This post contains the text of an email, with minor amendments for the sake of anonymity and flow, that I wrote in response to a pastor who reached out asking about resources that can provide help for struggling marriages.
Thank you so very much for reaching out. This is an area that is hard to address in a brief email, and probably needs a conversation at the very least (most properly an ongoing conversation!) but I will try to share what I can here.
Before listing some of the resources I can recommend, I feel like its important to emphasize some principles that I have discovered are fundamental, but which, from my own experience in seeking marriage help, seem to be missing from most peoples’ consciousness, including pastoral counselors. I share these in the hopes that the resources I have included below will make more sense.
1. Marriage transcends the couple and Jesus Christ is a member of the marriage
Marriage is a spiritual and supernatural reality with a spiritual and supernatural dimension. While it can be incredibly helpful to work on emotional and relational issues, leaving out the spiritual/supernatural dimension ignores an essential element. Couples are not in their marriages alone on their own to solve their problems with only human resources and help, and the future of any marriage is not dependent on fate, emotions, or the other spouse’s actions or choices. Jesus has a will and a plan for the good of each spouse and the marriage relationship itself, and this is possible to seek, discover, and benefit from.
My experience has been that the supernatural dimension, as well as the real resources available in that regard, are rarely factored into Christian marriage counseling regardless of whether a counselor is Protestant or Catholic. This feature of the marriage relationship just seems to be off of our radar screens. The capacity for the Lord to bring healing to marriages in difficulty, even in situations that look impossible, is very real. This perception that marriage consists only of the couple themselves and their own efforts tends to lead us to troubleshoot out of that perception only, which means we rarely see what we can do and what it can look like to draw on the resource of the Holy Spirit and supernatural grace.
If this is the one thing I wish we could start forming Christians in, it would be this – that marriage (any marriage!) ultimately rests on the foundation of the original covenant love and faithfulness of the triune God, and not on human effort. So much hinges on our understanding what marriage actually is and the spiritual principles and resources that are already there and available to every couple!
2. Inviting Jesus and his wisdom and will into the situation does not depend on whether the other spouse desires help.
This ties in with what is said above and sounds simple (and is very freeing and empowering!), but from my own experience and having walked with many others in crisis situations, this is one of the most difficult conceptual hurdles for most people to get over. Most of us seem to place too much emphasis on how the other spouse is currently choosing to respond. Yes, there is a certain level of human freedom and free will, but it is not quite as radically sovereign as our culture seems to think it is and the Lord has infinite ways and means to draw people towards grace and truth.
I recommend reading the Introduction and Chapter 1 of The Power of a Praying Wife by Stormie Omartien. What she speaks of here applies to any spouse, husband or wife.
3) Divorce is very rarely a “good” option (and is not as “final” as we tend to think it is)
Many people in our culture, including many Christians, keep the idea of divorce sitting in the background “in case things just can’t be worked out.” My husband and I certainly went into our marriage with this mindset because it was what we grew up around and absorbed from the culture around us, and it was a major factor in our winding up in that very situation. I have since learned that seeking a divorce is only a “good” option in very high conflict marriages or where there is explicit and unambiguous abuse. If these things are not present, especially if there are children, divorce should be eliminated from any consideration right from the get go.
I highly recommend the following book for anyone who works with married couples in any capacity – pre-and post-marriage – for understanding why this is so important:
Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce by Elizabeth Marquart.
I realize the following will challenge certain assumptions, but a civil divorce also does not mean the spiritual bond of marriage is necessarily severed, nor does it mean that supernatural grace is unable to bring healing to a marriage/family (see the resources below).
While the courts can help bring about practical safety to spouses and children who are in very high conflict and abusive situations, there is a very big distinction between using divorce for this purpose and using it to end the civil effects of normal, but struggling, marriages or even marriages in which there has been infidelity.
I realize I am pushing on some buttons and painful cultural wounds in saying this, but this is a very important distinction, and in one that our children and the next generation very much need for us to understand.
With all of that said, the following resources are ones that I have had direct experience with and have found very helpful in my situation, which is one spouse remaining faithful and not seeking divorce or a new relationship in the midst of difficulty, separation, or divorce. Not everyone will want to make use of or agree with the existence of these kinds of ministries, but if a spouse does want pastoral and practical help in this kind of situation, it is important to know that 1) there are many people who choose this path, 2) it can be incredibly spiritually fruitful and rewarding (it is not co-dependence or denial of reality, it is entrusting one’s marriage and family to Jesus), and 3) many broken marriages can and do experience healing and restoration when spouses choose this path.
Covenant Keepers, Inc.
This ministry is led by Koji and Deanne Bell whose marriage was restored after infidelity, separation and impending divorce. Previously, it was led by a couple named Rex and Carolyn Johnson, whose marriage was restored after divorce (their testimony can be found here). The strength of this ministry is the small group fellowship that is available through in-person and online groups. They also have an email newsletter and yearly conferences. I have been a member of one of their small groups for several years and have been very blessed by it.
Rejoice Marriage Ministries
This ministry was founded by a couple, Bob and Charlyne Steinkamp, whose marriage was restored after long-term difficulties, infidelity and 2 years of being divorced (now led by Charlyne after Bob died) They offer daily devotionals, regular podcasts, and an abundance of teaching, resources, and testimonies, much of which is available free on their website and app. The power of testimony available through this ministry has been life-changing for my understanding of what is possible.
Free e-book called First Aid for a Wounded Marriage
This is a short e-book which describes how grace worked to bring radical healing in the marriage of a couple named Michael and Marilyn Phillips, who went on to found a marriage ministry called 2=1.
Some other resources that I am aware of are:
- Retrouvaille, a Catholic ministry that specializes in providing effective pastoral care for marriages in crisis.
- A ministry that I am aware of, but do not have direct experience with is: Undone Redone, which helps families dealing with pornography, sexual addiction and adultery, and was founded by a couple whose marriage ended in divorce due to pornography addiction and adultery, but whose marriage was also eventually restored and healed.
- The Institute for Family Studies, which is a very helpful resource on issues to do with marriage and family generally, recently posted an article titled Five Ideas for Strenghtehing a Pandemic Stressed Marriage, which listed various resources, including Retrouvaille.
These are not the only resources I have and are aware of, especially after studying at the John Paul II Institute, but don’t want to overwhelm! I am happy to have more conversation on this topic anytime.
I feel that forming and sustaining marriages and families is one of the most important and foundational tasks that we are called to as human and as Christians, especially in our current time. One of my prayers and dreams is that the church would become a place that stewards human love and family in truth and grace with radical trust in the Lord’s ability to heal and transform people and relationships.
In Him, Alicia