February 2007

The flowers are dead. The dress is yellowed. The wedding bells are silent. Those are no excuses for relationships to die and marriages to end, but statistics confirm that society sees the joining of a man and woman as a futile institution likely to wilt faster than the bride’s bouquet.

According to Michael McManus, president of Marriage Savers (www.marriagesavers.com), “the central domestic problem of our time is the disintegration of marriage. … Since 9/11 there have been four million divorces involving four million children. …”

As a means of offering Biblical and practical advice for the preservation of marriage, AFA Journal asked counselor Winston Smith and couple Terry and Barbi Franklin parallel questions about pre-wedding (See AFA Journal 2/07.) and post-wedding issues. Smith is a faculty member and director of counseling services at the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (www.ccef.org). The Franklins are Christian music artists who co-founded Heart for the World (www.heartfortheworld.com), an evangelism-focused missions organization designed to encourage marriages and families worldwide. They also authored a book, Reviving Your Romance.

AFA Journal: What do you consider to be the top issues that generally lead to marital problems?

Winston Smith: Couples will fight over almost anything. There are common “culprits” in marriage – money, sex, parenting, in-laws, etc. But whatever the occasion for marital distress, it’s critical that couples learn the distinction between “events” that are the occasion for unhappiness and the real “issues” that are driving them. In other words, the things that we fight over in marriage are often simply a reflection of the issues within our own hearts. For instance, battles over money often reflect deeper battles of control, worry, or wanting to be important. So a husband who is a “tight-wad” may ultimately be trying to address his own fears about making it in the world, while his wife is trying to address her sense that she is unimportant to him. Both issues show up in an argument over the family budget but it gets argued in terms of dollars and cents instead of having a necessary conversation about their relationship and matters of the heart.

Terry Franklin: Three that come to mind immediately are the same three that have been there for many years – sex, money and power.

Barbi Franklin: [But] I think it’s not really even sex, money and power that are the issues. I think it’s how we deal with those things. Often times, there’s a bed of misunderstanding or what the Bible would call the old nature. One psychologist counselor has said there are three major abuses that we all, at some point in our marriage, commit. That’s giving orders to each other instead of asking kindly. We’re judgmental and critical of each other rather than respecting each other. And the third abuse is angry outbursts of rage. I’m talking about a regular problem with tempers. [So] it’s more than just the actual subject matter we have to deal [with] in life. It’s how we deal with it, and the Lord gives us ways to bless each other and honor each other.

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AFAJ: What is a common sign that a marriage is headed for trouble?

WS: Marriages that are in trouble all share one characteristic. Spouses explain their bad behavior as a response to the other’s behavior. For example, I challenge a husband for berating his wife, and he explains that he only did it because his wife was nagging him. Sure, your wife’s nagging becomes an occasion for verbal attacks, but they don’t really explain your response. There are all kinds of ways to respond to nagging, but you chose to attack. That was your choice and your responsibility. What does that choice tell you about you? Of course, blame shifting is a common feature of relationships after Genesis 3. Since that first bite of the forbidden fruit we have been looking for cover by pointing to the faults of others. As common as it is, it is deadly to relationships.

AFAJ: What has been the most difficult issue you have had to deal with as a couple?

TF: Travel – related to what we do vocationally – was very challenging when the boys were really young. At one point, we were traveling about 260 days a year and still trying to have a home life and other things. It put a lot of pressure on our relationship, and, frankly, we got too busy. We stressed ourselves out.

BF: The Lord had to teach us how to be disciplined so we have an order, which is difficult when you travel.

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AFAJ: What does a mismatched relationship look like on the front end, and can it be made right?

WS: Mismatched relationships are often characterized by either conflicts that consume the relationship or the complete absence of conflict altogether. The first, relationships consumed by conflict, is pretty obvious, but the second tends to surprise us. In reality both are symptoms of one underlying problem – seeing the other as someone who exists to make my life work.

In the first instance, this expectation is being frustrated. Couples essentially punish each other for failing to fulfill them. In the second instance, the couple feels mutually fulfilled and believes they will live happily ever after – and they do until something happens that … makes one or both of them feel that the other has backed out of their obligation to fulfill their desires.

Of course, this can be made right, but it calls for a radical rethinking of what the marriage is all about. Marriage has to be about more than making one’s personal dreams come true. Marriage has to be about the welfare and betterment of the other. The only framework in which that makes sense, and the only genuine resource we have to do that is Christ Himself.

AFAJ: What is something significant that you did not know about your spouse prior to marriage?

TF: I grew up loving Southern Gospel quartet music, and that is not something that Barbi shares.

BF: It wasn’t until about six years into our marriage that it started coming out, and I would ask, “How can he listen to that?” It was so funny because after a while we started doing a lot more songwriting and that was one of the styles we began to write. Now, I think we’re probably known more for our Southern Gospel writing than any other style of music. I still don’t love Southern Gospel music, but I do appreciate it. [And] I appreciate Terry for who he is.

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AFAJ: What is the best way to handle conflict in a marriage?

WS: There is no one “right way” to handle conflict in marriage. In fact the Bible offers us many different approaches and assumes we will adopt the one that best fits our situation based on wisdom and love. For instance, the Bible, at times, urges us to confront others in love (Leviticus 19:17; Matthew 18:15). At other times we are advised to avoid or overlook potential conflict (Proverbs 17:14; 20:3). The foundation of any wise approach to conflict is trust that God intends to work in our relationships through our conflicts. Sometimes more damaging than the conflict itself is the attitude that Christians should not have conflicts; that to have a conflict is, in itself, a failure. But God’s own relationship with us, His bride, is an example of how He works purposely in conflict to bring about growth, change, and restoration in relationships. We should approach conflict in a way that fits both God’s positive agenda in conflict and our knowledge of the other person and what will give them the best opportunity to respond well.

AFAJ: What have you found to be the key to resolving conflict?

BF: We discuss things through. We try to get into each other’s heads to understand each other better. It’s a lifetime of learning to cultivate our understanding of each other in marriage.

TF: As the Scriptures say, we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness. [Among] couples today, I think particularly in our country, there is spiritual opposition to marriage. This is one of the reasons we started our organization, Heart for the World. We believe very strongly that if you have a strong marriage, you have a lot better chance of having a strong family. And the opposite of that is true. If your marriage is divided what kind of an impact is that going to have?

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AFAJ: What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all married couples?

WS: Most marriages aren’t in trouble because they want too much from their marriage, but too little. We all tend to bring little dreams to our marriages. We want a spouse that will make us feel love, give us a sense of acceptance, make us feel safe, or even give us a sense of control or power. In and of themselves many of these aren’t bad things, but they don’t really address our deepest need. The one need we all share is our need to be in living relationship with Christ. We should all embrace the biggest dream possible – the dream of having a rich relationship with Christ because our marriage embodies His love. Let go of the small dreams, and fight for the big one.

BF: Sometimes you feel like giving up because you go through so much in times of change, but each situation you come up against in your marriage, in your lives together, press on. Don’t give up.

TF: And realize, too, that there are seasons. There are seasons when it’s raining for days. Then the sun comes out for days at a time, where the weather is just great. Relationships are like that.

BF: The Bible is clear in that everything we go through in our lives, if we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, we can get through those times.