Hope-Focused Approach to Healing Marriages

Everyone hears about the alarming statistic that the divorce rate is between 50-60 percent these days.  Well, I can offer you a little bit of good news on this front.  Some research on the subject has been flawed in how they crunch the numbers.  Very detailed studies have the divorce rate at about 40 percent.  These researchers are concerned about the media and lesser detailed studies touting such a high divorce rate because, in their opinion, that overly inflated divorce statistic will actually cause more families to accept divorce in their own marriage and lead to more divorce overall.

In other words, if two people are contemplating marriage, but they think the odds against them are “upwards to 60 percent” that their marriage will end in divorce, they may decide to not get married at all.  But, if they do decide to get married, and the first hint of trouble comes their way, rather than putting lots of hard work into the marriage to heal it, they may feel that they’re fighting a losing battle.  After all, at a 60% divorce rate, the odds are against them right from the start…why bother.

And while I’m giving good news, I’ll follow it up with bad news about divorce.  Too many times, ignorant people say that it’s better for all involved (including children) if these couples divorce.  Now I’m talking about parents who love their kids and are hard workers but just don’t “love each other anymore” and just “can’t seem to get along” and “argue all the time.”  Listen to what one study done by Rutgers University suggests about the overall mental health of children following a “needed” divorce:  “A recent large-scale, long-term study suggests otherwise.  While it found that parents’ marital unhappiness and discord have a broad negative impact on virtually every dimension of their children’s well-being, so does the fact of going through a divorce. In examining the negative impacts on children more closely, the study discovered that it was only the children in very high conflict homes who benefited from the conflict removal that divorce may bring.  In lower-conflict marriages that end in divorce—and the study found that perhaps as many as two thirds of the divorces were of this type—the situation of the children was made much worse following a divorce. Based on the findings of this study, therefore, except in the minority of high-conflict marriages it is better for the children if their parents stay together and work out their problems than if they divorce.”

Which brings me to my final bit of news that may surprise you, and is the impetus for this article.  The same research from Rutgers University, entitled The National Marriage Project, found that the ratio of good vs. bad has no real bearing on whether or not the marriage will end in divorce:  “All marriages have their ups and downs.  Recent research using a large national sample found that eighty six percent of people who were unhappily married in the late 1980s, and stayed with the marriage, indicated when interviewed five years later that they were happier. Indeed, three fifths of the formerly unhappily married couples rated their marriages as either “very happy” or “quite happy.”  As recently as 2002, research echoes the Rutgers study, in that, marital unhappiness and conflict often reverse themselves over the years and these couples reported being happily married.

The first point to this type of hope-focused marital help is to realize that marriage is a covenant and not a contract.  The difference between a contract and a covenant is mainly this (for the purpose of this article):  Contracts are usually expectation based and can be dissolved by either party if one or the other does not live up to their end of the agreed upon terms of the contract.  To look at marriage in those terms is kind of warm and fuzzy, isn’t it?  However, a covenant is not broken regardless of the actions between the two parties.  Take note from God.  He covenants with His people and then does not opt out if we fail to hold up our end of the bargain.  The Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9) to not destroy the world with a flood has been upheld despite Noah, and the rest of mankind since the flood, acting more and more inappropriate toward God.  God covenanted with Abraham (Genesis 15) about the Promised Land and regardless of all that Israel did and didn’t do, God held up His end of the covenant.  God made a second covenant with Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17) through the seed of Isaac, and even though he went about “helping God” fulfill that promise by having a child with Hagar rather than Sarah, God kept His covenant with Abraham and made Ishmael a great Arab nation (Genesis 17:20) as well as through His intended seed, Isaac.

So, in that light, the first focus is to determine in your hearts that marriage is a covenant and not a contract.  The second truth about marriage that you need to decide to believe (or not) is that the two of you, husband and wife, are a single living breathing entity in the eyes of God (Genesis 2:24).  Marriage does not serve to gain something from one individual for the benefit of the other.  Paul talks about the church as having many members in Romans 12:4 and goes on to say that the many members make up one Body in Christ (vs. 5).  He explains that not all members of the Body have the same gifts, but that each uses their gifts for the betterment of the Body.  Paul says all of that on the heels of Romans 12:1, that we “present ourselves” to God for His service.  Likewise we are one entity in marriage and we have different gifts to bring to the marriage, to help it grow, for the betterment of our spouse, and just like Romans 12:1 tells us, as a member of the Body of Christ, that we must present ourselves daily to God, so should we, as a member of our marital body, present ourselves daily for our spouse.

