There is a reason marriage traditionally takes place in a sacred place, in front of God, family and friends, and is celebrated in the community. The process of two flawed, amazingly complicated human beings joining together is incredibly complex, and married couples need encouragement and support to resist the forces that would tear them apart, both internal and external.
No one reaches adulthood without suffering some sort of emotional harm. We bring whatever damage we have suffered into a marriage, often without much awareness about how much it influences our thinking and actions. This lack of awareness makes the inevitable changes that come in relationships very difficult. Faith in God can help us endure difficult transitions with hope for the future, more so when our spouse shares that faith. Growing together successfully, however, will require kindness, curiosity and mutuality.
Among the defenses that arise from early emotional damage is a need for control. For some, this need for control spills over into religious beliefs and spiritual practice. If I have a strong internal need for control, the language of faith can become a twisted tool in my hand, used to bludgeon other viewpoints into submission. A good practice is to do a little self-check when confronted by an opposing viewpoint. Feelings of panic or rage are a good indication that something deeper is at work. As a friend once said, “our goal should be to open narrow minds and narrow gaping ones.” This is true in our relationships, especially in our marriages. We have to have compassion for our significant others to be where they are on their personal journey toward, or away from, God. Kindness in this context looks like open-handed encouragement, asking for what we need and being able to hear “no,” and each person taking care of his or her own side of the street.
Healthy relationship is not about fixing the other person. Healthy relationship is not about hammering the other person into a shape of my choosing. We have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as the Scripture says. Healthy relationship means we get to come alongside each other as we continue on our individual journeys of discovery—together. If we can hold that God’s love is vast and unconditional, everything else we can hold lightly.
This was Paul’s message to the Jews who resented the Gentiles—don’t worry if they don’t follow the same restrictions you do. One person eats meat, one doesn’t. One worships on Saturday, one doesn’t. All these considerations take a backseat to love, and so it is in our marriage relationships and hence in our theology, if we want to grow together. Paul encouraged believers not to allow divisions to develop over disputable matters. Jesus summed up the law and the prophets, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
My belief is just that; belief. Believing something does not make it true, which is why the Bible says, “Come, let us reason.” I can hold my beliefs lightly, still have strong faith in a loving God, and welcome other opinions with kindness, without feeling threatened. The tighter my grip on my beliefs, the less room I will have for people who hold a different view. This will make growing in healthy faith together as a couple difficult.
The New Testament talks about not being “unequally yoked” in our choice of mate. The idea here is that a team of oxen were intended to plow straight rows, and if you had two who were mismatched, you were going to get crooked rows and make planting much harder. Decisions around growing in faith together will be easier if the couple shares similar beliefs, commitment and purpose, but there are no guarantees. The challenges of life and emotional stress bring unpredictable changes. This is why we do well to be patient with each other to be in our own faith process. Each has to find his or her own way. Faith is ultimately a personal decision, but we can work to create an environment that helps us move forward together.
Couples Counseling Tips: Fellowship
Church attendance has been on a fairly steady rate of decline since the 1930s. While it’s true “being in church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than being in a garage makes you a car,” there is value in being around other people of faith on a regular basis. Christ intended for his Church on Earth to be our extended family. Some church communities are better at being a family than others. Here again, decisions about church will be easier if you are not “unequally yoked” but usually if these choices are of vital importance to you, there already will have been critical discussions about it. One does not wake up one morning married and say, “oh, so you’re a devout Catholic/Baptist/Buddhist, etc.?”
These issues may or may not be resolved during courtship. Talk about it. If you have strong desires or opinions around it, share them, but be open to hearing a different view. Decide the elements of a church community—type of sermon, form of service, home groups, outreach to the homeless, whatever—that are important to you.
When starting with a new church community, it is usually wise not to jump into leadership too soon, especially if you are gifted in some way. It is easy for serving to become more about ego than helping, if we reflexively pursue leadership. Church leadership often revolves around the personality of the pastor, for good or ill, and this can be a distraction from getting settled in a new situation. If there is difficulty in a marriage, service to the church can be a handy distraction to keep from dealing with painful realities. Service to the church is instinctively a “check on the good side of the ledger,” but if we use it to avoid the hard work of growing our most important human relationship, we’re missing the mark.
