Marital Conflict and Divorce
How to help couples become companions and not enemies in the journey
By Mark R. Laaser
Many pastors know this scenario: A husband and wife come to his office and share how bad their marriage is. The pastor wants to provide counseling, but all they want to know is, “What does the Bible say about divorce?” or “Will we be condemned if we do not stay together?”
The pastor knows the biblical answer. Jesus said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:3–9). Paul wrote, “A wife must not separate from her husband. … And a husband must not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10,11).
The Book of Genesis, Jesus’ teaching on marriage, and Paul’s writing agree that when a man and a woman come together in marriage they create a one-flesh union. Paul admits that this is a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32). He then explained that he was talking about the relationship of Christ with the Church. In other words, a husband should be willing to sacrifice his life for his spouse and avoid making selfish demands on her. When selfishness, not selflessness, occurs in marriages, conflict is the result.
So, what does a pastor do? He needs to ask the couple if they would be willing to work on their marriage in ways they may not have tried before. If a pastor cannot do the long-term counseling this will require, he can refer them to a competent Christian counselor.
A pastor must not use guilt to persuade a couple to attend counseling by telling them, “God hates divorce.” Rather, he needs to challenge them to give themselves opportunity to find the relationship that God intends for them to have.
All Couples Go Through A Process Of Development
Pastors need to help couples gain perspective. Couples are not alone in their conflicts, and conflict is a part of normal development for couples. One myth couples might believe is that marriage should always be exciting and romantic. If it is not, something must be wrong. The truth is that relationships develop over time; they mature and grow. A love that lasts is continually growing in spiritual depth and emotional intimacy. The struggles and challenges of life give couples opportunity to achieve this growth.
A person generally goes through six stages in life. First, he is single. If he has done his individual developmental work well, he will have a strong identity and be fully aware of God’s calling, plan, and purpose for his life.
Second, some enchanted evening a person meets his spouse. Bells start ringing and violins start playing. The two only have eyes for each other. They become identified as a couple and lose themselves in each other. We often refer to this period as being infatuated with one another.
Third, sometime after marriage, the honeymoon ends. One morning the wife discovers that her husband does not put the toilet paper roll on right. The husband remembers his wife was raised Assemblies of God; he was not. He is a Republican; she is a Democrat. One spouse likes frequent sex; the other does not. Quirks and idiosyncrasies become apparent. Some begin to doubt that they married the right person. Conflicts over differences develop. One or both spouses decide it is time to develop their own life. As a result, they lose interest in each other. This leads to separateness and mutual coexistence.
Fourth, people go through a phase where they seem to get lost in themselves. One spouse may become preoccupied with work while the other is preoccupied with their children. This is the dangerous time when one or both spouses may turn to unhealthy ways of coping with their feelings of being separate and alone. Compulsive or addictive behaviors may result for some. Sadly, some will turn to other people, and affairs are the result.
Criticizing one’s spouse for coping in an unhealthy way leads to ongoing conflict and the couple seems stuck. Some couples use avoidance to cope with the pain, or the couple might turn to anger and conflict. Anger and conflict, at least, create adrenalin. Fighting might be the only passion being experienced in the relationship. In this stage couples might fight, then make up. They often become caught up in this endless cycle of ups and downs.
If a couple is strong and patient, they can survive this stage and move on to the next. Paul said, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4,5).
Fifth, to survive, couples must hold on to the belief that God brought them together for a reason. If God had intended people to be exactly alike, one person in the marriage would not be needed. As they grow in their relationship, couples discover that one has strengths where the other has weaknesses. Couples also learn how to cooperate and become intimate allies. Perhaps couples even find that their strengths and weaknesses are a completely matched set.
In the final stage of development, couples understand that they are capable of taking care of themselves as individuals because they depend on God. They recognize their strengths, talents, and weaknesses as they develop self-confidence. But out of their strengths they also choose to remain together. While couples know they can be alone, they know that their spouse completes them in a spiritual and covenantal union. The two have become one and rejoice in it.
Few couples have the courage to get to this last stage. Most couples bounce back and forth between stages 2, 3, and 4. When some get to stage 3, their perceptions of their differences and the constant conflicts that go with them lead them into divorce.
In counseling, ask couples where they think they fit in these stages. Help them see that the process is normal. Challenge them to make it to the last two stages. Getting beyond stage 4 requires knowing how to resolve conflict in healthy ways.
Resolving Conflict: The Problem Is Never The Problem
Family therapist Virginia Satir was fond of saying, “The problem is never the problem, coping with the problem is the problem.”
A couple’s conflict can develop over issues that are only symptoms or expressions of deeper issues. When a couple battles over superficial issues, there is no solution because the deeper thoughts, feelings, and needs are not being addressed.
Pastors can help couples see that they are fighting over issues that are not the real problem. At every turn the pastor must gently steer them away from these superficial arguments while helping them walk through deeper levels of understanding.
First, help couples understand how each of them copes with life. Give them examples of what coping means. Some people use substances such as alcohol, drugs, nicotine, and even caffeine to change the way they feel in the neurochemistry of their brains. Some people use activities such as eating, shopping, cleaning, or sex to find a high that medicates feelings. These coping strategies can get out of control for some and become addictions. Others use avoidance strategies by working, sleeping, watching TV, or getting overly involved in various other activities.
