In the midst of a week dedicated to celebrating God’s design for marriage, we have to acknowledge the fact that not every couple feels like celebrating right now. Many are going through deep problems.
Some are foundational; others are more surface level. But God has answers for both. I have only been married seven years, so I do not possess the ability or authority to speak on marriage issues. Acknowledging this, I reached out to Tim Holler, co-founder of Sage Hill Counseling, professor of undergraduate psychology and graduate counseling, and professional counselor with 24 years of experience.
“All marriages have problems,” Holler said. “The degree and severity of the problems can vary, but there is no such thing as a problem-free relationship because every relationship involves two sinful people.”
In all the issues he has addressed over the years, Holler has found that four seem to be the primary issues faced by young couples.
There are multiple ways finances cause stress in a marriage. But one of the more common is “if the man is not great with numbers, but feels he is responsible for them as head of the house,” Holler said.
Aside from the obvious problems of bills not being paid on time or balances being low due to poor planning, it can cause resentment in the spouse who is strong with numbers.
Holler said the best system is one that plays off the strengths of everyone. So if the wife is good at numbers, let her be in charge of the day-to-day planning. But if the husband is creative, let him come up with solutions to the financial problems facing the family.
In any problem that arises, whether one spouse messes up the budget, someone lets a bill become past due, or if one cannot develop a creative solution to a problem, Holler says the best tool to solve the problem is to put everything on the table and have an open discussion with grace, humility, and love toward one another.
Grace, humility, and love are also required when it comes to sex in the marriage. Holler said much of the friction surrounding sex happens because married couples are not willing or do not know how to talk about it. “No one likes to admit it, but you have to talk about sex with your spouse and not just assume you know what the other person is thinking or that the other person knows what you are thinking,” Holler said.
For example, many spouses, particularly husbands, assume that “I gave her the look; she knows what that means,” or, “It’s Friday night; she knows what that means,” or, “I’m thinking about sex, so she must be thinking about sex.” But that is not reality. Assuming your spouse can read your mind leads to disaster for both parties.
“But it is hard for young Christian couples to discuss sex because they feel like they are violating something, or because they expect it to always be spontaneous like something from the movies. That is a fantasy in their heads,” Holler said.
Just as couples need to put everything on the table in an open, frank discussion about finances, Holler says that is necessary for sex as well. Talk about sex when you are outside the bedroom. Discuss how often you would like to have sex. Ask questions about what your spouse likes. “I really encourage people to be generous and gentle to meet each other’s needs. Also, talk about signals or ways you can initiate. Doing that outside the bedroom where there is much less pressure leads to more openness and intimacy.”
Everyone says communication is the great solution to all problems but Holler disagrees. He says, “Make no mistake, the solution to all marital problems is not communication. It should be seen as a tool to getting to the heart.”
But when we discuss relational issues, communication is a part of that. This typically manifests itself when one spouse, generally the wife, says her husband doesn’t listen to her. He retorts that he does listen, and can sometimes even quote what his wife has said, but there is a need she is trying to communicate beyond the act of listening.
Holler said, “What she means is she is lonely. She doesn’t feel intimacy, there’s no paying attention. She is trying to articulate that there is a lack of relational connection.”
Rather than offering a book or resource, Holler suggests the best resource for couples is a change in vocabulary. “Husbands should stop defending themselves or trying to prove they listen and begin asking questions,” he said. “When she says he isn’t listening, he can tap into her loneliness and say something like, ‘You sound like you are lonely for me. Are you saying you want us to spend time together?’ Or he can ask, ‘What am I missing? What needs do you have that I am not meeting?’”
There is a marked humility and sincerity when we stop defending ourselves and focus on the heart of our spouses. And sincerity is a requirement for this conversation. If there are tones of accusation or defensiveness, these questions will create the perfect storm that will end with someone sleeping on the couch.
“Generally, problems arise with in-laws when couples try to please everyone,” Holler said. “The biggest problem is when the couple does not identify themselves as a new family.”
When it comes to arguments over in-laws, it typically happens because young married couples are learning how to navigate the waters of being a new family while continuing to be attached to the families they grew up with. They want to honor and respect their parents, but they also want to honor and respect their spouse.
Problems typically arise during holidays when the young couple wants to continue the holiday traditions of their youth and participate in all the holiday celebrations they grew up experiencing.
Holler used the analogy of a garden. He said, “You have to take care of your own garden. If you don’t, you will not have anything to give other people around you.”
He says to first identify you and your spouse as a new family, separate and equal to both sets of parents. All three couples have needs, expectations, and desires, but the young couple must establish themselves as their own garden.
Then the decisions made about where to go on what day is sourced in a place of doing what is best for your relationship, not out of a place of resentment. It is good to be in fellowship with his and her parents, but there are boundaries that should be present.
Holler said he did not know of any resources to help with this, so if you know of any, please let us know about them in the comments.
Whatever state your marriage is in, realize hope is not lost. Every marriage has problems, and if yours has been on the rocks as of late, know that God can bring healing and reconciliation to what has been broken. If you need someone to talk to, may I recommend Sage Hill Counseling? The teams in Memphis and Nashville, TN are Christian counselors who integrate their faith into every counseling strategy.
Holler said earlier that communication is not the solution to every marriage woe, but the gospel is. Keep up with Engage’s Heart of Marriage week to learn more about God’s vision for marriage and our celebration of that vision.