Focus on the Family is dedicated to bringing healing and restoration to couples who are struggling in their marriages. But God’s design for marriage never included abuse, violence or coercive control. Even emotional abuse can bruise or severely harm a person’s heart, mind and soul. If you are in an abusive relationship, go to a safe place and call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit TheHotline.org.
I hadn’t even made the turn into our driveway when I saw the scene. My husband’s Mazda was balancing precariously 5 feet in the air over a retaining wall.
You might think my first reaction would have been, “I hope Carey’s OK!”
Instead, with a disgusted shake of my head, I thought, You’re getting what you deserve. Now clean up your own mess. I imagined the scenario: Carey had tried to squeeze 10 tasks into the space of eight, fell behind, raced out the door 10 minutes late, sped through a three-point turn and voilà.
I felt no compassion or motivation to heal our marriage or protect it from divorce. That’s how bad our more than 10-year relationship had become.
Living with resentment
Fortunately, Carey found another way to get where he needed to go. When he arrived home, I was ready for a fight—or should I say another fight. We no longer had isolated arguments. They ran into each other because resentment and bitterness were constantly simmering under the surface of our marriage.
A provocative eye roll was enough to set one of us off.
I resented the way our life had no margin—the relentless cycle of too much work, not enough hours. I had often complained, “You’re saying yes to too many things, and this pace is wreaking havoc on us.”
Carey had his own resentments. He saw all the housework that needed to be done and believed I wasn’t stepping up to help. According to him, I was too focused on other things and blew off his priorities.
The worst part was that our marriage should have been better. Protecting our marriage from a potential divorce should have been easy. After all, Carey was a pastor, and I volunteered at our church. We were also lawyers and had received training in divorce law. We’d seen up close what divorce can do to families—and how God can work to save marriages in crisis. But the truth was, I was on the edge of ending it all.
If you find yourself in a similar place in your marriage, you understand those feelings of emotional dissatisfaction, frustration, anger and distress.
Who wants to live the rest of their days in misery? I remember the endless nights lying awake wondering, How can we make it? Do I even want to?
Yet we did make it. Carey and I just celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary. We’re living a marriage that not only measures up to our wedding-day dreams but also surpasses them.
How did Carey and I make it from that bad to this good? How did we protect our marriage from divorce? In addition to committed prayer, counseling and determination, we focused on four principles that helped us move toward a better marriage instead of divorce court. If you’re thinking about ending your marriage, I’d encourage you to first consider the lessons we learned.
Lesson No. 1:
Grow your marriage and protect it against divorce
The principles of the harvest apply to marriage. As pastor Nicky Gumbel says, you harvest what you sow, later than you sow and more than you sow.
Carey and I would not have survived in our marriage if we had continued planting the same old words and actions. We discovered that if we wanted a better harvest, we needed to start planting better seeds.
We saw firsthand that if we planted discord, we harvested chaos. If we planted resentment, we harvested contempt. But if we planted new seeds of kindness, self-control and respect, just to name a few, we began to see a miracle harvest in the making. Though it took time, the new seeds grew into thriving plants.
Lesson No. 2:
See what is true about your spouse
One of our biggest problems was that we both believed we were right and the other person was wrong. In short, we had a problem with our eyes.
In Luke 11:34, Jesus said that when our eyes are healthy [the Greek word implies generous], we are filled with His light. But when our eyes are bad [the Greek word implies stingy], we fall into darkness.
Here are questions Jesus might ask you about your marriage: How are your eyes? Do you see what is true about your spouse? Do you see what is true about you?
I didn’t like what I saw. When Carey wrecked his car, instead of being generous in my response, I had been stingy. So first I had to ask Jesus to clear my eyes.
I also had to ask Him to clear my ears to hear what He said. That meant I needed to take time on my own with Jesus—without child care responsibilities. My preferred time to pray and read my Bible is first thing in the morning. When our kids were babies, that routine didn’t work, so I chose evenings or nap times.
I started with God, I have this problem. Please help! And then I laid it out and asked Jesus to show me what was true. I asked Him to do what only He can do: shine light into the darkness. Jesus answered by leading me to a Christian counselor, wise mentors and friends who could help me see my blind spots, which were contributing to unhappiness in my marriage.
