Trapped in a Troubled Marriage

June 22, 2015

Andy Farmer

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Andy Farmer

A Word from Your BCC Team: You’re reading the fourth of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog miniseries on Biblical Counseling and Marriage. In today’s post, Andy Farmer provides counsel for those Trapped in a Troubled Marriage. You can read Part 1 by Robert Cheong at What Principles Guide My First Meeting with a Couple in Marital Crisis? You can read Part 2 by Li Beach at Dear Missionary. And you can read Part 3 by Brad Hambrick at Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.

Many “Traps”

In marriage counseling there is probably no word used to describe marriage problems more than the word “trapped.”

  • “I feel like we’re trapped by all the demands from her family, and we can’t do what we want to do.”
  • “I feel like I’m trapped in this house with all these kids while he’s out there in the adult world.”
  • “Whatever I do isn’t good enough. I feel like I’m trapped by these expectations that I just can’t measure up to.”
  • “I feel like she’s trapped in bitterness. It doesn’t matter how much I confess or try to change, she just keeps going back to where I failed.”
  • “Whenever any of us steps out of line he snaps out. We live in fear of his anger. It’s like a trap that he keeps us in.”
  • “I’m trapped in this marriage and I just want out.”

As a biblical counselor, I’ve learned that when I hear this language I have to be very attentive, very careful. My immediate concern is the possibility what is being communicated is the experience of abuse, or of an unstable and potentially volatile family situation. But just because the situation might not be a crisis, doesn’t mean it isn’t in a precarious place.

The Remedy Today

The general remedy for being trapped in a relationship offered to people in our world is to simply break free—to get out while you can. There was a time when the conventions of matrimony in the culture kept people from fleeing unhappy marriage situations. But that isn’t the case anymore. Marriage is just a more legally and economically complicated trap than other relationships, but there are escape plans for it. If you are counseling people who feel trapped in a marriage you can be confident that someone in their life is encouraging them to get out of the marriage some way, somehow.

One of the complicating factors in counseling Christian couples is that most know and will acknowledge the biblical limits on divorce as an option for marriage problems. They will readily confess they believe the Scriptures but will then often launch into a rationale on why their case may be the exception to the biblical rule. Any counselor or pastor who has taken a stand on divorce in trying to help a troubled marriage will know the experience of seeing careful efforts to communicate truth swept aside with the words, “you just don’t understand.”

The Biblical Remedy

The trouble with trapped couples is not that they don’t have a high enough standard for the marriage covenant. It’s that they don’t have a deep enough confidence in the biblical remedy for trapped people. One of the ways I’ll probe this concern is by asking them about freedom. “What would freedom look like to you right now? What would it take for you to be free?”

Usually their response begins with a fresh description of how they feel trapped. Then they’ll list out various things that need to change before they can feel free. The list can be telling. It will be filled with things they say they need, but aren’t getting. There will be categories of disappointments in their spouse and requirements of what he or she should be or do. There will be regrets for roads not taken, for bad decisions. And laments for things that haven’t worked out the way they would have hoped. But rarely will there be any clear thoughts on what it means to be free and how to get there.

Most people who say they want out of trapped marriages really just want some kind of relief from their present experience. That’s why the idea of “separation” can be so attractive. But most separations only bring temporary relief and never bring freedom. Separation usually just exchanges the trap of a troubled marriage for the trap of an undefined temporary escape.

Biblical Freedom: We Are Not Set Free to Be Free Agents

Opening up the biblical theme of freedom can have significant effect on a troubled marriage. According to the Scriptures, freedom isn’t a natural state or a human right. Apart from Christ we are slaves of sin (Romans 8:20-23) and trapped in a world that oppresses the human soul (Colossians 1:13). We can’t free ourselves. We must be redeemed.

Redemption is the gospel of freedom in action. Redemption is the payment of a price in order to free those who are trapped and enslaved. The good news of the gospel is Jesus paid the ransom that we deserved in order to set us free (Mark 10:45).

But we are not set free to be free agents.

Christ has bought us for Himself—to be His holy people, His treasured possession, His freedom fighters on this earth (1 Peter 2:9).

Free Indeed

What can this mean for a troubled marriage? It means that those who Jesus has set free are free indeed (John 8:36). We are never owned by our circumstances; we are defined by our Redeemer (Titus 2:14).

When we face a troubled marriage, we can know that Jesus is working in our situation to bring true freedom that isn’t bound by past failures, present problems, or future uncertainty. I’ve seen husbands and wives who’ve embraced this fundamental gospel theme begin to see hope for themselves and their spouse, gain courage for addressing hard issues, and faith for the heart work that is always at the center of redeeming troubled marriages.

One of the great passages to offer someone comes from the prophet Isaiah as he speaks to a people who long to be free:

“And they shall be called The Holy People
The Redeemed of the Lord;
and you shall be called Sought Out,
A City Not Forsaken” (Isaiah 62:12).

Everyone in a troubled marriage needs to know that they are not forsaken, that they are being sought out by the Redeemer to live for his holy purposes. A marriage free in this way is free indeed!

Join the Conversation

Have you found yourself trying to shore up a troubled marriage where people seem more committed to relief than working on the problems at hand? Consider a personal study on the theme freedom through redemption in the Scriptures and how this truth can provide another way to bring the hope of the gospel into the trap of a troubled marriage.