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Marriage: Room for improvement

By John W. Kennedy

Marriage experts concur that the chief culprit in deteriorating marriages today isn’t necessarily infidelity, debt or lack of communication. More often, what is causing a chink in the once-solid marriage is busyness.

For example, a marriage can easily be neglected when a husband is obsessed with getting a work project done and focused on his church committee duties. Meanwhile, the wife might be preoccupied with starting a home business and making sure the kids are transported to all their functions.

“People are not taking the time to nurture their marriage relationship,” says Dr. Donald A. Lichi, a licensed psychologist with Emerge Ministries in Akron, Ohio.

“Couples need to schedule common activities,” says Dr. Leo Godzich, founder and chairman of the National Association of Marriage Enhancement (NAME). “Many Christian couples have no idea what their spouse’s schedule looks like for the next day, so they have unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment.”

Pop culture’s sensually charged messages make it difficult for even a committed couple to keep a marriage strong. Celebrity couples — including notable Christians — break up all the time, seemingly without missing a beat in their professional lives. Regular churchgoers fight the ever-growing view of marriage as little more than a rite of passage until two people tire of each other.

Marriage Encounter (www.agme.org) offers weekend retreats for couples with “average to good marriages” to examine their lives together, and schedules around 60 such retreats across the country annually. At each venue, three trained couples (one of them clergy) help 20 pairs of attending spouses evaluate their marriage. Mark and Becky Rhoades of Springfield, Mo., are national coordinators.

“Couples spend time together to systematically see where their marriage needs to be shored up,” Mark Rhoades says. “Anybody can do a little better.”

Most of the time the couples — 80 percent of them from AG congregations — work through materials on their own. No public sharing is required in small groups.

REVERSING DISINTEGRATION

Many marriages have deteriorated beyond the point of working through difficulties in a friendly manner. The key to preventing a complete breakdown, experts say, is for one spouse to truly commit to uncritical love.

“Both parties contribute to the demise of a marriage, but to varying degrees,” says Mae Chambers, co-founder of SavedMarriageNetwork.com. “One spouse needs to be willing to go the extra mile and ask God for a self-examination.”

Chambers notes it takes two to perpetuate malicious interaction. When one partner sacrificially commits to avoid retaliation, that cycle is broken.

“It takes a lot of dying to self,” says Chambers, who lives in Nashville, Tenn. “I had to learn about God’s unconditional love for me before I was able to love my husband again.”

Soon after their wedding, Mae and John Chambers joined the choir and special music programs at church. But seven years into their union, alcohol, pornography and anger controlled John, who embarked on a series of affairs.

Initially, John didn’t feel guilt about his adultery because he scorned his wife’s wrathful attitudes toward him. But when she stopped nagging and showed him respect, John started to feel ashamed of his behavior. The couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in March.

Chambers tells her story in Can My Marriage Be Saved?, co-authored by her daughter, Erika. The book contains accounts of how 21 other couples on the brink of divorce — caused by financial strife, adultery, sexual addiction, substance abuse and other issues — managed to stay together.

Lichi says when an offended party confesses where he or she has been wrong it often prompts the Holy Spirit to prick the conscience of the more blameworthy spouse. Consequently a marriage that appears moribund has the chance for resuscitation.

“We believe every Christian marriage can be saved,” says Godzich, who is also an associate pastor at Phoenix First Assembly of God. “Unfortunately, most marriage ministries believe that some people should get divorced.”

Eighteen years ago, Godzich began teaching a marriage Sunday School class at the church. Today, Phoenix First has become one of the few megachurches in the country to virtually eliminate divorce among its members.

For the past 13 years, NAME has hosted an annual international marriage conference. The organization has opened more than 200 NAME centers by offering biblically based training to husband-wife marriage counseling teams.

“In every church there are many lay couples who, if equipped, can do the dynamic work of ministry,” Godzich says. “Often a husband and wife are more willing to open up to a lay counseling couple in the church than to their pastor.”

Lichi says Emerge Ministries, in conjunction with local churches, is now training couples to be marriage mentors.

ROAD TO RECOVERY

Many marital partners who have teetered on the brink of divorce say the counsel of a mature Christian couple helped them stay together.

