All marriages face seasons of distress and frustration—times when, thanks to a variety of factors, couples don’t feel as close as they once were. In Build a Stronger Marriage: The Path to Oneness, bestselling author and longtime FamilyLife Today cohost Bob Lepine helps couples work through the challenges that emerge in every marriage, causing couples to become isolated and alienated. He helps readers make the adjustments necessary to build the kind of marriage God intended. Seeing marriage from God’s point of view is the path to oneness.
In the following interview, we talk to Bob about his book, asking some of the questions every couple has.
Q: Who did you write Build a Stronger Marriage for—newlyweds, couples who have been married for decades, or couples somewhere in between?
I wrote Build a Stronger Marriage thinking about couples I know who find themselves frustrated by the gaps in their marriage relationship that leave them isolated from one another. I’m not thinking about couples in crisis but couples whose marriages could benefit from some important gospel adjustments.
In Philippians 2:2, the apostle Paul says to the church in Philippi, “[M]ake my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (CSB). And while the context isn’t specifically related to marriage, the idea applies to husbands and wives. There is great joy that comes when we experience the oneness God intends for us to experience in marriage. The goal of this book is to help couples get there.
Q: You write, “The only person you can change is you. So instead of reading this book and hoping it will fix what is wrong with your mate, read it asking God to show you what needs to be addressed in your own life.” How often is recognizing the ways that we are part of the problem the first big step forward in the process of rebuilding our marriages?
It’s critical. Jesus addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount when he talked about logs and specks (Matthew 7:3–5). Until we have the humility to own our contribution to the challenges we’re facing in marriage, we can’t make progress. We’re really good at pointing out our spouse’s shortcomings, but we have to be self-aware and be able to spot our own weaknesses and sin patterns.
I tell couples all the time, “I know you’ve used a lot of different tactics in an attempt to fix your spouse. And I think you’d agree that your best efforts haven’t produced the change you’ve hoped for. That’s because the only person who can change your spouse is God. What would happen if you took the same effort and focused on being a better husband or wife?”
Q: What is the best way for couples to engage with your book?
I’d love to think couples would find an older mentor couple who would go through the book with them. In the early chapters, the goal is to help couples get a better handle on why they may be experiencing some of the frustrations they’re facing. Not every chapter will apply in every marriage, but if couples could go through the book with another couple, I think both couples would wind up benefitting from the experience.
At the end of each chapter, I’ve included a section called “Practical Steps for Real Change.” My hope is that couples will take time to interact about what they’re reading and begin to apply what they’re learning.
Q: What are the most common pressure points in a marriage?
Counselors will tell you that issues like communication, parenting, money, and sex are the most common areas where couples struggle. But these are symptoms or manifestations of a deeper issue. The Bible tells us that what causes strife and conflict in our relationships is the “me first” mindset that is present in each one of us. This is why it’s so essential that we have a gospel-focused orientation toward marriage. When we can shift from “me first” to “God first” in our marriage, that’s when real change is finally possible.
Q: How can our motivations and expectations for marriage in the very beginning lead to deep disappointments years down the road?
It’s inevitable that we will come into marriage with expectations. And most of us have had some of those expectations go unmet. What we don’t often stop to consider is whether or not our expectations were realistic to begin with! Instead of trying to get our marriage to match our expectations, we should at least consider whether our expectations are inflated.
It’s also inevitable that we will disappoint each other in marriage. The question is whether we address our disappointments or allow them to fester and create in us a root of bitterness.
Q: What should be the ultimate goal of our marriage? What does that look like practically?
The ultimate goal of marriage is spelled out for us in Psalm 34:3: “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together” (ESV). The Bible tells us that in everything we do, even simple everyday activities like eating and drinking, our focus should be on how we bring glory to God.
Practically, that means that instead of asking ourselves What would please me in this situation? I or even What would please my spouse in this situation?, the primary question we should be asking ourselves with every issue we face in marriage is I When that’s the guiding objective for our marriage, we have the right goal in mind.
Q: What are the four areas of our past that should be discussed with a future spouse because of how they may affect us, even if we don’t think they will? How does the learning of these things later cause strain on a marriage?