Have each person make a list of his coping strategies and share these with his spouse. This is the beginning of taking responsibility for each person’s own actions.
Second, teach couples how they might be relating to each other in a variety of ways that may help them cope with difficult feelings but is detrimental to their marriage. One or both spouses may be constantly blaming the other. Some spouses try to always please the other one. This is sometimes referred to as codependency. Others may act in what they consider reasonable, but sometimes self-righteous ways. Christians who use this approach may use Scripture to prove their reasonable point. Finally, some may act as if they do not care or that everything is irrelevant.
In counseling I sometimes have couples stand and assume a posture they think looks like blaming, pleasing, being reasonable, or not caring. I then ask them to choose the one stance they do the most. This is also a way of taking personal responsibility.
Third, through your own modeling, teach couples about feelings. I give couples a list of feeling words and have them pick which ones they know they feel. You can sometimes see in their faces how they are feeling. Point that out to them. Have them listen to each other and reflect back what their partner is feeling.
Fourth, teach couples how to realize that they have certain core beliefs about themselves that have been formed in their history. This involves their families, churches, schools, and culture in general.
Many times I am confronted by people who say, “You can talk all you want about grace and God’s love, but I know it does not apply to me.”
Where does this roadblock come from? Somewhere in these people’s past they were told they did not measure up, they were bad, and they did not deserve to get their needs met.
Men can develop incorrect messages about being men from the lies of culture. The same dynamic can happen to women. For example, men are led to believe that their greatest need is sex, when, in reality, this is a biological myth. Women can be led to believe that they are intellectually inferior to men. This too is a biological myth. The lists of core beliefs that people hold about themselves can be endless. These incorrect beliefs, however, may keep people stuck in conflicts. If a woman has believed since her early years that she has never been attractive, how can her husband convince her otherwise? Have couples list the core beliefs they carry with them, and have them discuss with each other where they learned them.
Fifth, help couples admit to the expectations they desire from their spouses. These expectations are formed out of a person’s basic desires. When a person does not know how to get his desires met in his relationship with Christ and with others, he expect his spouse to fulfill these. For example, if a mother has not nurtured her son in a healthy way, her son may later expect his wife to nurture him in motherly ways. How many wives have said to their husbands, “I am not your mother”?
People bring these expectations with them to the altar. But people are not consciously aware of these expectations. A person gets mad when his spouse does not seem to live up to what he expects. Help couples see that many of the things they expect from each other are things that we can only expect from God.
Next to the bottom of these levels are seven desires of the heart that are universal to both men and women. These are: the desire to be heard and understood, affirmed, blessed, safe, touched in nonsexual ways, chosen, and included.
Men and women have more in common than they have things that separate them. Recent studies have discovered that 95 percent of the Mars and Venus differences are learned behaviors. People can unlearn these. There is no value in focusing on differences that are gender based. This usually leads to criticism and anger that is often disguised as sarcasm.
How many conflicts occur because couples do not listen to each other? How many people long for affirmation and feel their spouse does not give them any. Blessing is about the unconditional love that we should have received from our parents but may expect from our spouse. Safety means freedom from anxiety. Healthy touch is a basic need people have. When babies are born, if they are not touched enough, they will have a failure to thrive and can even die.
Much of the conflict couples experience occurs when their need to be touched is confused with their need to be sexual. Even though people can be physically attracted to many others, God has put in people a desire to be the only one in another person’s life. Furthermore, the only way to stay physically faithful is to spiritually choose in your heart that your spouse is the only person for you.
Finally, all people long to be included by their community, in their homes, neighborhoods, and churches. When people do not feel included, they can become isolated and alone. Conflict in marriage can occur when one spouse does not feel included in the other spouse’s life.
An example of how unmet desires can rise to the surface of marital conflict is the desire to be safe. All people have ways they believe will make them safe. They believe that if they have enough money they will be free of worry and problems. A wife may feel it is important to have a tight budget. Her husband may hide his anxiety by not thinking about money. Imagine the conflict that can occur between them because they have different strategies for managing their need to be safe.
During counseling I give couples a list of these seven desires and ask them to reflect on how they have expected their spouses to meet these desires. I point out that God is the only one with whom we can be heard and understood, affirmed, blessed, touched, safe, chosen, and included. I then challenge couples to sacrificially serve the other in these desires. I have each person keep a daily log of how he is doing in these ways of serving.
Finally, at the bottom of all conflicts is the fact couples forget who they are in Christ. First, they do not remember that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Next, they forget that God loves them so much that He sent His only Son. Then, they lose faith that only God can meet their deepest desires. Ultimately, they develop unrealistic expectations based on faulty core beliefs that lead to unbearable feelings. The ways people cope with these feelings can cause conflict with their spouses who may not help them with their coping strategies.
I encourage pastors to have couples sit facing each other knee to knee. Have them hold hands and look each other in the eye. Then have a conversation with them about all levels of this model. By practicing, pastors can help couples begin their discussions at the bottom of this list, acknowledging the truth of who they are as individuals and as couples in Christ. From this place, they can find that, as God satisfies their desires, they can seek to serve the desires of each other. As expectations fade, couples will develop a true understanding of who they are, their difficult feelings will lead to joy, and false coping will disappear. Couples will become companions and not enemies in the journey.