Dealing with a crisis in marriage – Dr. John Townsend
When Dan and Lori sat in my office, I could have cut the tension with a knife. A few days earlier Dan was caught having an affair with a co-worker. Lori was devastated and questioned everything she thought was true about their marriage. Dan wasn’t sure what he believed. He loved Lori, but at the same time, he had strong feelings for the other woman and wasn’t ready to give up that relationship.
Lori put it this way: “We’ve had lots of problems. I chalked that up to part of marriage. But this isn’t a problem. This could be the end of everything.” I agreed. Their marriage was in crisis.
Understanding Crisis Mode
Most couples accept that problems are part of life and love. Over time, they usually learn to talk about problems, cope with them, and adapt to them.
But a crisis in marriage is different. It can threaten to tear apart the very fabric of the relationship. Crises can take the form of affairs, substance abuse, spousal abandonment or abuse, betrayal, intense conflict, and extreme financial problems.
The kind of crisis I’m addressing involves a problem between or created by a couple, not an externally imposed crisis, such as unexpected health problems or job loss. When a couple experiences a crisis, the result is alienation, mistrust, or brokenness.
A crisis involves an unstable condition that creates some sort of impending change. Something has happened to cause a couple to question whether their marriage can survive, and they face a major decision. A couple in crisis may attempt to endure the situation; they may work to resolve it; or they may end the marriage. A couple can live with a problem, but they’ll have to make a major change to resolve a crisis.
A husband, for example, might have such a problem with overspending that the family is in jeopardy of bankruptcy. This issue creates a seriously unstable condition. The couple’s relationship could fall apart; they could experience feelings of alienation or resentment; or they could work to resolve the issue.
The point is this: A crisis never leaves a couple unmarked. It affects both spouses and strikes at the heart of their relationship: its love and trust. The intensity of a crisis can make a spouse feel she doesn’t know her mate anymore, the love is gone or perhaps was never there, or she can never again trust her spouse. The crisis has created a deep sense of alienation, making it extremely difficult to resolve the issue together.
If your marriage is in or nearing crisis mode, know that God offers hope and help for one of His most cherished creations, the institution of marriage. And He promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).
Getting Underneath a Crisis
A crisis doesn’t often occur out of the blue; it is generally the result of a problem that has been growing. A husband’s controlling nature may be tolerated for a while – until he becomes abusive. If a wife withdraws emotionally, her mate may eventually despair of ever connecting again. One spouse may have ignored the other’s weakness for drugs, alcohol, or pornography, but when it becomes an addiction, the couple faces a real crisis.
Any crisis situation is the fruit of a deeper issue. Jesus said, “In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit” (Matthew 7:17). We get to know a person’s character as we experience life together over time. If a person is loving, responsible, and honest, that pattern is evident in his life. If he’s not loving, responsible, or honest, negative patterns will be obvious. Even though character can change as a person grows, it doesn’t change quickly. The seeds of discord are usually evident before a crisis happens.
In counseling sessions, I might hear a wife say, “I had no idea he was unhappy until he moved out.” As we talk, though, I often find there were signs she missed, didn’t recognize, or simply refused to acknowledge. She may realize that although she and her husband weren’t fighting, he was less open emotionally; he was spending more time away; or he had unexplained schedule or financial conflicts.
In order to resolve any crisis in your marriage, you must examine what has been brewing underneath; otherwise, you may mistakenly think the symptom is actually the problem. The process of getting underneath a crisis may be painful, long, or even traumatic; but the only way you can resolve the crisis is to understand what ultimately caused it.
The following are common roots of crises. They can start as small things, but if not dealt with immediately, they can grow into major issues.
Loss of love and intimacy. Love is the fuel of marriage. God, whose character is love (1 John 4:16), created it this way. So when a couple experiences distance, alienation, or a withdrawal of caring, the “gas tank” of that relationship is on empty. The marriage might have its structure and routines – work, parenting, activities – but its soul could be dead. A marriage can’t survive long without love.
