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Surviving a Marriage Crisis
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By Cesar & Carolann De Leon

As a father has compassion on his children,
    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

(Psalm 103:13-14, NIV)
 
 
                      “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
             Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
            and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

    (Matt. 11:28-30, NKJV)

Most marriages will experience a crisis at some point, and some marriages will experience several major crises during the course of the relationship. Crises are part of our “post-fall” experience. There is never a “good” time to experience a crisis - and they usually arrive unexpectedly and uninvited.[1] Some crises will come from the interaction in the relationship, and others will come from outside the relationship, such as illness, caring for elderly relatives, natural disasters, economic recessions, etc. But they can all load extra pressure onto a relationship already struggling and exhausted.

Any crisis in our lives, including a crisis in a ministry marriage, can be the start of a journey into deeper closeness, especially if the >couple can talk about how they are feeling, listen to each other’s experiences, grow in their understanding of themselves and each other, and show loving empathy to each other. When our relationships are broken and hurting, we can give the pieces to God and work with Him to create something new and beautiful. Through His loving power we can be “made perfect in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9, NIV).

Ministry marriages are more likely to face crises than other marriages. The workload of the pastor, regular moves, living away from supportive families and friends, the pressure of ministry work, the demands and expectations of the local congregation, and financial challenges can all add extra pressures to a marriage. The intensity of a marriage crisis will depend on several factors: the suddenness of the crisis, the physical and emotional health of each partner, other ongoing challenges and stresses in the family, the kind of support available and the effectiveness of that support, previous crises and learned coping mechanisms, the couple’s core relationship with God, unresolved past issues, and the amount of advanced warning or “red signals” noticed before the crisis hits.[2]

Sometimes ministry couples lack the financial resources to pay for the professional marriage counseling or therapy they need. Sometimes problems in a marriage can develop slowly, and it can be difficult to recognize when they are severe enough to need professional help. Often ministry couples try to deal with marriage problems, like conflict, depression, anger, or addictions, by themselves. Sometimes the fear of losing professional respect, admiration, or a ministry position, can make it harder to ask for help when it is needed, so the problems can grow more complex and painful, and become more difficult to resolve and heal. Failed attempts to deal with relationship problems alone often cause relational distress, distance, and disconnection, which can just exacerbate the crisis. “If a problem is greater than the two can handle alone, a crisis in the marriage relationship can result.”[3] Some ministry couples just resign themselves to living in lonely and emotionally-disconnected marriages, with no hope of intimacy. Some may think that the problem will go away on its own if they just ignore it. But many problems can grow like a volcano, underground and unseen, and then erupting powerfully when we least expect them.
 
Conversation starter:;
What signs indicate that there is a crisis in the marriage of the visiting couple?

Crises in marriages can be stimulated by all kinds of events and experiences such as, conflict over parenting issues; financial problems; in-law relationships and wider family issues; stress; loss of employment; conflict over roles and fairness of work load in the relationship; over-busy and over-worked partners; one partner feeling lonely and isolated; one partner trying to control the other partner or having too much power in the relationship; cultural differences; infidelity; emotional affairs; gambling; addictions; pornography; substance abuse; gender confusion; neglect; and emotional, physical, spiritual, and sexual abuse.
The big, deep down questions that underlie most crises are:
 
Do you really love me?
Do you care about what I am experiencing?
Am I important to you?
Will you always be there for me?
 
It can be useful to think about the questions your spouse may really be asking under their distressed behavior and words, and to reassure them consistently by your own words and actions. When there is a severe crisis in a marriage it can affect each spouse in different ways. Emotionally, the partners may experience anger, tears, sadness, anxiety, and disbelief. Spiritually, the partners can find it hard to pray clearly, or to concentrate on reading the Bible. Mentally, the partners can feel confused and disorientated, because it is hard to think clearly when we are experiencing emotional pain and distress. Physiologically, the body experiences stress, which can cause symptoms like headaches, migraines, fatigues, muscle pain, stomach aches, tension, and difficulties eating and sleeping.

These responses are usually temporary and will tend to diminish when the crisis subsides. But if any of these symptoms are experienced over a prolonged period of time, it may be wise to talk to a doctor about them.

