|Linda, in our church's sanctuary|
Over our forty-three years of marriage Linda and I had the privilege of helping many marriages. A number of these have been toxic marriages on the brink of divorce. God has instructed us to save marriages. We look at how a marriage can be saved, not on how it can dissolve.
This is significant, since most people cannot see how a toxic marriage can be helped. Many think a toxic marriage should not be helped. We disagree on both counts. At times this puts us at odds with friends and family members who are advising their loved ones to give up and check out of the marriage. This is one reason why, when counseling a toxic couple (or any couple), we are not going to involve friends and family members in the process. Often, friends and family members are contributing to the marriage's demise.
Linda and I use a four-step process in marriage saving.
Step 1 - Confess and forgive.
We ask the couple to identify things they have done or said that should never be done or said to anyone, but were aimed at their marital partner.
We ask the couple to be specific in their confessions. This is not about apologizing, but confessing and requesting forgiveness. It looks like this:
"I was wrong in saying/doing what I said/did to you. Will you forgive me?"
The response to this is: "Yes, I forgive you." (Never add the word "but" to your forgiveness, such as: "Yes, I forgive you, but what you did/said to me was wrong, you always do this, etc. etc.")
To which it is appropriate to respond, "Thank you."
We want the couple to practice ongoing confession and forgiveness, as needed. Without this, the marriage won't be rescued.
An excellent resource in learning how to do this is Robert Enright's book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness.
Step 2 - learn how to communicate when in conflict.
The couple needs to learn new ways of speaking the truth in love to one another. No demeaning words are allowed.
We suggest the couple read David Augsburger's Caring Enough to Confront: How to Understand and Express Your Deepest Feelings Towards Others.
We help the couple do this, by assisting them in our counseling meetings, and assigning to practice communicating this way:
- Speak truthfully
- Speak lovingly
Both are needed. If we only speak truthfully we could blow people away. I could tell you the truth in unloving ways. Speaking truth without love injures others.
If we only speak lovingly we may never address the truth. This leaves issues undealt with. It feels warm and fuzzy for a while, but the bleeding has not been stopped.
Instead, says Paul, we are to speak the truth in love. The formula is: Truth + Love. That sounds like Jesus, right? Jesus always asserted the truth, and he always did so in love.
As the couple engages in ongoing, as-needed, confession and forgiveness, and as they begin to learn the new ways of speaking the truth in love to each other, they will be ready to addres their marital pain. They will be ready to walk through their pain, with the help of God.
The steps to take are given in Gary Chapman's excellent One More Time: What to Do When Your Marriage Is Falling Apart. We expect the couple to purchase Chapman's book and work through it together. Then, at our counseling sessions, we talk about the book and how the couple is learning from it.
We expect the couple to invest in their marriage. Having a good marriage takes work. This takes time and commitment. This is where some couples get stalled. They were hoping for a quick fix; we are hoping for an ongoing relationship.
Linda and I have deeply invested in our marriage. Throughout the years we have together read many books on marital health, attended various conferences on keeping the fire burning in marriage, and watched videos on how to have a healthy, Jesus-centered marriage.
Step 4 - Pray for one another.
We have seen God do great things in a marriage that no human counselor can do. We ask the couple to pray for their partner's well-being in Christ. And, to pray together as a couple.
Here is where the beautiful core values of the Christian belief system begin to kick in and become, not mere religious theories, but experiential realities. Linda and I have seen this happen many times. Few things are as beautiful to us as witnessing God restore and transform a marriage and, as a result, a family.
My book on prayer is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.