Keep checking in with self about your expectations from your church. If you are there to be served, at some point you will likely be disappointed. If you are there to serve, at some point you are likely to feel used or unappreciated. If you are there to learn about God, enjoy and be a blessing to others, and be a functioning member of Christ’s family on Earth, it is hard to go too far wrong.
Couples Counseling Tips: Prayer
Some couples have difficulty praying together. Feelings of discomfort, the temptation to process relational issues, or inability to think of anything can make prayer a painful drudge for any couple. Some of the same rules that govern healthy conversation apply to couples praying together. Never pray to show someone his or her faults. Never pray to try to promote some response or behavior from the other person. Praying, “God, this really hurts and I don’t know what to do about it,” is better than, “Lord, please help him not be such a jerk.” Praying, “Lord, please help us know our part,” is better than, “please help her to remember to clean up the bathroom counter.”
Some of the old forms are lovely:
“Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole hearts, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of your dear Son have mercy upon us; forgive us, renew us and lead us, that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.”
If this works for both of you, go for it, but as Keith Green once said, “open your mouth, and talk to God and you are praying.” Do what works for you. Spiritual practices are great, as long as you don’t use them as a mallet to beat up yourself or your partner. Posture can make a difference. The prostrate position of lying face down with arms stretched forward forces you to breathe from your diaphragm, which physically reduces anger and anxiety, clearing the mind to commune with God. Kneeling is fine, if your knees can take it, but you can pray when you’re driving down the road. Just don’t close your eyes. If praying is a mirthless or painful grind for you, be curious about that. Our emotional grid can easily interfere with our capacity to be still and know that He is God.
Couples Counseling Tips: Bible Study
Curiosity can be a wonderful tool in the growing of faith. Bible study need not be entered into as a grim duty to be performed, but a fascinating investigation into great stories and historical attitudes about God and how they might influence us today toward growth and health. If you are going to study the Bible together as a couple, make use of the helps that are available. There are a number of study guides out there, and if your church sponsors a Bible study, that can be a great way to expand your support group and get assistance with something that might otherwise be a chore.
If something isn’t working for you, it’s okay to admit that. Be creative in your search for a helpful approach. In my early twenties, a friend gave me a comic book Bible intended for children. At the time, it was a wonderful way to get a new take on some of the familiar biblical stories. Find something that works for you. If it stops working, admit that and move on to something else. We all have a different capacity for discipline. Just because we’re good at it doesn’t mean that Bible study has to be a mirthless slog through many pages of tiny text, and just because we’re not good at it doesn’t mean the Bible has to be a “closed book.” Regardless, it is something we can do together and just that fact can be enough to make it more enjoyable.
Keep an open mind and indulge your curiosity. When you read something and don’t know what it is, research it a little. There’s a phrase from 1 Chronicles, “At the Parbar on the west there were four at the highway and two at the Parbar.” (NASB) A good friend once jokingly said this was his “life verse,” because out of context it makes no sense.
When we read the Bible with our minds in neutral, we tend to skip over these things in our Bible-as-duty mindset without a second thought. If I pause to be curious, in this case a short search on the Internet informs me that Parbar was probably some location on the west side of the temple enclosure, likely a suburb in a deep valley mentioned by Josephus. So the verse is referencing placement of guards for the watch. The important thing isn’t the clarity brought by these particular revelations, but the exercise of my mind in pursuing them. As with most disciplines, we will get out of our Bible study what we put into it, but it has to be entered into willingly, by both people if you want to study as a couple.
As you seek to grow in faith as a couple, keep a light heart about it. Be creative. If something isn’t working, admit that and try something else. Allow there to be an ease to your spiritual practices. Put the mallet down. God loves us regardless. Allow that love to draw you into free, and even playful, relationship through your spiritual practices.
Don’t allow expectations to wreck your harmony in spiritual matters. Your partner may not be in the same place as you spiritually or emotionally. If you try to do something together and it doesn’t work, that’s okay. As long as you both want, you can look for alternatives, but don’t force the issue. It is a wonderful thing to be able to come alongside each other, but that isn’t always possible, and that’s okay. We still ultimately have to follow our own path.
“Sunday Stroll,” courtesy of mana2014, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Hand,” courtesy of Danny Chapman, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Study the Word,” courtesy of Mark S., flickr.com, Creative Commons License; “Chain,” courtesy of russellstreet, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)