Focus on the Family

When Your Marriage Needs Help

by Mitch Temple

Every marriage experiences problems. No matter how long you have been married – whether one year or 40 years – you will have problems. Marital problems can be extremely intense and painful, and those hurts can cut deeply and last a very long time.

The pain caused by someone you care about as much as your spouse may be very difficult to deal with. Most of us have preconceived ideas about how our spouses should treat us. We expect mistreatment from other people, but not from our spouses. Just remember that as human beings, we often think, feel and behave in ways that are hurtful, even toward those we love. Flawed people treat each other in flawed ways; so no matter how much we care, we'll sometimes hurt each other.

Your marriage isn't doomed because you hurt one another, have difficulty communicating or have disagreements over important issues. Couples have been experiencing and solving problems on their own – beginning with Adam and Eve, and continuing to this day. The more experience and maturity a couple develops in a marriage, the more success gained in managing and solving problems. God created us with the ability to successfully manage relationships in a healthy and productive way.

Ask other couples what it took to build a strong and successful marriage. Rest assured that their strong marriages did not develop overnight. They experienced some of the same problems you have. One reason their marriages are strong today is that they were committed to the idea that no matter what obstacles they faced, they would learn to manage their problems and overcome crisis on an ongoing basis.

As you read these articles, please understand that the principles we're suggesting are not intended to deal with every problem that couples deal with in marriage. We especially don't want to imply that you should remain in a situation where your safety or the safety of your family is at risk. If you are in a relationship where your spouse displays any of the following signs, please seek help immediately:

These are not simplistic issues and cannot be dealt with by simply reading a book or talking to a friend. Seek professional help immediately. You can call your local mental health hotline or contact Focus on the Family for a referral to a Christian psychologist or psychiatrist in your specific area.

Help for Various Marriage Problems

Problems in marriages can range from minor to serious to crisis-level, with each demanding a different kind of help.

by Mitch Temple

Problems in marriages can range from minor to serious to crisis-level, with each demanding a different kind of help. The following examples illustrate how wide-ranging marriage problems can be. It's important to realize that help is available at all levels and can turn even a hopeless-looking situation around in a radical way.

Minor Problems

Joe and Mary aren't communicating like they used to. They disagree often about how to discipline their kids, and they spend less time together. Finally, they recognize the need to refresh their marriage and attend a marriage seminar together at church. At home, they begin to find success implementing the tools they developed.

Serious Problems

George and Martha are either fighting or withdrawing, and George has threatened several times to leave. It becomes clear to both of them that their marriage will not survive without making it a priority to learn to relate in healthy ways. They seek out and find a Christian counselor; and after repeated visits, learn to break their destructive patterns.


Scarlett is devastated to learn that Rhett has had an extramarital affair. At first, she is ready to divorce him. She throws him out of the house. But in time, she realizes that she wants to fight for her marriage. He wants to rebuild their relationship, too. She insists on a separation until they can complete intensive marriage counseling. After six months, Rhett moves back in, and both commit to new patterns of behavior and continued counseling.

Diagnosing the Core Problem

Though problems such as those described above are common in marriage, they can move from normal to abnormal in a short time period. If problems in your marriage have become unmanageable, unhealthy and destructive, or cause extreme emotional distress, you may need someone from outside your marriage to help provide objective help – someone who can address the root problem and not simply the presenting issue, that is, the apparent problem.

For example, you may feel your spouse no longer cares about you, but the core issue may be that you have said or done something that deeply hurt him or her. The presenting problem might be financial in nature, such as your spouse failing to control his or her spending, or each of you failing to communicate about what is permitted or not permitted regarding spending limits. The core issue may be not communicating properly or setting appropriate boundaries.

The Bottom Line

If a problem causes considerable distress and you do not seem to be making progress addressing it, approach the problem from a different angle. The best recommendation for ongoing, unmanageable problems would be to visit a licensed Christian marriage counselor. It's best to work with someone rooted in Christian values to complement your beliefs – someone professionally trained to work with relationship issues. Not every counselor is trained to deal with complicated relationship problems, nor does every counselor hold to basic Christian values.

Indications Your Marriage Needs Help

From your children's behavior to physical abuse, several indicators can help you determine if your marriage needs help.

by Mitch Temple

Input From Family and Friends

If your family or friends recognize that you have a problem that needs addressing, pay attention. People outside your marriage can often spot a serious problem before you can. Family members and friends often have intuitive hunches or become concerned about your relationship based on behaviors or attitudes you may manifest. Listen carefully if someone says, "You guys need marriage counseling."

