Over the years I have done hundreds of pastoral interviews in which a pastor interviews me during the divine service. In advance conversations, I have also heard their burdens as pastors—and, probably, yours too. I hear about the tiring pace, the constant putting out of fires, the twist in their gut that comes with answering a phone call from a church member only to hear, “I have to talk to you about something.”
As a church leader, you have the unparalleled opportunity to bring Jesus into the lives of broken people in a broken world. But it also means that you are constantly dealing with broken people in a broken world. I want to give you hope that you can help prevent a meaningful portion of those broken situations, particularly in marital relationships, and see immediate evidence that even more of your people are thriving in their lives and relationships.
Based on 15 years of rigorous research, I will outline five “high leverage” truths: surprising facts that are simple and effective at heading off many of the problems facing ministry workers today.
Game-changing truth 1: The 50 percent divorce rate is a myth, and the rate of divorce is much lower in the church.
This was the biggest research shocker of my career. For years I believed (and said from the stage) that the divorce rate is 50 percent and that it is the same in the church. And I knew that those “facts” made it far easier for struggling couples to lose hope and give up. Then I saw contradictory Census Bureau data. After investigating the complex statistics for eight years, in my 2014 book The Good News About Marriage,2 I debunked this damaging urban legend. The fact is, the vast majority of marriages last a lifetime, and those who stick with troubled marriages usually make it.
A bit of detail: the divorce rate for society as a whole is not and has never been close to 50 percent. Only very high-risk groups have gotten that high (like those who marry as teenagers). There is no way to measure the exact divorce rate, but for first-time marriages it likely falls somewhere around 25 percent. And if those in the most troubled marriages stick with it, 80 percent are very happy five years later.
Even better, church attendance significantly reduces divorce. We have all misunderstood the Barna studies, which, it turned out, did not examine whether the people being surveyed went to church. My senior researcher, Tally Whitehead, and I partnered with Barna and reran the numbers, but now with church attendance included. Bottom line? According to both the Barna numbers and every other study done on this, regular attendance drops the divorce rate anywhere from 25 to 50 percent.
Countless pastors and congregants I have spoken with have been discouraged by the false belief otherwise. As one pastor put it, “If the rate of divorce is the same in the church, despite all my hard work, then all my hard work doesn’t mean very much.” And as one churchgoer said, “If on something as crucial as marriage, doing what the Bible says makes no difference . . . what does that mean about the Bible?”
Hear me on this: you can boldly proclaim the truth that church attendance does matter. Doing what God asks does change everything. In fact, since my book came out, a 2016 Harvard study found that regular church attendance lowered the risk of divorce by 47 percent, the risk of depression by 29 percent, and even the risk of dying early by 34 percent.3
I have seen firsthand the all-important hope and motivation that returns to even the most difficult marriages when a couple hears the awesome truth that most of the marriages such as theirs make it and that if they will plug in to the church community and not give up, they can make it too.
Game-changing truth 2: Much of the power of pornography stems from a little-known element of male brain wiring—and a wife’s understanding of it makes a huge difference in his ability to get free.
As every church leader knows, porn is a major factor in ensnaring men and marriages. The research for my book Through a Man’s Eyes 4 confirmed that much of the heartache comes not just because of temptations and poor choices but because neither the struggling husband or his wife understand two things: first, just how radically different men and women are in this area; and, second, the transformational power unleashed when both truly understand what is behind the temptation and how to face it together.
Because women’s brains are wired to respond to visual stimuli completely differently from men, most women truly have no idea that every man— even without looking at porn—is being visually, sexually stimulated without his consent multiple times every day. Two steps are involved in every visual temptation. Step one: the initial sight of a woman dressed to show a great body (that colleague at work, the image on the television) creates an automatic, involuntary, very strong stimulation in a center of the male brain called the nucleus accumbens. Step two: a second later, the cortical thinking centers of the brain kick in. Now the man has a choice of what to do about that image: savor that stimulation or push it away. There is a war in the brain. Many times a day, he must overcome the temptation, win that war, and make the godly choice.
But women have no such war, which is why we do not understand this at all. The female nucleus accumbens is never stimulated by sexual sights. Instead, when she sees an attractive image, her cortical centers light up from the outset. So she thinks, That guy is hot! And that’s it. Because a wife has no intra-brain war, she may have no idea that her husband does. She thinks her husband chooses to be tempted by other women because that is what it would be for her—a choice. She has no idea of the constant effort a man must make to stay pure and how weary some men might become in this culture.
None of these factors excuse poor choices, but we have seen that upon finally grasping these a wife can finally empathize with and support her man in meeting a godly standard. And, as her husband understands more about his own temptation and feels like he can share it with his wife, he is more likely to overcome it.