Betrayal. Marriage is about putting your life and heart into the hands of your spouse. God designed marriage to be an atmosphere of trust, so when one person is dishonest or unfaithful, the covenant is attacked. The spouse who feels betrayed experiences deep wounds, causing the marriage to head into crisis mode.
Irresponsibility. When two people agree to walk through life together, they share the load of marriage tasks, work, money, and simply being present to the other. When one person does not shoulder his or her share of responsibility, the other has to work for two, often cleaning up the other’s “messes.” This heavy burden often leads to a crisis in marriage.
Control. Ideally both partners in a marriage cherish the freedom of the other. That’s how love grows. Sadly, some mates attempt to control the other’s freedom. The problems created by control surface as manipulation, guilt, domination, rage, and even abuse. These issues must be addressed.
Self-centeredness. Marriage is about giving up one thing in order to build something better. That means becoming selfless, empathizing with a mate’s feelings, and caring about his or her welfare. When one spouse is enmeshed in personal viewpoints and desires, the other feels dismissed, unvalidated, or alone. Sometimes, self-centered spouses abandon a marriage, believing they can go elsewhere to find someone who will treat them as “special” as they are.
Lack of resources. Sometimes couples wind up in a crisis because they did not have the wherewithal to handle the problems of life and marriage. For example, a spouse suffers from depression, or the couple has a child with severe health problems. Couples might attempt to deal with serious issues alone, but the strain of their problems cause the relationship to break down. If a problem is greater than two can handle alone, a crisis in the marriage relationship can result.
Resolving a Crisis
A myth exists that Christian couples are somehow exempt from crises or that perhaps they should be. The reality is we live in a broken world and will encounter problems in life and marriage as we deal with our own brokenness, weakness, and sin.
Christians don’t have a guarantee they won’t face problems, but they do have resources God makes available – His Word, His Spirit, and His church. Though your crisis seems daunting, you can pray as the Psalmist did: “But as for me – poor and in pain – let Your salvation protect me, God” (Psalm 69:29).
If you are in the midst of a marriage crisis, these guidelines can help you deal with it:
1. Face the crisis.
Don’t be so afraid of a crisis that you refuse to acknowledge it. If you ignore the problem, it’s likely to grow worse. If you face it, you can learn how the crisis started, what it means, who needs to take responsibility for what, and what changes you need to make. Become a student of your particular problem and learn as much as you can.
2. Root deeply in God and in community.
A crisis should bring a couple out of isolation and into support. We can take our struggles to God and to those who represent His love. As a couple, go in humility to the Lord and to people who care about you. Don’t be alone: “Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
3. Seek wisdom.
No matter how severe your crisis, you can find people who have experience, information, and wisdom to help you deal with it. Seek out experts who have extensive knowledge about your particular situation and who can offer a perspective or approach that benefits your marriage. Proverbs 8:17 tells us that those who seek wisdom find it. Take advantage of this powerful gift.
4. Deal with external and internal issues.
Your crisis may be rooted in a personal issue, but it could surface as a wildfire, destroying everything (and everyone) in its path. First address the urgent, external part of the crisis – an affair, abandonment, addiction, abuse. Then, when you’ve set appropriate boundaries, deal with the spiritual, emotional, or relational causes of the crisis. You might seek a pastor, counselor, or structured support group to deal with deeper matters. By dealing with the root causes, you can resolve the crisis and take steps toward preventing it from reoccurring.
5. Take ownership.
Each spouse must take responsibility for his or her part in the problem. Responsibility isn’t always 50-50, but rarely is it 100-0. Accept your responsibility, repent, and change while working on forgiving and loving your spouse.
If you and your mate are in the middle of a crisis, you may not see an easy way out. But God is a God of miracles – even in marriage. Do your part, and ask Him to intervene in your relationship with your spouse.
Published on lifeway.com