Children's Behavior

Another indicator involves your children. Their behavior can often provide a barometer of what is occurring inside a home. You and your spouse may believe that the current level of interaction and health in your marriage is okay and just the way it will be, but your children may sense that something is wrong and needs to change.

Young children often react to marriage problems through abnormal behavior. They begin to act out at school, around friends or even at home. The same is true of teens, who will often react to trouble at home by becoming involved in activities or with people that are out of character. Teens typically attempt to deal with the stress of an unhealthy marriage in unhealthy ways. Teen behavior and attitudes often provide a means of medicating their pain.

The Present Compared to the Past

A very practical, commonsense indicator that you need counseling comes from comparing the way your marriage used to be, to the way it is currently. In the beginning of marriage, most couples spend a great deal of time together, serve one another, compromise on differences, communicate and solve basic problems. Yet time, conflict and the stresses of life have a way of squeezing out healthy habits. A marriage cannot survive without a regular dose of basic nurturing.

If these practices were once commonplace and are now extremely rare or nonexistent, your marriage is likely struggling. All relationships become sick or eventually die without these basic ingredients being added to everyday interactions.

Physical Abuse

If physical abuse is taking place in your marriage, the first concern is safety. If you are being physically abused or threatened, get to a safe place. Don't remain in a situation where you are likely to be hurt again. Contact your local abuse hotline or the police. Though you may think what is occurring is justified, and you don't have any options, don't believe it. Physical abuse is never justified or normal. There are always options and people who can help you.

Substance Abuse

Most addiction problems in marriage – such as drugs, alcohol, gambling and pornography – cannot be solved by the addict or the spouse alone. Treatment for the specific addiction is a complex and long-term process. Most people cannot just stop an addictive behavior. It will not just go away. It requires professional help and ongoing accountability. Ongoing counseling and inpatient treatment is often required to effectively deal with an addiction. It can quickly destroy a marriage, so don't try to deal with it on your own.

Sexual Problems

Because sexual dynamics in marriage are so personal and so much a part of biblical oneness, this area of your marriage should be nurtured and protected. If sexual problems are persistent in your marriage, avoiding or ignoring them will not make them go away. Sexual problems can lead to more severe problems, such as a spouse seeking alternatives for having physical or emotional needs met. The Internet, pornography Web sites and online chat rooms are all breeding grounds for more problems.

As eating properly is essential to good physical health, healthy sex is vital to good marital health. Don't ignore sexual problems in your marriage.

Emotional Problems

If you or your spouse begin to experience problems such as ongoing anger, depression, anxiety, abnormal stress, guilt or biochemical problems (i.e., bipolar symptoms, schizophrenia, paranoia or other psychosis), help is needed. Emotional problems are often reactions and responses to something being out of balance with your spouse or in the relationship. Until the core problem(s) is properly addressed, the presenting problem(s) and emotional disturbances will keep reoccurring. One emotional problem left untreated can lead to more serious problems. For example, unhealthy anger can lead to severe depression. Until the anger issue is addressed, the depression will likely continue.

Extramarital Affairs

The discovery of an affair is one of the darkest and most painful moments in marriage. The emotional damage and accompanying symptoms that take place after an affair are monumental. There is no hurt or pain like the pain felt by a betrayed spouse. The emotional pain and intensity reflect the experience of an extremely traumatic event. Shock, denial, anger, depression and other emotions are normal. When this level of hurt occurs, you need to get professional help. After an affair, most people can't go through the healing process successfully without outside intervention. You experience thoughts, feelings and spiritual challenges never felt before.

Being objective and trying to manage the roller coaster of emotions alone should not be attempted without professional Christian counseling. Weekend marriage intensives are also available: They are specifically designed to help turn around marriages which have experienced crises such as affairs. Ongoing counseling and support are always necessary even after a couple attends an intensive or crisis seminar.

Realize that an extramarital affair doesn't necessarily mean your marriage is over. In fact, as painful and difficult as it can be, an affair has proven to be the turning point in many marriages to help them move beyond dysfunction and pain to health and success.


