If you ask most pastors about the relationship between marriage and faith, you'll often hear that Christians are (in general) more happy in their marriages and less likely to get divorced than their non-Christian counterparts...
Unfortunately, as with many things Christian Pastors assert, the data simply does not back that up.
Christians are, statistically speaking, just as likely to get divorced and just as likely to be unhappy in their marriages as non-Christians. The rates are virtually identical, no matter what Focus on the Family tries to say. But should it be that way?
Based on other factors, we should expect Christians to have far LOWER rates of divorce and HIGHER marital satisfaction rates. Shared beliefs, sacrificial love, humility, a commitment to forgiveness, a general desire to avoid divorce should, according to general wisdom, all render Christian's far LESS likely to get divorced.
So why do these marriages fail so frequently? Well, I asked different Licensed Marriage and Family therapists (men and women) and here is what they said:
The biggest issue for couples is a failure to communicate (or even realize) expectations.
Whether this came from expectations stemming from unprocessed trauma or (often religiously justified) patriarchal social norms, the effect was the same.
"When couples fail to communicate their (often subconscious) expectations to their partner, Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling are soon to follow."
These behaviors, according to celebrated Psychologist and Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, when present in a relationship, almost always foreshadow it's demise.
So you might be saying at this point:"That's great Jon, so what does this have to do with Christians? Why are Christians just as likely to struggle with this?" Well lets unpack it (click each title below)
Christian culture fosters harmful unspoken assumptions
I have spent effectively half of the last decade on Christian college campuses. Do you know what I've found? MOST young adults who grew up in Christian environments have internalized patriarchal views of relationships. Some of these beliefs are overt and intentional but even more are subversive and unspoken. Until the Church deconstructs these harmful and anti-biblical patriarchal theologies, Christians will continue to waltz into marriages carrying harmful expectations about the place of gender in those relationships. Both therapists agreed, internalized Patriarchy is one of the major issues in relationships that struggle or fail, and unfortunately Christians are far more likely to hold these internalized perspectives (and subsequently be unhappy because of them). Whether it's concerning sex, money, work, parenting, or chores, until you deal with the underlying assumptions you're carrying around, it's not going to get better.
Christians struggle to communicate their wants & needs
"If anyone would be my disciple they should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me," is a verse to help us check our own desires for power, vanity, and money. It's not a recipe (nor is it designed to be) for a successful marriage. Christians greatly struggle with shame surrounding their own desires and needs. Often we are taught or traumatized into repressing those needs to the point that they become toxic and breed those behaviors Gottman identified as relationship killers.
Christians have issues with sex
It's 2022, can we just be honest about this? Christians have issues surrounding sex and sexuality. As pubescent teens we internalize a dualistic (and unbiblical) belief that our bodies are a tool of evil trying to destroy us by desiring sex and physical intimacy. We are told, in no uncertain terms, to "wait (and repress our sexuality)." "If we do," we are saddled with the unrealistic promise that "when we get married we will have awesome, intimate, earth-shattering sex five times a day for 30 years." What were we just saying about unrealistic expectations? The truth is, for most Christians it takes years to unpack the trauma of fearing/hating the awakening of our sexuality and then more years of learning to listen to the body we were taught to distrust before the good sex comes, all the while holding on to the harmful belief that, because we aren't totally satisfied with our sex life something must be wrong with us. And that is why sexuality, for so many married Christians, is still a huge, complicated web of uncommunicated and/or unrealized expectations.. Until the church starts to seriously deal with its problematic way of engaging sexuality, this will continue to be the case.
So what can YOU do?
First and foremost, if you're in a Christian marriage, take an inventory of the four "relationship killers" above (Defensiveness, Stonewalling, Contempt, and Criticism). Are two or more of them regularly present? Do you feel like those things have been getting worse? If so, don't wait. Get help; not from your pastor who (maybe) took a general pastoral counseling class in seminary decades ago and likely has many of the same internalized and unprocessed issues listed above, but from a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Seriously, these things are the grim reaper for relationships. Get help while there is still time.
Second, whether you do or do not seek help, both you and your partner need to consider the baggage you brought into this relationship. Of course we are all formed by our childhood and families of origin (and any good therapist will unpack this) but what about your Christian baggage? Go back and read the three main issues I highlighted above. These are just a starting point. How much of this have you been carrying around? How much have you left unspoken? How much have you been unwilling to face in yourself? Whatever you are unwilling to or cannot name, you cannot tame.
Third, think seriously about whether your current faith community and pastor is helping you to stay married or whether they are upholding these harmful and dangerous ideologies. Your church needs to be helping you live into your fullest and best life with your partner. Full Stop. And this one is not just about you! If you have kids, they are being exposed to this too and, if you're like most thoughtful parents, you're going to want to help them avoid going through the same indoctrination and traumas you experienced. Let me be unequivocally clear here. Your church membership is not worth your marriage. If you have to choose between harmful theology based on patriarchy or body-shame and your marriage, LEAVE YOUR CHURCH. And you can tell your pastor I said that.
Finally, prioritize open and honest communication. This is the person who you vowed to be with, body, mind, and soul. It can hurt to have hard conversations but, in the long run, it will hurt more not to have them. Be open about the baggage you've identified. Be honest about the expectations you have. Be willing to listen and hear, without defensiveness, as your partner shares the same. You may be surprised that when you release those things to your partner (and they to you) that you realize how unrealistic they are. As Jesus says, "the TRUTH will set you FREE". Let out the truth and watch how it can transform your life.