‘Sometimes prayer is not enough’ to fix relationship problems, Pastor John Gray says

John Gray, Aventer Gray
Pastor John Gray (R) and his wife Aventer. |

He leads one of the largest churches in Greenville, South Carolina, but Pastor John Gray said he doesn’t believe prayer is enough to handle all the problems that can emerge in marriages.

Gray, who leads Relentless Church and has previously admitted to being on the verge of divorce, made the declaration on a recent episode of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Facebook Show “Red Table Talk,” co-hosted by Pinkett Smith’s daughter, Willow Smith, and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris.

The episode, in which Gray appeared with his wife, Aventer, was billed “How Your Relationship Can Survive Quarantine.”

“The reason why this conversation is so impacting to me is because as a man of faith, what sometimes happens with the theological construct is that we think that our higher power will somehow fix it all. And sometimes prayer is not enough. You can sometimes talk to somebody that has walked through things that you don’t know. I needed this because there are some areas of unattended manhood that need to be addressed,” Gray said after receiving advice from relationship counselor Michaela Boehm, which he and his wife both found illuminating.

Pinkett-Smith started the conversation by highlighting how she realized during the pandemic how little she and her husband, movie star Will Smith, knew about each other.

“Will and I are in the process of him taking the time to learn to love himself, me taking the time to learn to love myself right, and us building a friendship along the way. And let me tell you that’s been somethin,’” she said. “To be married to someone for 20-some-odd years and then realize, I don’t know you and you don’t know me. But also realizing too there’s an aspect of yourself that you don’t know either.”

Gray explained that he was also learning to appreciate who is wife is during the pandemic.

“And that for me is the biggest revelation. I think Aventer, she’s had a consistent role in this marriage, while I tried to figure out what my role was. That’s not just in a marriage. I’m talking about as the man. I have been forced into intimacy over the last four weeks. And when Willow said, ‘you can’t spell divorce without C-O-V-I-D,’ well what I think is that I don’t think people are willing to divorce because of these four weeks. I think truth is being presented and we’re finally revealing and being revealed for who we actually are,” he said.

“There’s a distance between who we thought we were and who we actually know. And so for me, I can be honest to say that I didn’t understand all of the value and the gifts that my wife carried. Even if I could sympathize with her, I have not empathized. There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy. One is I feel sorry for you, you’ve done a great job. The other is, I’m putting myself in your shoes. And I have never stopped to say what does it mean to be a wife, a mother, an executive who’s doing all these different things and for me; I don’t know how to stay. I will travel a quarter of a million miles a year so for me, I know how to leave, not stay.”

The pastor’s wife quickly interjected that while he was trying to understand her in all her roles, he failed to see her as “a woman.”

“You neglected to say, just a woman first,” Aventer Gray said.

“You said all those things, you see me as the wife, you see me as the mom, you see me as whatever it is that you need me to fulfill at that moment and I think the hardship that comes in marriage is, the tension comes in because you cannot reconcile that we singularly have so much value without all the other titles that we wear,” she said.

Pinkett Smith noted that wives can sometimes fail just as easily as husbands to see the value in their spouses.

“I often think sometimes we kinda fall into that as well. It’s like we can only see them as husbands. I know I’ve had this issue, you’re a husband, you’re a provider, you’re this and you’re supposed to take care of me like this and like that and so I could only see in that little box and not really see the value of Will outside of all the little compartments I needed him to excel in for me,” she said.

Boehm was then brought into the discussion to show how couples can see each other outside of their perceived roles.

“One of the first things that we have to always remember is that when we meet somebody we don’t actually know them. The first thing that kicks in is our projection of them. Then there comes a moment when the honeymoon is over and you suddenly realize that oops, you are married to an actual person, not to the figment of your imagination or fantasy,” the counselor said.

“They have bad habits and you have bad habits and at that point people also throw children in the mix. So then it becomes even more complicated. Ten, 15 years can pass and they come to an impasse because they are no longer the people they were when they first met.”

Boehm urged couples to work on occasionally making sure that their relationship is current as people change over time.

“I always say in a relationship, there is one partner, the other partner and there’s a third partner and that’s the relationship itself which has a dynamic. And at some point the dynamic of the relationship takes over from the individuals. And at that point, it’s a tough thing because at that point, you have what I call the always already listening,” she said.

“You already know what that [person] is going to do. You are no longer connected to them, the intimacy is gone,” she said, prompting the panelists to react in agreement, including Gray and his wife.

Boehm further noted that couples should treat the ongoing quarantine time as a type of honeymoon where they work on focusing on deeper connections so that when life gets busy again, they will appreciate each other from a fresh perspective.

“What makes a honeymoon moment a honeymoon moment is you sit around, you talk a lot, you exchange ideas, you have great plans for the future, you’re deeply connected, things we no longer do when we’re really busy,” she said.

“So that will, of course, also mean that some old resentments are going to come up. You’re going to have trust issues, you’re going to have things that have never been said. I would say for the time being, leave that aside. But for right now what you want to do is you want to anchor the positive feelings. You want to have as much of that epiphany and honeymoon and the lighthearted moments in your body … so that when you go separate ways, you have positive memories that override a lot of the negative moments,” she said.

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