Prolonged withdrawal is always a dangerous sign. Withdrawal in a marriage indicates that one or both of you have reached a point of such intense pain that you can't function inside the relationship any longer, so you withdraw physically or emotionally. The natural result of withdrawal is a downward spiral into an apathetic state where you simply don't care any more. Communication, sex, affection and other normal relational necessities become nonexistent.

Ongoing withdrawal is one of the most difficult states a married couple can be in or get out of. As long as there is some type of interaction, including healthy arguments, there is still some level of concern or care in the marriage. But when one or both withdraws, it's a sign they have given up.

Counseling is typically needed to redirect the couple to the basics and start over to rebuild the trust, concern and emotion vital to the growth and functioning of a healthy marriage. Remember that just because you have tried counseling before, there is no reason not to try a different type of program or counseling in the future.

Destructive Patterns

Do you find you continue to follow the same destructive pattern? If you continue to experience a problem, and the same reactions surface repeatedly, it's likely you need outside help. Doing the same thing will only net you the same result. It is extremely easy for a couple to get into a perpetual rut. The only way to get out of a deeply rutted pattern is to change course and responses. Calling an experienced Christian therapist could be the first step to pull you out of the rut.

Some patterns can be altered without outside intervention. For example, a wife may consistently complain and nag as soon as her husband walks in the door from work. If she is made aware of this unconscious habit, she could easily become motivated to break it. Simply learning to give her husband a few minutes to unwind after arriving home may also precipitate a willingness on his part to respond to his wife's requests more promptly.

Negative Spiritual Relationship

The Bible teaches us that a marriage is systemically connected to a couple's relationship with God. If your marriage is unhealthy, it will eventually affect your spiritual life. The apostle Peter writes:

Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives . . . Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:1-2,7, NIV).

Marriage problems can obstruct healthy access to God and the spiritual blessings that flow from it. If your marriage is in a tremendous amount of pain, chances are you will not focus on your relationship with God. You may even start acting like someone who is not a child of God. You will tend to say and do things that are out of character and dishonoring to God. Pain has a way of overriding our values, instincts and even our beliefs.

For example, no matter how well trained and mildly tempered a dog may be, if you stand on his paw long enough and with enough intensity, he may bite you. The same is true with pain: If you stay in it long enough, your thoughts, beliefs and behavior can be negatively (and dramatically) affected.

If your marriage is unhealthy, your walk with God may be as well. It is difficult to have one right and the other wrong. God purposely connected our spiritual relationships with our heavenly relationship. The way we perceive and treat each other definitely affects how we perceive and respond to our heavenly father.

God commands us to treat each other with love and respect: "Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband" (Ephesians 5:33). God also views your marriage as a lifelong commitment to your spouse and to Him.

Intensive Marriage Counseling

If your marriage is suffering from more than one of these indicators, you might want to consider a personalized and intimate marriage counseling program through the National Institute of Marriage.

Thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about where you and your spouse wind up in the future.

For more information contact them through their website.

Is Your Marriage in Crisis?

A crisis occurs when an unusual amount of stress or conflict causes the anxiety to become too intense for a couple to manage.

by Mitch Temple

A marriage crisis typically occurs when an unusual amount of stress or unresolved conflict causes the level of anxiety to become too intense for the couple to manage. As a result, anger, resentment, dissatisfaction, frustration and hopelessness take control of the relationship. The couple typically continues the negative interactions – or disengages completely from one another, and the relationship shuts down. I call this the boiling point or marital meltdown in the marriage. It is usually at this place in the crisis process that a couple calls seeking help from a counselor, minister, friend or family member. Some counselors define a marriage crisis as a marriage where one or both partners desire to end the marriage.

Every day, you're faced with a broad variety of challenges and trials. Individuals and families are constantly exposed to news about natural and man-made disasters such as domestic violence, terrorist attacks, abuse, rape, workplace accidents, crashes, military conflicts and weather-related disasters. According to statistics, there are approximately 36 million reported crimes and crime victims each year in America. The emotional, physical and spiritual responses that follow a crisis are often more than most people can manage alone.

People in crises such as these need others to help them – including counselors, pastors, police officers, social workers, Red Cross workers and others to intervene in their lives. The same applies to a marriage crisis. You must be open to others' help.

But what exactly is a crisis? How does crisis affect people? What are the short- and long-term effects?

