My Friends’ Marriage is Falling Apart! Top 5 Questions to Help Me Be a Marriage Counselor for Them

Good news travels fast. So does bad news.

In a typical month my wife and I will have several individuals make contact with us about marriages that are going through significant trials. Sometimes these calls are from a spouse whose marriage is in a tailspin. More often than not, these calls are from believers trying to help a friend or family member’s marriage . . . or pastors trying to establish biblical traction to help a family in their flock. The sad reality is that the calls are frequent . . . the problems are real . . . the hope is dissolving.

But here is where the good news appears. As one Puritan has written, “Until sin becomes bitter, grace cannot become sweet.” The darker the struggle in a marriage, the more radical the difference that the Redeemer and His grace can make in that marriage! As counselors, we get to watch Him do this all the time. Big time. It’s truly awesome.

And the Redeemer uses His redeemed as a tool to do this work in marriages.  Specifically, He uses you. When the Apostle Paul penned his marriage instructions to a local church (Eph 5:22–33), he solidified that marriage health is a local church community priority. Our radical ownership of each other in the body of Christ (Eph 4:7–16) extends to a corporate investment in the marriages as well. Paul’s confidence in the believers’ being able to counsel one another no doubt includes marriages: “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to admonish one another” (Rom 15:14).

It is a great joy for us to be used of by the Lord to help marriages. But it is an even greater joy as a pastor to train all believers in the local church to help all the marriages in the local church (Eph 4:11–12).

I would like to suggest five questions for you, the counselor, to keep in mind as you move into action to help a marriage. These questions will keep you on track and help you be very intentional with your counseling goals. In short, they will give you traction to move forward.

  1. Question of Meeting—“When can we get everyone into the same room to talk?” Proverbs is clear: “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov 18:17).  It benefits no one to hear merely one side of the story from one party at a time. It is amazing how stories are “sanded down” when the other spouse is listening and giving feedback. If you only hear one side of the story, you will begin to craft a counseling plan for a reality that doesn’t usually exist . . . and that won’t help anyone.  Get it all . . . from all . . . at the start. (Recommended Resources: Paul Tripp and Tim Lane, Relationships: The Mess Worth Making; Ken Sande, The Peacemaker)
  1. Question of Idolatry—“What is driving this conflict?” It’s helpful to begin to look for patterns in the marriage. Is the current crisis a new crisis, or is it merely a new expression of an existing root problem in the marriage? One thing about the human sinful heart—it is so predictable many times. While Scripture is clear that no man can know his own heart perfectly (Jer 17:9–10), it is equally clear that every man must guard what he knows about his heart—the predictable patterns, lusts, gravity (Prov 4:23, Matt 15:18–19). James tells us that we get angry when we either can’t get what we want . . . or can’t keep what we love (Jam 4:1–4). This is worship-talk. We worship what we think will give us safety, contentment, joy, peace, etc. If you can help the couple identify what they are worshipping, you will not only help with their current crisis, but you will also tend to a long-standing pattern in their hearts. (Recommended Resources: Paul Tripp, What Did You Expect?; Jim Berg, Changed Into His Image)
  1. Question of Forgiveness—“Is biblical forgiveness clearly understood and practiced?” Whether one or both spouses have sinned against each other, both must come to grips with what is required in the transaction of forgiveness from both spouses. At the heart of forgiving others is the gospel (Eph 4:32, Col 3:13). Until each spouse knows how much they have been forgiven by Christ, they will not be able to forgive each other over anything in the marriage (Matt 18:21–35). Period. (Recommended Resources: Jim Newcomer, Help! I Can’t Forgive; Chris Brauns, Unpacking Forgiveness)
  1. Question of Communication—“Is the couple speaking the same language?” Do they know how to communicate at all? Is their communication merely yelling, silence, sarcasm, criticism, etc.? “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Prov 12:18). No matter what marriage problem I counsel, I always start by re-teaching the couple how to communicate biblically. The fact is you cannot solve anything if you cannot talk biblically. (Recommended Resource: Gary and Betsy Ricucci, Love that Lasts)
  1. Question of Training—“What is the long-range goal for this marriage counseling?” The immediate goal is reconciliation. The deeper goal is repenting of heart idolatry and replacing it with Godward affections. But don’t miss the long-term goal whenever you counsel a friend’s marriage—you are training the couple to counsel other couples in the future who are struggling with the same issues! Isn’t this the beauty of what Paul writes to the believers at Corinth? “Blessed by the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:3–4).  I tell the couples in the very first session that I firmly believe that “marriage counseling” = “counseling training.”  “Sit up. Take notes. You will get the assignment to help others in the future.”  (Recommended Resource: Paul Tripp and Tim Lane, How People Change)

So, answer the phone. Go get coffee. Make the appointment. Any invitation to help a friend’s marriage is an invitation to preach the gospel to that marriage. These five questions will give you a direction and traction. They’ll also give you amazing front-row seats as you watch the Redeemer do His work . . . in His sovereign way . . . for His glory alone.