Focus on the Family

Defending Your Marriage From External Stressors

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Rebuild! As I listened to the married couples gathered at the monthly marriage fellowship, the word "rebuild" kept coming to my mind. While some of the couples were paragons of strength, others were floundering in troubled marriages. For some marriages, I sensed desperation in their testimonies of infidelity, loneliness, disrespect, devalued self-worth and communication failures. Still others seemed paralyzed in mediocrity and satisfaction with the status quo. The emotional wounds and disappointments had left many of these couples feeling broken, without any clear path to restoration.

As I addressed the group, I asked for their patience to examine a biblical story that on its face seems removed from the subject of marriage. It is the story of Nehemiah as recorded in Nehemiah 2-4. I started with a question. It was the same question, in fact, that the Persian king Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah, his trusted Jewish cupbearer, in Nehemiah 2:2, "Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart?"

The king's observation was accurate. Nehemiah's heart was burdened by a call that God had placed in him to rebuild the shattered walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed when the nation was taken into captivity. In response to Nehemiah's request, King Artaxerxes permitted Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem to assess the state of the walls and eventually to begin repairs. God had obviously stirred Nehemiah's and the king's heart to begin the difficult work of restoration. But, as Nehemiah soon learned through the mocking and ridicule of neighbors, enemy attacks to undermine his efforts, and the waning confidence of his own people, obeying God's call to rebuild was going to require remarkable perseverance, faith and obedience.

Like Nehemiah, many of you are also experiencing a great sadness of heart. And for many, this emotional state is directly connected with the struggles in your marriage. The disappointments, frustration and anger have left your own emotions in shambles, much like those broken walls of Jerusalem. My message to you is to have hope that God hears your cries just as He heard the lament of the Hebrew captives. God is calling you to rebuild the walls of your marriage. This call to rebuild is about prioritizing God's desires for your marriage over your own desires—in a pursuit of holiness. It is a call to marital intimacy that is built on selflessness, trust and respect. It is a call to extend grace as you unconditionally love the spouse to whom God has joined you. And, it is a call for an investment of time to allow strained emotions to heal.

You should be prepared, however, for attacks on your efforts to rebuild your marriage. In a culture that values individualism and self-satisfaction, your efforts to exemplify godly stewardship, humility and grace in marriage will be mocked—sometimes from your own family. With half of those around you opting for divorce, your unconditional commitment to an abundant marriage will be met with sarcasm and envy.

All of us experience attacks on our marriage – often leading to our own sadness of heart. God, however, has made provisions for you to withstand these negative influences. Fortifying the walls of your marriage is not simple, as it also requires obedience to the Lord's call to rebuild.

If God is stirring your heart to strengthen your marriage, this series of articles is for you. They are designed to provide insight, encouragement and practical advice to those seeking to protect their marriage from the external stressors that threaten it.

Finding Stability Amidst Marriage Stressors

Couples lose their orientation towards God and each other when buffeted by cultural ideology, family history and personal choices that are contrary to God's plan.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Have you ever seen a gyroscope? In terms of physics, its purpose is to maintain orientation, by providing stability. You don't need to understand this in depth to be fascinated by watching a gyro at work – frantic, multi-directional rotation, spinning on three axes, with a fixed center. This center, using the force of inertia, creates a stable force along a single axis.

We can use this metaphor to help us understand one purpose for which God designed marriage – to maintain orientation in three ways: husband and wife toward Him, husband and wife toward one another and, by example, others toward God. Without God's stability, our marriages risk spinning frantically out of control.

Couples struggle to maintain this godly orientation and can feel disoriented by the magnitude of marital destabilizers. Let's briefly review five stressors that many couples struggle with, so that you may equip and prepare. These stressors, all consequences of our broken world, distort the orientation of the marriage from God to ourselves.

Compromised "Truth"

Western culture gravitates towards truth that is relative to human desires – what philosophers call humanism. Humanism is a commitment to find truth in human rationale rather than the absolute Word of God. Humanism seeks to replace God's divinity with human ingenuity.