Based on personal experience and knowledge, the definition of a crisis that I prefer is: "any situation or stimulus that causes high levels of emotional anguish or disparity in individuals, and which leaves them feeling helpless, out of balance and out of control."

Crises are capable of wounding us deeply, no matter what or who causes them. Some of the most destructive and devastating traumas are those caused or created by those we care about most: our family and friends. An example of this type of hurt could be a marriage where an affair has occurred. The emotional and social pressure on the wounded partner is far-reaching and undoubtedly long-term. There is nothing that causes more emotional pain in a marriage than to be betrayed by someone you love, depend on and trust.

I am convinced that the emotional scars and wounds that occur in families are some of the most unpleasant and damaging on the face of the earth. Crisis is difficult in and of itself, and even more so when it is caused by people whom we care for.

If a crisis has occurred or if problems have become unmanageable, you have a right to feel upside-down. Your entire life has changed in an instant. Your body, mind and emotions are thrown out of balance. You probably need outside intervention and help.

On the positive side, a crisis can lead to a solution. It can become the bridge that moves you from pain to a new beginning.

Two symbols represent the concept of crisis in the Chinese language: danger and opportunity. In the ancient Greek language, the word crisis comes from two root words: decision and turning point. These symbols and words most accurately describe the underlying compositions of crisis: danger and opportunity, decision and turning point.

Is My Marriage Worth Saving?

There is no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced are any happier than unhappily married people who stay married.

by Mitch Temple

Without a doubt, your marriage is worth saving!

Though all marriages can't be saved, divorce does not typically solve personal or relational dysfunctions. For couples with children, it is important to understand that research validates the fact that most children do not want their parents to divorce, in spite of their parents' arguments and basic problems. In fact, one of the number one fears of children in the United States, ages 4 to 16, is the fear that their parents will divorce.1

Dr. Judith Wallerstein, a psychologist and one of the nation's premier divorce researchers, conducted a 25-year research study following 131 children of divorce. She states:

Twenty-five years after their parents' divorce, children remembered loneliness, fear and terror! Adults like to believe that children are aware of their parents' unhappiness, expect the divorce and are relieved when it happens. However, that is a myth; and what children actually conclude is if one parent can leave another, then they both could leave me. As a society we like to think that divorce is a transient grief, a minor upheaval in a child's life. This is also a myth; and as divorcing parents goes through transition, their children live in transition.2

Dr. John Gottman provides interesting research findings that suggest why it is important to save your marriage. He states, "The chance of a first marriage ending in divorce over a 40-year period is 67 percent. Half of all divorces will occur in the first seven years. The divorce rate for second marriages is as much as 10 percent higher than for first-timers."

He goes on to explain:

Numerous research projects show that happily married couples have a far lower rate for physical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, psychosis, addictions, etc. and live four years longer than people who end their marriages. The chance of getting divorced remains so high that it makes sense for all married couples to put extra effort into their marriages to keep them strong.3

According to a national study (the National Fatherhood Initiative Marriage Survey), more than three-fifths of divorced Americans say they wish they or their spouses had worked harder to save their marriages (see

Findings from a study of unhappy marriages conducted by the Institute for American Values showed that there was no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married. Even more dramatically, the researchers also found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed together reported that their marriages were happy five years later.4

When people hear about these findings, their response typically is:

All that research is well and good; but I have tried everything I know to do, and my spouse simply will not agree to get help. I have cried, begged, threatened and pleaded, but nothing works. So what do I do? I can't do it on my own. There is nothing else I can do.

Maybe there is.

1Schachter, Dr. Robert and Carole McCauley, When Your Child Is Afraid, (Simon and Schuster, 1988).
2Wallerstein, Judith, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce – The 25 Year Landmark Study, (Hyperion Publishers, 2000).
3The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (Three Rivers Press, 1999).
4"Does Divorce Make People Happy?" (Institute for American Values, 2002).

When a Spouse Won't Get Help

Pride can stand in the way of progress like a sentry guarding a castle.

by Mitch Temple

Three of the most common reasons one spouse gives the other for not seeking help in the marriage follow:

On the spiritual side, a possible factor that could prevent you or your spouse from getting needed help is pride. Many marriages are failing and are eventually destroyed because one or both partners are too prideful to admit that they have a problem and may be wrong. The same tenacity and stubbornness that often keeps a person in a marriage can lead to a level of pride that prevents that person from receiving the proper help when in trouble. If you think you are too proud to ask for help or feel too proud to face the embarrassment, you are too proud. Pride can stand in the way of progress like a sentry guarding a castle. Nothing can get past it or move beyond it.