Lesson No. 3:
I met Marcus* when he and his wife, Katie*, were getting divorced. They had three kids between ages 4 and 9. Marcus ran a business, and Katie was a stay-at-home mom. He saw the problems in their marriage as a box he could pack up and leave behind.
Throughout the divorce proceedings, I heard both Marcus and Katie say they wanted what was best for their kids.
I could see they sincerely didn’t want their sons to be caught in the middle.
After the divorce was finalized, Marcus discovered the marriage box was taken away, but in its place he was handed a box containing different problems. Now the parenting schedule was a perpetual issue. His finances were tighter than he ever imagined.
His friendship circles imploded, and nights of fun disappeared. He had sources of conflict that he never dreamed would be a part of his life.
And worst of all, their kids didn’t experience more peace.
Katie let slip how frustrated she was that Marcus didn’t pay support on time. She didn’t think about the emotional impact on her boys when she vented about her expenses. Marcus didn’t intend to complain to his kids that their mother didn’t care if he had no money left to spend on them. But they heard it.
When I saw Marcus again after the divorce, he looked at me through teary eyes and said, “If only I’d known then what I know now, I would have worked harder to save my marriage.”
Protect your marriage now
When our marriages are in distress, we may wonder whether we need to leave for the sake of our kids. After all, we think, Is this the model of love we want our children to grow up with?
Having been a divorce attorney, I can say that walking out is not going to provide more peace for your children. The time to find peace and protect your marriage is now, before divorce. Children do need their parents to stop fighting in dysfunctional ways in front of them. They need to see them get past their cold wars, stubbornness and indifference. That is what will bring them peace.
If you think there’s no way this can ever happen in your marriage, humbly ask Jesus whether He agrees.
Would planting tiny seeds of loving acts (not false feelings of affection) and messages spoken with a kinder tone disrupt the negativity you’re caught in? Could it be that Jesus is leading you to own something hurtful and genuinely apologize? Your willingness to take small steps for the sake of your children may create just enough hope to save your marriage.
Lesson No. 4:
Fight for “us” instead of “me.”
In Ephesians 5:21, the apostle Paul said we should be “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Carey and I needed to learn to elevate the value of keeping our relationship strong over satisfying our individual desires. We needed to start thinking in terms of us instead of me. That meant we had to intentionally humble our attitudes and compromise some of our wants for the sake of our connection with each other.
We started simply. Our interior-decor tastes are different. Whenever we redecorated our home, we argued over everything, clinging tightly to our own preferences. But as we began to fight for us, we became more patient and open-minded, willing to negotiate and respect the views and tastes of the other. We gave up our former way of incessantly trying to persuade the other person to adopt our own sense of style. Now our shared priority is for both of us to be satisfied with the outcome.
To keep fighting for we when things get heated, we remember this motto: If I win, we lose. How can we win?
If I know Carey will be unhappy with a particular choice, I don’t push for it. Carey does the same for me. Both of us consider that a choice that leaves the other person unsatisfied is an unacceptable choice. As a result we’ve become more creative as we brainstorm potential solutions to our challenges.
Heal your broken marriage
At my lowest point, I didn’t want to take those first steps toward healing my broken marriage and protecting it from divorce. Taking those steps seemed too difficult. In light of the outcome, I can identify with the psalmist: “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6).
Weeping while planting the initial seeds of change in my marriage is an apt picture. I wasn’t filled with much hope or inspired by feelings of affection. I was filled with grief and despair. But I trusted Jesus with the hope of a harvest.
I could easily have followed my emotions out the door. But I’m grateful I didn’t. I’m grateful that the next time Carey had an incident with his car, my response was loving. And his responses to my mistakes have been generous as well.
Jesus offers Carey and me a power and a source of love that can’t be exhausted. He offers it to you and your spouse, too. The truth is that I couldn’t imagine the harvest God had for my marriage. I doubt you can see the harvest He has for you either. But trust Him, and you’ll find it on the other side of not giving up.
*Names have been changed.