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How to Help Couples in Marital Distress

"I know you were trying to help," she said, her voice trembling. "But you didn't. In fact, you made things much worse. Trying to save a marriage is hard enough without having to battle the church leadership committee at the same time." The woman sitting before us could not stem the tide of tears streaming down her face. Neither could we.

When we agreed to serve a term on the church leadership committee, none of us suspected we would have to sit through meetings like this. Ordinary people composed our group – a contractor, a housewife, an investment strategist – all baby boomers like myself. We expected nothing more difficult than planning Pastor Appreciation Sunday.

Eighteen months before, this woman had moved away from her husband. After 17 years of marriage, she said she needed space to work on the overwhelming anger she felt toward her spouse. Her husband, a doctor, readily admitted to being a classic workaholic, spending more than 70 hours a week on his business. He refused to change his work habits. Their conflict had been brewing for years, finally boiling to the crisis point.

They worked with a well-respected and highly trained Christian counselor. Both worked hard to grow as individuals and continued their participation in small groups. Both were actively involved in church ministry. In the face of their deteriorating relationship, they did all the right things. Neither partner had an interest in another person. They seemed to want healing.

But when months passed without apparent resolution, and members of our congregation expressed concern, we took matters into our own hands. With our pastor's help, we did our best. We asked them to meet with our committee. What began as an effort to inquire about their progress digressed into a tearful four-hour counseling session. The net effect was that of a Senate inquiry. Our members offered "helpful suggestions" that we were not qualified to give. She told us she felt singled out and humiliated, having 12 strangers listen while her husband complained publicly about her performance as a wife.

The separation continued.

Our next strategy was to ask them to pray weekly with a couple on the committee. This wife refused. "My husband doesn't need another excuse to stay away from home." We threatened to remove them from ministry. As a keyboard player, she reminded us that ministry was her most important connection to the body of Christ. Did we really want to sever her closes relationships? In all, she viewed our efforts as both judgmental and malicious, effectively turning them against each other and away from the very support systems they needed. We nearly drove them from our church.

As leadership, we gave in to the pressure of outward appearance. When this couple was doing the best they could, we pushed them harder. While they concentrated on healing, we added another burden, sapping vital energy needed for the work they faced.

In spite of our clumsy efforts to "help," the woman eventually returned home. Remarkably, she had the courage to meet with our committee again. She told us what she'd been through. And she did more. She handed each of us a copy of a list she'd carefully prepared under the headline, "Helping Couples in Trouble."

Her suggestions made sense. One of our members said, "I wish I'd had this list while you were hurting. I wanted to help, I just didn't know how." Perhaps your church and even you could benefit from the simple suggestions she offered:

  • Offer to baby-sit. In some locations, counseling costs nearly $100 per hour. Most couples face the additional expense and inconvenience of securing a sitter to watch children during weekly counseling sessions. Volunteer baby-sitting eases the financial and emotional stress of leaving the children.
  • Make dinner. Counseling appointments can be long and stressful. Cooking dinner for the couple eases their transition from work to the counseling appointment. While serving as a concreted reminder of your support, bringing dinner frees both partners from one more responsibility on an already difficult day.
  • Invite the couple to play. When Christian marriages struggle, sometimes friends don't know what to do. Afraid of choosing sides or overtaxing the couple in trouble, they leave the couple alone. But counseling is like physical therapy. The day of the appointment is rough, and the pain lasts for a couple of days. A relaxing diversion without having to be alone together is healing and refreshing for both partners. Play reminds couples there will be life after counseling. Include them in a game night. Invite them for a barbecue. Meet for a hike. Enjoy a movie together. The healing process cannot be shortened. But caring friends help make the time endurable.
  • Provide opportunities for listening – man to man, woman to woman. Ask the husband to play tennis or the wife to go for a walk. Have her ride in your car while you run errands. Let him hold the light while you change the oil in the car. These conversations validate each partner's need to sort through their experience out loud, in a safe and confidential environment, outside the presence of the partner. Your advice is not needed; in fact, it may not be helpful at all. The best advice comes from trained professionals. But a listening ear can help each partner process what he or she is learning.
  • Encourage. Frequently remind your friend of the courage he or she displays by facing and overcoming their difficulty. Remind them that this troubled season will pass. Send cards. Drop notes. Make phone calls. The healing process seems long to an observer; imagine how much longer it feels to those involved! The woman who visited us said, "There were days when a card in the mail gave me courage to face another week." It meant the difference between perseverance and divorce.

Her list made a great deal of sense to us. After all, when a brother or sister faces illness or injury we remember to do the practical things. Why shouldn't we do as much for those in emotional difficulty as well? I agree with my other committee member; I wish I'd had the list. But now that I do, I have tools to help couples struggling through a painful season in their marriage. Rather than hope for the best, I'm going to do what I can to help them through and refrain from that which I'm not qualified for.

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Copyright © 2002, Bette Nordberg. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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