Young married couples in your church are more likely to get divorced than any other age group. The most recent research by the Pew Research Center shows the divorce rate between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine is the highest of any demographic, although it has declined since 1990. When researching my book, Making Love Last, I discovered that about 20 percent of marriages ended within the first five years, while almost 32 percent ended within the first ten years.
You want to help young couples avoid divorce, so how do you set them up for a lasting, healthy marriage? How do you help them divorce-proof their marriage? Here are four ways to get started.
Understand common concerns and misconceptions
Every marriage has its own set of concerns, but there are some concerns that uniquely identify young married couples. Understanding these concerns and the misconceptions behind them will allow you to serve young couples in your church better.
Difficulty accepting conflict
One of the more common concerns young spouses have is that they are experiencing conflict. Often, young couples simply cannot understand why they are experiencing conflict at all. This concern is rooted in spouses thinking, “If we’re really meant for each other, this should be a lot easier.” The idea that marriage requires husbands and wives to work through hardship is not their normal mind-set. They may incorrectly assume that if they’re having significant conflict, they married the wrong one. The reality is that they will have a good degree of conflict because they are so very different. If you can normalize the presence of conflict and help them talk through it respectfully, they can begin to accept conflict and work through their impasses.
Coming to terms with differences
At the start of a relationship, couples come to marriage with different family histories, different personalities, and different biologies. Although differences usually attract individuals to one another because they are dissimilar in an appealing way, when they begin dealing with the differences day after day, those differences can become less attractive. At that point, spouses who are unhappy with the differences in their mates may try to put pressure on them to change. The misconception underlying this kind of thinking is the notion that a good marriage is one in which spouses always see eye to eye and never experience conflict, which is simply not true.
Unfortunately, we’re seeing more and more couples citing a spouse’s engagement with pornography as a major concern. In fact, I routinely ask young couples about their experience with pornography, because it is now rare to talk to a couple that has not been affected by it in some way. Bringing up the topic of pornography is obviously uncomfortable, and therefore it gets missed in many counseling conversations. But it is crucial to bring it up, because if either spouse is engaging pornography, it eats away at the fabric of the relationship by eating away at trust. Even if one spouse’s involvement in pornography is not known by the other, it creates secrecy, hijacks normal desire, and is deadly for their sexual intimacy.
The search for “the one”
Another particularly damaging misconception about marriage is that there is only one person out there for someone to marry. This concept comes from the idea of a “soul mate,” a very romantic concept that’s attractive in many ways. Underlying the idea of a soul mate is the longing to find someone who doesn’t require them to change any aspect of themselves. This is a major problem, though, because healthy marriages are grounded in the willingness to change for one another’s sake. Couples should have some shared interests, of course, but they are not going to be compatible in every sense.
Understanding these common concerns and misconceptions is critical to helping young couples stay together. Also critical is helping spouses see each other’s backgrounds in a different light.
We all have ways of protecting ourselves. These self-protective ways of responding are most evident when we’re in conflict. When a couple comes into your office and they’re in a conflict, they will defend themselves in different ways. They may try to withdraw or avoid the conversation; they may get analytical and act superior; they might seek to appease the other rather than offer honest responses; or they may get angry. These are all forms of self-protection they developed in childhood. These self-protective ways can interfere with the intimacy couples long for.
When you find yourself counseling a young married couple going through a hard time in their marriage, help them explore their upbringing and notice how they responded to hurtful experiences when they were growing up. Ask questions like, “How was conflict handled in your home? Were you allowed to express feelings? Did you have parents who provided you with emotional comfort when you were hurting, or were you expected to ‘buck up’ and dismiss your feelings and get on with it?”
Answers to these sorts of questions allow spouses to better understand their own feelings and responses. They also provide a basis for offering compassion instead of judgment to one another as they come to understand the wounding experiences of the other. A person’s background doesn’t have to determine his or her behavior in the future, of course, but it can help couples move toward one another with empathy.
Understanding each spouse’s past can help you better understand what is going on in the present. Taken together, their past and present often reveal what’s really going on between them.
How to diagnose what’s really going on
Every couple you counsel is involved in a dance. Their issues or concerns are never one-sided. It requires two people to make an issue into a conflict. Now, one spouse might have an addiction, which is a huge issue, but how the mate responds to that addiction is also a big issue. As a pastor, you need to be able to see how both partners are involved in the dance in order to diagnose what’s really going on between them.