Every marriage crisis is a signal that something in the relationship needs to change. Hurt, mistrust, alienation, and brokenness can severely undermine the closeness in a marriage. It can be helpful for each partner to think about what they could do differently to make things better, rather than becoming stuck in negative patterns of blame and resentment. Basic questions to ask are: “What do I do that helps us to feel closer, and how could I do more of that?” and “What do I do that hurts my spouse and pushes them further away, and how could I do less of that?” Both spouses need to be willing to commit to the healing process, which often involves rebuilding trust and closeness. It is important to remember that broken trust and hurting hearts can take a long time to recover. If a couple works hard at healing their relationship it may become even stronger than before, because they can learn more about each other, and develop important skills for keeping their relationship healthy.

As in the case of major earthquakes, the emotional, spiritual, and physical “aftershocks” can sometimes make recovery more complicated and difficult. Living through a marriage crisis can make it challenging for couples to manage everyday life, family, and ministry duties. A marriage crisis can last from a few weeks to a few years.  Sometimes there is an initial intense crisis that lasts for a few weeks, followed by a less intense crisis stage that can last months or even years, especially if the couple does not seek specialist help. The severity of the crisis will depend on the personal and family upheaval caused, the amount of insight into the crisis issue, and the degree to which the individuals use the crisis as an opportunity to grow personally.
 
Conversation Starter:
What for you is the most important core value in a marriage: honesty, forgiveness or faithfulness?

Recovering from a marriage crisis is not an easy journey. The road can be very rocky. But God’s hope for your marriage is that each of you will help the other experience more of His love, grace, joy and peace, and that, through your joys and pains, you will grow more like Him. He walks with you every step of the way, with His unconditional gracious love, and His power that can move mountains.

Marriage crisis interventions
The following is a list of some basic marriage-crisis interventions to help you place one foot in front of the other, until you feel stronger.
  1. 1.Pray. If there is ever a time when we need to pray the most it is when our marriages are facing a crisis. Even if we are in so much pain that we cannot find the words to pray, we can just sit with God, and the Holy Spirit will find the words on our behalf.  Hebrews 5:7 highlights Jesus’ secret weapon: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of reverent submission” (NIV).
  2. Identify your main problems or issues. List the problems and be specific. Prioritize which ones need attention first, and focus on them one at a time.
  3. List your hopes for your relationship. Think about the kind of relationship you would like to have, and what you would like to do to help create it.
  4. Remember when your relationship was at its best. What were you doing, thinking, and saying then that made it so good? What is preventing you from doing, thinking, and saying those things again?
  5. What do you each need to understand about the other’s experience so that you can empathize with them, comfort them, apologize to each other, and forgive each other? Do not rush to apologize and forgive too soon – make sure you take the time to understand the hurt that has been caused so that you can learn from your mistakes.
  6. Try rating your relationship on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is very troubled and 10 is very happy. Think about where you are now and what it will take to help your relationship reach the next number on the scale. This can help you identify clear steps forward.
  7. Be intentional about your self-care: get plenty of sleep, hydrate, eat nutrient rich foods, spend at least 5 minutes a day in vitamin D rich sunshine, exercise to increase your endorphins and counteract depression, nurture your trust in God by meditating on comforting Bible promises, and listen to spiritually uplifting music or sermons.
  8. Focus on the relational advice found in Romans 12:9-21, and try putting this kind of love into action in your lives.
  9. There is no shame in asking for support if your crisis is so severe that it is difficult for you to work. It may become difficult to continue meeting your ministry demands. Sometimes knowing the children are with close friends or relatives for a few days can give you the space to focus on your own needs. If your crisis is severe, think about making a formal request for family leave so that you can dedicate time to the recovery process.
  10. If you or your children are experiencing abuse, it may not be wise or healthy to stay in such a relationship. It is important to keep yourself and your children safe. Consult an organization like the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.thehotline.org  
  11. Go for professional help sooner rather than later. Many well-meaning friends and family tend to take sides and may not have the professional training to give the best counsel or to care for your relationship. The longer you leave it, the harder it is for a therapist or counselor to help you, the more help you will need, and the more expensive it will be.
  12. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the humility and meekness with which to accept the truth that will set you free. Humility will empower you to take responsibility for your part in this crisis and will also help you “find rest for your soul” (Matthew 11:28-30).
  13. Stay connected with supportive people. Close friends, family, or spiritual mentors can offer you unconditional love and the emotional and spiritual support you need at this time. But feel free to set healthy boundaries if their visits are causing you extra stress and distracting you from working on your relationship.
  14. If you choose to separate for a while, use the book Hope for the Separated by Gary Chapman[4] to help you spend your time apart in a healing and wise way.
  15. If you choose to divorce, and you have children, try to do so in a way that puts their needs, now and in the future, at the heart of your choices and interactions. Find out about collaborative divorce and look for collaborative divorce practitioners in your area.
  16. Trust God. Look for every sign of hope in your relationship and write them down. Focus on the positives and not the negatives. Read Philippians 4 and follow Paul’s principles for positive thinking. Praise God for what He is doing and will continue to do for you. Try not to add extra worries to today by thinking too far into the future. You do not have to know what will be happening next month or next year. As you walk one day at time, God will grow your trust in Him until you truly believe that He will work ALL things out for your good (Romans 8:28) because He loves you extravagantly.
 