The problem arises when couples begin the downward spiral of “loss of love,” increasing arguments, and an inability to get along with each other anymore, and thus they grow hopeless.  Then, the husband and wife in the relationship begin to engage in survival mode.  But the survival that is sought is the survival of each individual and not the survival of the marriage.  Oh, at this point they may enter therapy, but it’s an attempt still, to protect themselves rather than the marriage.  If you don’t think that’s true, think about a spouse who stands to lose financially and fears for their survival outside of the marriage, on their own.  They may feel that saving the marriage is a good thing…for them…and not necessarily be thinking of the spouse.

When you go into a self-preservation mode, you begin to value yourself over your spouse.  Now, you begin to look at the marriage and your spouse as threats to your overall health and wellbeing.  You begin focusing on any little thing your spouse does as a potential problem for you, and this will lead to an eventual loss of faith in your spouse and a loss in faith in the overall future of your marriage.  It’s at this point that those who believe they are “fighting a losing battle with the odds against them” may decide to stop putting any effort into fixing the marriage.

A counselor named Everett L. Worthington Jr derived the concept of hope-focused marriage counseling.  In his book, Hope-Focused Marriage Counseling (one of our required readings at Liberty), his idea is to “attempt to show troubled couples their love for each other…concretely in ways they can not deny…until hope is rekindled.”  Love is extremely important, and according to First Corinthians 13:13, it is greater than faith and hope.  Commentators have suggested that love is the greatest of the three because it is most useful to others.  Notice that love is useful to OTHERS!  First Corinthians 13:4-8 gives multiple descriptions of someone loving Scripturally.  Notice verse 5, where Paul reminds us that love “seeketh not her own.”  It’s not selfish…it’s OTHER serving.

This is why the thought process about marriage being a covenant is so important in creating as environment in counseling that can foster a development of love that will lead to an increase in hope and optimism and allow couples to move forward to a healthier marriage and a stronger relationship.  If the husband and wife both believe strongly that marriage is a covenant, and they can both trust that each is serious about honoring their vows that formed that covenant, then these two people can be taught to love each other in ways they may have never understood love to be in the past.

For example…Remember that as the relationship crumbles and each spouse loses faith in the other and begins taking steps to protect themselves, there exists no possible way to teach Scriptural love and encourage either party to try.  Don’t forget, Scriptural love is OTHER focused, and if you don’t have faith in your spouse’s desire to see the marriage through, you won’t be willing to sacrifice self-preservation tactics to help your spouse.  But in reality, that’s the best thing.  Imagine if in counseling both husband and wife actually verbalize to the counselor (or pastor) that each is committed to the marriage, and that each spouse can trust each other (gain faith once again) to put in serious work, then, love is able to be taught and put into action.  Now the couple, over time, can appreciate and see that if each spouse lives for the other, each spouse will feel safe in the relationship, secure in the relationship, and in turn, that will enable each spouse to put into practice many or all of the aspects of love as described in First Corinthians 13:4-8.

Over time, as the couple experiences true Scriptural love from their spouse, they will begin to actually “feel loved” and can begin to feel valued and begin to feel as though the relationship is improving, which, in turn, will instill hope in the ability of the marriage to survive.  It’s at this point that the “fine tuning” can begin and the counselor/pastor can begin to teach the couple specific ways to express any aspect of love that either spouse is having difficulty in expressing.  In the book, the author gives pages and pages of specific interventions to use every step of the way, but they are very complex and not appropriate to get into for the purpose of this article.  But that’s hope-focused marital therapy in a nutshell.  First, get the couple to recommit to the covenant so they can have faith in each other and trust each other.  Second, teach and encourage the couple to Scripturally love each other to bring each spouse to a feeling of optimism and excitement for the relationship as it improves in small ways at first.  Lastly, take that hope and optimism and nurture it, fine-tuning each spouse to love more completely by focusing on areas of difficulty.  All that effort should lead to a couple, years down the road, reporting a marriage that is well improved and maybe even described as very happily married.

Just remember, the marriage didn’t fall apart in a day, nor will it be healed in a day.  There will be work involved and sometimes progress can be slow.  What used to irk me so much when I did some counseling a few years ago was the fact that the majority of people who came to me wanted the “magic” intervention that would be easy for them to do and come with immediate and maximum results.  It doesn’t work that way.  It takes time and effort on the parts of all involved (spouses and counselor/pastor).  Think about this…God could have spoken all of creation into existence immediately.  But even He took His time creating things in six days.  And since He took His time, and did it right, He was able to say that it was all VERY good (Genesis 1:31).  It will take time to create a very good marriage from, in some cases, nothing, but in the end, if done right, it can be said of your marriage that it is “very good.”

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This entry was posted in Blessings, Body, Character, children, Conflicts, Culture, Family, Godliness, Love, marriage, Patience, psychology, Relationships, Spiritual Gifts, Spouse, Stewarship and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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