Counseling the Marriage Stuck in Neutral

August 15, 2012

More From

Jonathan Holmes

Biblical Counseling and Marriage Series - Counseling the Marriage Stuck in Neutral

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 1 of a BCC Grace & Truth blog series on marriage.

Struggling to Find Hope

Rarely does a week go by that I don’t hear a spouse’s story of struggle and disappointment in marriage. While not on the brink of divorce or separation, they are spouses struggling to find hope that their marriage is going to get better. The daily routines of marriage have now become the daily frustrations and irritations of a marriage that once was envisioned as a shining portrait of Christ’s relationship to his church but has subsequently devolved into a stagnant, loveless obligation.

Let’s be more specific; what are we talking about? It’s husbands who are spiritually indifferent and bordering on the apathetic when it comes embracing their role as husband. It’s wives who are caught up in the chaos of their schedules, chores, and to-do lists that they feel exhausted at the end of their day. It’s husbands and wives who have since settled into a routine of life that neglects some of the most common of spiritual disciplines: prayer, reading, silence, conversation, study, and intimacy.

We all know how the story uninterrupted will play out. Soon, one of the spouse’s desires or expectations will bump up against their spouse’s desires, and before you know it we have a full-blown conflict (cf. James 4:1-3). Unfortunately though, since the couple has been running on empty spiritually, there is no well of living water from which to draw from. The couple finds themselves hopeless and frustrated. How does a wise counselor care for a couple? How would you come alongside this couple…your neighbor, that couple in your small group, your close friend?

I believe David gives us a good insight as to a starting point in Psalm 25:4-5. He cries out, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.” We all need to be taught by our Savior. We all benefit from the entrance of His words into our hearts. What needs to be taught, and what can we learn?

Teach Your Couple to Look Upward

It is difficult sometimes to see what God is doing in your life and in your marriage. The overwhelming flood of tasks and chores muddles our vision to be able to spiritually see where God is. The task is made all the more difficult if our vision is cloudy or weak from not being exercised. When couples come into my office and begin to recount their frustrations and irritations, a gentle question I’ve found that is helpful in centering the conversation right from the start is:

“Where is God in this? For what good purpose do you believe God has for you both in this struggle?”

The question isn’t dismissive of their concerns, but it helps rightly align their gaze and draws them up from the morass of their marital problems. As a counselor you can begin to help shed light and give hope where all had been lost before. Teaching your couple to look upward helps them to recall the great and simple truths of the gospel message. It’s putting Ephesians 1—3 into verbal conversation with your couple.

Teach Your Couple to Look Inward

David’s cries are singularly focused for much of the psalm. He seems to understand that change and spiritual renewal must first take root in his own heart: “I lift up my soul…in you I trust…make me to know your ways…lead me in your truth and teach memy eyes are ever toward the Lord…turn to me.” There’s a proper acknowledgement on David’s part that this ongoing work of change must be a reality in his own heart.

How easy it is for all of us, myself included, to wish the redemptive work of change could begin in my spouse’s heart first. With a list of to-do points and action items, I could selfishly come up with a plan of change for my spouse and neglect my own heart. That’s how deceitful our flesh is…we think and can only see our spouse’s sin when in reality change needs to begin with me. Repentance and renewal within my heart and life by God’s grace prepares me to move forward in redemptive love for, towards and with my spouse.

Seeing spouses in marriage counseling get so upset and irritated when they cannot change their spouse is something we all too often see. Conversely, seeing a spouse realize that they can change the course of their marriage by first focusing on their own relationship with Christ is truly liberating. C.S. Lewis in this familiar quote puts the dynamic well:

When I have learnt to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.

Teach Your Couple to Look Outward

David ends his psalm on an outward moving redemptive prayer: “Redeem Israel, O God, out of all his troubles.” You see David gets it; he realizes that change from God within him has gospel-implications on those living within his community. The gospel once it takes root and grips the heart must move outward. This is Ephesians 4—6 verbalized into life.

I’ve found in marriage counseling that the simple truths of Ephesians 4:1-3 can be so quickly pushed aside and forgotten. Because of Christ in me, how and to whom can I be more humble, gentle, patient, forbearing and unified? The obvious person is the spouse to whom I find myself married, but as a counselor can enlarge their vision. To whom can you incarnate the rich person of Christ to in everyday life?

Join the Conversation

What have you found helpful in counseling marriages where the spouses seem to be stuck in the mundane routines of life? How can you come alongside and minister the hope of the gospel to stagnant marriages?

12 thoughts on “Counseling the Marriage Stuck in Neutral

  1. Unfortunately it has not been my experience that couples start out with “a marriage that once was envisioned as a shining portrait of Christ’s relationship to his church.” While I believe Jonathan described the progression from “I do” to “I can’t take it any longer” very well it is more than likely that James 4:1-3 kicked in very early in the relationship. I loved Jonathan’s “gentle question”.

  2. You are very right. I think that perhaps that statement was a “hopeful” declaration of what I want couple’s intent and desire to be. The progression of “I do” to “I can’t take it any longer” which you described is indeed so slippery and quick. Which is why we need God’s wisdom and community so desperately.

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  5. Jonathan! What a helpful use of Psalm 25. Thank you for writing this, I greatly appreciate these larger categories to remember in counseling which you got out of Scripture. 🙂 I am unfamiliar with that CS Lewis quote. From which of his works is it?

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