You don't have to be married long to discover that relationships are difficult and problems inevitable. You'll experience disagreements that will at times force you to acknowledge the person you married seems to have disappeared-and been replaced by someone who's either cranky and demanding or someone who disappears whenever there's conflict.
Our marriage started like many marriages. We experienced a romantic courtship and thoroughly enjoyed being together. We laughed, played, and prayed together. During our nine-month engagement we felt a clear sense of God's blessing on our relationship. We wanted to lay a strong foundation, so we sought pre-marital counseling.
But after the wedding, the surprises started coming. We'd been married less than a year when Carrie became pregnant with our first child. Nineteen months after our son was born, another son was born. Carrie was now a full-time mother of two and Gary a full-time doctoral student working part time as a marriage and family counselor. We'd wanted a family but the pressures were more than we'd bargained for. Finances were tight. The normal childhood ills combined with school, work, and church meant less sleep and little couple time. Most nights we dropped into bed tired and drained.
Like most couples, we expected parenthood to be a time of great joy. We didn't understand that it's also quite challenging. While the birth of our children didn't throw our marriage into a crisis, it dramatically changed the dynamics. We were slowly becoming married singles.
It seemed as if one morning we woke up more aware of each other's weaknesses than strengths. More aware of what each other did wrong than right. And more negative and critical of each other, our kids, our friends, and even God.
Neither of us enjoyed dealing with relational problems. They made us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable, tapped into our insecurities, and brought up painful childhood memories. So we stuffed, denied, and ignored the problems-while pretending everything was fine. We didn't know that whenever you bury a problem, it's buried alive. At some point it will emerge bigger, stronger, and even more threatening.
Looking back now, after 22 years of marriage and our experience as marriage counselors and educators, we know our experience wasn't the exception. Most couples experience a time when it's easy to become problem-focused. Little irritations and minor frustrations that were glossed over by romantic love are suddenly magnified. Combine those with the challenges of starting a family, climbing the vocational ladder, and being involved in church, and it can become overwhelming. Many couples divorce because they get stuck in the problem-focused rut and can't see any way out.
After years of struggling, we realized what we were doing wasn't working. After much prayer and many long conversations with each other and with friends, we discovered we'd developed a problem-focused marriage. We needed to spend less time going over the problems and more time talking about solutions.
Working toward solutions
The process of problem-solving together gave us hope, energy, and the ability to become more positive. Amazingly, the mere act of looking for solutions caused the size and number of our perceived problems to shrink. But while the solution-focused stage was an improvement, even it had some limitations. We were solving more problems and arguing less, but we weren't experiencing the depth and intensity of love God designed for marriage.
In the solution-focused stage, it's easy to find a solution and say, "Thank goodness, that's behind us," then quickly move on, pretending it never happened. There's no question that getting through a problem is good. But do marriages grow simply through solving problems, or is it more about solving them in ways that help our relationship grow? Is it possible to solve a problem without learning anything?
God doesn't want us merely to "get" through our problems. He wants us to "grow" through them. Jesus didn't die and rise again so we could be mere survivors. In the words of Romans 8:37, Jesus wants to help us "become more than conquerors" and experience "overwhelming victory" (NLT). He wants to do "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Ephesians 3:20). He doesn't want us merely to survive the difficulties; he wants us to thrive in the midst of them.
We soon discovered not all problems are solvable. A study by the Gottman Institute found that only 31 percent of a couple's major continuing disagreements are about resolvable issues. The other 69 percent are about irresolvable "perpetual problems"-that is, fundamental differences in personalities or basic needs. All couples have to deal with issues that will never get resolved. The same research tells us that what really matters is not solving the perpetual problems, but the ways in which we talk about them.
For the first 10 years of our marriage we understood the value of growth and prayed for growth-but we weren't growth-focused. More than 25 years ago, as part of the research for his postgraduate degrees, Gary developed a marriage enrichment weekend called The Growing Marriage Seminar. It focused on teaching couples how to cultivate a growing, passionate, trusting, Christ-centered marriage. The motto was, "Building marriages rather than just mending them," and research showed it helped couples strengthen their marriages.