Increasingly, our culture relies on media moguls, political pundits and erudite educators to define the structure and purpose of marriage. This secularization of marriage has led to the promotion of self-gratifying behaviors that weaken the pursuit of shared identity, the acceptance of divorce as a solution for marital unhappiness and the legitimization of same-sex unions as a civil right. However, God-oriented marriages refuse these distortions, relying instead on God as the ultimate bearer of truth.

Cultural Values

Fueled by humanism, much of Western culture compromises marriage by promoting values that weaken reliance on God. These values are most evident in the decision-making processes that reek of consumerism and convenience. Western culture values decision-making that is individualistic (what works best for me?); fear-based (how can I protect myself?); and short-term (how soon can I have what I want?).

But, the ultimate difficulty that this value system imposes on marriage is that it places individual interests as the focal point rather than a mutual sense of God's direction for the marriage. Contrarily, a God-oriented marriage prioritizes decisions based upon mutuality over individualism, faith over fear and long-term over short-term thinking.

Family Interpersonal Patterns

Your interactions with your caregivers in your youth are arguably the most influential factors in the self you bring to marriage. Your sense of appropriate behavior, communication style, conflict resolution and relational boundaries are impacted by what you learned from your caregivers. Consequently, your attitude, expectations and commitment towards marriage are developed well before you met your spouse.

If you had a positive model of marriage in your life, you may have transferred positive qualities into your own marriage. Unfortunately, many marriages have at least one partner who grew up in an abusive, neglected or conflicted marriage. Couples in a God-oriented marriage seek to extend grace to one another, allowing the marriage to serve as divine healing to these conscious and unconscious emotional wounds.


Marriages are struggling under the weight of financial obligations and indebtedness. With record home foreclosures, excessive credit card debt and dwindling portfolios, marriages are reeling with fear and uncertainty.

Couples in a God-oriented marriage prioritize modesty over extravagance, saving over spending and giving over getting. Regardless of the current state of your finances, it is important to make financial stewardship a shared goal around which you and your spouse rally.

Time Sinks

Spending time together is the key to marital intimacy. Few couples, however, communicate well – that is, going beyond what's necessary for day-to-day functioning to the deep sharing of emotional worlds.

One reason that couples interact so infrequently is their endless activities. After days and weeks of busyness, couples are surprised and disappointed that intimate encounters don't just happen.

Couples in a God-oriented marriage learn to draw boundaries that preserve their time together by looking for reasons to come together rather than excuses to remain apart.

The Gyroscope Revisited

Marriage stressors wreak havoc on your commitment to God and to one another. Marital discord tears at your very identity as a couple. In the mist of these stressors, however, God provides a way of escape from every temptation.

Your marriage's purpose is to orient others to the Lord as the liberator from these stressors. Like the center of the gyroscope, your God-oriented marriage offers stability in the midst of storms. You know your marriage is in the center of God's will when you and your spouse feel nearer to God through the union, when your partnership shapes you into God's image and when your union draws people into relationship with God.

Defending Your Marriage Against Mediocrity

When couples compromise on obedience to God, their marriages drift towards mediocrity. Abundant marriage, however, is within reach when attending to five key areas.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Chip and Sandy are like many married couples who say, "We're making it" in marriage. Recently I asked Sandy, "Do you ever feel great about your marriage?" She paused, clearly uncomfortable with the question, and replied, "My husband doesn't abuse me, doesn't cheat on me and hasn't left me. I would say that I am blessed."

Indeed, God has blessed Chip and Sandy. But, Sandy's response left me pondering the meaning of "great" marriage. God wants us to have not only life but to experience it abundantly (3 John 2). Yet, Sandy seems more aware of what is thankfully absent than nourished by what is abundantly present.

Maybe I should have asked Sandy a different question: "Does God occupy the center of your marriage?" After all, a God-centered marriage assures God's blessings upon the marriage covenant, fosters authentic partnership and models genuine love for others.

