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Let’s Talk About Relationships – How to Hang In When You Want to Bail Out

From the series Q&A with Chip Ingram

For this program, Let's Talk About Relationships Part 1, we chose your questions that have to do with marriage. Whether you’ve been married for many years or are just starting out, Chip’s addressing common challenges to all marriages. Issues like expectations, trust, how to own your part of what needs fixing, and how to hang in when it seems like nothing’s changing. And he shares a great testimony to God’s blessing and reward for unwavering perseverance.

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CHIP: So, I’m back in the studio with Jerry McCauley, a really dear friend, uh, staff member for many years, and he’s our senior vice president of communications and product development. So, Jerry, welcome to our time together to ask and answer these questions and it’s just great to see you.

JERRY: Thank you!  I’d just love to say to all the listeners, “thanks so much for being with us for today’s program.” We’ve received a lot of questions and sometimes the answers will be pretty brief, but sometimes, like today, we’re going to address several questions in more of a conversation format. We really want you to engage, to be able to hear the back and forth answers that Chip has around some of these things that you’ve told us are so important to you and that you would really love to have his input on. So, the first one we have is: Chip, I need hope and encouragement because I’ve been in a difficult marriage for over 20 years.

CHIP: Well, you know, first of all, you’re not alone. I have been there and I have counseled lots of people. This is a very common question. And what I say first of all is: God understands. God really wants you to know that He understands and it is a challenge and it is difficult. And I think it’s dangerous.

I think when you’re in a really difficult marriage and you feel like there may not be hope or it’s never going to change – and so, one of the things we talked about is: all relationships really begin with God. That was one of the principles. And what I mean by that is that God has a design for marriage, just like every other relationship. And so, the first thing I would say to whoever wrote this question or others in a difficult marriage, is: are you really willing to go to God and say, Lord, I really want Your will in this relationship? Because, sometimes the difficult relationship, when I get talking to people is: “I want him to change. I want her to change. I am unfulfilled. I want this. I want that.”

And the fact of the matter is, the beginning place to change a difficult marriage is to go to God and say, Okay, this is very unfulfilling and I am very frustrated. I need Your help and I believe with all my heart that You want our marriage to be great, certainly for our fulfillment, but our marriage is one of the most primary and important testimonies of what a marriage is to be to the watching world.

And so, I think the first thing I would just say is that you can’t change your mate. You have probably already tried that. And the second thing I would say is: getting clear on: what is it that makes your marriage difficult?

JERRY: So, Chip, if I can’t change my mate, what area should I be focusing on? Is, is there something that I need to change? Or a different level of trust that I need to grow in with God and with my mate? What are you talking about there?

CHIP: Well, what I mean by that, and let me just be autobiographical if I can is I have had really challenging times early in my marriage and then we had one other season where it really got tough. And I just think you have to admit when you’re in a difficult marriage, that you really think the other person is the problem. And that’s a dead-end street. You know, if they would only…

And I think if relationships begin with God and I can’t change them, I only have one alternative. And the alternative is to say, Okay, Lord, I know You long for this marriage to work. Now, since I can’t change him or I can’t change her, would You show me anything in my life and my heart that I could change?

And, you know what? I can tell people, Jerry, is that what we know from research and counseling and psychology is every relationship is a system. And when any part of the system changes, it changes the relationship. And so, when you start to own some stuff, even though I had to get to, in my warped thinking, it was ninety percent Theresa’s fault but just ten percent mine. But since I couldn’t change that quietness and that unresponsive and that rigidity and all those things that I was blaming her for, I had to step up and say, okay, wow. My insensitivity, ten percent. My lack of taking initiative and seeing things around the house, just a little ten percent. Okay, I can deal with that. And when I started to own that, then I really began to see some changes happen.

JERRY: What were some of the ways that you, that you changed your thinking and what were some of the, maybe, Scripture or other resources that you leaned in on? Or maybe other voices like accountability partners or friendships to help you move from where you were seeing her as the problem to what you’re describing where you were owning your part of it?

CHIP: Well, I think the first thing was actually taking the time and writing down what frustrated me. It gets so cloudy with the emotions, you know? I had her, you know, you hear: everything is wrong. Everything is terrible. And so, I literally made a list of all of her good qualities and then the things that were frustrating me. And that gave me perspective.

The second one is I really did honestly pray and I asked God to show me. And this is what I tell couples when I’m doing counseling. What specifically do you need to own and then what are you going to do about it? And here’s one of the big mistakes is, early on, I started owning my stuff with the expectation that now she’ll change. And it didn’t work. And then I got even more mad. I got mad at her and I got mad at God.

