Jack and Emma are making a last-ditch effort to fix their marriage. Jack sits across the room from you, arms folded tightly across his chest, his jaw clenched. Emma can’t keep still. She leans toward you and declares emphatically, “Pastor, we need serious help. We can’t make it five minutes without arguing. We can hardly stand to be in the same room together. If something doesn’t change fast, then this marriage is over.”
Anyone who is married can attest that marriage has difficult moments—recurring irritations, disappointments, hurt, and anger. Sometimes those moments feel overwhelming, and for some couples the culmination of difficult moments over the years can become unbearable. During those times, it is easy for either partner to reach a tipping point, where the husband or wife says, “This has got to change—now!”
Couples want change quickly, but most of the time that isn’t possible. Problems that have developed over years usually can’t be fixed overnight. Then what are we to do? How can we as pastors and counselors minister to couples as they walk through these challenging, yet ordinary, moments in their marriages?
We can help them see that these ordinary moments, as difficult as they are, have the potential to change their marriage for the better.
Help the couple see that God is in the ordinary moments
When a couple is caught up in the idea that change must happen quickly, you need to remind them that God works in a variety of ways. Offer the couple the pervasive pattern we see in Scripture, which is that while God does deliver in dramatic ways sometimes, like the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, what follows is a long walk through the wilderness that takes weeks and years. But it’s on that day-to-day journey where the real transformation happens.
You might say to the couple, “This is how God works, so if we’re going to look to Him together for help, we need to be willing to follow Him in this pattern and expect Him to show us things along the way that may surprise us or that we haven’t seen before. But that requires time in the wilderness where we meet with Him and He feeds us with daily bread.”
There’s this ordinary walk, and that’s where the real transformation happens.
If God expects His people to walk patiently with Him and worship Him in the midst of these ordinary moments, then that means, in a sense, that there are in fact no ordinary moments at all. Help the couple to see that every moment of their lives is a moment that they live before God and in which they have an opportunity to either trust Him and walk in love or to trust in themselves and walk in selfishness and self-protection. That includes every moment of every day, whether it’s taking out the trash or discussing parenting or finances. Every moment, no matter how mundane it may seem, is sacred because it is a moment lived before God, a moment in which we are called to trust in and walk in His love.
Let the couple know you are committed to being on this journey with them, but remind them it has to be a journey. It has to be a process. So create an expectation for slowing down, taking things one day at a time, and understanding that this is how God participates in transformation. Reframing the way change happens will help them to be patient and generate hope.
Know what love looks like in the details of the moment, and put it into practice
In the last section, I said that couples are called to live out of His love every moment of every day. But what does this look like?
God’s agenda for every moment in marriage is that each person make the love of Christ manifest to his or her spouse in a real and concrete way. So, for instance, in the moment when one partner feels sinned against and unheard, that person can make that a very “normal” human moment and respond in anger and try to hurt the other in return, but God’s agenda for that moment is to walk in love. The gospel is that we all have sinned against God, and in return for that, He has given us grace and love. So, as a follower of Christ, the husband or wife has the opportunity to love when he or she has been sinned against and to do that in thoughtful, concrete, and wise ways.
How do husbands and wives know what love looks like in the moment of disappointment, hurt, or anger? We don’t have to look any further than Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus experienced a wide range of emotions, and in every instance Jesus responded in love. He showed grace to the adulterous woman, demonstrated patience when the disciples failed to stay awake and pray, and humbly shared his distress with the Father when facing the Cross.
Love is a person
People tend to think of love as an experience, that love is something that happens to us or just something that we feel. But, ultimately, the Scriptures tell us that love is a person. God is love, and love has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. That means that love is something husbands and wives are enabled to do in a very concrete way because they are in relationship with the God who is love. Because of this, they can move away from love simply as an emotionally charged experience and toward Jesus as a person who empowers them to act concretely in love.
God is love, and love has come to us in the person of Christ.
Slowing down the moment
It’s certainly not easy to put Christlike love into practice in the face of hurtful emotions and verbal attacks. One suggestion is to help the couple learn to slow down the moment—to take that emotional, pressure-filled moment and slow it down so they are able to choose a better response.
Sometimes in the counseling room I’ll slow the moment down by asking a couple to describe their feelings as calmly as they’re able. I might say something like, “You’re both feeling really angry right now” or “You’re both feeling hurt. So let’s slow this moment down. I want each of you to very carefully describe what’s happening inside of you, and I want the other person to listen and not interrupt.” As each person talks, try to help him or her be as constructive in that moment as possible, to get outside of his or her hurt and attempt to understand the other person’s experience.
Sometimes I’ll set up those moments by saying, “It’s the nature of sincere love to enter into the experience of the other [Rom. 12:9–21]. I’m going to ask both of you to do that right now, and it’s going to be hard and it’s not going to feel natural. But that’s because we’re following Christ, and we’re loving sacrificially.”
There’s a simple sort of homework that can help people slow down at home and be better students of what’s happening inside of them. Whenever they are in a hard moment with their spouse, have them answer these questions:
- What was going on when this hard moment occurred? Describe the situation.
- How did you respond? What did you say or do?
- What were you thinking and feeling in that moment?
- How might God respond to what was happening inside of you (i.e., what truths about God’s love and grace might help you)?
- Based on what God said and who He is, how could you respond differently?
This will help them begin to develop a habit of moving away from emotionally charged reactions and walking in wisdom and love instead by asking, “What can I do in Christ’s love that matters right now?”
Love consistently over time
Why is God’s love so important, and how can spouses love consistently as time goes on? Particularly for the married couple, we must remind them that Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to point to something beyond itself. It wasn’t created simply as a gift for our enjoyment, but to point us to Christ’s love for us.
When things get tough, we should direct each partner to slow down and ask what this hard moment of marriage has to do with Christ’s love for him or her, for the spouse, or for the world. Then, have them ask themselves how they can then connect to that love and make it more present in a concrete way. And continue to do that. Instruct them to make it their habit in the moments of anger or hurt to stop, take a step back, and consider how they can love their spouse like Christ loves them in this difficult moment. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
One of the reasons it’s hard is that when people are really struggling, upset, and angry, they are oftentimes not aware of God’s presence and activity. The husband or wife might tend to think that He is far away, that He’s irrelevant, or that He has abandoned him or her. In those moments when they need God the most, they tend to believe that He is absent. Invite couples to see that every moment of their marriage matters to God and that He’s consistently present in every moment.
We need to help couples understand that life in Christ means walking into and living in hard moments, but those everyday moments have the potential to change their lives and their marriages for the better. Trusting in Christ means following His lead in the day-to-day, loving one’s spouse the way that Christ loves us. It means slowing down, understanding the situation, and then acting in love in specific, concrete ways. Even though it is hard, they can do it because Christ walked before them and continues to walk with them. He enables the couple to do what He has called them to do.
You might also be interested in reading 5 Common Marriage Counseling Mistakes, where I share mistakes that pastors make in marital counseling and how to avoid them. If you are looking for a resource to recommend to struggling couples who are looking for a change in their marriage, consider Marriage Matters: Extraordinary Change Through Ordinary Moments, which reflects the content found in this article.