Greetings fellow shepherds in the name of our Head Shepherd the Lord Jesus Christ! It is a privilege to be able to partner with you in ministry and share our mutual resources in the care of His Church.

One priority at Southwest Counseling Associates is to help couples sustain their marriages through periods of distress. Too often we hear of couples being told by a secular therapist that their problems cannot be solved and they should divorce. We would like to share with you our perspective on this matter and hope it can help you in your own ministry to couples in crisis.

A reason couples often cite for divorce are their “irreconcilable differences.” The rationalization follows that, because their relationship possesses areas of difference or conflict that are impossible to permanently solve, their marriage uniquely warrants dissolution. However, scientific research has indisputably demonstrated that the presence of irreconcilable differences, far from being unique, is a universal norm.

In fact, the groundbreaking researcher, Dr. John Gottman, has proven that the majority of problems marriages face are what he terms “perpetual problems.” Unchanging differences in personality, dreams, temperament and extended family dynamics are just a few examples from a plethora of potential issues a couple may find themselves managing all the way from their first to final anniversary. Research has also shown that the determining factor in marital satisfaction is not whether these perpetual problems exist but, rather, a couple’s ability to cope with and adapt to their own unique set of them.

Evidence that perpetual problems exist in every marriage is consistent with sin’s infestation of all human relationships. Every marriage can identify one or more thorns that serve a similar function to Paul’s thorn in II Corinthians 12. Despite the recurrent pain it can inflict and our sincere prayers that it be taken away, God tells us instead that His grace is sufficient and His power is made perfect in our sustained weakness. Thankfully, we confess that, through Jesus Christ, no problem is beyond the peacemaking hand of God.

However, the making of peace does not always mean the presence of a permanent solution. The insightful author of A Marriage After God’s Own Heart, David Clarke, asks and answers his question on the role of perpetual problems in marriage this way:

“Why did God make men and women so unbelievably different? The main reason is so that we would have to depend on Him. God wants to be at the center of every marriage, so He made the relationship so difficult that we have to keep Him there to make it work. That’s just like God, isn’t it? He makes sure that He is the answer to all of life’s problems.”

Couples need to know that having perpetual problems make them normal and that a God who is never without answers is always present and prepared to surround a couple’s thorns with His grace and peace.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1.  Isn’t the idea of having a perpetual problem more of a discouragement to couples and a reinforcement for their hopelessness?

A: Quite the opposite!  In fact, a couples’ discouragement is often based on their misguided belief that their relationship is uniquely flawed because they cannot eliminate their particular problem.  Teaching couples that the presence of perpetual problems is normal for even the most satisfied relationships alleviates this pressure and offers a new sense of hope.

2.  How do you address perpetual problems in a counseling context?

A: Many counseling sessions can get derailed trying to eradicate a perpetual problem.  Accepting the reality of perpetual problems in marriage shifts the focus of counseling from finding a permanent solution to developing a strategy the couple can use to make accommodations and cope with them. 

Remember, highly satisfied couples have perpetual problems too.  Their satisfaction springs from their willingness and ability to make accommodations and compromise.

3. What are some resources that could help couples dealing with perpetual problems?

  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman and Nan Silver
  • A Marriage After God’s Own Heart by David Clarke
  • The Divorce Remedy by Michele Weiner-Davis

Joel MacFarland, LCSW
SCA clinical staff member

Q. What are the most common problems that you see at SCA in marriage counseling?

A. Because of the critical importance of both communication and partnership in a healthy marriage many times we deal with conflict, poor communication, difficulty expressing their needs to each other in constructive ways, and effective decision-making and problem solving in our sessions.

We often work to get couples to explore what their desired secondary gains are in the dysfunctional strategies people use.  Things we often hear include “so they hurt like I do” or “to make them finally listen to me.”  We then seek to help people meet this otherwise appropriate goal but in healthier, strategic, and biblically based ways. 
Since couples got married out of love, they each typically desire closeness and intimacy.  Once they are able to help stop the self-defeating behaviors and seek out healthier and more strategic approaches, positive change tends to build positive momentum and we see marriages grow.

Q. What are other problems that you see as you work with couples?

A. There are couples dealing with sin (i.e. affairs, pornography, lying, etc) that has become entrenched in their lives.  Especially if the couple are believers, they already know their behaviors are sin, but they can hold onto those things out of pride, selfishness, and rebellion.  A biblical phrase for this is “stiff-necked.”  Once they are open to confession and repentance, real growth can occur.

We often find couples have difficulty expressing feelings in healthy ways.  Often couples can go to opposite extremes, i.e. one only sharing thoughts but not feelings (come across as cold and condescending) and the other so emotionally expressive that there is a lack of self-control.  Anger is often a troublesome feeling that is either viewed as bad and sinful or as a weapon to be used!  The couples need to learn healthy ways to use anger, how to “fight fair” and when to use “time outs” and other strategies to work through emotions in a constructive way!