Advice on Staying Married
By Kathy Schoenborn and Shelly Esser
It’s Sunday and Sharon and her husband once again find their usual seats at church and settle in for worship. They are careful not to touch or speak to each other for fear of the dirty looks and sarcasm that always bubbles near the surface.
Sharon feels so very alone as she scans other couples in the sanctuary, and wonders if any of them struggle as much with their marriages as she does. The others look so happy and together. She shrinks lower into the pew, and wonders what happened that she and her husband have drifted so far apart.
The pain overwhelms her, but she is too ashamed to talk about it. Amy hides the warm tears that fall on her pillow, as her husband, smelling heavily of alcohol, drops into bed beside her.
Amy remembers a time when she loved her husband, but his continued drinking and disconnected attitude have her feeling more like a roommate than a wife. The fond times they once had fade further into her memory.
Anita's husband spends most of his time, when home, nitpicking about her housekeeping, attacking her with cruel words that eat away at the confident woman she used to be. She tries to be understanding and discuss the problems he has at work, but his recent escalation of anger scares her.
All of these women are living with the challenges of a difficult marriage. They are Christians and they want to stay married, but they don’t know how to survive the continued downward spirals that trap them. They are our neighbors, friends, and the women we sit next to at church. Some may not even be aware of what the problems are, yet they are even more clueless about what to do. It seems like no one else in the church struggles like they do, and they wonder what’s wrong with them and why God doesn’t answer their prayers and rescue them from this pain? Is divorce their only answer?
All marriages have seasons of difficulty, some more than others. Our common response is to blame our spouse, close down to self-protect, grow apart, and search for the nearest exit. Our society with its high divorce rate, “no-fault” divorce, “I deserve to be happy” and “grass is greener” philosophies encourage the deception that divorce will solve our difficulties. Unfortunately these secular ideas have pervaded the church. Many churches offer classes to help make a good marriage better, or discuss how to recover from divorce. However, there is a huge gap in provision for the large and hurting population who dearly want to stay married, but don’t know how. Unfortunately the church models the 50 percent divorce rate of the world, and 75 percent of divorces are filed by women, churched or not.
Kathy Schoenborn knows all too well about living in a difficult marriage. After 37 years of marriage, many of them difficult and tottering near divorce, she is learning to thrive in spite of past struggles. When she and her husband were really hurting, the available marriage programs caused more hurt and shame as the couple was too dysfunctional to engage in the programs. Through her personal experience and frustration with a lack of resources, she has developed a ministry to strengthen women who struggle in their marriages. The verses in 2 Cor. 1:3-4 inspired her to reach out to hurting women, encouraging them with the compassion and comfort that she has received from God. She envisioned it to be what she needed back then. It is a positive, Christ-centered, proactive, self-growth group, full of hope and skills for coping.
According to Kathy, who is a licensed professional counselor and Bible Study teacher, a difficult marriage is often one with ongoing, unrelenting issues that commonly worsen over time. Hurting women know they don’t want the pain to continue, but who don’t know how to heal and bridge the ever-widening chasm of distance and indifference. So, how can the church help in these situations? Kathy has spent the last eight years developing a ministry for hurting women, that encourages their spiritual growth while teaching them skills for personal and marital healing. She has concluded that God and skills can be a life changing combination.
Small groups can be an invaluable support for struggling women, and are done in weekly topical sessions or retreat formats. The group may be the first place women acknowledge that they struggle in their marriages. When we live in denial about anything, there is no hope for change. This honest admission is HUGE, but is paired with the powerful and inspiring reassurance that they are not alone in their struggles. The “sisterhood” that develops as we share our pain in a controlled, Godly atmosphere becomes a unique springboard to self responsibility and growth. The groups have strict guidelines for sharing to keep the interactions positive and focused on solutions and empowerment of each woman to be fully whom God created her to be. Women are guided to take their eyes off their spouse and instead, focus on becoming strong, healthy God-fearing Christian wives. This means that she doesn’t tolerate such things as verbal or physical abuse, adultery, or addictions. However, women usually need to get stronger as individuals before they are able to address these serious concerns more effectively. Bible verses undergird each lesson as members are encouraged to seek God’s answers to their unique situation. Women learn to appreciate and accept differences, while helping each other grow in their ability to learn to seek and wait on God. The unique and effective workshop model which considers different learning styles is yet another component which facilitates participants in being challenged to grow spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. Topics studied in the groups include hope, expectations, attitude, communication, assertiveness, emotions, anger, boundaries, conflict, forgiveness, love, intimacy, our calling, and resilience. Presentation of topics not only fosters growth in knowledge and wisdom from God, but also challenges inaccurate paradigms. These small shifts in our frame of reference about life and marriage have the potential to motivate radically changed behaviors. Kathy has the joy and privilege of seeing women have “light bulb” moments of insight and awareness which free them from misperceptions that have bound them to their pain for years.