Many couples fall short on this point because God is pushed to the margin of the relationship. These couples have a sense of God, but they may compromise on obedience to His Word. They may pray for God's presence in their decisions, but lack the patience to wait for God's timing. They may seek more godly influences in their lives, yet their jam-packed schedules leave little room for meaningful relationships. The Apostle Paul describes this phenomenon as a form of godliness, but one lacking its power (2 Timothy 3:5). These power-deficient marriages are mediocre. Are you settling for the mediocre in your marriage?

Avoiding the Threat of Mediocre Marriage

The secular influences that surround us can exact a toll on marriage. Protecting your marriage against these stressors requires effort in five areas: unconditional commitment to the marriage, trust, respect, healthy boundaries and protected couple time.

An Abundant Marriage

The Holy Spirit emboldens couples to resist the stressors that erode their marriage only if they move God to the center of the marriage. Abundant marriage is within your reach as you allow the Holy Spirit to reveal and heal your strengths and weaknesses. In healthier marriages, this may just require additional insight. More troubled marriages are likely to require intervention by others who are committed to the health of your marriage.

Many couples enter into marriage with false or unrealistic expectations. Some believe that marriage will solve their problems. Some do not understand that strong and rowing marriages are a result of hard work.

Shaving Planks

Marriages only thrive as each spouse accepts responsibility for the impact of their own disappointments, fears and priorities on the relationship.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

Jim and Irene sat at opposite ends of my couch, as far apart as possible. The tension between them so charged the room that I knew we were in for a rough ride even before this first session began. After some small talk, Irene dove right into the reason for their visit: "No matter what I do or how hard I try, it is never good enough for him. I'm sick of trying anything anymore." Jim quickly retorted, "Funny, I feel the same way." Sadly, Jim and Irene seemed to have only two things in common: Each believed their own negative behavior was a justified response to provocation by the other, and both expressed unhappiness with the marriage.

Jim and Irene each had important perspectives on their relationship, and what they described was actually a very common negative pattern of interaction. The details of that pattern are not nearly as important as the manner in which it was described to me, though. Irene explained in detail what Jim was doing wrong in the marriage, while Jim described with equal competence just how Irene was failing him.

In other words, Jim and Irene demonstrated mastery of the "blame game." They were just getting warmed up with their finger pointing when I interrupted as gently as possible while challenging them: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your spouse's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" As Christians, Jim and Irene recognized this slightly altered version of Matthew 7:5. I let them know that our emphasis, if a marriage is to become what God intends it to be, should be to work on our individual planks while saving our partner's sawdust for later.

Plank Warfare

Jim and Irene's situation is not unique. We all have planks that limit our ability to see another person and circumstance the way God sees them. Planks foster despair in situations where God could pronounce hope. Planks reflect obstacles where God offers opportunities. And where the Holy Spirit causes you to look within for change, planks make sure you continue blaming your spouse.

These planks are blinding. They hamper a couple's ability to assess and take responsibility for their individual negative contributions to the deteriorating marriage. These planks represent an accumulation of unmet needs and expectations. As these disappointments mount, the planks become more destructive.

The Making of a Plank

How large is the plank in your eye? That is probably a difficult or even painful question for you. We are all inclined to underestimate our own limitations while overestimating those of others.

With this in mind, here are five questions to help you be objective about the size of your plank. Each question, except the last one, is designed to point us to some of the family-of-origin issues that become the planks in our eyes in marriage. The last one simply assesses selfishness. As you respond honestly to these questions, ask the Holy Spirit to allow you to accept that plank at face value.

Planks are stressors on your marriage. And, they are progressively destructive as a result of dysfunctional family patterns that you mimic from your family of origin, unrealistic expectations that you pick up from popular culture, latent fears that keep you in a defensive posture, sparse time in meaningful conversation and unrepentant pride.

Removing Your Plank

As Jim and Irene reflected on these questions over several sessions, their postures gradually changed. While several transformations occurred in the relationship, Jim captured it best. "We are shaving our planks," he said humorously.

There are no gimmicky tricks or painless solutions to protect a marriage from these marital stressors. But, you can have miracles if you pursue an unconditional commitment to place God's will for your marriage as the point of focus.

We are all broken, and therefore neither you nor your spouse is perfect. Husbands and wives will inevitably detect the specks of sawdust in one another's eyes. We can honor God with an atmosphere of grace in marriage, which will allow Him to shape us into His image. But, God can only transform your marriage as both partners shift their focus inwardly.

Commitment: The First Defense Against Marital Stressors

Unconditional commitment is the key to resisting marital stressors. This is accomplished by attending to each other's needs, honest communication and timely encouragement.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

God cannot love you less than He does. Consider two people – a priest who has devoted himself to the Lord for the last fifty years, and an evolutionary biologist who has dedicated himself to proving God does not exist. To which of these people is God most committed?

Intellectually, we know that God loves them equally. But, emotionally we struggle to understand how that is possible; it is beyond the comprehension of our conditional, emotional worlds. As evidenced by the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), this concept speaks to one of God's most basic characteristics: His unconditional commitment. It is the cornerstone of God's relationship with us, and, by extension, it serves as the centerpiece of marriage in two ways.

Marriage: Commitment by Design

First, God designed marriage to center upon an unconditional commitment to Him. This requires a daily sacrifice of replacing your own desires for your marriage with God's plans for it – a reminder that your marriage belongs to Him. When life's stressors beset your marriage, your greatest assurance is that God's commitment to your marriage is sufficient to contain any problem you may face (Romans 8:35-38).

Second, God designed your marriage upon an unconditional commitment to one another. This unconditional commitment requires agreement between spouses to cultivate what God has planted in them. It requires an assumption of good will to care for each other's vulnerabilities. Finally, it requires a vow between spouses to reserve their best emotional, psychological and physical selves for one another.

The Power and Peril of Unconditional Commitment

Unconditional commitment is the only secure foundation as family pressures, financial struggles, health challenges, work demands and church obligations mount. Your marital health depends on your ability to keep these pressures at your back rather than between you. From behind, these forces push you towards one another – creating intimacy in the struggle. Conversely, when wedged between you, they push you apart – nearly always fostering emotional, if not physical, separation.

Of course, unconditional commitment is not without its risks. Many spouses fear such a commitment because of the vulnerable position in which it places them – possibly being taken advantage of by a self-centered spouse. If your spouse exhibits a pattern of spousal abuse or blatant disregard for your well-being, it is vital that you protect yourself first and lean on God for reassurance.

Three Keys to Marital Commitment

Keeping marital stressors at your back requires unconditional commitment to a three-step process. When maintained, these iterative steps engender a climate of trust and respect that honors God and protects the marital relationship.

  1. Keep Facing One Another. You are most likely to move in the direction that you are already facing. Frustrated couples often look outside of their marriage for answers to their emotional needs. Then, as difficulties push them, it is only natural that they move towards that which meets their need rather than towards the spouse. Spouses who make a decision to satisfy their emotional needs (especially romantic ones) only within the confines of their marriage satisfy the fundamental requisite of unconditional commitment.
  2. Communicate Honestly. Effective communication is the glue that binds marriage. Conveying your needs, wants and feelings with your spouse, even in stressful situations, creates unity. Always remember that the complementary aspect of communicating honestly is listening actively. Active listening relies more on your heart than your ears.
  3. Encourage Each Other. Many couples fail to encourage one another either because they do not think it is needed or because of their own insecurities and shortcomings. God, however, placed you and your spouse together to shape each other into His likeness. Encouragement soothes the pain of this molding process. Encouragement provides validation and legitimacy in discouraging and distressing circumstances. Look at how God offers you encouragement in Deuteronomy 31:6: "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." I doubt there is any clearer model of unconditional commitment.

The Transforming Power of Commitment

Inspirational speaker Zig Ziglar says, "Many marriages would be better if the husband and the wife clearly understood that they are on the same side." Think about the military force or sports teams that unite to defeat an opponent. For victory, the "me" focus of the individuals must yield to the "we" focus of the unit. Being on the same side creates synergy as the best part of each person contributes to the strength of the whole.

Herein lays the success of a godly marriage. The "we-ness" of your marriage, born of unconditional commitment, builds as you and your spouse share respect, trust and quality time. Unconditional commitment or "we-ness" transforms potential marital threats into powerful testimonies of deliverance that glorify God.