And the breakthrough for me came when I changed my prayer. And my prayer went from: Help me do better so this works out for us and I am happier to, If she never changes, I’ll be deeply disappointed, but I am going to change, not to get her to change, but I am going to do this as my offering to You. And you talk about lordship. Because at this point, at least in our marriage, and I have counseled with just hundreds of people over the years, you don’t have any guarantee they are going to change. What you have is the promise of God that if you change and you do it as an offering to Him, He can satisfy the deepest needs and the desires of your heart.

And then I did claim some promises. You said something practical. Proverbs 21:1 was like my marriage verse for, like, two years. It says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it whatever way He wishes.” And what I realized was Theresa’s heart, or to this person who has written this question, your husband’s heart or your wife’s heart is in God’s hands. And your best efforts, your most convincing things – He can change their heart. And for you to actually pray that and also what I learned was the more I nagged, the more I pointed out what was wrong, the more I put pressure on her to change, it was just like, wow, counter, counter-productive. And when I began to just, again, practical. One, pray that promise. Second was: when I could verbally affirm the things she was doing well, it was like watching the hardness of her heart begin to melt. And so, those were some practical things that I think you can do.

And then I think the other, or maybe final thing is: I just wanted it to happen really fast. You know? Like, it’s like, Hey, God, I have been good for, like, a month. I mean, I have been really good for a month. And I am seeing a little bit of change, but this isn’t moving nearly, nearly as fast. And another promise, I mean, literally, I just clung to Hebrews 10:36. It says, “For you have need of endurance so that once you have done the will of God, you might receive what is promised.” Let me say that again, because I just sense there’s someone out there going, “I don’t know if I can hang on anymore.” “You have need of endurance.” The word is hupomeno. To be under stress or pressure and not giving up. “For when you have done the will of God,” when you do your part as a godly wife; as you do your part as a godly husband, if you persevere, that’s the key.

Over time, what will happen is you will change, but then God is going to be working. And that’s the final thing, because I think you really brought it up is I went to one or two really key mentors that would keep their mouths shut. Don’t share your problems with a lot of different people. Bad, bad, bad. It doesn’t work. But I really was able to share my deep frustration, and they prayed with me. And I told them where I needed to change and they held me accountable and helped me. And just to be candid, I did really, really good for a while and then not so good. And, so then, we had ups and downs and ups and downs. But it was way better than all downs, you know?

And so, what I’m trying to describe is a process, a friend, the promises of God, the truth of Scripture. And could I just add one final thing? I think this is a time when you’re super vulnerable. And when you’re in a difficult marriage, you cannot go on Facebook or on Tinder or Match.com just fooling around or old high school flames or being a little extra friendly at the gym or the office. If you begin to share your struggles, especially with someone of the opposite sex, I will tell you, you will wreck your marriage and you, especially if you have children as well, you will do damage that regardless of what anyone tells you, you will carry with it the rest of your life. I cannot, I cannot be more: don’t go there no matter how you feel, because the price tag is so high for you and everyone else.

JERRY: Chip, those are really great, really great system changes for a person that has been in a long-term relationship. But I am thinking about the people that on the other end of that spectrum, so they’re just starting out, they are new in a relationship, and they are hitting these roadblocks and they are hitting these pitfalls early on, what do you say to them?

CHIP: What I’d say, in fact, I just met a young gal at the gym and she said, “Oh, hi Chip! How are you doing?” And we happen to go to the same church. And it was like, we are six minutes into the conversation and, “I’ve only been married six months,” and she had that look and it was that look I’ve seen so many times. And I said, “And so tell me, how is it going?” And her face dropped. She goes, “It is not going well at all.” And come to find out it had been six months and, boy, there’s conflict and there are struggles. And, I mean, literally, she’s a Christian, she loves God.

But I could tell, emotionally, Jerry, she was ready to think, “This is probably not going to work.” And then I probed and I started asking some questions and what I realized was, Oh my lands! These are such normal, little things. You know? But she doesn’t know they’re normal, little things.

So, what I would say to newly married people is: first and foremost, you really have to examine your expectations. The early months and sometimes it’s even a year. And we talk about the honeymoon stage. That’s a reality. And it is wonderful. It doesn’t last. It doesn’t mean you’re not in love. It means the – God creates us with this level of overwhelming infatuation and part of it makes us blind to the other person’s faults and struggles and idiosyncrasies and now it’s like you’re paying bills together and early on, some of you have married someone that has children and now there’s work schedules. And when those things begin to play into the relationship, this – the idyllic, the romance, the ooey-gooey wonderful feelings – they are just not there all the time. And the expectation thinking that if they’re not, something is wrong, that will take you down a bad path.

