Chapter 1. Marriage at a Crucial Stage of Existence

The First Bond of Society is Marriage


Taesong-dong might be the very worst place to live on the face of the earth. It is the lone village in South Korea that nestles next to its North Korean "sister city" Kichong-dong. No one actually lives on the North Korean side, but in Taesong-dong about two hundred farmers go about their work tending fields as their ancestors have for centuries. They do so with more than one million armed soldiers surrounding them with explosive firepower to seriously affect the quality of the next crop! They stand between two warring powers, quietly going about their business, hoping that they are not destroyed because those around them cannot get along.

We see you, as pastors, professional therapists and lay counselors, sitting in a similar spot, though slightly less lethal. You are placed between two parties who have declared war on each other. Tension is often thick when each side meets in the neutrality of your office. Everyone knows that a misunderstood gesture here, or a comment poorly chosen there, could ignite the standoff that has existed for years.

Those who work with couples know from experience the "cold war" of marriage. Whether or not they are familiar with the data on marriage, pastors and counselors meet every week with couples whose marriages reflect the changes in our culture. It may feel like a siege. The definition and value of marriage has changed for many, pitting one side against the other. Marriage counselors sit in the middle of the fight. Couples come to pastoral counselors worn out by the standoff that has occurred within their home. They may be separated and considering whether reconciliation is ever possible. Other couples may sit down with a pastor and are essentially asking permission to pursue a divorce or have made up their minds that it is inevitable. Some are dealing with the common concerns of financial stress, communication problems or sexual difficulties that place a strain on the marriage. Still other couples may be dealing with the immediate concerns of perhaps sexual infidelity, pornography use or the ubiquitous press on couples for their time, as they balance over-scheduled lives that keep them from enjoying the marriage the way they thought they would. Amid it all sits you—the pastor, marital therapist or lay counselor—armed with a white flag and the hope of the Christian message, being charged with the task of bringing peace to opposing forces.

The State of the Union

What is the state of our marital unions today? What are marriages today struggling with, exactly? How bad is it? Can counseling make a difference in families? If so, how? These are the kinds of questions that can really get a pastoral counselor thinking. It is important to get a sense for how things are, while recognizing that it is only one part of a larger story. So while we will look at the state of the (marital) union, we want to remember that there are many benefits to marriage that will also be important for the counselor to keep in mind.

As we'll demonstrate, there are two conflicting realities in regard to our culture's attitude toward marriage. The first is that marriage is seen as a passé institution that restricts individual happiness. The second is that first-time married couples report the highest degree of personal happiness compared with single, cohabitating or divorced adults. We see data that offers discouraging evidence of the state of families in the twenty-first century, but we also see ample evidence in the research data that suggests the merit, worth and vitality of marriage and the benefits of marital intervention by pastors and professional and lay counselors. This evidence suggests that the craft you practice has a positive, immediate and lasting effect on marriages. Furthermore, the data suggests that rebuilding marriages has a positive effect on subsequent generations of marriage—far beyond the issues that husbands and wives must address, but literally on the second and third generations.

The state of divorce. When we look at rates of divorce, we can say that young married couples in their first marriage have about a 40 percent divorce rate. The divorce rate rises for those who marry again. The divorce rate is also affected by level of education: those with a college education have about a 30 percent divorce rate compared to about a 60 percent divorce rate for those who do not complete high school. Other factors have been studied that are connected in some way to an increased likelihood of divorce, including living together before marriage, having religious differences, marrying at a younger age, and having seen one's parents' divorce.

Looking at divorce by itself doesn't tell the whole story. Our culture is changing; the way that we see marriage and divorce has shifted. We can see differences in attitudes toward marriage, in whether it is valued as an important arrangement or whether it is something people feel much less passionate about. If people feel rather casual about relationship commitment, they might be less likely to value marriage as a place where such commitment is required. Also, if people focus more on what they believe is best for them, they may put more stock in self-interest over something like marriage with the creation of a new relationship, one that demands sacrifice through placing others before oneself.