It's About TIME: Building the CORE of Your Marriage

Busyness is the enemy of marriage. Restoring intimacy to marriage requires an intentional effort to spend time communicating openly and empathically with one another.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

"How did I miss two calls?" Susan wondered as she risked a quick glance at her cell phone during the emergency sales meeting. The school nurse had promised to call if her child got worse. Staring at the "voicemail waiting" message, Susan strategized how to gracefully exit this meeting.

The first message was from her husband, Bob, reminding her about tonight's theatre tickets. After more than three months of excuses, they were finally going on a date – alone. Susan and Bob barely had down time together anymore, and, when they did, the coordination of activities between kids, house, church and work dominated the conversation. Susan often feared that their season of intimacy as a couple had passed, though she never spoke this aloud to Bob. They both felt the strain. But Susan dared hope that tonight's date would be a turning point. At least, that had been her prayer.

The second message was the dreaded call from the school nurse. "Calvin's temperature is 101 degrees. Please call the school as soon as possible to let us know how soon you can pick him up."

Susan's own anxiety temperature rose, too, as she worried about Calvin's health, the consequences of leaving the sales meeting, how she was going address other critical work responsibilities and whether the elusive date was ever going to happen.

Time Crunch

Bob and Susan are struggling with marital stressors that are common to dual-income homes. Like many couples in their situation, they converse less than an hour a day. Disturbingly, most of this conversation entails negotiating the activities of the next day. Nearly every aspect of their interaction is exacerbated by the physical and mental fatigue that accompanies their harried lifestyle.

Signs of a Time Crunch

Contemporary marriages lack quality and quantity time for several reasons: an endless pursuit of things, requiring money and therefore more work; busyness, disguising relationship rifts; and couples' lives running on parallel tracks. Three questions will help you discern how well time is managed in your marriage:

  1. In the past week, how satisfied were you with the emotional and physical intimacy you and your spouse shared? Emotional and physical intimacies are intertwined, as increases or decreases in one directly correlate with changes in the other.
  2. How aware are you of your spouse's current emotional needs? You only know your spouse's needs by spending time with him/her. You cannot just assume that you know. If you think your spouse has no emotional needs, you're wrong! You might not know the needs because he/she does not trust you with them.
  3. In the past month, how much time have you spent seeking God's direction for your marriage? Your marriage is a spiritual relationship positioned to impact lives for Christ. But, this direction can only be discerned through time with God and one another.

Finding the CORE of Marriage

Susan's prayer for a "miracle" date is understandable. However, it is unlikely that a single date will reverse what has been lost. The good news, however, is that restored intimacy is within their reach as they make time the CORE of their marriage. CORE, an acrostic for a four-step intimacy-building process, resists external stressors by building the trust, respect and mutuality that characterize a healthy marriage.

  1. Commitment. Commit to a specific day and time each week when you and your spouse will engage in one hour of conversation with one another without any other distractions. And, unless there is an emergency, stick to this commitment.
  2. Openness. God created marital interaction for vulnerability without shame. Increasing your marital intimacy requires using your time in honest dialogue about your needs, desires and fears. If this is a difficult area for you, start with something small and gradually open up, as your spouse proves trustworthy.
  3. Repent. Many of your spouse's needs, desires and fears are directly associated with your past behaviors. Your marital trust will grow as you and your spouse make the time to pray together (and individually) with a repentant heart.
  4. Empathy. The willingness of your spouse to share openly is contingent on his/her sense that you really understand and love them unconditionally. This is shown in your willingness to make time to listen non-defensively and speak unselfishly.

While their relationship is presently strained, Bob and Susan can acquire the tools to rebuild their intimacy. As they regularly make time the CORE of their marriage, Susan will find comfort in Bob's willingness to listen to her frustrations as a working mom, her anxiety about her job performance, and her feelings of emotional isolation. As Bob and Susan will learn, protecting their marriage from external stressors is really all about time.