Ministry life is stressful.[5] Living in a ministry “goldfish bowl” is a major cause of stress for many ministry families. In reality, the ministry couple is not only dealing with the many challenges faced by that all marriages have, but with the compounded stressors unique to ministry life.
 
Why do marriages hit crises?
The very first incidence of sin in the world caused a crisis in the marriage of Adam and Eve. God had said, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) because He knew how important it was for us to be in close and loving relationships. Everything that sin touches becomes wounded, fragmented, and unable to function according to the original genetic wiring, without the help of God. Generations of families and marriages have shaped who we are today, and what we bring, often without realizing it, to our marriages. When we pack our bags for our honeymoon, we also have invisible bags filled with different memories, expectations, hopes, preferences, values, perspectives, and fears. Many of these things will be really helpful in our relationship, but some of them can also add to our challenges, especially if we do not recognize them or their effect on our marriage.

Today, every marriage is a relationship between two broken, vulnerable, and sinful people.  But every marriage can be the place where God does His greatest work on our characters, especially when we let Him heal our brokenness and naturally selfish natures. “Marriage is the soil for growing glory. We must see our spouses in light of what they are meant to become, without turning bitter or complacent about who they are. Marriage requires a radical commitment to love our spouses just as they are, and to be channels of God’s love and forgiveness to them, while longing for them to become what they are not yet. Every marriage moves either toward enhancing one another’s glory or toward degrading each other.”[6] Electing to lift up or put down your spouse is a conscious minute-by-minute choice that each spouse must make, every day of the marriage, especially during and after a time of crisis in the relationship. When we lift our spouse up we are lifted up too, and when we put them down, we are degraded too.
 
But my spouse does not want to go for help
What can you do if you are willing to seek professional help but your spouse is unwilling to go? If your spouse refuses, for whatever reason, you can still get help by yourself. It is never a waste of time or effort to reach out and accept professional help for yourself when your spouse is reluctant. Any healthy changes made by the spouse receiving counseling and therapy can help make positive changes within the family relationships. With the support of a trained professional, the less willing spouse may (or may not) choose to participate in the healing of the relationship. The courageous step in seeking professional help will often be the stone that has a healing ripple effect for the whole family system. Even when one spouse is infuriated or upset with the spouse who seeks outside help, he or she may eventually realize that reaching out for professional support was a positive and relationship-saving decision. Visit the divorce-busting website for helpful ideas about working on your marriage when you are the only one with the emotional energy to look for help. http://divorcebusting.com/sb_the_divorce_remedy.htm This website and material has been written by a leading marriage therapist. Here you can find ideas, links to her useful book, and sample chapters, etc. to help you discover seven steps for saving your marriage.

In Appendix B you will find a list of other helpful resources for different marital crises. Choose the ones that look most useful for you and take the time to read, research, and find the best help you can for yourself and your marriage.
 
[1] Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000).
[2] Barbara M. Roberts, Helping Those Who Hurt: A Handbook for Caring and Crisis (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2009).
[3] John Townsend, “For Better or Worse: A Marriage in Crisis,” Lifeway, accessed at
www.lifeway.com/Article/marriage-adultery-relationship-For-better-or-worse-A-marriage-in-crisis on May 5, 2014.
[4] Gary Chapman, Hope for the Separated: Wounded Marriages Can Be Healed (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1982, 1996, .
[5] David Sedlacek et al, “Pastoral Family Stress: A Report to the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists,”  
http://www.nadministerial.org/site/1/PDFs/Final%20report%20NAD%20Pastoral%20Education%20and%20Family%20Stress%20Study.pdf  
[6] Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Intimate Allies (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House
Publishers, Inc., 1995).
 

Cesar De Leon Ph.D., LMFT is ministerial and evangelism director for Central California Conference and Carolann De Leon R.N., M.S., is volunteer assistant ministerial director of the Central California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. They are co-founders of the Tu Familia Primero ministry.