Ahead of Valentine’s Day, a marriage and family expert discussed how to navigate conflict in marriage and shared biblical advice for couples who feel like conflict has become the norm in their relationships.
In a recent episode of the Crossway Podcast, Christopher Ash, author of Married for God: Making Your Marriage the Best It Can Be, admitted that the first few years of his 37-year marriage to his wife, Caroly, were “hard.”
“Rubbing off the sharp corners was pretty painful sometimes," he said.
“It's like bringing suitcases into marriage. You think you're marrying someone and it's just them, but there's all sorts of suitcases that you bring and they are full of all sorts of clutter and clobber–some of it really good and some of it not so good,” Ash explained.
A seasoned pastor and counselor, Ash went on to identify some of the common problem areas for many Christian couples.
“Sometimes it relates to career ... prizing their career perhaps above their marriage,” he said. “Sometimes that causes tensions and sometimes it's just straight ungodliness that a husband needs to say to his wife, ‘Look, our marriage is more important than my getting promotions.’”
Another source of tension for many couples is the “physical side of marriage and sex,” he added.
“We live in a fallen world and it's all messed up,” he contended. “The air we breathe in our culture is completely messed up. The portrayals of sex and intimacy that you get even in movies and things that don't show anything — they're not explicit — but the implications that are there in a rom-com or something are pernicious.”
“They're just evil and they're simply not true,” Ash stressed. “The implication is it's easy and wonderful and great and everything else. And the truth is, at its best it's wonderful. At its worst it can be deeply disappointing. And most marriages have a bit of both.”
Money is another source of tension for many couples, the pastor said, specifically citing debt and different approaches to saving and spending. Additionally, many couples struggle with child-rearing and the decisions that come with children.
Ash laid out some practical steps for couples in the midst of conflict, beginning with the importance of apologizing and forgiving.
“I think particularly for us men it’s difficult to put our hands up and say, ‘I'm sorry, I was wrong,’ which is not the same as ‘I'm sorry you felt hurt or I'm sorry I upset you,’ but ‘I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that or I shouldn't have done that,’” he said. “And that's a very good thing to do. It's easier to do when you know that your wife is forbearing and forgiving and that she will forgive you. I think some pressures in marriage come when, it's both ways round, but when a man isn't sure whether his wife will be willing to forgive what he said.”
A lot of conflict in marriage is caused, or at least exacerbated by, poor communication, according to Ash. He stressed the importance of quantity — and not just quality — time.
“Sometimes it takes time for what we really think and feel to come out because we're used to saying what we think we ought to say,” he explained. “I found with my wife it takes time to give her space and time really to say what she genuinely feels and thinks, and for me to listen to that.”
It’s also important to speak highly of one’s spouse. “Focus on being able to speak positively where it's genuine and true and heartfelt and clearly right. Don't neglect to say those positive things, not just to take them for granted," he noted.
Fostering a prayer life together and deep relationships with other godly couples are two other ways to build a strong, healthy marriage, according to Ash.
He went on to offer advice for young dating or engaged couples: “Try to prioritize the friendship while dating and keep the temperature low on the physical side of things so that you can really concentrate on relating as friends. Work hard at listening. Don't assume that you know what the other one means.”
For married couples who are struggling with conflict on a regular basis, Ash advised, “Keep walking with the Lord, keep reading the Bible and praying on their own in their personal devotions, and stay consistent in their church belonging.”
“If they're following Jesus and walking with Jesus, all sorts of things fall into place,” he said.
He also encouraged couples to seek the advice of older, Christian couples or the counsel of a third party in the midst of conflict.
“Often the chemistry becomes toxic and you're always going into conflict, not just occasionally, but it's just becoming the norm. To sit with a third person, or another couple, who aren't taking sides can really help because you think quite carefully what you're going to say when there's somebody else listening,” he posited.
Ash also offered encouragement for couples at a “breaking point” in their marriage: “I would want to point them to the faithfulness of God–the unchanging covenant faithfulness of God to us in Christ and that nothing can change that if I'm in Christ.”
“Don't underestimate the benefits of just hanging on in there,” the pastor added. “Remember you're trying to serve God in your marriage and the marriage is not there primarily to meet your needs. Our society says the whole relationship is there to make me feel good or to make us feel good as a couple. But rather, say to yourself, ‘I'm here to serve God. I'm married, so I'm here to serve God in my marriage.’”
A 2017 report from Barna found that practicing Christians and evangelicals are much more likely to be married than the average American. However, both groups equal the rate of divorce (both historically and currently) of the general adult population, Barna found.
“So although those with strong religious convictions are more likely to be married, they are also just as likely to have experienced a divorce,” the study said.
In a recent interview with The Christian Post, best-selling author and pastor Jentezen Franklin opened up about the marital struggles he and his wife have endured over the years. He offered a word of advice to other married couples: Don’t give up; the best is yet to come.
“It’s not about us just getting to the place of success and dream, it’s about surrendering to the process,” he stressed. “If your dream has been torn and tattered, if your marriage has been torn, God has a way of making it more valuable after you go through the tattered and torn place. That’s the truth in marriage, family and other areas. Put your tattered dreams in God’s hands because He can restore them.”
“Life is full of hardships,” he added, “but we must be willing to trust God to give birth to diamonds in our lives.”