The best way for you to discover what’s really going on is to listen to each spouse and help the spouses listen to each other. Assume when a couple comes in that they each have a point of view. Start by having them each explain where they’re coming from. As they do, help them slow down and notice the intensity of their feelings. Ask probing questions to see if you can figure out where those feelings are really coming from.1 Questions like, “In one word, can you tell me what you’re feeling right now? Can you recall a time that you felt like this as a child?” Or, “It makes sense to me that you might want to defend yourself right now. Can you tell me what you fear might happen if you didn’t?” This helps both spouses understand the nature of their issue (the feeling often has roots in childhood), and it helps them see that their issue involves both of them (one mate can trigger the other).
The goal at this point is not so much to solve the problem as it is to help them talk about the problem in a way that makes both of them feel like they are being heard. Listen to both of their stories, then share with them what you’re hearing. Share the content of what you’re hearing and the feelings that are coming up. So often, couples have discussed their issues before seeing you, but they don’t get to the feelings behind the issue that are really fueling it. As a pastor, you can help slow down that process and understand their stories from both perspectives.
Once they both feel heard, they’re often able to solve the issue themselves. But to get to that point might mean listening to a couple several times while leading them toward the truths of Scripture (regarding listening, telling the truth in love, “putting on” patience, etc.).
How to talk about marriage as hard (but good) work
Gary Thomas says the hardest thing for men to overcome is their selfishness, and the hardest thing for women to overcome is their disappointment.2 Ephesians 5:22–32 beautifully addresses this issue. Three times in these verses Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives. Through Paul, the Holy Spirit is calling husbands to sacrificially love their wives as Christ loved the church. What God is really addressing is the tendency of the man to be self-focused. He’s challenging the very thing that is hardest for men to do. But Paul also says to wives that they are to respect their husbands. When women are disappointed, it’s really hard to be respectful. That’s when women can get critical, contemptuous, or withdrawn.
Ephesians 5 address these things that are hardest for men and women to overcome while also showing us how God uses marriage to transform husbands and wives. His purpose is throwing two very different people together to help them grow into more loving and respectful people who are more like Him. This is a powerful truth to share with couples who feel like their marriage is harder than it ought to be. It illustrates that each spouse has something to work on, but the goal is to grow closer to God while growing closer together.
Another helpful passage is Colossians 3:12–14 (ESV). These verses show that close, intimate relationships are the place where we learn to love one another well. Verse 12 says, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” The phrase “put on” suggests that we aren’t already wearing those traits, that they’re something we have to put on and learn to do with our mates. Compassion, humility, gentleness, and patience are things spouses need to consciously put on. That process of “putting on” isn’t always easy for the couples you counsel, though, which is the reason for the next verse.
Verse 13 reads, “bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” Spouses need to bear with one another because they’re different from each other, and that means it’s going to be hard. While bearing with one’s spouse is difficult, pastors have to help couples see that it’s something married couples are called to. But that calling is not without reason.
Bearing with one another is one of the ways God transforms men and women. The last verse of that passage, verse 14, says, “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” As couples grow to be more like Christ by putting on His qualities, there’s a unity that happens between the spouses that is quite beautiful.
Making love last
You don’t have to have all the answers when married couples come to you in crisis. You do, however, want to steer them toward biblical values and understandings as you help spouses listen to one another. If you want to see their marriage last, understand what they’re up against and where they’re coming from. Help them see what’s really going on, and explain how marriage is hard, but good, work.
In Ephesians 5, God gives us a beautiful picture of healthy marriage. As you read above, this chapter shows us that one of God’s purposes in marriage is bringing two very different people together to help them grow into more loving people who are more like Him. Helping young spouses become more like God is how you help them divorce-proof their marriage.
For additional articles on helping young couples with their marriage, see The Initial Marriage Counseling Session by Dr. Robert Cheong, How to Help the Spouse Who Stays in a Marriage After an Affair by Cindy Beall, 3 Important Environments for Marriage Preparation by Greg Wilson, When a Couple Wants Change—Fast! by Winston T. Smith, Premarital Counseling by Dr. Rob Green, and When Does Humor Signal Marital Problems? by Brad Hambrick.
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- See Proverbs 18:13, 15, 17.
- Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage DVD Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), Session 6.