There was nothing left to do but wait for the doorbell to ring. The kids were set up with a movie and wouldn’t leave their room for the next two hours.
As we waited, I saw my wife’s eyes fill with uncertainty. “But I’m not a counselor,” she said.
Our pastor had asked us to meet with a new couple from church. Their marriage was in trouble, and he thought we could help. I knew our stories were similar, but beyond that, I didn’t have a clue what we were supposed to do.
I took her hand, and we started to pray.
Perhaps you volunteered to lead a couples ministry at church and find yourself in deeper waters than you anticipated. Or maybe a marriage you care about is swimming against a riptide. They need a counselor, but all they have is you. If you don’t do something, they won’t last long.
What do you do?
How to help a marriage in trouble
Proper training can help you connect with people and give you evidence-based strategies and treatments to try, but professional counselors don’t have any special powers. There’s no class you can take that will provide you with a foolproof answer to help a marriage in trouble.
There’s only one counselor with the ability to change hearts and heal broken marriages, and that’s not you. His name is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
Our job is not to fix people’s problems. Our job is to help people connect with the One who can. In many ways, we’re only secretaries attempting to make divine appointments. And that is something any follower of Christ can do.
If you find yourself sitting across the room from a marriage in trouble, try the following.
1. Gain their trust.
The level of transparency you receive will be directly proportional to the amount of trust in your relationship. If you receive surface-level answers to your questions, the person you are speaking to may be testing you to see how you react. Will their issues be dismissed? Will they be thumped over the head with a quick Scripture? Will you break confidence and tell others what they say?
Only after you prove yourself trustworthy will you move beyond “I’m fine,” “I’m busy,” or “I’m tired” and find out what’s really going on.
It’s easy to observe a marriage in trouble from afar and assume we know what’s happening. But people’s lives are seldom that simple. We must listen well.
Instead of thinking you understand what’s going on, ask. Let the person you are working with explain their situation in their own words. Pay attention to the details they choose to highlight and ask questions about areas they omit. When you think you understand, summarize what you heard and ask for correction.
Offering unsolicited advice is one of the fastest ways to end a relationship. Quick answers are disrespectful and condescending. Even if what you say is dead-on accurate, people rarely like being told what to do. Imagine you can offer only one piece of advice. Take your time and be sure not to waste it by providing a solution before the person is ready to hear it, or even worse, providing a solution to the wrong problem.
3. Pick the right side.
Working with a marriage is in trouble is tricky. You’re naturally going to want to side with one or the other. But even if you can relate better to the pain one spouse is experiencing, you must make it clear you are not going to side with either one of them. You’re on the side of their marriage.
This doesn’t mean you’ll ignore blatant sin, but it does mean both parties can expect you to tell them hard things to hear.
4. Identify the lies.
One of Satan’s favorite strategies for sowing marital discord is through subtle lies. Once the lie takes root, it impacts the way a couple sees reality.
Second Corinthians 10:4-5 (NIV) reminds us, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
We must help people recognize the lies and negative internal dialog they produce about their spouses, take them captive, and replace them with truth. When we do, it’s easier to address the real issues.
“My spouse loves work more than me” can become, “I know my spouse loves me more than their job. But when my spouse works late, I feel unloved.”
When we overcome lies with truth, we are able to fight the problem and not each other.
5. Highlight the good.
When couples are going through a dark time, it’s difficult to see anything but their troubles. As you listen to their story, look for genuinely positive things to highlight. Even their willingness to talk to you is a sign of their desire to fight for their marriage. Honor the courage it takes to be vulnerable and have difficult conversations.
As you look for good things to emphasize, be genuine. False compliments will undermine the trust you are building.
6. Never lose hope.
The problems you encounter probably won’t evaporate in an hour over coffee. They may even seem hopeless. But no matter how big their problems seem, God is bigger. There is no situation beyond His power. Your sincere belief in their ability to pull through can help them hold on for one more day.
You don’t need to help couples solve all their problems; just help them take the next best step toward God and each other. Even a one-degree change in the course of their marriage will have a drastic impact over time.
7. Know when to seek professional help.
Second Corinthians 1:4 tells us we are “to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
But sometimes, the situations around the marriage in trouble go beyond our experience or emotional strength. Maybe the problems hit too close to home or require more time than we can give. If you find yourself unable to provide meaningful help, help them find someone who can.
To understand when to seek professional advice, read “Do You Need Counseling?”
You can help a marriage in trouble
It turned out the pastor knew what he was doing when he set up our meeting with that couple. We were only a few years ahead of them, but we realized we could do a lot more than we thought. We didn’t have all the answers, but we were able to listen, offer a shoulder to cry on, and point them to the God who has helped us in our own marriage more times than I can count.
Imagine what the church would look if everyone in the Body of Christ did the same? If instead of shying away from the problems we saw around us, we supported each other in our struggles?
Is there someone God is calling you to help today? Will you?
For more read, Your Marriage Can Make a Difference.
Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Carlos Santiago is a senior writer for FamilyLife and has written and contributed to numerous articles, e-books, and devotionals. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Carlos and his wife, Tanya, live in Orlando, Florida. You can learn more on their site, YourEverAfter.org.