The following article is adapted from Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
I was once meeting with a couple who had given up hope in their relationship. From their perspective, divorce was the only option. At the same time, I knew that their problems were curable.
I felt that we first needed to put this couple’s hopelessness on the table. “Do either of you have any hope for this marriage?” I asked.
“No, we don’t,” they both said.
I knew they didn’t have any hope in their own ability to save their marriage. I said something that threw them: “Good! Now we can get to work.”
“What do you mean?” they asked.
I said, “There is not enough love between the two of you to hold you together. I’m glad you are facing that reality, because deep down you both know it. But I know something else about you: You both love God enough to make the changes that He wants you to make, and if you do that, I promise you that you will do very well in your relationship. Will you both commit to that kind of love? Can you both commit to doing what God is going to ask of you in this process?”
Both said that they could, but both were downhearted about it. They thought I meant that just because God says He is against divorce, I was asking them to remain faithful to Him and just stick it out in a miserable relationship. I was asking them to stick it out, but not in a miserable relationship. I wanted them to stick it out because I knew that if they could submit to the changes God would ask them to make, the marriage would get better. Since they could not believe that, they had to take it on faith.
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with every ounce of yourself: “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Why did He place this value above all others?
Although we could point to many reasons, one in particular relates to marriage. When loving God is our orienting principle in life, we are always adjusting to what He requires from us. When things get tough in a marriage and when some change is required from us, we might not want to do it. We might feel that it is unfair that we have to change, or it might be too difficult or painful to change. At those moments, it is much easier to just please ourselves. But if we know that it’s God with whom we ultimately have to deal, we submit to this reality and His higher calling to us to grow. In the end, the relationship wins.
The “hope-less” couple and I worked hard for a while. And they learned something: She learned that at times she would want to be judgmental of her husband, but God said no. She would be very angry toward her husband, but she would submit to God and give up her judgmental attitude. At times, the husband would get so angry toward his wife that he would want to snap back with sarcasm, something he was skilled at. But he knew that Someone higher was asking him to deny himself that little “treat.” He would submit to God and bite his tongue.
At other times he wanted to give in to the temptation to avoid listening to her complaints about him. He hated conflict. But he learned that God wanted him to listen and not react defensively. He would submit to God and remain in the conflict long enough to work it out. Earlier, he would have turned to his hobbies and avoided her.
She also learned that she had a lot of bitterness and fears in her own life for which she was blaming her husband. She found out that God wanted her to take responsibility for feelings with which she had never dealt, so she submitted to God and did the work of change. She got healthier.
About a year after the hopeless conversation mentioned above, we had an interesting session. This couple did not have anything to work on. They were doing so well they had nothing to talk about!
She was a little giddy, reminding me of a teenager. “We are just having so much fun together! It is everything that I married him for in the beginning.”
“I can’t believe what I was missing,” he joined in. “I just love being with her. None of that other stuff — mostly work — that I used to spend all of my energy on matters very much any more. I just want to be with her and talk.”
Then we reflected on where they had been a year earlier, when it had all seemed so hopeless.
“I did not know what to do,” one of them said, “so we just trusted you when you said there was a way out. And it worked.”
I clarified something for them: “It may have seemed to you that you were trusting me. But in reality you weren’t. I was telling you that I knew that God’s ways worked and that, if you could do them, your relationship would work. You made that commitment to God, and both of you followed through with the day-to-day work that He asked you to do. When God asked you to grow and change, you submitted to Him. And now you have the fruit that God promises. You might have thought you were trusting me, but I was just representing Him. When you committed to follow Him and whatever He showed you, I knew that you would make it.”
I have no doubt that they will make it now for the rest of their lives. They have a real love that they did not have before. But it came as a result of loving God.
Dr. Henry Cloud is a leadership expert, psychologist and author.
Dr. John Townsend is a business consultant, leadership coach and psychologist. Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend have written several books on boundaries.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have updated and expanded their relationship advice found in their book Boundaries to help readers create boundaries in the digital age. Available October 2017.