I sometimes have the great privilege of walking alongside marriages in trouble and thought I would say a few words about how I approach mentoring a marriage.
As a Biblical mentor, the place I begin is to listen and ask good questions. I understand how difficult it has been for this couple to seek out help. I understand that there have been disappointments, hurts, and probably a loss of hope. I am listening for things like what motivates them, how they are experiencing their relationship, what expectations are not being met, what does each person want, and what are their fears. I am asking the Holy Spirit to give me understanding of the people before me, including their sorrows, hopes, heartaches, and dreams, before I can even think about speaking into their lives.
As I am listening, if I am discovering any destructive addictions or abusive tactics, it is time to stop marriage mentoring and move to individual mentoring. If either partner is lying, controlling, fearful, overpowering, making all the decisions, or not speaking his/her own opinions, it is indicative of abuse and must be dealt with. This is also true whenever addiction has damaged the marriage, and that includes shopping, pornography, financial issues, anger, substance abuse, etc. These are examples of individual issues that are affecting the marriage, not of marriage issues.
The first presupposition in marriage mentoring is that behavior is driven by emotions, which is driven by thoughts, which is driven by an underlying belief system about self, partner, and God. What we believe matters. (Matt. 7:24-27). When we believe lies about ourselves, such as, “I must remain in control or bad things will happen,” “Whatever I do won’t be good enough,” or “My worth is based on my performance,” this affects our relationships, because we are trying to fill our needs with other people, rather than walking in the truth about who God says we are. When a belief system puts expectations on a spouse, such as “She should meet my every need,” or “He should continuously tell me I am loved,” we want to verbalize those expectations. Then we will talk about if those are valid expectations and if the spouse can/should/will meet those expectations.
Also, understanding a person’s individual relationship with God is crucial, as I want to respect where they are in that relationship and understand why they are there. Many people have a misunderstanding of a loving heavenly father, no knowledge of Biblical things, or severe church hurts. I want to show consideration for where they are at in spiritual matters. While I might challenge certain belief systems and they are free to challenge mine (as iron sharpens iron), it’s not my job to change their belief system; rather that is God’s job. It is my job to have them understand what they believe and how those beliefs affect the relationship.
The second presupposition in marriage mentoring is that each partner has individual desires. Desire is not necessarily a sin. Ps 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I often see signs of how good desires have gone bad. If I simply play “Pin the Sin on the Donkey,” I will be a behaviorist and may miss the good part desire plays in a person. Desire can be a powerful motivator for good. However, when we want something so much we are willing to hurt others, demand our way, appease when we should speak truth, or in some other way do the wrong thing to get it, this is when desire has become a sin. I believe God wants us to desire good things; there is nothing wrong with desiring respect, love, comfort, independence, lack of conflict, or any other good thing. One of my jobs as a mentor is to help people learn to lay down their manipulative demands and learn how to pursue those things in healthy ways, trusting God to provide them.
The third presupposition I have is that both people are first individuals before God and then in relationship with others. While I can affect my husband and influence him toward good, it is not my job to live his life for him and he can’t live mine. To take away another’s choice is to take away a part of their humanity. God created both Adam and Eve and gave them each the ability to choose good or evil. While I believe there is a mystery in the truth that the “two shall become one flesh,” I do not believe this means either party loses his or her identity, purpose, gifts, or choice to the other person.
The right and ability of each party to make his own choices is essential, and I must preserve this as I mentor my couple. Each person has to have the opportunity to make his or her own choices, believe his or her own beliefs, and live in those consequences. I do not view myself as an authority figure telling people what to do, or how to do it. I am a fellow struggler, walking alongside two people who are currently struggling. While I do believe that there is spiritual authority within the church, I think it is dangerous to bring that authority into a counseling situation. This authority is present to serve the sheep by protecting from the wolves. If a wolf is discovered, the authority is used to protect through consequences and boundaries. Spiritual authority was never intended to make the flock toe a line.
The truth is, people are complicated and glorious and messy. Marriage mentoring is far more complex than three simple steps and everyone is fixed. Rather, this is merely a starting place. When we can discover the lies we believe, understand and change how we get our desires met, and have a mutual respect for the personhood of the other, it can work to improve our relationships.
**Shari does on-line mentoring through www.projecthopeidaho.org.