Marital cynicism. As to marriage, cynicism abounds. The humor of Johnny Carson still reflects a pervading attitude of our day: "If variety is the spice of life, marriage is the big can of leftover Spam." Our culture questions a lot of traditional structures and sources of knowledge. This is partly a product of our age—we live in a postmodern society that not only questions but openly challenges traditional views and norms. We are also at a place where we have seen the casualties of both poor marriages and broken marriages, and we may be witness to more people wondering whether "any couple can make marriage work as a life-long union."

Some experts on marriage have pointed to the appeal of "serial monogamy," or what we refer to as the "Seinfeld effect." Do you remember the popular sitcom from the 1990s? The message was loud and clear that marriage was devastating to a person's freedom, friendships, social life, sex life and so on. The cultural and social changes represented in a show that derides marriage impact our society by contributing to decreased expectations that people marry. The benefits of not getting married can frequently be romanticized.

Perhaps related to this is the idea that people today possess greater wealth and can live independently. Individuals are able to make ends meet, and therefore do not value or need marriage the way they might have even thirty years ago. Some women and men may give serious consideration to divorce in life circumstances in which divorce would not really have been a viable consideration only a few short years ago.

That is a sobering view of marriage. We could focus our attention on rates of divorce and cultural messages that devalue marriage. We could join in with the cynics who question whether any marriage can last, let alone a sizable percentage of marriages. But we find it more helpful to reflect on how marriage has remained in many circles a desired social institution. Despite all of the threats to marriage, why has marriage remained an ideal that so many people ascribe to? Why do we celebrate when we come across announcements of thirty- and forty- and fifty-year anniversaries?

Marriage as a desired social institution. Marriage remains one of the most stable and desired social institutions and the one place of interface between religious and secular entities, as most people who marry do so within a church environment.

What is the appeal of marriage? Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee have a helpful book titled The Good Marriage: How & Why Love Lasts. In it they discuss how people look for a love that lasts, and that this is true even in cases of longstanding marriages that unfortunately end in divorce—people continue to look for sustained relationships. Not only does marriage protect us from loneliness, but marriage and, by extension, family, provide a sense of meaning and continuity:

A man and woman in a good, lasting marriage with children feel connected with the past and have an interest in the future. A family makes an important link in the chain of human history. By sharing responsibility for the next generation, parents can find purpose and a strengthened sense of identity.

Perhaps now more than any other time in human history, people are able to choose marriage or not, or they can choose marriage for a time and then decide whether to continue in it or to dissolve it.

Wallerstein and Blakeslee point out the changes in support for marriage over time:

Think of marriage as an institution acted upon by centripetal forces pulling inward and centrifugal forces pulling outward. In times past the centripetal forces—law, tradition, religion, parental influence—exceeded those that could pull a marriage apart, such as infidelity, abuse, financial disaster, failed expectations, or the lure of the frontier. Nowadays the balance has changed. The weakened centripetal forces no longer exceed those that tug marriages apart.

Despite these changes, marriages remain an attractive institution to those who are married and to those who are single. Why is it valued so? It may have to do with some of the benefits experienced in marriage. These benefits appear to come through changes people experience when they marry. Marriage seems to change people. It reorients people's goals, and it can transform people's experiences.

When it comes to goals, marriage helps people think about their future. It helps them make better choices about health-promoting activities, including diet/nutrition and financial decisions, such as saving for the future. Marriage gives people a better sense for the part they play in their own future.

Marriage also affects one's well-being. People who are married report greater life satisfaction. They are happier. They are less depressed and less anxious. They enjoy greater sexual fulfillment. They have decreased rates of mortality.

The following benefits to healthy marriages were also recently summarized on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website:

A Good Marriage

There is no one type of good or healthy marriage. They come in different shapes and sizes. In one report, however, healthy marriages held many things in common, including a commitment to children, satisfaction, communication, conflict resolution, faithfulness and emotional support.