“Ask God for a mentor who will pray about your struggle,” Chambers says. “You don’t want to find someone who will gossip or bash your spouse.”

Another practical help is to enroll in a marriage class at church that will provide support and accountability. Typically such instruction includes establishing boundaries — such as not going to lunch alone with a co-worker of the opposite sex — to protect against improper emotional bonding.

For a couple that seeks professional help, it’s important to find a counselor who believes the marriage is a covenant.

“Marriage is more than a commitment,” says Godzich, author of Is God in Your Marriage? and Men Are From Dirt, Women Are From Men. “It’s a covenant that is a promise made before and with God that should not be broken.”

Chambers went to three counselors who told her that her marriage couldn’t be salvaged. She had to end friendships with women who insisted she divorce.

“They told me, ‘He’s had an affair, you need to get out,’ ” Chambers recalls. “They refused to pray for my husband.”

MARRIAGES RESTORED

Couples in such a desperate environment often benefit from attending a MarriageRestored retreat. The ministry (www.marriagerestored.com) hosts 16-20 weekends a year throughout the United States.

Typically, 10 couples — half of them from an AG background — gather for the weekend facilitated by two couples. But rather than merely listen to a lecture, individual husbands and wives are taught how to minister to themselves by completing a series of sharing lessons dealing with communication, forgiveness and trust.

Adultery and pornography use are leading culprits of troubled marriages, according to Gary and Juanita Thayer, MarriageRestored national coordinators from Lafayette, Ind.

“Couples who were going to divorce court on Monday have been able to work out their differences on the weekend,” Juanita Thayer says. “We’ve also had people already divorced get back together.”

For a month afterwards, couples complete homework assignments, call their workshop facilitator and strive to be accountable to their pastor. Couples also are encouraged to seek out mentors in their church. They are referred to a Christian counselor who won’t advise them to give up on their marriage.

“Too often, couples hear from a number of different sources the notion that marriage can be discarded, that there is a better relationship elsewhere,” Gary Thayer says. “Couples hear the false message that there shouldn’t be any pain in marriage. We need to let God take us through the pain into a better relationship with Him and our spouse.”

“The enemy has been extremely successful in convincing people they are entitled to be absolutely happy under every circumstance at all times,” Lichi says. “But marriage takes a lot of hard work.”

Lichi says a recommitted husband and wife may need to listen to each other again on what they expect of each other regarding money, intimacy, parenting and household responsibilities. Civility and kind words can go a long way toward keeping marriages from spiraling downward.

“So much damage is done by verbal assaults upon each other,” Lichi says.

Church leaders have a role in ensuring that couples don’t enter into matrimony too lightly, according to Kenneth J. Bosse, pastor of New Life Assembly of God in Raymond, N.H. Last year, Bosse and pastors of the six other congregations in the city of 12,000 signed a “community marriage covenant” to hold each other accountable. A couple wanting to wed in one of Raymond’s churches must give the pastor six months’ notice and participate in at least four premarital counseling sessions. A minister in one denomination won’t perform a ceremony for a member of a different congregation without approval from the other pastor.

Married couples at New Life are encouraged to attend church workshops where they learn life skills ranging from conflict resolution to establishing a budget. Bosse is a trained seminar facilitator.

KEEPING MARRIAGE STRONG

Chambers says she asks God to remind her daily to speak kind and appreciative words to her husband. Although some of John’s habits still bother her, she has stopped nitpicking and has accepted him for who he is.

“It’s important that a partner feels accepted and safe,” Chambers says.

To guard against busyness overtaking schedules, Chambers advises couples to take half an hour of uninterrupted time at the end of the workday to communicate with each other. She also urges twosomes to rigorously guard a weekly “date night.”

“Marriage must be nurtured to grow and thrive,” Chambers says. “There must be a plan to spend time together.”

Lichi says couples won’t divorce if they keep three pledges: pray daily for their marriage, even if only briefly; have a regular, mutually healthy sexual relationship; and develop a healthy recreational time.

Perhaps there’s no more essential factor in unity than prayer.

“If couples will begin to pray together out loud every day it will revolutionize their marriage,” Gary Thayer says. “The divorce rate for couples who pray regularly is only one in a thousand. God, not just church attendance, is what makes a difference.”


JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).

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