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 solely 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, human free will is a reality, but it is not as sovereign as most of us seem to think. The Lord has infinite ways and means to draw people towards grace and truth, particularly through the power of prayer. It is also important to note the relationship that Jesus emphasizes between freedom and truth (John 8:32). While we have the ability to choose, our capacity for freedom relies upon a relationship with truth.
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 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 significant contributing factor in our winding up in that very situation. We both had parents who had strong and stables marriages. But I also remember growing up around many couples who had been divorced and remarried, many of them Christians and fellow church members, during the “divorce revolution” of the 1970s and 80s. I do not say this to judge, but only to point out that what I witnessed influenced me and shaped my understanding in foundational ways. Even though I wouldn’t have said it out loud and had no conception of the many practical and spiritual implications of this view, I came to see marriage as a relationship that could be “tried out” and that divorce was the go-to option if doesn’t happen to work out.
What we do and choose as adults effects those around us, particularly children, and not just one’s own children, but all of the children that we encounter. I have since learned that marriage is great deal more than this and that seeking a divorce is only a “good” option for spouses and children in high conflict marriages or where there is explicit and unambiguous abuse (see the resource below: Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce). I have also learned that a divorce does not mean the supernatural bond of marriage is necessarily severed, nor does it mean that supernatural grace is unable to bring healing to a marriage/family (see the many other resources below).
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. My prayer 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.
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 or resources, 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.
A. Resources I have personal experience with and have benefited from are:
Covenant Keepers, Inc.
This ministry is led by Koji and Deana 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 12 years of divorce and another relationship for Rex (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.
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. (Their testimony can be found here.) 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.
Gerald and Yvette Ministries founded by a couple with a restored marriage which included pornography and drug addiction. There are free resources on this website, including prayer modeling and encouragement in the Media section with links to regular video posts and a podcast. They also have a book store and offer one-on-one and group mentoring programs. Their testimony can be found here.
First Aid for a Wounded Marriage
This is a short, free e-book which describes how grace worked to bring healing in the marriage of a couple named Michael and Marilyn Phillips, whose challenges included alcohol abuse and adultery, and went on to found a marriage ministry following their restoration called 2=1.
The Introduction and Chapter 1 of The Power of a Praying Wife by Stormie Omartien is a concise and helpful articulation what this call to faithfulness looks like. What she speaks of applies to any spouse, husband or wife.
B. Other resources:
Undone Redone A ministry that helps families dealing with pornography, sexual addiction and betrayal founded by a couple whose marriage ended in divorce due to pornography addiction and betrayal, but whose marriage was eventually restored. An interview with co-founder Melodie Lovvorn can be read here.
Retrouvaille A Catholic marriage support program for marriages in crisis.
The Marriage Project – sociological research, perspectives and statistics on marriage and family
Impossible Marriages Redeemed by Leila Millar, LCB Publishing, 2020 – A compilation of testimonies of marriages that have experienced healing and restoration.
Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships by Sue Johnson, Little Brown and Company, 2013 – A look at the role of childhood attachment and attachment dynamics in the marriage relationship, written from a secular perspective, but it emphasizes the vital importance of commitment and stability in healthy attachment.
C. Resources that challenge common assumptions regarding the effect of divorce on children are:
Them Before Us – An organization dedicated to including the needs and rights of children in the debate on family structure. Book written by organization founder Katy Faust and Stacy Manning: Them Before Us, Post Hill Press, 2021.
Life Giving Wounds – a Catholic ministry focused on facilitating healing for those who have been affected by divorce as children.
Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce by Elizabeth Marquart, Three Rivers Press, 2005 – In this book, Marquart, herself a child of divorce, shares her extensive research into the unseen emotional and spiritual effects reported by children of divorce who reach adulthood without becoming “statistics”, but who, none-the-less, were profoundly affected.
Marriage and Equality: How Marriage Upholds Equality for Children by Jennifer Johnson, Ruth Institute, 2017 – Johnson speaks of her experience growing up a child of divorce, and how family structure bears on equality and equal opportunity for children.
Primal Loss: The Now Adult Children of Divorce Speak, by Leila Millar, LCB Publishing, 2017 – A compilation of 70 adult children of divorce who share how divorce has affected them.
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 year Landmark Study, Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee, Hachette Books, 2001.