Marriage Counseling


Respect the mystery of your marriage.

If you are having a hard time understanding what is going on between you and your spouse, see if you can let yourself into accepting that – that’s the nature of relationships. There’s an element of mystery that, if accepted, can take the pressure off you to manage or control what is going on in the relationship and bring your natural curiosity to the surface. If you don’t understand what’s going on in your relationship, it doesn’t mean you are unintelligent or stupid or ignorant or a failure. It means you are a normal human being with limitations, but with the capacity to learn, just like everyone else.

No one relationship can be completely understood. Your relationship is unique and should be respected as unique. Try not to force it into a certain kind of mold, or to be a certain way – you may destroy the mystery!

“God, I don’t really know what is going on or what to do and I am frustrated. I want my relationship to work better, but I’m struggling with knowing how to think or what to do. Will you help me accept the fact that I am not all-knowing and that that is ok? Will you help me to accept that our relationship holds mystery and leaves a lot to be discovered?”

Try to consistently respect the personhood of your spouse.

This is about remembering that no matter how difficult you think your spouse is, he/she is still a person made in God’s image and therefore has dignity and value and should be treated as though that is true, perhaps by faith, to begin with! Frank Barron once said, “Never take a person’s dignity; it is worth everything to them, and nothing to you.” Attacks on a person’s dignity always provoke defensiveness and are always destructive and out of bounds in conflict resolution.

Remember, your spouse generally isn’t trying to be difficult. He/she may be stuck in some destructive and unproductive patterns of relating, but try to see him or her in the light of someone who is very disappointed and struggling, rather than wicked! Try to communicate respect for their value as a person, even though you may have difficulty with many of their choices.

“God, I occasionally lose sight of the fact that my spouse is a person made in your image and deserves respect, no matter how poorly he/she may be living. I know how I feel when my dignity is attacked, so help me to restrain myself when I am tempted to act out of my pain by attacking the basic worth of my spouse.”

Work to disengage yourself from reacting to the behavior and/or attitudes of your spouse.

Learn to tell the difference between being pro-active and re-active. Reactions generally provoke more reactions, so if you are truly interested in contributing positive energy to your relationship, learn to take time to check yourself before you react. Work at leaving at least a little space between stimulus and response. When working at change, it’s important to keep the focus of change on the perspective, thoughts, and behavior of the only person you have any control over – yourself! Practice becoming less reactionary and more active in identifying and making the changes that are yours to make. This is very difficult and requires vulnerability and a sincere desire to experience self-control rather than other-control. Willingness to focus on one’s own contribution to the difficulties takes the pressure off the relationship and eventually helps free it up to work more naturally, thereby meeting the needs of both to a greater degree.

“God, the fruit of your Spirit is self-control. I confess that oftentimes I simply react to my partner rather than stay in control of myself and relate to him/her out of a stable place. Help me to bring something solid and good into our relationship that comes out of being able to control the only person you ask me to be responsible for – me.”

Put forth some effort to understand and respect how men and women are different.

Men and women not only are made up physically different, they approach life differently. So, in order to relate well, women and men need to respect their differences and learn to appreciate the perspectives each brings to the relationship. Sometimes men and women have been wounded in their sexual identity and so have a difficult time fully accepting themselves as they are. A marriage can be a healing place where manhood and womanhood can be affirmed rather than degraded. Learn about your partner’s wounds and learn what you can do or not do that contributes to their wholeness.

Often men’s and women’s felt needs are met differently. A husband may do for his wife what he would like for himself, but that may not be what meets her need, and vice versa. Learning how needs are met differently by communicating and accepting them as legitimate rather than fighting them can go a long way to diminish power struggles and free up the desire to give. Women are legitimately women! Men are legitimately men!

“God, in the beginning you created human beings in your image as male and female, both equally good. Even though I may not understand why my spouse is different than me, help me to learn to appreciate the legitimate differences that are there because of our sexuality and learn to contribute to our marriage the best of what it means for me to be a man or a woman.”