So, I think the first thing I would say is understand that there’s going to be very predictable ups and downs, there’s going to be conflict, there’s going to be times where this person – I’ll never forget – this person that you love so much, the first time they say something or do something that, I mean, really wounds you, you’ll just be like, “How could they do that? I could have never imagined that person!” And the wound is so deep.

And my first one, and I literally got in the car and drove around and was convinced I married the wrong person. And please don’t laugh out loud as you’re listening to me. And it was over how we were hanging a picture at, like, two weeks after we were married. Are you ready? And it was just, I had never seen her with that tone of voice. And then she said some things and then, well, I said some things and she said some things. And I slammed the door and left, I mean, O godly man that I am. And looking back, it’s funny. It was not funny then.

And so, Jerry, I think one is building in some of these systems where you pray together as we do now, like, before you go to bed. Building in systems where you realize: I can’t ask this person to make my life work. I think that’s an expectation. I have to be in God’s Word. I need to spend time with God. The fact of the matter is, when difficulties are going to come, since they’re going to come, do I have some good male friends and does she have some really good female friends that are godly? That can hold me accountable? That can encourage me so I don’t ask my spouse to meet all my needs?

And then I would say, I wish I would have gotten some help. Resources are helpful. I know the new Marriage That Works book that we put together, we kind of took all the mistakes that we have made and kind of what the Bible teaches about how to have a good marriage and just doing some of those things proactively. An awful lot of what I have written about marriage came out of reading a ton of books, going through counseling, and I would say: learn from our mistakes. You know?

You don’t have to repeat the mistakes of other people. I wish we would have read and been more prepared and really gotten the kind of help that would have made our relationship a lot better.

JERRY: Good. I, I know that some of the best ways for us to see how God works is to see it through the lives of other people. So, do you have any examples of the payoff of that perseverance and, and the payoff of the investing in the character and growth closer to God as one person in the relationship and just how God, how God meets us in return on that?

CHIP: Yeah, I just got an email two days ago, Jerry, from a, I won’t mention his name, but he’s in Kentucky and he said, “We both got married and neither of us were Christians. We both alcohol issues and other issues and we fought, and we had a two-year-old and out of the blue my wife said she’s leaving me. And it was like, oh no!” And he really encouraged her to hang in there and she walked out.

And he said, “There wasn’t infidelity or anything like that. But it was, hey, this is really hard and I’m not fulfilled.” And they obviously had issues. And so she leaves him. And he, man, he said, “I have never hurt like that.” I mean he hit rock bottom. And I have had countless conversations with both men and women and they do this. And this is a good thing. He said, “I opened my Bible probably for the first time in whenever and cried out to God like never before and actually went to church the next week. Oh, God, help me! And as a result, I became a Christian.” And he put his faith in Christ. And he said, “God gave me new eyes.”

And so it was shortly after that that she got involved with someone else and had a boyfriend and we all know the story, a whole nine yards. And then she, within a year, asked for a divorce. And he, as he prayed through this, he had some biblical grounds in terms, she was sexually unfaithful and living with a guy.

And he said, “I’m going to fight for my marriage. I believe that just because she has sinned, she is the only woman I love.” And so, it was an amazing story. So, for four years, he won’t grant the divorce. And he believes God is going to change things. And he said, “I went to church and then pretty soon, a year or two in, I’m leading a group.” And he’s growing like crazy, spiritually. And the person who is changing is him.

And little by little, he continues to treat her in this gracious way. And he said, “it was four years, I’m dropping off my daughter and I was sharing with her, not pushy, not preachy, just how much God loves her and how much I care about her. And I got the same rejection and I walked down, I got to the end of the street, and then she cried out.” And he says, “At first I thought, Oh my gosh! Something is wrong! And I ran back. And tears streaming down her face. And she goes, ‘You know, I want to be a Christian. I get it.’” And he said, “We prayed right then.” And this is almost like a movie, Jerry. You know, he says, “That night, she came home. And this was four years ago.”

And so, now there’s, like, this nine-year journey. He’s now a pastor. They now have three other children. And he tells this story and he said, “You know, everyone told me, ‘Give up on it. Give up on it. Give up on it.’” And I want to be sensitive that there are times where, no matter what you do, you can’t make the other person change or they remarry and there is no hope of reconciliation. But I think this story reminds us, Jerry, that God so cares for marriage and if we will fight for our marriage and not give up, His plans are fantastic.

And what I find is many, many couples that have been through difficult times, it’s in those hurts and difficulties and pain, when they come through them, it really produces a level of intimacy and connection that is greater than anything they ever had before.