When it comes to how to save the marriage that is sinking, what can you do? Because of the devastation divorce causes, it is worth it to try to save a marriage. And there is help for those who haven’t hardened themselves to the possibility of reconciliation. Taking our cue from Jesus’ acceptance of and respect for others, we can help people drop their defenses and learn insights and patterns which they can implement to save their sinking marriage. To help us think through these issues, we reached out to Kimberly Beam Holmes and Joe Beam, PhD, of MarriageHelper for their advice. MarriageHelper has helped around a quarter of a million people through their courses, workshops, and seminars.
Q: Is it worth it to save a sinking marriage? Why?
Kimberly: When we look at the research of it, we see a lot of reasons as to why staying married is really important—especially for children. We can look at the research of what benefits happen for children who grow up in a two-parent home. For example, they end up having better grades in school. They end up having better marriages of their own as they get older.
We also see the negative effects of divorce on children and the havoc that it can wreak on them. That’s what I actually did my master’s in. What I found was so much evidence that, when children experience divorce in their homes, their grades suffer, they’re more likely to be sexually promiscuous, especially girls. They are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior. They’re more likely to end a marriage of their own or less likely to even get married as they get older.
Perhaps the most striking result I found was how, after a marriage dissolves, 25% of fathers after the first year of being divorced are no longer a part of their children’s lives. And the number keeps rising to double that and more as the years go on. There really is an epidemic of fatherlessness, and it is causing a lot of hurt and a lot of anxiety. So why is it worth it to save a sinking marriage? There are a ton of societal reasons and economic reasons. But perhaps the most important reason is that of the children.
“There really is an epidemic of fatherlessness, and it is causing a lot of hurt and a lot of anxiety.”
Joe: The prophet Malachi tells us that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). And we definitely want to remember that. Here in the U.S., we started having fathers abandoning their families and children back around the 60’s. As late as the 50’s, families typically stuck it out no matter what; divorce just wasn’t acceptable in most of the culture. But when fathers began to disappear, the crime rate began to climb like crazy. I remember years ago watching an interview which involved a couple of LA gangs, and when asked what it would take to do away with gangs, one of the leaders said, “It’s the only family we have.” That’s the fruit of fathers accepting that, instead of sticking it out, it’s okay to just leave and go do something else.
Q: What are the top reasons a marriage gets into serious trouble?
Kimberly: There are a lot of symptoms that tell us the marriage is in big trouble. We could look at affairs. We could look at finance issues. We could look at major differences in parenting. But when you look at the research done by the leading marriage and divorce experts in America on why marriages end in divorce, it all boils down to three things: It’s when one or both spouses no longer feel liked, loved, or respected. Those three things are what manifest in the disagreements, in the conflicts, and in what could lead someone into possibly having an affair.
“It boils down to three things: It’s when one or both spouses no longer feel liked, loved, or respected.”
Joe: And it’s important to clarify that this isn’t a measure of whether a spouse actually is liking, loving, and respecting the other spouse, but whether the other spouse feels liked, loved, and respected. For instance, even if they’re fighting over money, it’s likely really about whether the spouse feels respect. When it comes to affairs, there could be all kinds of factors going on, but the motivation that typically leads them to want to leave the marriage is when someone no longer feels liked, loved, or respected. I might add that sometimes there can be such a pull, of an affair or a different lifestyle, that, even if the person does feel liked, loved, and respected, the pull to fulfill this dream can lure them away.
Q: What does it mean for a person to feel loved, liked, and respected?
Joe: It’s when you can accept me as a human being. It’s when you actually enjoy being around me. You don’t treat me with contempt or disdain. You don’t continually criticize me. You don’t try to dominate or control me. Therefore, you evoke emotions within me by the way you treat me that I enjoy feeling.
Q: When it comes to trying save a marriage, what doesn’t work?
Joe: For one thing, preaching at them doesn’t do it. You can tell people all day long what’s right and wrong. But only if they embrace it will your words have effect on their lives. If you find that someone’s having an affair and you take your Bible and show them how sinful it is, it might not even phase them. That is, unless they are sensitive to God and Scripture. Preaching at people, even with good intentions, can easily just make them angry and build their defenses up. You’re not going to manipulate me. You’re not going to control me. Imparting knowledge is never enough; you have to be able to touch the heart. There’s an art to it, and Jesus was amazing at it.
Sometimes a hardened heart can hide itself in what looks like a positive relationship with God. One woman having an affair told me that she’d never been closer to Jesus than now as she was having the affair. But she felt she needed to leave her church because her friends at church thought her affair was a sin. All the while, she felt close to God. We hear, “God sent me this person” and stuff like that. And you can throw Scripture at them all day long. But once they’ve hardened their heart to God and what the Bible actually teaches, there’s not much you can do as long as they have that posture.
