What do you do when you know a couple has marriage problems, but you have no formal training in how to help? Our work with thousands of marriages in crisis provides us with insight that you can use.

The most important thing is to care enough to do something. Far too often, people do nothing because they fear they might do the wrong thing. While it is possible to do the wrong thing, doing nothing is DEFINITELY the wrong thing.

If you know a couple in trouble, and you care enough to do something, consider this list of things not to do and things to do.

DO NOT DO THESE THINGS

First, do not listen to one side of the story and think that you understand the situation. A person can paint a picture so reprehensible that you wonder how he stood it, and soon find yourself understanding and even approving of his desire to leave the marriage. If you deeply relate to the sharer’s pain, you may not believe the other spouse’s story when finally you hear it. Therefore, when listening to either spouse, ground yourself in this ageless truth, “The first person to speak always seems right until someone comes and asks the right questions” (Proverbs 18:17 ERV). The wise person listens, but suspends judgment until the entire picture comes into view. Listen to both spouses without prejudice toward either.

Second, do not believe everything either spouse says. People give their own perspectives, and, inevitably, perspectives are flawed. Additionally, people in pain tend to exaggerate. Beyond that, they tend to justify their behaviors by focusing on negatives about the other person. Therefore, listen for core issues while ignoring matters extraneous to the current problem or exaggerated to disguise the real issue. For example, a wife may try to distract you from her emotional involvement with another man by focusing you on her husband’s online visit to a pornography site months ago.

Third, do not help anyone do wrong. Sometimes people think they somehow help a person with his struggles by doing immoral things in the process. It may be as simple as lying for him. Occasionally it stretches imagination. A few years ago, I worked with a couple in which the wife was having an affair. Her lover enjoyed taking her to New York for weekends, but she lacked excuses for missing those days with her family. A prominent sister in her church helped her commit adultery by taking occasional trips with her to a nearby large city for a weekend of shopping. The unfaithful Christian woman met her lover at the airport and spent the weekend in sin. Her Christian helper did all the shopping for her so that she could take her purchases home on Monday with an acceptable alibi. I never understood how the prominent sister justified her actions in her own mind.

Fourth, do not believe that a couple should divorce because their problems seem hopeless. We see marriages saved and made loving again when no one thought it possible. We witness spouses madly enamored with a lover change their minds and restore their marriages. We watch people who said they could never forgive not only forgive but also reconcile their relationships. We witness dominating, controlling spouses realize their destructive behavior and change into loving, accepting mates. Unfortunately, with all those amazing stories and more, we also hear from many couples that a counselor, church leader, or dear friend told them that their situation was hopeless and they should divorce and move on. By the grace of God, they discovered that we would help them even if everyone else thought they should part. We often hear at the end of our weekend workshop for couples in trouble, “Thank you for giving us hope. And understanding. And tools. But without hope we don’t think we could have made it.” Therefore, we encourage you never to advise a couple to part unless one of them – or their children – are in danger physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Otherwise, please encourage them to find the help to heal their marriage.