Every marriage is different. I think we all think we believe this and yet, if a couple (or if a spouse) comes to someone in church leadership asking for help, I think a lot of times they are given this formula (or some version of it):
pray more + monthly date night + join a couples’ group = everything will be fine
But not every struggling marriage should be handed this formula. Because not every struggling marriage is the same.
Some truly are just in a funk. Some are just experiencing one spouse being seasonally stressed or selfish. Some just need a nudge.
But then there are the other kinds of struggling marriages – those with abuse or addiction or mental illness or pornography or infidelity issues. And that formula not only won’t help, it has the power to make the person who came for help feel unheard and it has the potential to make the relationship worse.
So, if you are a person of authority – a pastor or elder, a women’s ministry director or small group leader – and a woman comes to you with marriage tales that don’t fall into the black and white standard reasons for divorce (adultery and literal abandonment by an unbeliever), I have some thoughts for you.
• Believe her when she says her marriage is harder than the average hard. If she has come to you, she has come close to her bottom as she’s finally admitted to herself that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, and she has more than likely exhausted other avenues of help. She has probably been to counseling or a recovery group, and she’s coming to you as her last chance. Which means, she’s vulnerable and splaying herself out there in front of you. She would only do this if she were dead serious about how bad things are and if she were desperate. Please do not dismiss or patronize her.
• Be gentle. She is hurting. Picture, if it will help, that she has a necklace on that says “fragile”. Do not be brusque or punitive with her.
• Ask her to do only what you’re willing to also ask her husband to do. If you ask her to try a new counselor, you must also require this of the husband as well. In most cases I have seen, the wife has been single-handedly trying to keep her marriage together for years. She has potentially already done everything you’re about to suggest. But odds are, she’ll be much more willing and open to trying again, one more time, if she sees she is believed and her husband is being held equally accountable as well.
• Find someone to walk alongside her. She will need a female mentor to walk her through this, specifically one who understands the intricacies of a marriage filled with abuse or addiction or what-have-you. Being in this kind of marriage pain tends to lead to isolation, and she will need someone to draw her out.
• Follow through or pass along. I know pastors are busy. But one or two meetings with a couple on the brink of divorce will not be enough. If you cannot commit to follow through with a lengthy, time-intensive process with them, seeing this through to either a healing and reconciliation or a grace-filled ending, then you should be prepared and humble enough to pass them along to another staff member who can. Also, if you’re in over your head with the subject matter, be brave enough and unselfish enough to admit it, and to get them issue-specific help.
I have heard way too many stories of women, in their desperation, asking for help, only to be spurned, or given ridiculous lists, or listened to once and then seemingly forgotten (I was one of those women). However, I have also heard stories of women who found solace, support, deep concern and tangible help from their church leadership (I was one of these women too, thankfully).
Church leaders, you have the power to help make or break marriages. You have the power to usher in healing. You have the power to help women and men find reconciliation together or restoration apart. Please use your power wisely. We need you.