Hope For Troubled Marriages

By Mike McManus - Marriage Savers
Oct 12, 2008

Is your marriage, or that of a relative or friend, heading for divorce? If so, do you know how to save that marriage?

Or do you feel helpless?

If you asked your pastor for help, would he know what to do? Probably not. Three-quarters of Americans get married in a church, and a 1995 Gallup Poll says two-thirds of adults are members of a church or synagogue. Clearly, churches have access to most couples, yet half of all new marriages are failing. While America is the most religious Western nation, it also has the world's highest divorce rate. Sadly, too many churches are just "wedding factories."

However, some churches are learning how to help couples:

  • Avoid a bad marriage before it begins.
  • Obtain "marriage insurance" as engaged couples.
  • Strengthen all existing marriages.
  • Save more than 80 percent of troubled marriages.

These pioneering churches have learned a profound lesson: What God has joined together, the church can hold together. Let's take a look at seven proven steps that you or your church can take to be a Marriage Saver, rather than a blessing machine. In some cities, 100 churches are taking these steps together, and have pushed down the divorce rate for the whole area by 20 to 50 percent.

Don't Live Together

More than half of all people who marry today have lived in a "trial marriage" with their partners.

That's more than a sixfold increase since 1970, when only 8 percent cohabited prior to marriage.

Can marriage be tried on like a shoe? Absolutely not. Cohabitation is the worst possible step a couple can take. The National Survey of Families and Households found in 1989 that 40 percent of live-in relationships broke up short of marriage. Add to this the fact that marriages that are preceded by living together have a 50 percent higher rate of divorce or separation than marriages without premarital cohabitation.

Sadly, few learn the lesson that cohabitation doesn't work. After breaking up with Partner A, many move in with Partner B and then C, and they end up in their 30s wondering why they aren't married. No wonder fewer young people are getting married at all. The number of never-married Americans has doubled since 1970, jumping from 21 million to 44 million in 1994, while the population grew only 20 percent.

If you know someone living in a "trial marriage," you can be a marriage saver by explaining that their odds of success are not good. Furthermore, you can suggest that the better way to test whether the relationship has the ingredients of a lifelong marriage is to take a "premarital inventory."

Undergo a Premarital Inventory

Two premarital inventories called PREPARE and FOCCUS are taken by more than 250,000 couples a year.

These tests can predict with astonishing accuracy—better than 70 percent—which couples are likely to divorce. Interestingly, 10 percent of the couples taking PREPARE actually break their engagements when they learn the results.

Good! Better the broken engagement than the broken marriage. Those couples are avoiding a bad marriage before it begins.

The 90 percent who go on to marry have much lower divorce rates. A Creighton University study of FOCCUS in 1995 reported that of those married from one to eight years, only 3.6 percent had separated or divorced. Taking a premarital inventory is like having "marriage insurance."

During an inventory, the man and woman are asked separately whether they agree or disagree with more than 100 statements such as:

  • "When we are having a problem, my partner often gives me the silent treatment."
  • "Sometimes I wish my partner were more careful in spending money."
  • "Some relatives or friends have concerns about our marriage."

What emerges is an X-ray of the couple's strengths, their weaknesses and how each person contributes to the problems. PREPARE also requires the couple to talk through the results with a pastor or mentor couple.

Be a Mentor Couple

My wife, Harriet, and I have trained 33 couples at our church, all married two to five decades, to administer PREPARE and go over the results. This gives each young couple an opportunity to tap into the wisdom of a husband and wife whose marriage has worked.

My heart sank when I saw their PREPARE scores—a zero on Communication and 20 percent on Conflict Resolution. This looked like a future divorce!


One engaged couple asked us to help them improve their communication. My heart sank when I saw their PREPARE scores—a zero on Communication and 20 percent on Conflict Resolution. This looked like a future divorce! Andrew said Gloria made comments that put him down. She wished he was more willing to share his feelings with her—a common female complaint. Andrew said he did not feel understood.

"Andrew," I asked, "if you don't share your feelings with Gloria, how can you expect to be understood? If she calls you at the end of the day and asks, 'How was your day?' what do you say?"

"Great or terrible," he replied.

"Bad answer. What Gloria wants is detail. Even though you are an engineer, you can push yourself to say, 'I had a great day because I finished my design two days early.' Or, 'It was terrible because I lost two days of work in my computer.' "

Three weeks later, I asked Gloria if Andrew was sharing his feelings with her.

"Yes, he really is," she replied.

"Andrew, do you feel better understood now?"

"Yes, and she's not nagging me anymore!"

I was so impressed that when I retested them on Communication and Conflict Resolution, they scored 100 percent!

Attend Marriage Encounter

The most successful Marriage Saver is a movement called "Marriage Encounter," which is active in a dozen denominations. Some 61 studies have interviewed couples before and after the weekend retreat. The surveys all found that nearly nine out of 10 couples literally fell back in love with their spouses. More important, they learned communication skills that permanently improved their marriages.

That's what happened to Harriet and me. In our 10th year of marriage, I was out of a job and could find temporary work only in Washington D.C. The trouble was that we were living in Connecticut, so I became a long-distance commuter. I'd get on the train at 2 a.m. Monday, work all week, and come home late Friday night. Harriet graciously put up with this routine for months, fixing me a great dinner at 11 p.m. Friday.

About this time, a friend told me about a Marriage Encounter event.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's a way to strengthen your marriage," he said.

"I've got a good marriage," I said resentfully.

"No, this is a way to make a good marriage better." That sounded like a public relations line, but I thought our marriage could use a tune-up, so I asked Harriet whether she'd like to go.