One of the greatest things you can do for a troubled marriage is to be willing to say, "I'm wrong. I'm sorry and I realize this problem has a lot to do with me." This attitude is the opposite of a prideful attitude. It says, "I know I must be willing to change if I expect my spouse to change. I will do whatever it takes to save and change my marriage." This could mean committing time, money and energy to a counseling relationship that will hold you accountable for your growth and progress.

A heart dominated by pride says, "I would rather allow my marriage to die than admit I am wrong." A heart driven by biblical love and commitment says:

I will do whatever it takes to salvage and rebuild my marriage. I will give up everything I own. I will change jobs. I will mortgage the house. I will do whatever it takes, because I know my marriage is that important to our children and our children's children.

Can You Do It Alone?

What if one spouse is willing to go to counseling and the other is not? Should the willing spouse go to counseling or seek help without the other? In most cases, the answer is definitely yes. Your marriage can be helped immensely if you initiate change.

When one spouse stops trying to change his or her partner and stops pointing fingers, making accusations, and withholding affection and attention, the energy often shifts to self-improvement. When you make positive changes, it allows positive changes to occur in your spouse.

The fact is, you cannot change your spouse, but you can change yourself. Often the most obvious point of movement in a conflicted marriage is self-movement. Changes you make to improve yourself and marriage can effectively produce healthy responses in the other spouse.

Sometimes the best way to change your spouse is to model positive change in your own life. You can encourage your spouse to communicate better by learning to communicate better yourself. You can coach your spouse to respect you by respecting him or her first. You can teach your spouse to stop complaining with a bitter spirit by breaking a pattern of complaining and developing a new spirit.

Your husband or wife may not be willing to read books, go to seminars or go to counseling at this stage; but if you take the first step, your changes may positively influence him or her.

Think of your decision in practical economic terms. Ask yourself: If I take no course of action or even pursue divorce, how economically advantageous will that be? The cost of divorce in the United States can average anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000. A majority of couples who divorce find themselves living on half of their pre-divorce income. After divorce, many single women are forced to live below the poverty line while attempting to raise their children.

Divorce is not the answer to most problems. Divorce is not the best solution to being unhappy or unfulfilled. It typically creates more problems than you can ever imagine and will have a long-term effect on your children, as well as generations to come. Therefore, the question is: "Can you afford not to go to counseling?" From a practical standpoint, it may be like asking, "Should I have heart surgery if I know that I will die if I don't have it?" If your doctor says you will live in pain the rest of your life or that you will die, can you afford not to have the surgery?

Approaching Your Spouse

Non-threatening approaches take some of the pressure and blame off the other partner.

by Mitch Temple

Common Mistakes in Approaching Your Spouse

Approaching Your Spouse the Right Way

You may try statements like the following to encourage your mate to join you in getting help for your marriage:

These non-threatening approaches take some of the pressure and blame off the other partner. They typically open doors to the possibility of getting help instead of closing doors by using negative approaches.

Selecting a Christian Counselor

The key criteria for selecting a Christian counselor involve the counselor's credentials and faith.

by Mitch Temple

The key criteria for selecting a Christian counselor involve the counselor's credentials and faith.

Just because a person refers to himself as a counselor does not necessarily mean he's properly trained. A counselor should be licensed by the state in which he practices. Also, if you are experiencing marriage problems, you may want to look for a Marriage and Family Therapist. MFTs have specific training in relationship dynamics. Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) have specific training in dealing with individual problems, but many also have experience and training in marital issues. You may also look for someone who has specific experience in working with couples in crisis.

You can ask questions that will help you decide if a particular therapist is a good fit for you:

Just because a person refers to herself as a Christian therapist does not necessarily mean she is Christian in beliefs and practices. Here are some questions to help determine a therapist's level of faith:

If a counselor seems reluctant or uncomfortable in answering these questions, feel free to seek other recommendations from trusted Christian advisors such as church leaders, staff, Sunday school teachers, denominational boards, etc.

Focus on the Family offers a free referral service to over 2,000 licensed therapists who are screened and evaluated for their beliefs, expertise and ethical practices.

Next Steps and Related Information

Additional resources addressing crisis in marriage

Popular questions on this topic: