One of our culture’s greatest lies is that marriage is only about two people. Truth is, a successful marriage requires support from friends and family.
But we forget that all those people we invite to the wedding to throw birdseed are meant to be a part of the marriage that follows. As marriage expert Bill Doherty says, “We generally launch marriages with public fanfare and then we live in solitary marriages. That is, we know little about the interior of one another’s marriages. We tend to suffer alone in our distress. … We don’t have communities to rally around us when our marriages are hurting.”
Ted Cunningham, my friend who is a pastor and comedian, says, “Marriage is a duet in need of background singers.” We need the encouragement of friends and family — not just when a marriage begins, but to keep it from ending. Our loved ones can make the difference between relationship life and death.
What is a marriage encourager?
But how do we, as background singers of a marriage, carry the necessary tune?
Imagine you’re catching up with a friend over coffee, when suddenly she starts to vent about her struggling marriage. She confides how disconnected she and her husband have been for months. She begins to cry. She says she feels discouraged, hopeless and helpless.
Many of us have had a close friend or family member share that he or she is struggling in his or her marriage. Research shows that about 73 percent of adults have served as a confidant to a friend or family member about a marriage problem. Most of us feel pretty uncomfortable when this happens. Maybe we feel saddened by our friend’s pain or annoyed at her husband’s lack of trying. Perhaps we feel inadequate or overwhelmed because we’re not quite sure how to respond.
I want to help you feel confident that you will know what to say, how to say it and, even more importantly, when not to say a thing the next time a friend tells you about a problem in his or her marriage. I want you to be a marriage encourager.
A marriage encourager isn’t a professional relationship expert; it’s someone who’s passionate about marriage, prioritizes listening over advice-giving, is willing to be real about his or her own marriage and is committed to walking out this journey with his or her hurting friend. A marriage encourager needs to embrace the real message of Hebrews 3:13 (NASB) — “encourage one another day after day” — to breathe courage into their weary friend and instill hope. A marriage can survive off of someone else’s hope for a season.
How can you help friends keep their marriage strong?
You can be a great friend if you follow these tips:
Be available. Your friend needs someone willing to take the time necessary to join her on a difficult journey. Provide emotional support by making yourself available for phone calls, text messages and face-to-face meetings. Offer practical help with child care, school pickups, errands or meals. You will need to reassure your friend that she isn’t an annoyance and that it’s an honor to journey with her. (But be aware that it’s easy to develop “compassion fatigue.” Make sure that you’re not the only person assisting your friend during this challenging season.)
Be a great listener. You don’t need to fix the problem or find a solution. You don’t need to match his pain points with your own (“I know exactly how you feel. One time …”). According to Doherty, the No. 1 complaint of marriage strugglers about their friends is that the friend gave too much useless advice.
Give your friend a safe place to vent. Pay special attention to his feelings, frustrations and pain. Just acknowledge what they’re feeling: “I’m so sorry that you’re hurting.”
That said, listen carefully for problems that need immediate help from a professional — issues such as physical abuse, infidelity, addictions, depression and thoughts of suicide. You can continue to walk alongside your friend, but these volatile situations need to be addressed by a professional. If there is violence in the marriage, encourage your friend to immediately contact the domestic violence hotline or call 800-799-7233.
Be an adviser. While marital encouragers should be mindful of giving too much advice, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t talk. A real adviser operates more like a consultant. Instead of downloading solutions or hijacking the conversation, concentrate on back-and-forth dialogue and communication.
Advisers also help find the right help. Look for information together by visiting Christian websites, reading articles and blogs or listening to podcasts. Read a book together. Find a weekend marriage seminar. Connect your friend with a pastor or mentor couple. Encourage him or her to see a licensed Christian counselor in the area. Focus on the Family offers a free counseling consult as well as a free referral service to a Focus-screened marriage therapist. Focus also has marriage intensive retreat centers with highly experienced marriage therapists trained specifically to work with couples in crisis.
Be trustworthy. Don’t talk about your friend’s situation with others — even as a prayer request. Keep what she shared confidential. It’s your friend’s story to share, not yours. And be trustworthy to the spouse as well. It’s tempting to criticize the spouse causing your friend pain. But relationship problems are complex. Never forget that you’re hearing just one perspective and only what your friend is choosing to share. You can still empathize with your friend without demonizing her husband.
Be a giver of hope. The Institute for American Values published a report showing that two-thirds of the people who were unhappy in their marriage but stayed together had a stronger marriage five years later. What helped the unhappy marrieds turn things around? Most of them actively worked to fix what wasn’t working. Spouses changed behaviors, improved communication and found healthy ways to improve their own happiness.
Never encourage your friend to divorce. Remind him that he has the God of the universe fighting for his marriage. I really like Sheila Wray Gregoire’s perspective:
God wants marriages to thrive. He doesn’t yearn for marriages where people just stick it out and are miserable. He wants people to have abundant marriages. He will still be there for people if they split; absolutely. But that is not what He wants. He hates divorce. He permits it in some cases, but that does not mean that He likes it, even then. And if He hates it, wouldn’t He prefer to transform your marriage? Wouldn’t He like it better if your marriage worked, rather than seeing you divorce and having to deal with all of that?
Another aspect of offering hope is being transparent. There is a big difference between talking too much about yourself and simply sharing your own marriage story. After you listen and empathize with your friend, let him know that you have faced marriage challenges as well. Remember, marriage problems are normal. This can be comforting for a person going through them.
Be an intercessor. 1 Timothy 2:1 says, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” Commit to regularly praying for your friend by name. Ask God to intervene in her marriage and to grow her and her husband individually. Ask God to give you and others wisdom to know how to help. Your friend needs people who are fighting for her marriage, and prayer is a powerful weapon for the fight.
Be on guard for your own marriage. Research shows that divorce is contagious and can actually spread among friends. Your job is to provide friendship and emotional support; your job is not to fix or save your friend’s marriage. If you think it is, there’s a danger of taking on this burden as your own. That isn’t healthy for you or your marriage. Guard your marriage by maintaining a rock-solid commitment, prioritizing time with your spouse and building a community around your own marriage.
By God’s definition, marriage will always be between one man and one woman — a husband and a wife. But just because a marriage is primarily about two becoming one, that doesn’t mean they’re in it alone. Marriage also means embracing a community — family members and friends who want to help that marriage succeed. And when the relationship turns from better to worse, those friends can help the marriage get back to where God wants it to be.