Marriage: Q & A with Dr. Dave & Donalyn Currie—Helping a Friend in Marriage Crisis
I’ve got a good friend whose marriage is “on the rocks”. They’ve got some big issues, but I really want to see them pull through this. How can I be a good support to her while also encouraging them to keep working at their relationship?
Donalyn: Let me start by saying that it’s great that you want to help. Many people are afraid to get involved in messy situations like this. It’s easier to keep your distance than to really walk with them through a crisis, but good for you for being willing to face this with your friend.
Dave: Absolutely. Your concern for your friend is very admirable. Yet, I would caution you to prepare yourself for the possibility that your help may not be well received, no matter how gentle you are. I am glad you want to help them towards restoration. But if your friend has made up her mind to follow a different course of action, she may not want your input. Love and listen and be a good friend first. Then bring your input without pushing the reconciliation mode. She has to want your help.
Donalyn: Regardless of where she’s at in this process, marriage is worth fighting for, and your friend needs someone like you to encourage her. She can always get the “nay-sayers” who would help her pull the plug on the marriage. We sometimes think that being a friend means supporting the person in whatever they’ve decided to do, even if it’s not in their best interest or what God would want. But true friendship means helping the person to do what’s right and what’s best for them, even when it’s hard.
Dave: Helping people through marital crisis is incredibly complicated. As a counselor, my desire is always to help the couple reconcile. And yet, if there are issues of abuse or any kind of safety concerns for her or the kids, you need to be very cautious about telling her to hang in there. There are times when reconciliation is best facilitated during a period of physical separation. I call it separation with a purpose – take the time apart to get the help you need to address the problem. On the other hand, as Donalyn implied, you don’t want to encourage her to leave just because things are getting tough.
Donalyn: As you can see, this isn’t going to be easy. I think it’s really important for you to be clear on what your role is here. If you aren’t a professional counselor, you don’t want to try to act as one.
Dave: That is so critical, we need to say it again: Don’t be her counselor; just be a friend. Be a safe place for her to open up. That means, among other things, maintaining strict confidentiality. Don’t even let others know that you are playing a supportive role, or you may soon find yourself tempted to answer their prying questions.
Donalyn: And don’t expect too much of yourself. You can be a good support to your friend, but you can’t fix her problems for her. In fact, it will be hard for them to resolve things unless both her and her husband are prepared to work hard at it. You can encourage this but can’t force it.
Dave: That’s for sure. Even if your friend has a desire to reconcile, she may need to be patient until her husband is prepared to work on their issues. A turnaround is achievable, but not until they both get moving in the same direction.
Donalyn: So what does it really mean to be a good support in this situation? Well, if she’s beaten down, you want to give her encouragement and hope for the future. Help her to rise above the circumstances that weigh her down by counting all her blessings. Look for the good things that are still there to appreciate.
Dave: What Donalyn is saying here is to help her keep perspective. That gives hope.
Donalyn: Yes, sometimes a person in crisis can get so focused on the negative that they seem to have no reason to move on. Actually help them write out a list of things that will bring hope that she can refer to when the heaviness of life crushes down on her. You can also be a shoulder to cry on and maybe even someone to unload on. Be a listening ear, but if she is constantly complaining about her husband, don’t join her in it. You don’t want to create more fuel for the fire.
Dave: It can be especially tricky if you are close to both husband and wife. Avoid taking sides in their fights. Remember, you are on the side of marital restoration. That requires you to be as objective, wise and balanced as possible as you both listen to her and advise her. Try to get as much background information as possible: how long has the problem been going on, how bad things are, and how willing they are to work on it. This will help guide you in what to say from there.
Donalyn: If your friend wants to see the marriage survive and improve, help her to begin making the changes she needs to make to be a better wife. Because even if most of the blame lies with him, all of us have areas where we need to improve. Help her to see that she can’t change her spouse, but she and the Lord together can address the changes she needs to make – and that’s what she could be focusing on right now.
Dave: The temptation for anyone struggling in a relationship is to point the finger of blame at the other party. Even if she has some legitimate reasons to assign blame, that doesn’t solve things. It is best for her to be working on the issues that she can own in the relationship to become the wife that she should be. She will likely set some boundaries and terms for the reconciliation process. This will be done with an experienced counselor.
Donalyn: You can assist her in this process of working on her personal agenda. Encourage her to examine her life, her strengths and her weaknesses. Celebrate the qualities she has that make for a good relationship: things like kindness, good listening skills, an encouraging nature, etc. At the same time, gently help her to see areas where she isn’t as strong – discussing what his complaints are. Help her to set up a game plan to address these issues and see if she wants to be accountable to you in these areas.
Dave: Do what you can as well to facilitate opportunities for them to work on their marriage together. Have them over as a couple, and just be a positive influence on them. Find practical ways to help, like offering free babysitting so they can go out to talk. And before they go, suggest to your friend that she put her concerns down on paper.
Donalyn: Look through the concerns to make sure she is being fair and balanced with what she will say. Coach her in how to share her perspective with her husband in a way that he will really hear her.
Dave: As implied, encourage them to go for counseling together. It’s often best to suggest a male counselor, because the husband will be less likely to agree to go to a female counselor if they end up going at a later date. It can be a thing with some men, you know.
Donalyn: Well, if that’s what it takes to get him to go for help, it’s a small price to pay! But whatever counselor you recommend, make sure it’s one with a good reputation for helping marriages flourish.
Dave: That’s right. And to be open and honest…we have found in our help of couples in crisis – even our friends – that it is essential to commit the issue to God. Pray both with her and for her. Ask God to keep their hearts soft for each other, that they get to a good counselor, and for protection of the kids from the effects of the pain they see.
Donalyn: Focus on what God wants to teach her and ask for His strength and perseverance. Ask her to consider praying that God would protect whatever love she has left for her husband.
Dave: Praying about the issues may not be something you are comfortable with, but we have found it essential to include the spiritual dimension for lasting restoration. To survive, many marriages need a miracle…you know what I mean.
Donalyn: A great practical help I have used with many women trying to understand their man’s needs better is Shaunti Feldhahn’s book, For Women Only. The companion book for the man if he’s looking for core truth on what his wife needs is For Men Only.
Dave: Let me close by commending you again for what you are doing for your friend. We have been working with couples in crisis for over 35 years. Caring for people in crisis is difficult and taxing, and there aren’t always happy endings. But we have also seen some amazing turnarounds. I believe that any marriage can be saved if both husband and wife are willing to keep soft hearts toward God, pack their selfishness and put in the effort.
Feel free to ask your questions of how to better help the struggling marriages in your world…or share your own experiences in the comments! We’d love to hear from you.
© Dr. Dave & Donalyn Currie