Our passion as marriage counselors is to communicate to those in a difficult marriage that while it may feel like it, you are not in the cancer ward. The vacant eyes associated with despair can be filled with life. The frail shoulders now communicating that strength has been depleted can someday exude power. And the bitter voice can lose its cynical tone and begin to laugh again. Life is not over if your marriage feels like a death from a horrible disease. You will not have terminal cancer if you choose to thrive despite your pain. Joy is possible. Our brother Mark taught us this. Even when life was stolen from his body, his heart thrived in ways that caused him to rise above his pain. God refined him in the fire. What the enemy could never take from him was hope. While he always wished for physical healing, he discovered hope in a good God that transcended his need for a cure from cancer. His hope in a powerful, loving God, who would give him courage to face his pain and offer a promise that all was well despite cancer, resulted in a transformed heart and a joy that could be seen in his penetrating eyes, the windows of his ecstatic soul. The enemy had lost the battle. As Scripture tells us, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

Dave and Patty

"You are our last hope. We're going to give this one more try. If you can't fix us, we're going to divorce." Dave and Patty sat grimly across from me (Mike) on my well-worn red couch. The tension in the room revealed the pain the couple carried in their hearts. They were longing for relief from the agony of a marriage that continually wounded their souls and offered no hope for the future.

I began the session addressing them honestly, "Dave and Patty, you've been to counseling before, and you're in a good church, yet nothing has helped. Let me ask both of you, what would make a difference so that you could have hope that your marriage would change for the better?"

"I don't have much hope," Patty said. "I'm willing to change, but he isn't. I know that if he would stop being so angry, life would be a whole lot better. He just hates the world — and me. Nothing I do pleases him. I've tried to tell him how hard it is to live with him, but he just doesn't get it. He only cares about himself."

"You're always blaming me, like you're the great Christian woman, and I'm nothing. I've made lots of changes and what do I get for it? You know, just once I'd like to come home from work and think you were really happy to see me. Just once! If you'd act like a wife for a change and not be so cold and judgmental —don't look at me like that, you know what I mean. If you weren't such an ice princess, maybe I wouldn't be so angry! Whatever . . ."

A thousand thoughts ran through my mind. They needed to learn how to talk constructively. A book on forgiveness would be helpful. Individual counseling for anger management might work. I wondered if they ever prayed together. Did they know how to lighten up and just have fun as a couple? Perhaps sexual abuse was in her background. Does he have a drinking problem? Had they ever had good biblical teaching on the roles a husband and wife assume in marriage? Demon oppression? Do they understand their needs, fears, selfishness, and desires? How about that intensive marital retreat I just read about? Books, seminars, Scripture, and CD series were retrieved from the library of my mind. All good, all helpful. But I went a different route.

I wondered if any of these strategies would help Patty and Dave turn from their destructive patterns and find joy in their marriage. Patty's and Dave's energies were focused on blaming each other for their problems. How could I help them if their marriage remained difficult and a source of ongoing pain? I reviewed two paths often followed when dealing with a difficult marriage. Neither the "Happily ever After" nor the "Noble Misery" path showed a way to find contentment and joy when having to live in a painful, difficult marriage. I then wondered if God had a way to help people thrive despite facing a future in a troubling marriage. As I continued to ask this question and worked with Chuck and other mature counselors and friends, the "Thriving Despite" path became clear. Let's discuss the first two paths and then take a look at a new path, "Thriving Despite."