My experience in working with couples is that there are times when the tension between a husband and wife will have more to do with issues from their past than with issues between the two of them. 1) There can be unhealthy habits or patterns that we learned in our families of origin that are now being played out in our marriages. 2) We may carry with us scars from childhood or adolescent traumas. 3) We may have unaddressed guilt or shame related to sinful choices we made prior to marriage that still have a grip on us. 4) There may be relational wounds from early in our marriage that were never resolved.
Our past is not determinative. We are not slaves to our past, but that doesn’t mean events from our past have no impact on our present relationships. This is why it’s important to learn how the gospel addresses issues from our past and then apply the gospel to those issues.
Q: Who hasn’t thought, Sometimes my spouse makes me so angry!? When we start thinking this way, what do we need to do to redirect and correct ourselves? What if our spouse really is guilty of whatever it is that leads us to react with anger?
It’s important for us to think biblically about anger. Anger isn’t sinful. God gets angry. Jesus got angry. But the difference for us is that our anger almost always has self-interest attached to it. Most of the time when we’re angry, it’s not because our spouse is dishonoring God in some way. There is always at least a little dose of “I didn’t get my way” mixed in to fuel our anger.
We don’t choose to get angry. It happens to us. And when it does, we need to explore and examine the reason why our passions have been provoked. Our spouse may indeed be guilty of sinning against us and stirring up the anger inside us in the process. But we have to follow the pattern set by Jesus here. When he was insulted, we’re told in 1 Peter 2:23, he did not insult in return. He kept entrusting himself to the God who judges justly.
Q: When we experience conflict in marriage, and we will, we have two choices. When should we overlook our hurt and when should we confront it?
Our default mode in marriage should be grace. Proverbs 19:11 says it is a man’s glory to overlook an offense. And 1 Peter 4:8 tells us that love covers a multitude of sins. In 1 Corinthians 13:5 we’re told that we are not to keep an ongoing record of ways in which we’ve been wronged by someone else.
But there will be times in a marriage when our spouse has wronged us in some way and it’s right for us to address that. When we do, our goal should never be revenge or retaliation. We shouldn’t be looking for a way to get even. The goal is to restore unity and to help our spouse address an ongoing pattern of sin in his or her life and grow in godliness (Galatians 6:1).
Q: What is the most important thing we can do to bring the gospel into our relationship and in turn restore oneness to our marriage?
The gospel tells us that because of Jesus’s death on the cross as our sin substitute, our sins have been forgiven. And because we have been forgiven, we are able to extend forgiveness to others. So, the first way we apply the gospel to our marriage is by learning how to forgive each other. Romans 12:18 tell us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people”(NASB). Because we have peace with God, we can live at peace with one another.
The gospel is about more than just forgiveness though. When we are brought into the family of God, his Spirit begins a restoration project in our lives to conform us to the image of his Son. The gospel brings transformation in our lives. And as our lives are transformed, so are our marriages.
Q: What are the four habits or practices that show up in strong, healthy marriages?
Marriages that thrive over time are marriages that are marked by four things—extravagant love, generous forgiveness, enthusiastic encouragement, and common convictions. When these four elements are present in a marriage, that marriage will flourish.
Q: How does one practice extravagant love?
It’s not about how much money you spend. The Bible says that there is no greater love than for someone to lay down his or her life for a friend (John 15:13). Extravagant love is about regularly putting the needs of your spouse ahead of your own needs. “This is how we know what love is,” 1 John 3:16 (NIV) tell us. “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” That’s extravagant love! As husbands and wives, we love one another extravagantly when we lay down our lives daily for each other.
Q: If we haven’t been in the practice of encouraging our spouse as we should, what are some ways we can become better enthusiastic encouragers of our husband or wife on a daily basis?
We can recognize that our words have power. Proverbs 18:21 says that life and death are in the power of the tongue. When we use our words to cheer each other on in marriage, we are speaking life to each other. Our words are to build up, not to tear down (Ephesians 4:29).
Practically, we can look for ways to speak life to each other through words, phone calls, emails, and text messages. When we are intentional and proactive with our encouragement, we are sowing seeds of life in our relationship.
Build a Stronger Marriage: the Path to Oneness
All marriages face seasons of distress and frustration—times when thanks to a variety of factors you don’t feel as close as you once were. Bestselling author and longtime FamilyLife Today cohost Bob Lepine helps you work through the challenges that emerge in every marriage, causing couples to become isolated and alienated.