Types of good marriages. In their book The Good Marriage, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee identify four different types of good marriages: romantic, rescue, companionate and traditional.

The first type, romantic marriage, is characterized by enduring memories of excitement and romance. The second type they call the rescue marriage, in which spouses benefit from a kind of healing of prior emotional pain or loss from earlier in their lives. The third type, companionate marriage, is one in which couples are able to strike a balance between their commitments to their careers and to their marriage and children.

The last broad type of good marriage identified by the researchers is referred to as the traditional marriage. This is one that maintains more of a traditional divide between public and private domains, with the man functioning as breadwinner in the public domain while the woman has more responsibilities in the private domains of the home and childrearing.

Creating a good marriage. In their study, Wallerstein and Blakeslee identify nine tasks that they advise couples to take on to create a good marriage. Some of these overlap with what is referred to as the family life cycle. For example, the first two tasks are: separating from the family you grew up in, and forming a new family together. The third task is to become parents. As the authors put it, "Children brought special meaning to the lives of happily married couples."

The fourth task is to cope with crises. Although crises take many different forms, ranging from unemployment to health concerns such as cancer, it is important to turn toward one another and toward a good social support network rather than away from one another or in pain in isolation from potentially supportive relationships.

All meaningful relationships create opportunities for conflict. The fifth task of a good marriage is to be a place in which it is safe to have conflicts; a place in which the couple has built "a relationship that is safe for the expression of difference, conflict, and anger." Early conflicts can establish key insights into the sources of different values and expectations, as well as the experience of safety and trust the couple has in one another.

The sixth task identified by Wallerstein and Blakeslee is to create and protect a fulfilling sex life together. There is also a great deal of variability here; couples create their own sex life, and it becomes a place of transparency and vulnerability, but also an opportunity to express and experience trust and safety while drawing together in meaningful ways.

The seventh task is sharing laughter and interests. Being able to laugh together is an important part of a good marriage, as is having a genuine interest in one another. Some interests are done by each spouse individually, while other interests are shared. Couples can enjoy both individual activities and shared activities; both kinds have the potential to make one another interesting.

Providing one another emotional nurturance is the eighth task of good marriages. This involves offering and accepting "comfort and encouragement in a relationship that is safe for dependency, failure, disappointment, mourning, illness, and aging—in short, for being a vulnerable human being."

The last task identified by Wallerstein and Blakeslee is preserving a double vision, by which the authors mean carrying "in one's head a simultaneous vision of past images and present realities. It involves holding on to the early idealizations of being in love while realizing that one is growing older and grayer and cannot turn back the clock.

So there are good marriages out there, and there are marriages that are in trouble. How do good marriages end up in trouble? Well, for starters, not all marriages that are in trouble were at one time good. In other words, marriages start off in different places based on the people who form them, the circumstances in which they were formed and many other factors. Marriages can sometimes really struggle, and we have a good idea how they could do better if both partners are willing to address those concerns.

When Couples Come for Help

Many couples seek out pastoral care or counseling precisely because they experience conflict in their marriage. Indeed, in terms of mental health referrals, marital conflicts have been reported to account for 40 percent of all counseling referrals. Couples seek out pastoral care and counseling precisely because they want relief from relational conflicts. They are often looking for someone who can step in and settle a dispute—ideally by agreeing with the one partner over the other. Perhaps they are thinking, If I can just get our pastor to convince my husband of how right I am about our finances, he'll finally come around! or, If my counselor hears my side, she'll agree with me that my wife is being selfish on this one. The position that caregivers are placed in is often felt to be precarious.

