Jim Collins, a highly regarded business consultant, is quick to point out that he’s not an expert on leadership or organizational success. Rather, he is a highly motivated student who loves learning about what makes businesses successful. He is a self-described “curious guy who loves learning.” In one study, Collins looked at companies that were doing reasonably well, and then, at some catalytic moment, they took a dramatic step forward. His curiosity compelled him to ask: “What happened in the turn-around moment that created the new growth?” He wrote about these findings in a book entitled Good to Great. I’d like to take the Collins’ approach to exploring marriage success.
I want to describe what I have learned from people who have survived as couples who were at one point “married and conflicted” and found a way to navigate through these difficulties to a better and more hope-filled future.
As with my previous blog, I want to look at the question from two angles:
- Address those who find themselves married and conflicted
- Advise those trying to be of help to those who are struggling.
I’m married and conflicted!
Every married couple will face times of intense conflict. No one is exempt. Not even people who love Jesus and faithfully attend church. Sometimes the conflict is the result of one really bad decision. Other times it’s an evolving sense of frustration connected to personality differences, irritations over personal idiosyncrasies, and/or general disagreements over money, kids, or squeezing the wrong end of proverbial tube of toothpaste.
These conflicts are a reminder that marriage is really, really hard! When people get married, they are told that relationships are hard work. Most new couples nod in perfunctory agreement and imagine they are up to the task. However, after a couple years, they understand this reality at a whole new level. Hard work takes on a whole new meaning. It keeps you up at night, causes continued distractions during the days, and makes giving up really tempting. Hard is really hard!
Again, EVERY marriage has seasons where things are challenging. I repeat this because when it does get difficult, one of the first things people start thinking about is that their marriage was a mistake. If this were right, it wouldn’t be so hard.
One of the great things about the teaching of Jesus is that he was straight-up. Jesus didn’t mince words. He said, In this world you will have trouble (John 16:33). Some of Jesus’ closest associates wrote the same things, Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you (I Peter 4:12). James adds an interesting twist, Consider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of many kind (James 1:3). That sounds ridiculous – especially when it comes to marriage conflict. James is obviously considering this from a broader view. No hardship is pleasant in the moment. But something good can happen when we persevere through it. If you don’t give up!
So, what can we learn from those who have faced difficulty and found resolution and deeper intimacy? Why is it that some people walk away from a trying season and end up thriving? It seems to boil down to (at least) these three things: They stop and…
- Face it.
- Talk through it.
- Fight for it
People are busy and when they experience something difficult, many people want to avoid it. Although it is completely illogical, people tend to hope problems will resolve themselves. That doesn’t happen. As in most areas of life, ignoring a problem make things worse. Isn’t it interesting how both people in a relationship can be painfully aware that something is going on, but neither of them want to start the conversation? They just keep themselves busy until they can no longer stand the sight of each other.
Couples who get this right, stop and realize avoidance is not going to help. They are willing to put other things on hold in order to deal with the challenge. It’s like the I-misplaced-my-credit-card-moment. Everything stops. Couples who successfully navigate the harder seasons of married life realize that when something is wrong, pretending all-is-well only makes matters worse. They have the wisdom to stop (quickly) and begin sorting it out.
They face it!
Couples who handle conflict well, don’t hide from the truth. They are willing to deal with reality of their situation by not minimizing it. They don’t sugarcoat it. They face it – in all its ugliness. Jesus talked about it in terms of bringing things into the light (John 1:7).
Light is often used in scripture to reference sincerity, clarity, and honesty. These are attributes of God. He is light. He exposes the darkness, not to bring shame and condemnation, but to bring perspective and healing. This is part of what it means to “walk in the light” (I John 1:7). It’s about facing reality in the light of his truth and grace. This isn’t just religious ideology; most wise leaders understand that solving any problem begins with addressing it honestly.
Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were. Be candid…
They talk through it!
We have all heard the advice, you need to talk things out! But, to be helpful, the talking piece actually needs a qualifier. It’s careful conversation. It’s respectful communication. It’s talking with grace and understanding (Colossians 4:6). And most people don’t come to this easily – especially when emotions are high. The truth is, we all need help with it, and easy as that sounds, asking for help is also difficult.
Can you relate to this scene? You are working through a tension with your spouse. The argument starts sounding strangely familiar. You don’t want to bother your friends, because everybody has their own issues. You don’t want to go to a counselor, because things aren’t “that bad” – and so you just rehash the same things in the same ways and nothing changes. UGH!
Couples that make the turn-around have the humility to learn how to talk things through. They read books. They have wise friends. They are in community. And they aren’t afraid to seek professional help (long before the divorce papers have been signed).
They fight for it!
Sometimes divorce is an act of mercy, particularly after abuse, adultery or abandonment. But, in today’s world, divorce is the solution all too quickly. Things get hard and people opt out. The marriage vows carry little lasting influence. But, its different for those who experience a relational turn around. They see their relationship as worth the fight. In fact, this may be the single most important part of a redemptive process.
“Fighting” is not usually a word we associate with Christianity. In fact, we may say there is already too much fighting going on in the name of faith. But there is a significant distinction between fighting with and fighting for – and it’s the fighting for that makes all the difference in marriage. It’s about being tenacious and expending whatever energy is required to change, to listen, to forgive, and to try again. It’s about a mindset that realizes that no matter how hard something is, there are some relationships worth fighting for (I Timothy 6:12).
I want to be of help!
It’s a tricky balancing act – but few things in life are as satisfying as being part of reclamation effort with people that matter to you. Lean in… but not too much.
All too often we let the awkwardness of a situation drive us away from our friends or at minimum we keep them at a safe distance. We may think that is what they prefer and it’s certainly easier for us. But in doing so we forfeit the opportunity to be an extension of God’s love to the people we love. Lean in instead!
When there is a sign/signal that something isn’t working so well, try saying, “It seems like something is going on with you guys and if you ever need someone to listen, I am here for you.” Give them time/space to consider, “I know this is a personal matter and you may want to think it over. I just want you to know I’m available and interested in being a friend to you.”
In making that offer, we also need to come to grips with the fact that helpers are regularly tempted to try and fix the person and/or control the outcome. Helpers may mean well, but overdone, those efforts quickly become unwelcome. Listen with empathy. Pray with sincerity. Advise with humility. And trust God implicitly. Lean in…but not too much.