Somehow all those years teaching and talking about the importance of growth didn't translate into our own relationship. We discovered if we wanted our marriage to go from good to great, we had to take the next step. We had to move beyond merely solving problems to consciously choosing to look at our problems and our relationship from a new perspective. That's when we began cultivating new habits that moved us into what we now call the growth-focused stage of marriage.
What is growth-focused marriage?
Here are some characteristics of a growth-focused marriage:
Couples identify problems but don't dwell on them. They identify solutions but not just in order to move on. They look beyond the solution to how God might be able to use this process to teach them more about him and/or themselves, their partners, and their marriages. They understand problems are inevitable and the real challenge is in dealing with them in such a way that honors God and each other while helping the couple grow through it.
Couples take seriously the apostle Paul's urging to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Consistent daily prayer knits hearts together, attunes couples to the leading of the Holy Spirit, increases their ability to listen, and helps them see problems in light of what they can learn from them and not just how they can get through them.
Each partner takes responsibility for what God wants to do in his or her life. Whenever there's an "issue" (especially one in which they're sure the other person is at fault) they actively seek to apply Psalm 139:23-24: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Their first prayer is, "Lord, change me."
Couples spend more time focusing on each other's strengths than weaknesses. They look diligently for ways to encourage each other. They try to catch each other being healthy-being patient, kind, quick to forgive, giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best-giving each other at least one compliment a day. That's especially challenging when a partner is being a real jerk-but that's also when it's the most grace-giving.
Couples really believe "God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them" (Romans 8:28, NLT). Good marriages don't just "happen." While couples don't ignore problems, they choose to look beyond solving the immediate problem to the ways God might help them "become like his Son" (Romans 8:29, NLT).
Couples understand that as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), so one spouse sharpens another. Sponge doesn't sharpen sponge. Nerf doesn't sharpen Nerf. Iron sharpens iron. When they're faced with painful or discouraging issues, they remind each other that the product (greater love and deeper intimacy) is worth the process (dealing with the issues).
Couples choose to assume the best about each other. For years we believed and taught others that "love is patient, love is kind ... it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs... . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, 7). Now we try intentionally to live that out one day at a time.
One evening several weeks ago, Carrie confronted me about my tendency to overwork. But I was tired, which made me more easily frustrated. While my response to her wasn't mean, it wasn't too kind. About a half-hour later, God convicted me that my response wasn't consistent with the growth-focused marriage Carrie and I are committed to, so I went to Carrie and apologized for my response, then I said, "Honey, I know we need to talk about my workload and I want to do that."
Since it was after 9 P.M. and we've learned (a growth-focused lesson) not to start a difficult conversation that late, I asked if we could continue the discussion the next evening. She agreed. So when that time came, I took the initiative and went to her. We prayed together about the issue and asked God to bless our conversation. I thanked God for Carrie, for her love, her willingness to "sharpen" me, and her commitment to excellence in our marriage. After we prayed, I started the conversation by summarizing what I thought she was concerned about (in a growth-focused marriage, we seek to identify the issues). I asked Carrie to "help me understand" what the issue was from her perspective.
After less than 30 minutes, I believe I heard and understood her heart and was able to receive her wise counsel. We were able to handle an issue in less than 24 hours. Ten years ago, that issue may have lasted for days or weeks.
Making the journey from being problem-focused to solution-focused to enjoying a growth-focused marriage doesn't happen overnight. It takes determination and a lot of energy. We still have problems. We still disagree. There are still times when we don't like each other. That's the real world. But having problems doesn't mean we have a problem marriage. Cultivating a growth-focused marriage has helped us see the inevitable problems and challenges not only as obstacles to our survival but, in God's hands, as opportunities for increased satisfaction.
Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D. is a husband, father, clinical psychologist and executive director of The Center for Marriage and Family Studies on the campus of John Brown University. If you have any questions related to marriage and family relationships you'd like Dr. Oliver to answer, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.