Predictors of success. Yet, as pastors and counselors consider the challenge of addressing marital conflict, we want to offer encouragement: there are important predictors of success in marriage counseling. For example, Carroll and Doherty conducted a meta-analytic study comparing couples who participated in premarital counseling preparation compared to those who did not. (A meta-analysis is an advanced statistical procedure in which all of the results of all of the studies on a given topic are combined.) They found that premarital counseling—the work that pastors, marriage therapists and lay counselors do with couples in preparation for marriage—increases the chances of a successful outcome by about 30 percent.

Similarly, Shadish, Ragsdale, Glaser and Montgomery conducted the same type of research on the effectiveness of marital counseling. They found that the positive effects were moderately strong and that no one treatment approach proved to be more effective than others. In other words, we know what you do can make a difference in the lives of couples.

We also know that there are factors or characteristics couples possess that make it more likely that they will succeed in turning their marriage around. Five major factors have been identified: couple commitment, age, emotional engagement, marital traditionality, and convergent goals. We can talk specifically about ways to tap into these factors in the course of pastoral care or counseling, but for now it is enough to point out that couples who are committed to staying in the marriage tend to improve more than those who are really there to decide whether or not to divorce.

Younger couples tend to have better outcomes in marriage counseling than older couples, which probably reflects that the problems are being addressed earlier in the life of the marriage, before having a chance to really take root.

Couples who have strong positive emotional connections tend to do better in marriage counseling. They are emotionally engaged with one another and have positive emotional responses to one another. Typically these connections are based on shared interests and activities.

Those who tend to be more egalitarian in their marriages tend to benefit as a result of marriage counseling. This may be the result of having more flexibility around roles and responsibilities, how household or family duties are negotiated and divvied up, and so on.

The last factor is convergent goals, or the idea that a couple has similar values and aims in life. When couples share similar values or life purposes, they tend to benefit more from marriage counseling. Practically speaking, it may be to the benefit of the pastor or counselor to help the couple identify common values and goals that both can get behind.

We believe that another factor has an important outcome effect on marriage—the attitude and outlook of the counselor. Not all marriage counselors are equal. We draw a parallel to an athletic event, like a soccer or basketball game. Athletes can be overwhelmed with the speed of the game. The ball is moving so quickly that by the time an athlete reacts, he or she is playing behind. Couples counseling is much like that. With two emotionally charged spouses who have inside knowledge into how they play the game, counselors can easily feel over-matched. So, essential to the process of offering effective care is the ability to take control of the game. To some, that mistakenly means to dominate, control, direct and coerce. That is far from what we mean by control. We believe that control comes through important attitudes and abilities—beyond the obvious requirements of clinical training and spiritual maturity—that are essential in maximizing your effectiveness in helping couples. We will list four important marital counseling skills, which we will revisit throughout the book.

Marital counseling skill 1: Accepting what individuals choose to do with their lives. If you could reduce family counseling to one essential message to represent the whole of mature marriage and family functioning, it likely would be the ability to manage boundaries. Yet one of the most difficult challenges for counselors and the most frequent error is the mismanagement of the boundary between your vision for their marriage, and the individuals' decision to act in what they perceive to be their best interest. It is not that pastoral, professional or lay counselors frequently make the obvious errors and form unethical or immoral relationships with clients; we are speaking of more subtle boundary violations that are driven by our common commitment to assist couples in being successful in their marriages. The line between counseling and ministry becomes blurred, and in the process we lose our objectivity and judgment. An example of this boundary issue might be the pastoral counselor who is awakened in the early morning hours with the thought of a couple on the schedule for that day. Or when a counselor is inclined to ruminate over a session with a family that has occurred the day before. Like the parent who is worried for the well-being of his or her children, we might be drawn to pray, think or analyze, and may be grateful to God for drawing clients who have become dear ones to our attention. Seldom in these moments are we alarmed that our thoughts, which interrupt other activities, might be a signal that we have occupied a parentified role in our work as their counselor. "Working overtime" outside of the session is often a key indicator that the separation between the counselor and the family has become too tight. The passion for successful therapy can easily shift from their success as a couple or a family to our success as a counselor. We might feel the need for their marriage to turn around, and that becomes the driving force and even the obsessive expectation.

