In this first article in a two-part series, I will look at three ways in which Christian marriage counselors can positively influence marriages. In the next portion of this series, I’ll share four more benefits of Christian marriage counseling.
How Christian Marriage Counselors Help Relationships
1: Validate Feelings
The core of this skill is empathetic understanding. Caring for your spouse means truly understanding yourself and your spouse better. In Luke 15 we get a picture of God’s empathetic understanding of the lost son. The parable by Jesus captures empathetic understanding and love from God’s perspective.
This is the story of the lost son:
“And He said, ‘A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.
But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger!’ I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.’’
So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.” — Luke 15:11-24
The father in that story represents God who is always on the lookout for us to come back to our true home. Luke 15:20, “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” This verse implies that the father was frequently on the very edge of his property hoping one day his lost son would return.
Empathetic understanding from a Christian perspective means we have a posture of willing embrace. It means we practice compassion through times of conflict and disagreement. Validating feelings is means of grace to practice compassion towards our spouse. An act of true love and honesty is to hear the heart struggles of our soul mate.
Learning the skill of validating your partner’s feelings has the following advantages:
- Helps you work on the underlying issues that are likely to be the cause of the emotional upset.
- To feel safe and loved during the sharing of feelings around the discussion of needs in marriage.
- A pathway emerges towards healing and restoration when there is a true connection to your spouse.
- Opens the door to meeting the needs of your spouse even when you are tempted to retaliate because feelings have been hurt through conflict.
- Allows your spouse to feel valued which empowers your soul mate to hear and understand your heart.
- Builds emotional authenticity and trust in the relationship to move up and out of the difficulty.
- Helps you to avoid making assumptions by ensuring you truly understand your spouse’s ideas, emotions, and worries.
2: Know yourself and others through Christ
Jesus gave us the ‘golden rule’ in Matthew 7:12: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” and in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” I do believe the golden rule does encompass the idea that we can meet our spouse’s needs in the way they would like it to be met.
Certainly, the marital relationship is one where we treat each other based on each one’s unique needs. For example, the Good Samaritan tended to the troubling circumstances of the person that had been robbed despite a large racial, religious, and cultural barrier. There is certainly a theological bridge between the golden rule and the greatest commandment, that is, to love God and to love neighbor as oneself, as the Bible states both sum up the Law and the Prophets.
Pondering why there is a focus on self in the golden rule and in the greatest commandment leads me to the conclusion that essentially the focus on treating others the way ‘you’ want to be treated is related to humility. You may be thinking that seems like an odd connection, but let me explain.
According to David Brooks, famed pundit and current events columnist, humility is being radically others-centered and incredibly self-aware. Therefore, the greatest commandment and the golden rule highly value self-awareness and others-centeredness. To elaborate further, our Christian purpose is to love ourselves, love God, and love others. Self-awareness for the Christian involves a deep knowing of our spirit and being open to the Holy Spirit’s leanings on our spirit.
The apostle Paul puts it in this way:
“For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.” — 1 Corinthians 2:11-12
These verses imply we are to know ourselves. This is the work of our spirit, and in like manner we connect with God’s Spirit. Self-awareness in tandem with other-centeredness is a key part of marriage.
The power of using “I feel” statements engender both self-awareness and other-centeredness. The classic example is, “When you do x, y, z, I feel certain x, y, z emotions.” Thoughts and behaviors can be further expounded, for example, by statements like, “When you do this, I feel hurt, and this hurt makes me want to avoid you (behavior).”
Correction between couples usually involves, “I am sorry if my statements made you feel hurt.” Reconciliation often involves acknowledging our spouse’s feelings and acknowledging our part in inflicting pain. Couples can grow together by practicing ‘I feel’ statements, which result in an increase of mutual respect, repair, and love in the relationship.
3: Communicating: Break down conflict by seeking to understand rather than be understood.