She refused, but later relented after a couple of months. Our Marriage Encounter weekend consisted of a series of talks by four couples who described intimate details of their struggles in marriage. After each talk, we were told to write a "love letter" to our spouse. The first topic was easy: "What is it I admire about you and our marriage, and how does this make me feel?" We then went to our motel room, where we exchanged letters and talked about them privately.

To the question, "What is it I couldn't or didn't share?" I was shocked to read that Harriet felt "bruised" and "deserted" by my work in Washington. When we discussed her feelings, she said, "You love your work more than me. You haven't been a husband or a father. Even when you are home, you work all the time and don't even have time to take the boys for a 15-minute swim."

I wept, realizing that I had been so overwhelmed with a long-distance job that I was clueless to its impact on Harriet. I held her and promised I would never leave her again. Fortunately, I had just found a new job in New York City, so the long-distance commuting was over.

One thing we learned at Marriage Encounter permanently improved our marriage—the idea of taking time each day to read Scripture and talk and pray for one another. That's now something we do early each morning, and it keeps us open to each other, making the Lord a third partner in the marriage.

To learn more about Marriage Encounter, call toll-free (800) 795-LOVE (5683).

Saving the Troubled Marriage

What can be done to save the most troubled marriages? One answer was created by Marriage Encounter leaders in Quebec who noticed that a few couples divorced after the weekend. When they asked why, the couples said their problems (such as alcoholism, adultery, abuse) were more serious than those talked about during the weekend meeting. Therefore, a new movement emerged called "Retrouvaille," a French word for "rediscovery" that's pronounced ret-ro-vie.

Retrouvaille is similar to Marriage Encounter, but with one important difference. The leaders are couples whose own marriages once nearly failed. They share how they overcame adultery, alcoholism, etc., and they inspire couples in hurting marriages to try new ways to love each other.

Retrouvaille clearly works. One-third of attending couples in Michigan over the last decade had already filed divorce papers, yet 80 percent of nearly 600 couples rebuilt their marriages. Retrouvaille is also a way to foster reconciliation among separated couples. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, 40 percent of 817 couples were living apart when they went. However, 70 percent of the whole group saved their marriages! Retrouvaille is such a marriage saver that it has saved 80 percent of nearly 50,000 couples who have attended in Canada and the U.S. To learn more, call toll-free (800) 470-2230.

Propose a Marriage Ministry

The Rev. Dick McGinnis, associate rector of St. David's Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla., made this announcement one Sunday morning: "I'd like to meet after the service with any couples whose marriages were once on the rocks, but are now healed." Out of 180 people in church, 10 couples met with him. "I'd like to hear how the Lord helped you save your marriages," he said. "If God has a plan for saving troubled marriages, you would know."

Seven couples agreed to tell their stories, which were very diverse. One man was bisexual. A woman had been in an adulterous affair for eight years. Another man was a drunk who lost his job and was out of work for two years.


Seven couples agreed to tell their stories, which were very diverse. One man was bisexual. A woman had been in an adulterous affair for eight years. Another man was a drunk who lost his job and was out of work for two years.

First, they got hope from other Christian couples; five of the seven had been to Marriage Encounter. They all made a commitment to follow Jesus as their Savior, and once obedient to God, they were able to love by His standards, not theirs. All made a decision to stay together, to forgive their mates and themselves and, most important, to accept their mates as they are. The downward spiral reversed itself.

Those seven couples have now worked with 40 couples headed toward a crash, and helped 38 of them save their marriages. That's a 95 percent success rate!

Thus, the best Marriage Savers are couples with solid marriages whose own experiences equip them to help other couples. Those couples can be found in any church. Those with solid but untraumatic marriages can assist the engaged.

If your church implements only the Marriage Ministry like that in Jacksonville, it can push your church's divorce rate below 10 percent.

Create a Community Marriage Policy

Many Catholic churches have long required months of marriage preparation classes, but when a Catholic and Protestant couple plan a wedding, they sometimes marry in a Protestant church, where the pastor requires only one or two meetings with him. This is not in the best interests of the couple or the Catholic and Protestant congregations.

Therefore, when Harriet and I are asked to speak to local clergy groups, we urge that the clergy of all denominations agree on minimum standards if a couple wants to be married in a church or synagogue in that city. The first city to take this step was Modesto, Calif., where 95 pastors signed a covenant in 1986 "to radically reduce the divorce rate among those married in area churches."

They required four months of marriage prep classes, the taking of a premarital inventory, meeting with a mentor couple, studying relevant Scripture, and attending an engagement seminar.

Churches in Peoria, Ill., adopted a similar policy in 1991 for young couples, but also agreed to call for strengthening existing marriages by encouraging couples to attend a Marriage Encounter or similar weekend retreat.

The result? Peoria's divorces dropped from 1,210 in 1991 to 947 in 1992, and have remained one-fifth below the former rate. In Modesto, the population has grown 39 percent over the past decade, yet the number of divorces fell 16 percent. Modesto is now saving more than 1,000 marriages a year!

That's why Harriet and I travel all over the country encouraging church pastors to adopt what some are calling Community Marriage Covenants. When I was in Colorado Springs earlier this year, I noted that the city was home to Focus on the Family, 70 different Christian ministries and more than 400 churches. Yet El Paso County (in which Colorado Springs is located) has the highest divorce rate along the Colorado Front Range.

There's no excuse for this! That's why we're urging pastors and ministers to transform our divorce culture into a marriage culture. To date, 43 cities have adopted a Community Marriage Policy, but we need 443 to make a big dent in the divorce rate.

Want to Learn More? For information about Marriage Savers, or to contact Mike McManus, write:

Marriage Savers Institute
9500 Michael's Court
Bethesda, MD 20817

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