Find out what communicates love/support to the other and be willing to do those things regardless of the other’s response.

This is about learning to love without conditions. An attitude of “I will if you will” puts the burden of change on the other. Investments in the relationship that you choose to make just because you are you and not because the other has somehow “earned” it go a long way in building bridges to the intimacy you both want. This makes it a little easier to address problem areas productively. We all long to know that we can be loved and supported even when we are performing poorly.

“God, I want so much from my spouse and I am an expert on my pain and who I think is causing it. So I put up a wall instead of vulnerably sharing of myself. Since I know that I want my spouse to choose loving responses to me even when I am not loveable, help me to tune into my desire to love him/her that way. It’s a good thing that You are good and relate to me out of that rather than according to what I deserve.”

Make investments in the relationship and let time pass.

Of course you would like change to happen quickly. We are naturally impatient, wanting things to improve the second we make a little positive change! Don’t insist that small or even major changes for the good that you are making should have an immediate positive effect in the relationship. In fact, sometimes your genuine positive change can upset the rhythm of the relationship and it may seem that things are getting worse. When that happens, it’s a good time to re-check the reasons for your changes, and, if they are good and healthy reasons, to reaffirm your commitment to yourself to continue growing and accept the suffering that may accompany that suffering. Suffering for the sake of good can’t hurt you. It can hurt – it just can’t hurt the real you.

Relationships can be a bit like a big ship: they can turn around, but not quickly! And, regrettably, sometimes attempts to change in constructive ways results in the end of the relationship. But that isn’t a good reason to back away from your own growth. No relationship can survive well or grow over time if it is built on falseness. So, pray that your changes would be encouraging to your partner, but don’t take any responsibility for making sure they are. If you do, you are trying to control them. Remember? That is always destructive.

“God, I am impatient. I want immediate results to constructive changes that I make. When I do good I want to be paid immediately. I don’t want to trust that the paycheck will come in its time and may not be in the form I was expecting. I know that my impatience gets in the way of growth. So, help me to allow time to work for good rather than me trying to force things before their time.”

Learn to set boundaries on destructive behavior, whether it is your own or that of your spouse.

Loving unconditionally does not mean that one should not say “no” to abusive and destructive out of control impulsive behavior. We all know that we need to be said “no” to sometimes, since what we are doing at the time is destroying relationship. To communicate a clear “no” to abusive, controlling, or manipulative behavior is to protect the relationship from that which is destructive. Often a person needs to develop a better sense of themselves as having dignity and value before they can say “no” effectively. To continue to allow abusive behavior to go on in one’s marriage is continuing to let the lion live in the house and be disruptive. There’s no way the relationship can ever become safe enough to grow.

When saying “no”, try to do this in a way that is clear, but not abusive, controlling, or manipulative. However, when a person is beginning to learn to say “no”, it may not come out that way, and that’s ok. All growth begins somewhere.

“God, sometimes it is hard to know what to say “no” to in our relationship and even if I know, it’s hard to do it. I get afraid that I will be made to pay, either directly or by loss of relationship and I’m not sure I have the right to say “no” – the opposing voices get pretty loud sometimes! Help me to get centered in You as my primary security so that I can be strong enough to set appropriate and necessary boundaries – for my health, for the good of my partner, and to give our relationship a chance to grow into something good or better.”

Work on communicating directly, honestly, and kindly in your daily lives.

The only way to experience true intimacy in a relationship is by each person being willing to share honestly and directly out of where he or she really is, even though it may surface some conflict. Often it takes time to make the relationship safe enough for this kind of communication to take place – walls have been built up over time and those walls may continue to keep some distance between you and may not come down overnight. But, as you practice directness, honesty, and kindness as a lifestyle, the natural longings for true intimacy will continue to work for both of you, drawing you together.

“God, I think I want to be the kind of person you created me to be, but I can’t become that alone – I need help. Will you help me to make the changes that are mine to make and allow the rest to be in Your hands?”

10/10/99   Sheldon Swartz

8/24/07 Revised and Expanded