In an effort to meet needs, couples often fight over who is doing more for the other. The perception is that one partner is not pulling his or her weight. These conflicts often ignore the fact that seeking to understand how your spouse expresses love and affection is important. There might something your spouse considers very valuable that he/she is doing but it might not seem as important to you.
When couples have conflicts, they focus on what the other is not doing and seek that their spouse change their behavior to meet their personal needs. Often, the couple gets competitive about who is doing more. Furthermore, couples then tend to analyze every single thing they are doing and comparing who is actually contributing more to the relationship and/or family.
This type of scenario makes for very unpleasant communication and really the relationship then tends to be about winners and losers. Over time, this competitiveness ends up creating divisions in the marriage. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9).
The question is then how do we overcome these unhealthy communication patterns? The answer is to make an effort to understand and value what your spouse does to show you love and affection. This may not be your favorite communication style or love language, but it is his or her way of showing love and affection towards you or, at the very least, a projection of the way a spouse wants to be treated.
Couples in conflict often engage in attention-seeking in dysfunctional ways. The important thing to remember is that motive, intention, and heart are important in Christian marriages because they are important qualities to Jesus.
Unlike a lot of human-to-human relationships, results and actions are not the primary things the Lord desires from us. He is the Lord of the harvest! The Lord accepts our desires to grow in Him even when we sometimes take three steps forward and four steps back. Identifying and understanding our spouse helps us to have a clearer target in terms of how we may please our spouse.
Tips on enhancing understanding in marriage
- Pray together as a couple. When conflict arises, instead of taking a time out to cool down from the conflict, decide to pray together about the disagreement. Research suggests that prayer increases trust. Several studies contend that couples that pray together stay together.
- Be as specific and clear as possible in expressing your needs with each other. Often couples are too emotionally flooded during conflict to ask clarifying questions. Remember, miscommunication is common without asking deeper questions to understand each other better.
- Psychological safety creates openness and honesty in marriage. If you want your spouse to be more honest and open, create a positive environment so that what your spouse has shared is respected, valued, and encouraged. Remember, resolving conflict involves creating mutual edification. Striving for oneness (a biblical principle) is more important than achieving sameness.
- Explore the issue rather than immediately focusing on accountability and amends that need to be made because you have been wronged. It is easy to talk to your spouse about making excuses or laying blame. These tactics will lead to defensiveness and ultimately disengagement from the conversation. Be descriptive when working through conflict rather than prescriptive. There will be time when both of you can collaborate on solutions once understanding is reached.
- Check in about pain points that were triggered due to the conflict. Is some of the conflict related to past hurts and baggage that has not been addressed? Ask your spouse how you can support them in working through past hurts in the marriage or from outside the marriage.
- Understand that your spouse has a deep need to be respected, considered competent, and trusted with decisions. Appreciating these deeper needs in your spouse will help your spouse to meet those deeper needs in your soul.
- Show appreciation for all the extra care a spouse shows you. Having an attitude of gratitude is important in showing that you see all the positive ways your spouse makes your life better through the marriage. Going the extra mile is what Jesus taught us as His followers. Christian marriage is not about having our accounts balanced and perfectly in sync all the time. We are called to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2).
- Focus less on content of the words and more on the feelings and meanings evoked from the conversation. If you really want to understand your spouse you must learn to think of your conversations as way to gain a PhD in your spouse. This means deep research, study, and maybe even writing/speaking on your topic of interest. I am not saying your spouse needs to be approached as project but rather you approach your spouse from a posture of deep respect, care, and fascination that propels you to go deeper with him or her.
We have talked about three major ways marriage counselors turn marriages around. If you want your marriage to be all that God created it to be, seek counsel from a Christian Counselor. A couple once told me that the investment they had made in their marriage was so valuable that it could not be measured in monetary terms. It was invaluable and life-giving in their joint journey in the Lord. Stay tuned for Part 2 on this topic coming soon.
“Embrace,” courtesy of Gus Moretta, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Studying together,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love,” courtesy of Brigitte Tohm, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset,” courtesy of Ryan Holloway, unsplash.com, CC0 License