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Ten Tips for Protecting Your Cross-Cultural Marriage From Outside Influences

External stressors are magnified in cross cultural marriages because of disappointments when cultural assumptions are unmet. Developing a shared identity is the key to growth.

by Dr. Harold L. Arnold, Jr.

My wife Dalia and I met in our senior year of college. And, for much of that final undergraduate year, I was on my best behavior to win her over. When she finally said "yes", my youthful naiveté led me to believe I had gotten through the toughest part. It wasn't long after our nuptials that I realized just how wrong I was.

I expected some bumps on our marital road. I knew marriage comprised constant adjustments and difficult compromises. But nothing (neither our parents, our respective churches nor our college education) prepared us for what we ultimately would find most challenging – thriving in a cross-cultural marriage! On the day that Dalia, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Panama, and I, an African-American from the rural south, wed, "culture clash" was furthest from our minds. But, it wouldn't be long before its presence was felt.

Disappointment: The Threat to Your Cross-Cultural Marriage

My first clue that Dalia and I were going to stumble over some cultural differences came when she lovingly offered to fix me chicken with gravy. "Excellent!" I replied. I could almost taste my grandmother's succulent smothered chicken with biscuits.

But, when Dalia served dinner, I was visibly disappointed by the chicken entrée. Instead of the flour-based brown gravy that I was expecting, Dalia used a tomato-based gravy common to Panamanian dishes. This was certainly not what my grandmother would have prepared. After a few rounds of clarification, the misunderstanding was clear. Dalia and I used the same term "gravy" with a completely different set of expectations.

Disappointment associated with unmet expectations is a drain on many marriages. However, the threat of unmet expectations to cross-cultural marriages is more pronounced because of differing cultural idiosyncrasies. What makes the pain more difficult is that the disappointment often extends to your parents and others who are most important to you. Generally, the more dissimilar the cultures, the more pronounced the disappointment.

For Dalia and me, cross-cultural conflict has revolved around the authority of our parents, financial decisions and social interaction. Whether your expectations come from your family of origin, the social context in which you live or simply your ingrained attitudes, fundamental differences in beliefs and behaviors often impede the sense of covenant that God expects. What are your examples of unmet expectations in your cross-cultural marriage?

With twenty years of experiences in a cross-cultural marriage, I have learned that culture influences nearly every important aspects of marriage. To a large extent, communication style, boundary setting, elderly care, parenting, gender roles, food preferences, biblical interpretation and even worship style are negotiation points for the cross-cultural marriage.

When you married your spouse, you married his or her culture too. This is both the challenge and opportunity of cross-cultural marriage. Just as the kingdom of God is enriched by the diverse background and experiences of the people that worship Jesus Christ as Savior, diversity enhances marriage. Though from a different culture, your Christian spouse and you are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). This shared identity, enabled by honest communication, transforms your differences from liabilities to assets by leveraging cultural strengths. Your marital diversity covers one another's weaknesses, broadens your ideas, models healthy conflict resolution and extends your reach for ministry.

Ten Tips for Protecting Your Cross-Cultural Marriage

Despite the stressors and disappointments in your cross-cultural marriage, if you desire God's gifts for your marriage, He promises you a more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31). As you and your spouse attend to the following ten tips, I am convinced that you will see each other and your marriage the way God sees it – a vessel of honor:

  1. Prioritize your spiritual identity as a Christ follower over your cultural identity.
  2. Prioritize understanding over judging.
  3. Do not minimize what your spouse maximizes. (If your spouse thinks it is important, it is!)
  4. Everything important to you should be explained to your spouse rather than assumed.
  5. Honor and value your spouse's parents and extended family.
  6. Negotiate boundaries with your extended families that are acceptable to each of you. (Caution: In a healthy marriage, parental loyalty should never exceed spousal loyalty.)
  7. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. (Grace asks that you assume the best of your spouse rather than the worst.)
  8. Embrace your identity as a cross-cultural person. (Value the fact that you represent the fusion of two cultures that enhances your perspective.)
  9. Integrate elements of your respective cultures in your daily living (e.g. food, language).
  10. Pray daily for the wisdom, grace and patience necessary to treat your spouse with trust and respect.

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