One woman came to the class right after her husband suddenly and unexpectedly left. She was in shock and was devastated. Yet, in spite of the sudden chaos of her life, having a support system of other women empowered her to be strong, and not needy in her interactions with her wayward spouse. She purposefully chose to express her desire that they remain married, but gave him the space to make the choice he needed to make. Her attitude allowed him the freedom to choose to come back to the marriage instead of being scared off by her typical emotionalism, neediness, or demands.
Another woman in the group had a difficult marriage until the day her husband died, but she was able to heal tremendously on her own, and have joy in spite of her husband’s dysfunctional behaviors. She was sad and disappointed at times with her marriage, but she did not let it dominate her life.
There are no guarantees. Sometimes God heals a difficult marriage. Sometimes it stays the same. Many participants in Kathy’s groups experience something in between. Ministry to women in difficult marriages provides a place where women grow stronger in the Lord, prepare to persevere, and can be joyful in spite of disappointment. Each of us needs to seek the Lord’s plan for our lives and marriages.
Patterns to Examine for Possible Growth
- We need to seek our identity more fully in Christ. We have to need God and want man, rather than the other way around.
- We need to accept accountability to God for ourselves alone. To heal from our past, find our joy in Him, and fulfill our calling.
- We need to examine our expectations and discard distorted societal attitudes about marriage.
- We need to stop blaming our spouse for problems, as this blocks us from being part of the solutions.
- We need to learn about relational dynamics and identify and change our own hurtful and damaging patterns.
- We need to learn skills to communicate effectively.
- We need to learn skills to negotiate conflict less negatively and more realistically.
- We need to learn the fine balance of getting healthier, stronger, and persevering in marital difficulties without accepting abusiveness from our spouse.
God is the answer for difficult marriages - always. How He works things out and His timing are unique to each person, but God wants marriages to be healed. As women learn to heal themselves and surrender their difficult marriages to God, He is finally free to work. God gives us the strength to challenge old patterns and courageously lead the way in relational healing. He expects it of us! He gives us hope beyond ourselves as we humble ourselves, separate from trying to change our spouse or fix up our marriage in our own power. God alone will be our peace; He will destroy the barrier of hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14).
The church is full of thousands of Sharons, Amys, and Anitas - women who need to speak up and find support in the midst of their difficult marriages. As they grow and persevere on the Godly high road in spite of their marital struggles, the Lord will bless them beyond their expectations. Even if their marriages do not change as a result of their growth, the women will be stronger, closer to God, and more peaceful and joyful as a result. Who knows, God may bless us with a spouse who also desires to grow and honor God with his life, and the joy and blessings that could result will amaze us! Dare to step out of your hiding place, seek God with your sisters, and step out of the way as God surprises you!
Debunking Some Marriage Myths
- It is impossible to maintain infatuated love for a lifetime. Feelings of love fluctuate.
- Many, many times relational problems are due to poor patterns of interaction, rather than the people we struggle with. Don’t dump the partner, change the patterns!
- Couples who are happily married and couples that divorce both have 69 percent of their conflicts unresolvable. The difference is that the happy couples manage conflict less negatively. Conflict is inevitable, negativity is optional.
- 80 percent of those who divorce say they still love their spouse, but don’t know how to be married. You can learn some skills for marriage!
- A study at the University of Chicago found that couples who considered divorce but didn’t, were happy five years later. Those who divorced were less happy than those who persevered. Conclusion: Divorce often doesn’t bring about the relief we expect.
Do Not Hide Your Difficulties!
- Get real about your own difficulties and speak up to trusted individuals.
- Listen compassionately and encourage women who are struggling; recommend help.
- Seek Christian counseling.
Do Not Be Alone!
- Get into a discipleship relationship with a mature woman.
- Find a woman who has overcome difficulties to be a mentor to you.
- Start a Bible study group for others who struggle.
- Get together and pray with other women who struggle.
- Select a book on marriage to read and discuss with others who struggle.
- Take a marriage course (see smartmarriages.com).
- Arrange to bring a healthy marriage program to your church.