“Once they’ve hardened their heart to God and what the Bible actually teaches, there’s not much you can do as long as they have that posture.”
A second thing that doesn’t work: aiding them in what they’re doing. One woman in a church I was part of would go to Atlanta to meet her lover. And then they would fly to New York to spend the weekend. A church leader’s wife would go to Atlanta with her, shop while the couple was in New York, and then come back with her and help her cover for the affair.
A final method that doesn’t work is connecting them to a marriage counselor unless the counselor takes the marriage as the client, as opposed to just the husband or the wife.
Kimberly: It’s true that marriage counseling isn’t always helpful. I was in my MST program being trained as a marriage and family therapist and got to see firsthand the humanness behind the counselor or therapist. I saw one of the other students in the middle of her master’s leave her husband for the man she was counseling while she was training to be a marriage counselor. Today, she’s one of the marriage counselors out there. It opened my eyes to see that marriage counselors are not one-size-fits-all. Everyone’s going to bring their biases into it. Unfortunately, we live at a time when many counselors and therapists believe that the goal is simply to do and say whatever helps make the client happy.
Q: So, between the extremes of being preachy and just being completely affirming, what does work?
Joe: There is a method of getting past defenses but not in a manipulative or deceptive way. It’s a way of giving info so that people actually receive it. God has given us a “recipe” at MarriageHelper through which, even years after coming to us, three fourths of the couples who have been through our three-day intensive workshops are still together.
How to save the marriage: “There is a method of getting past defenses but not in a manipulative or deceptive way. It’s a way of giving info so that people actually receive it.”
A simplified summary of our approach is 1) We take complex principles and make them very simple. 2) We design patterns and processes and explain how couples can use them. 3) We employ a team in which almost everybody needed help in their marriage and went through this counseling themselves. The whole process is based on getting the relationship right and making that the context for the information. We keep in mind at all times the need for spouses to feel liked, loved, and respected.
Q: Tell me more about how Jesus’ manner influences your approach.
Jesus treated people with respect. And they flocked to him. They realized that, to Jesus, we have value. He wasn’t condoning of their sin, but he was kind and gentle toward people. He really saw the person. The only time he was harsh was with hypocrites, who were pretending to be someone in public that they weren’t in private.
How to save the marriage: “Jesus wasn’t condoning of their sin, but he was kind and gentle toward people. He really saw the person.”
That kind of acceptance of the person (even while not condoning their sin) grounds our approach at MarriageHelper. We accept them to where they feel loved, liked, and respected. Through this process, they let us in. That’s when they give us a chance to give them the right information, and it begins to make sense to them. They get to where they’re able to really see it. We let them know that we accept them, but not the wrong behavior. We will love and respect them anyway, and they get to decide. Again, about three fourths of the couples who go through our three-day intensive workshops will actually turn around.
Q: Can marriages in impossible situations really be saved?
Kimberly: Let me tell you a story. A minister’s wife was having an affair with the church’s youth minister. Even though the married couple had five kids together, she had fallen so deeply in love with the youth minister that she made the decision to divorce her husband, leave him and their kids, and move in with the youth minister. The husband had heard of MarriageHelper and began applying some of the principles.
A couple months after the divorce, she began to realize that living with the other man was not what she thought it was going to be. She thought it was going to be this dream come true, happy all the time. Yet he wasn’t quite the person she thought he was. Around this time, she also discovered that she was pregnant with his child.
At this point, she realized, I didn’t sign up for this. I think I’ve made the biggest mistake of my life. So she called her ex-husband to tell him the news about the baby so he wouldn’t have to hear it from someone else. When she called to tell her ex-husband, he responded with congratulations, because he didn’t know if they had been trying or not. She asked him if he wanted to just hear the facts or hear her heart. He said, “I want to hear your heart.” They spoke for three hours on the phone that night. He was being that safe place. He was showing her that love and respect. He was putting those principles into play.
How to save the marriage: “He was showing her that love and respect. He was putting those principles into play.”
At the end of that call, he said, “Listen, I still love you. I can, I will forgive this. I’ve already forgiven this. I’m here for you.” And so, she decided to come back to him. They got remarried. She was around seven months pregnant with the new baby, with all five of their kids as the bridesmaids and groomsmen. And this couple is part of our team now.
God can totally save sinking marriages. We’ve seen it happen thousands of times.
Marriage Helper provides a research-based program that thousands of couples have used to save their marriage.