Every couple I know disagrees about something, if it’s not what type of car to buy, then it is getting ready for church on a Sunday morning, or getting their four year old out of daddy and mummy’s bed. Resolving these differences does not constitute a bad marriage. 1 Corinthians 7: 28b is a verse I quote often at marriage conferences “but those who marry will face many troubles in this life”. The issue is not conflicts but conflict resolution.
There are three stages in any marriage, the romantic love stage, negotiation stage and commitment stage. The negotiation stage is when couples work out their differences and form a unifying vision for this new unit – how long you stay in this stage depends on both of you, and your obedience to the principles that govern marital relationships. My definition of a bad marriage is one that both the husband and wife or one of them is unwilling to work things out. A bad marriage is also one that both husband or wife do not have guidelines for conflict resolutions even if they love each other, when you don’t have a definition of the truth, it is left to either person’s opinion.
I have said to many engaged couples that the reason we are told not to be unequally yoked is not because we won’t have marital conflicts but so that when conflicts occurs both parties have an agreement on what the truth is (for Christians – it is Biblical principles) and that truth is the final authority. This was the case in my marriage.
Understanding the attributes of “Bad Marriages
Many things affect how we conflict, from individual personality, to family of origin, to birth order, to the truth we hold as absolute. In the lifetime of a marriage, that union would go through minor and major conflict issues (what is minor or major depends on the two individuals involved – what is major to me may be minor to the other person).
My first definition of a bad marriage is a relationship in which both people in the union are unwilling to work things out. This has nothing to do with the gravity or severity of the issue. When two people marry for the wrong reasons like pregnancy, immigration issues, rebound, out of sympathy, out of rebellion etc, and they are not really attracted to each other and one or both of them have feelings for someone else, without God such people would always wonder what will happen if they had married the person they really “love”. The problem this brings in a marriage is that with every problem in the marriage (which are by the way inevitable), the other person is always compared with an illusion of reality. I have been blessed to counsel many marriages, and in my estimation the stated issues are not the problems. I would say many of the issues are simply relational issues that married couples deal with, but the constant thoughts of greener pastures outside of this present marriage is a very strong lure.
I know a woman who constantly compares the present husband with her ex, she abandoned her Christian married friends advice for single Christian friends and the lure of freedom that the single friends have is now pushing her to seek such freedom through divorce (it has nothing to do with what her husband does or do not do – her excuse for wanting out of this marriage is to frivolous compared to other marriages that I’ve seen God heal). This problem would occur in a Christian marriage when we are married to a “church-goer” (a religious person) instead of a believer whose life reflects the characters of Christ.
My second definition of a bad marriage is when there is no clear definition of what is right or what is wrong, and each person does things as they see fit. I have used this statistics before and I’ll use it again, 85% of Americans subscribe to Christianity and only 9% believe in the infallibility of the Bible (Barna.org), which means 76% so called Christians ordinarily would not be in obedience to what the Bible says but will choose “common sense” when they find biblical instructions too difficult.
After just five years in full time ministry I came to the conclusion that the biggest problems in any marriage is not communication, money and sex as many books have said, but lack of “humility” and lack of “obedience” to the owner’s manual. When the definition of adultery is not set according to the word but according to culture, then we have a big problem. I have met with supposed Christian women who are pleased with extra marital affairs with a man who has a wife and kids. There are also Christians (in-fact Pastors), who have re-defined divorce to achieve personal objectives (how else would one explain a popular TV Bishop saying God told him to divorce without accusation of adultery – would God ever contradict himself?).
Instead of being tender to wives as Christ is to the church, many people and cultures believe women should be reduced to being second-class citizens or beaten to submission. Respect for husbands even among women in church is now conditional, “how can I respect a man who does not respect himself?” Did the Bible give any condition for respecting one’s husband? Knowing what the Bible say about forgiveness, we all (me included) look for reasons not to forgive. What about pride? Imagine husband and wife saying to each other “don’t you know me?” what is there to know, you already sleep together! When the husband and wife believe in the Bible as the final authority on marital issues, issues are resolved quickly because they both would accept the finality of the word even if it bruises their ego.
Healing a bad marriage
The first thing to do in healing a bad marriage is not to get into one by getting married to an unbeliever, see my article “choosing who to marry” for details on that. Then be part of a pre-marriage program that will help set a solid foundation for your marriage. It is erroneous for anyone going into a marital relationship to think that because they are Christians they would not have problems. Problems are inevitable for reasons we’ve mentioned earlier in this article. What is important is learning and getting equipped on how to deal with issues as they surface. In order to put into practice what you will learn in a marriage conference or seminar etc, it is important to have a humble and teachable spirit. Case in point― I have many times seen husband or wife elbow each other at conferences saying “see, he is talking to you”. Instead of concentrating on what the teacher/preacher etc say about your spouse’s short-coming, listen for how the message affects you and plan to effect change in yourself.
As I read Philippians 2 over and over, I have come to my own conclusion that one needs humility in order to be obedient. Christ humbled himself and then was obedient. One of the problems Ola and I went through was how she spoke to me. She has spent many more years in America than in Nigeria. So what constitutes respect to her is not what it is to me, I used to get really rattled by her choice of words, and at every point I would say, “you are disrespectful”. The Holy Spirit finally dealt with me on that, now I’m able to see how she respects me, instead of how I want respect. I see this problem many times over among Africans (Nigerians, Togolese etc) married to American-Africans (Nigerian-American or Togolese-American). Now we have both re-defined respect as we believe the bible defines it. It is one thing to know the Word; it is another thing to apply it.
The third way of healing a bad marriage is the application of known biblical precepts. Prophet Hosea said “my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also reject you as my priest.” In this statement the problem was not only the acquisition of knowledge but more importantly the rejection of it. When you feel like yelling at your spouse or someone else, adopt a new policy of doing other stuff. When I’m mad I sing (not all the time, but most), then I talk later, if it’s my wife it will be that night and if it’s the kids we talk on our way to or from school. I have counseled with many people and advised them to call someone to calm them down whenever they are at their breaking point.
Forgiveness is not easy, especially if the person is not repentant. However it is not a choice for us as Christians. Our job is to ask for the grace to forgive, whether the person we presume to have wronged us is repentant or not. I have never seen or believed that there is a marriage that is beyond redemption if both parties are willing to humble themselves and be obedient to the word of God, shedding pride and prayerfully asking for God’s grace to accomplish His purpose.
Are you in a bad marriage? Take a note book and write down what you think is causing the problems in your marriage, then write how you have contributed to the problem. Now seek what the word of God says you should do in such situation (it is okay to seek godly counsel from a counselor or your pastor), then pray for the grace and courage to do that which Christ require of you, irrespective of how your spouse is still behaving. (In case of persistent physical abuse separate and seek help immediately). While at it, pray for your spouse, that God will have a divine encounter with him/her on their job, at a bar, with ungodly friends etc but remember to uphold your godly character like apostle Peter said in 1 Peter 3:1-2 , as this would be the best catalyst for change in your spouse.