should not be alarmed, because this is part of the natural healing and strengthening process as God works in our relationships.
What is the alternative to embracing your marriage struggles?
Be lazy. That’s the simple answer. Choose not to:
- Ask each other the tough questions
- Talk about the tough issues
- Take your marriage seriously
- Improve as a husband, a wife, or a Christian
If you avoid discussing your marriage struggles, it’s true that you won’t have any tough issues with which to wrestle. But you will not grow either, and your marriage will not be strengthened. Even if you avoid the difficult discussions and the discomfort that accompanies your marriage struggles now, you will more than likely experience even tougher, more painful situations later.
So I want to encourage you to embrace your marriage struggles because of what they can produce. Romans 5:3–4 says:
We glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character, and character, hope.
Glory in the problems you are having, knowing that they are producing something good as you, your spouse, and your marriage are refined!
Discussion questions for husbands and wives:
- What marriage problems are “recurring injuries” for your and your spouse? In other words, what problems or conflicts do you continue to experience that need to be embraced so they can be “straightened out”?
- Why should you expect discomfort as you and your spouse discuss your marriage struggles?
- In what ways can this discomfort be beneficial?
- Why do marriage passages, such as Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:1–7, intertwine instructions for both spouses? In other words, why should husbands and wives be familiar with Scripture’s commands for their spouses?
- After looking at the verses above, what things do you struggle with that are preventing you from fulfilling your role in marriage?
- How can you encourage your spouse to fulfill the role God has given him or her? Provide three examples:
- What can you do to make being married to you easier? Provide three examples:
- How will you pray for your marriage differently?
- While remembering to focus on yourself, if a “marriage doctor” were to examine your marriage, what are three “symptoms” he would observe?
- What does your time in God’s Word look like? If you are unsatisfied with your answer, what changes should you make?
- Are you involved in a church? Notice the question is not, “Do you go to church?” Or “Are you a member of a church?”
- If you are involved in a church, in what ways do you share the marital challenges you are experiencing so God can use your church family to help you?
- If you are not involved in a church, what changes need to be made so you can be active and involved?