In truth, counselors are and should be passionate about marriage and ardently strive for its maturation. But we must do so for their benefit, not as a reflection of our need to succeed. And when clients choose to divorce, separate, see a different counselor, or passively deny suggestions and assignments made in therapy, we must be careful to reasonably assess our involvement in their decision, but to leave it as their decision, which we must acknowledge, respect and release from our control.

Marital counseling skill 2: Being comfortable in the front lines of marital conflict. Our colleague Dr. Don Pruessler works with adolescents. He is known to say, "I love working with kids; the angrier they are, the more I like working with them." This attitude needs to be ours to be successful marital counselors. The pain expressed between intimate partners often provokes the counselor to shut it down prematurely. An error that we can easily make as counselors is to misread anger and make it the problem, rather than to see anger as the declaration that a problem exists. Consider anger like a flare gun. It can ignite the sky, and all who see it know immediately that a crisis exists on the sailing ship from which it was fired. When rescuers come alongside the ship, they do not say, "Don't you dare fire those flares!" Rather, they immediately recognize that a state of emergency exists and respond immediately by learning the nature of the crisis.

For a counselor, anger serves as the indicator of crisis. It is possible that anger can be used manipulatively for one person to get their way. But this is only successful when we are intolerant of anger, not when counselors permit it to be expressed so as to explore its causes. The more immediate problem is when counselors shut down the expression of emotion that makes them feel uncomfortable, forcing the spouse to resort to less obvious, but more destructive ways to declare perceptions of unfairness or injustice.

Marital counseling skill 3: "Having no dog in the fight," or don't get trapped by taking sides. It is very easy to be drawn into the conflict by siding with the spouse for whom we have the strongest affinity, or who draws from us the most empathy. Counselors need to be careful to build relationships with both spouses with equal proximity and distance, encouragement and confrontation, affiliation and separation. This becomes a magnified challenge when there is an obvious "bad spouse" such as the one caught in infidelity, addiction or substance abuse. While it may be true that the problems of one individual may have a more substantial effect on the marriage than the other, it is also true that both play some role in the conflict. Truly innocent parties we have yet to see.

Counselors can often identify the subtle ways that couples will seek to enlist support and alliance. We might quietly root for the underdog or be intimidated by the power of the "big dog." Both become severe errors to carefully avoid. Later we will underscore the importance of "multidirected partiality," the key construct in Contextual Family Therapy that emphasizes the vital importance of holding relationship with both partners in balance. This is not to suggest that counselors consider all marital sins and shortcomings as equal. No one believes infidelity to be morally equivalent to tardiness in paying the bills. However, the emphasis in marital counseling is that all have sinned; that is, both have contributed to the marital condition and each must focus on the assumption of that to which he or she is responsible.

Marital counseling skill 4: Seeing both the forest and the trees. All counseling is complicated. Marital counseling is complicated multiplied by two. Events are occurring simultaneously, pushing and pulling the dialogue in conflicting directions. It can feel like one is fighting a forest fire—one minute counseling while the couple cooperates in resolving an issue, then with a sudden change in wind or humidity, the fire is out of control. We shall discuss in the next chapter the details of why this occurs. But suffice it to say for this brief summary that counselors must be cognizant of events occurring at different levels. The big picture—the forest—must always be held in view. The big picture might be the broad and general goals the couple seeks to master. While maintaining perspective on the horizon, the counselor must also be able to focus on individual trees, specific violations and injuries that have taken root in the foreground. These important events eventually grow into a component of the forest; therefore proper management of these small saplings helps determine the makeup of the forest.

In the chapters that follow, we will tie some of these suggestions in with how we understand the multiple layers of marital conflict, ways to foster a biblical perspective on intimacy in marriage, and the overarching approach we recommend for navigating and resolving marital conflicts.