Take Your Marriage Off Life-Support
- Sunday, December 26, 2004
Marriages can become so severely wounded by crises like abuse and adultery that their survival seems impossible. But nothing is impossible with God.
If both you and your spouse are willing to work with God, your marriage stands a chance - even if it's on life support. God's help can get your marriage's vital organs to function again. And, since simply returning to the way things were isn't good enough, God will breathe new life into your relationship to transform it into a healthy one.
So cancel your marriage's funeral. It can survive - and thrive - if you work with God for reconciliation. Here's how:
• Commit yourselves to reconciliation. Decide that you won't dissolve your marriage, or settle for a return to an unhealthy relationship. Instead, actively commit yourself to restoring love and trustworthiness on both sides of your marriage (the injured party and the transgressor). Put all of your heart, mind, and strength into pursuing the goal of a transformed marriage.
• Look to the cross. Understand that Jesus' work on the cross is the ultimate model of reconciliation. Ask Him to guide you and work through you with His power as you strive to reconcile with your spouse. If either of you haven't yet begun a saving relationship with Jesus, do so soon. Repent of your sins, accept His forgiveness, and begin to live for Him.
• Establish a training regimen. Decide together what specific ways you'll change your lives so you can train to strengthen your marriage. Stop hostile behavior. Remind yourself why you married your spouse in the first place, and why you've chosen to remain married thus far. Find ways to slowly but surely reestablish safety and trust in your marriage.
Make whatever sacrifices are necessary to make your marriage a top priority in your life. Eliminate distractions so you can focus on each other. Realize that small, day-to-day decisions like speaking kindly to one another are crucial. Attend seminars, read books on marriage, participate in a Bible study, or seek counseling to discard unhealthy ways of relating to each other and learn healthy ways.
• Draw support from a community. Identify people who care about you and your spouse. Ask them to pray for you and mentor you as you work to reconcile. Accept help from family, friends, your church staff, and others for whatever you need.
• Grow up together. Pursue greater maturity alongside your spouse. Strive to develop a clear knowledge of who you are in relation to others, the ability to see yourself and others as uniquely created by God, the ability to tell the difference between what you think and what you feel, a lack of fear of engulfment or abandonment, and a tolerance of pain for the sake of growth.
Make a list of your values and plan for how you will hold onto them during stressful times in the future. Identify unhealthy patterns of behavior when you get anxious and decide what you can do to change those patterns.
Focus on changing your own behavior rather than your spouse's behavior. Know that only God has the power to change your spouse. Recognize that your partner is a separate individual with competing preferences, needs, and agendas. Give your spouse permission to be the unique person God made him or her to be within the bounds of healthy behavior. Accept responsibility for your own mistakes in the relationship rather than just blaming your spouse. Believe that you can improve, with God's help.
Take breaks from the hard work of training to have fun together (without discussing difficult issues) so you can rebuild your friendship.
• Forgive. Remember how much God has forgiven you. Let your gratitude for that motivate you to forgive your spouse for all the ways he or she has hurt you. Rely on God's help to move through the process of forgiveness, trusting that He will make it possible for you to forgive. Honestly and objectively recall what happened to you. Explore the hurtful events from the wrongdoer's perspective. Consider your spouse's weaknesses that might have led to the wrongdoing. Then think about your spouse's good qualities to remind yourself of why you fell in love with him or her.
Choose to give the gift of forgiveness to your spouse. Then tell someone what you've done, to stay accountable. Whenever you remember the offense, remind yourself that you have chosen to forgive. Symbolize your act of forgiving with your partner in some way, such as by taking communion together or renewing your wedding vows.
• Repent. Ask God to make you aware of your sins and give you the humility yourself and empathy for your spouse that you need to understand how those sins have harmed your marriage. Listen to your partner's version of what's happened, without getting defensive. Consider how that knowledge can broaden your perspective on your relationship. Confess your sins specifically to God and your spouse. Decide to turn away from your sins and move in the opposite direction. Demonstrate your newfound integrity to your spouse in tangible ways (such as by keeping your promises). Embrace God's forgiveness and grace to do better.
• Rebuild trust. Disclose secrets that are blocking intimacy with your spouse. If it makes you feel more comfortable, reveal these secrets in the presence of a pastor or counselor. Create a covenant of trustworthiness with your partner that lists important ways you each will be faithful to one another. Hold up your end of the bargain even if your spouse slips.
Notice and affirm positive qualities in each other as you go about your daily routines. Remember the ways you each have cared for each other over the course of your lives together, and believe that you will continue to do so. Know that, while you won't forget past crises, you can remember them with far less pain. Distinguish clearly between "then" and "now," and celebrate the progress God has made possible in your marriage. Tell the story of your marriage so far to each other, and thank God for keeping you from losing it.
Ask God to give you a vision for your future together. Write that vision down in a statement you can review and update as time goes on.
Adapted from Reconcilable Differences: Hope and Healing for Troubled Marriages, copyright 2004 by Virginia Todd Holeman. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com.
Virginia Todd Holeman is professor of counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
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