Maybe you’ve been there: On the phone call, where the voice on the other end is hitching with tears. Or at the play date, where, as you watch your kids munch goldfish or play house, your friend confesses things at home aren’t going well. Or over lunch or coffee, where your friend’s eyes look distant, bewildered, and wounded as they explain a marriage with pieces falling off in raw, giant slabs. It’s distressing when the warning signs of divorce become evident in a fearful, angry, or removed version of your friend.
Chances are, by the time couples have gotten to this point? Your friend has already flirted with the idea of splitting up. They could have one foot on a banana peel, sliding out the door.
What can you do to help?
What to do when you see signs of divorce
We say these ideas are non-pushy. But in reality, let us encourage you to care enough to be just a little intrusive. Popular culture may tell you to keep your nose out of it. But pray about what it looks like to be your brother’s keeper—to be the Samaritan who sees a person robbed and bleeding, and carries them out of harm’s way. Imagine addressing a child of this couple one day, looking him or her in the eyes, and honestly being able to say, “I did everything in my power to fight for your home.”
Here are a few ideas to fight for your friends.
1. Be there.
Our society doesn’t live with a ton of margin for—well, anything. But particularly for in-depth relationships that go the distance. Walking with friends whose marriage shows signs of divorce often seems to take time we don’t have. But compared to some of the other less-consequential items consuming our schedules, it’s a tremendous return on investment to create the time to help friends save what matters. To love them well.
Intentionally wrap your head around the worth of just being there for these people God placed in your path. Ask Him for the wisdom and love to remain fully present and engaged, even if helping doesn’t end in success. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and activist, wrote wisely,
Do not depend on the hope of results.
Doing … essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect …
The big results are not in your hands or mine ….
All the good that you will do will come, not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.
2. Tend to systemic signs of divorce—more than slapping on bandages.
Though romance unquestionably keeps a marriage in the more “satisfied” zone, expecting to renovate years of damage with a single weekend or a date, though helpful, may not be realistic. Ask questions of both parties to uncover not just the presenting issues (the lack of sex, the financial issues) but the pain and communicated values beneath them (we’re not attracted to each other; my spouse has no self-control or respect for the systems that help our family thrive).
Maintain a bigger picture about what it takes to keep a relationship together. Sometimes a parched marriage just needs a drink of water. But other times, it needs to get to a hospital for dehydration and the issues that caused it.
3. Inspire rather than goad.
In general, people are far more motivated to create change for problems and solutions they’ve come to themselves rather than solutions thrust upon them. Muscling through may work for a while, but those slogging through signs of divorce are fatigued and often ready to quit straining and hurting.
Listen well. Ask lots and lots of wise questions to truly understand. Then gently (!) remind them of truth. Help them remember why they married in the first place and to sort out cultural norms (“I deserve to be happy!”) from truth (“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” [1 John 3:16 NIV]).
4. Help carry your friend’s load.
Then, examine how you could share the weight: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2).
Is mommy-fatigue killing the marriage? Maybe swapping babysitting could help, or offering a date night.
Is an addiction involved? Brainstorm counseling, accountability, and/or rehab options. Offer to help watch the kids or to help hold the person accountable.
Is abuse present? Help a friend get the counseling he or she needs, and possibly work with the counselor to plan a separation with the purpose of reunification after mutual goals and heart attitudes have been met.
(Note: “Loving” does not equal “doormat”—particularly in cases of abuse! Protect your friend as God would—but with discerning, wise love that renders neither spouse as expendable.)
5. Resist the urge to take sides.
Yes, there are spiraling marriages where one party is primarily at fault. And the person we speak to first in a conflict is psychologically the story we’re prone to believe. But far more often, no matter the signs of divorce you see, there are two sides to the story—two profound needs.
And either way, one of the overarching themes of the gospel that saves each one of us is this: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless …” (1 Peter 3:9).
Why? Because it’s what Jesus did for us. We were His enemies. He brought us close—at the cost of His own life.
Both parties in any marriage need forgiveness, need the gospel. Yes, one may be more responsible for certain issues than the other. But in the end, casting one party as the villain, adding to the drama and sense of entitlement, does not help the other spouse go home and stay married.
Help the spouse you’re working with take 100% responsibility for the log in his or her own eye (see Matthew 7:3-5)—even if you both believe your friend’s contribution was only 10% of the problem. God is judge here. It is not your responsibility to make someone pay, but rather for yourself and your friend to love as Jesus did.
6. Pray for your friend and their marriage.
We’re talking more than a laundry list of prayer requests mentally checked off. Though God has given us much power to affect change, much of life also falls squarely into the “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6) category.
In We Shall have Spring Again, Andrée Seu Peterson writes, “I am keeping two separate piles from now on, based on Deuteronomy 29:29: the things I can do something about, and the things I can’t; those that belong to me, and those that belong to God. Responsibility; sovereignty.”
She’s referring to this verse: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
As we help our friends pursue God’s tender principles for marriage, we also commit to God all the battles that are His. We listen to His heart for them and allow His Spirit to “intercede”—to intervene on behalf of—“us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
7. Know your limits.
You might find it surprising that the Good Samaritan had boundaries: He eventually left for his own trip. He delegated care of the robbed man to an innkeeper and gave the latter a budget.
Do love your friend extravagantly and sacrificially when you see signs of divorce. But it’s also okay, with your friend’s permission, to seek help elsewhere as you help others.
It’s a pretty sure bet you won’t have all the answers. And there’s a decent chance you’ll feel overwhelmed at points, depending on how deep you go with your friends. Galatians 6 (above) reminds us “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
You might not be tempted in the same ways as those you’re helping. But despair? Thinking you have the answers or see things clearly? Gossip?
Peacemaker Ministries differentiates that gossip is sharing with people who aren’t part of the solution. So bring your spouse into things for help. Seek wise counselors with tight lips—best case scenario, after asking your friend. And prayerfully ask God to show you what you don’t know and can’t do, as well as where to find help.
He created the body of Christ for beautiful reasons: both within marriage, and outside of it.
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.