I’m leaving my wife. I’m going to divorce her. She’s had an affair, and according to the Bible, it’s my right to divorce her!”
This angry man knew that my husband and I were pastors, and he’d made an appointment to see us. Wanting to help him save his marriage, I asked, “Have you considered forgiving her?” He quickly let me know that that was out of the question. She’d broken their marriage vow, and he wanted nothing more to do with her.
Those of us who are married exchanged vows on our wedding day. We made a promise. We signed a piece of paper that legally joined us as husband and wife. Do you remember your vows? You promised “for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.”
Unfortunately, death isn’t what parts many couples these days. Divorce does. So is it possible to divorce-proof a marriage? With God’s help, yes! After all, He thought up the whole idea of marriage. At Creation, when the earth was perfect and complete, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18). So He created Eve to be Adam’s companion. But He didn’t intend for them to be companions until they had an argument and decided to call it quits; not just until they slowly drifted apart due to a lack of communication. He gave them to each other for life.
I recently asked a marriage counselor, “What do you think are the key ingredients that every marriage needs in order to survive?”
His answer: respect, trust, communication, and forgiveness. Let’s consider each of these.
It was obvious that Charlie* and Ella had lost respect for each other. Just being in the same room with them made people feel uncomfortable. They muttered snide remarks under their breath, and the way they looked at each other sometimes spoke louder than their words. This lack of respect had gone on for years. But if you met this couple today, you’d never know that that’s how it was at one time. Today they only speak affectionately and respectfully to each other, and their looks communicate, “I love and respect you.”
What made the difference? Jesus. Although they were both lifelong Christians, they hadn’t been living close to God, and this affected every area of their lives, including their marriage. But when they both experienced a recommitment to God, they saw each other in a different light. The transformation was nothing short of miraculous to those who knew them.
The Bible instructs us to respect our spouses—even to submit to them! Paul said, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Respect can’t be one-sided if a marriage is going to work. Respect comes by treating each other with what’s known as the golden rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Do you want your spouse to criticize you, embarrass you, pick on you, or put you down?” None of us do. So treat him or her the way you want to be treated.
Years ago I knew a woman who had very little trust in her husband. He’d never given her any reason to doubt his love for her, but every night when he came home from work and headed to shower before dinner, she’d sneak out to his car to check the mileage. She knew how far it was to work and back.
One evening she called me in a panic. “There are extra miles on Matt’s car tonight!” she said, her voice shaking. “I just know he’s having an affair!”
How sad that she doubted him when the extra miles might have been just a trip to the store. There must be trust in a marriage. And trust comes from being honest and communicating well. If your spouse catches you in a lie—even a white lie—it’s going to be very hard for him or her to trust you in the future. It can also lead to doubts if you don’t freely communicate with your spouse where you’re going and what you’re doing. And doubts can run out of control in a concerned spouse’s mind.
Trust must be earned. And while each partner has to earn it, the other must also make the choice to believe and trust.
I was talking to a friend recently who’d survived a very rocky marriage. Watching him and his wife today, it was difficult to imagine that at one time they’d hardly communicated.
“She did the best she could to get my attention,” Carl told me, “but I was so wrapped up in my work that I didn’t take the time to listen. I just wanted her to hurry up so I could fix whatever it was rather than really listening to her talk about it.”
“So what changed?” I asked him. “How did you learn to communicate so well?”
“I learned to shut up!” he answered with a laugh. “I learned to listen—to really hear her feelings. I did my best to understand the ‘why’ of her feelings. I quit arguing with her and started validating her.”
If every couple would follow James’s advice, a lot of marriage communication issues would disappear. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Imagine what your marriage would be like if, whenever your spouse wanted to talk, you’d look right into his or her eyes and listen—really listen. And what if you were slow to speak to him or her? What if you carefully chose your words well before they came out of your mouth? And what if both of you were slow to get angry and practiced patience instead?
When Nik found out that Karrie had had an affair, he was shocked. After 20 years of marriage and a couple of kids, he had no idea that things had gotten so bad. But he didn’t immediately think of leaving her.
“I had to see if there was something worth saving,” he told me years later. “And I couldn’t walk away until I understood how I had contributed to creating the problem. I told Karrie, ‘I’m willing to work on this if you are.’ ”
It took months—nine months, in fact—and it wasn’t easy. But with God’s help, a counselor, and a lot of hard work, Nik was able to forgive Karrie, and their marriage began to heal.
It seems so easy for couples to walk away. Divorce has become the norm when things don’t seem to be working out. But there’s hope for those who refuse to give up on their marriage. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with determination and the right kind of help, healing can come. The scars may remain, but they will fade with time. And a rich, loving relationship can grow—“till death do you part.”
The ripple effect
There’s no doubt about it: If your marriage is strong, your children will benefit. If parents set a good example on how to respect, trust, communicate, and forgive, their children will learn it, and they will tend to live out these virtues in their own lives.
Deuteronomy 6:5–9 gives this beautiful challenge to families: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
A promise and a piece of paper. They’re meant for life. And with God’s help, it can stay that way.