Game-changing truth 3: Both spouses typically have a major misunderstanding about what sex means to the other—and knowing the truth can transform the marriage.
There are many reasons why God says sex is important in marriage, yet men and women are so very different in this area. As Billy Crystal’s character Mitch joked in the movie City Slickers, “Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.”
Behind that humorous line are so many differences—and yet if women and men understand how the other person is wired, it can change everything. In our book For Women Only, here is what we discovered in our research with men. In most cases, a wife misunderstands what sex means to her husband. There are exceptions, of course, and couples where the dynamic is reversed. But in most cases, we found that sex is primarily an emotional need for men, not primarily a physical one. A wife probably does not know that while her man looks confident, he has a great deal of vulnerability and self-doubt. So, he has a deep need to feel that his wife desires him—and if he feels desired, it gives him confidence in every other area of his life. If he feels desired, he also feels like a good husband, a good dad, and a good man, and therefore he is more loving and caring in every area. An amazing emotional comfort and power comes from being built up in this area of emotional need—and yet women have no idea that need even exists.
Similarly, a husband usually misunderstands why sex is not happening. He thinks it is because he simply is not desirable and does not realize it is usually due to a paired physiological-emotional difference that can be overcome. First, the more integrated emotional wiring of women means that they need to feel close outside the bedroom in order to want to be close inside the bedroom. But even more misunderstood is the fact that women have a different type of sexual desire. Where his greater amount of testosterone usually creates “assertive” desire (so he desires to pursue sex and is ready at a moment’s notice), her greater amount of estrogen usually creates “receptive” desire (where she is just as willing but is absolutely not ready at a moment’s notice). A wife usually needs what we call “anticipation time.”
In other words, this means staying connected day to day and flirting in the morning to suggestively plant a seed for romance later that night. This allows her to switch gears in her head and anticipate it, so when “later” comes, she will be all in.
Now, some couples are the opposite. But regardless of who has what type of desire, here’s another crucial fact: the more sex persons have, the more their body stimulates testosterone, and the more they will desire sex again. Conversely, there is also a negative cycle: the less sex they have, the more their testosterone drops—so they want sex even less. Neuroscientists have found that having sex about once a week elevates testosterone levels enough to create a self-sustaining positive cycle.
Game-changer 4: A wife saying “Thank you” every day and a husband showing “I’m glad I married you” are huge factors in creating a good marriage.
After surveying thousands of men and women, we found that the most crucial game-changers for the emotional health of marriages are these: husbands, reassure your wives of your love; and wives, respect and appreciate your husbands.5 This, of course, comes straight from Ephesians 5:33. Here are two simple, incredibly effective ways to do that.
A wife needs to know that at least 75 to 85 percent of men look confident but have a lot of insecurity and self-doubt— and her husband is probably among them. It is so easy to feel inadequate, which is his most painful feeling. He wonders “Am I any good at what I do?” and looks to his wife for signals about the answer to that question. So, when she avoids the knee-jerk comments that he sees as criticism (“Why didn’t you have the kids wear their heavy coats?”) and looks for ways to show appreciation, the results are astonishing. In particular, we discovered that “Thank you” is the equivalent of “I love you” for a man. “Thank you for taking out the trash” and “Thank you for working so hard to provide for us” hits the priceless mark for men. A man who hears that throughout the day will feel in his very bones that his wife cares about him—a fact that can prevent many problems.
On her side, a husband usually does not realize that his wife will not feel permanently loved just because she is married. At least 80 to 90 percent of women have the inner question Am I loveable? which in marriage translates to So, does he really love me? and Is he glad he married me? She looks to her husband for signals about the answer to that question. So when he purposefully looks for little ways to show his love, it sends a priceless message. When he reaches to take her hand when they are walking across a parking lot, it says, “I’m so glad I married you.” And when they are in an argument and he says, “Look, I need to get space, but we’re OK,” it creates a powerful reassurance in her.
Game-changer 5: Building the daily habit of focusing on and doing things that are worthy of praise, and doing away with all negativity, transforms people and can transform a church.
Scripture commands us to be kind to one another (Eph. 4:32), and most of us think that we are kind. We do not realize that we are a bit deluded. In our research, we discovered three simple daily actions that transform people, transform any kind of relationship—and can make a church leader very happy.
We call it the “30-Day Kindness Challenge.”6 The person taking the challenge picks someone with whom they want a better relationship. Then, for thirty days they say nothing negative about that person (either to them or about them to someone else). Next, they find one thing to praise or affirm the person about each day. Finally, they do one small act of kindness or generosity for that person.
The results were amazing. Fully 89 percent saw an improvement in their relationship—even though the effort was all one-sided. We also discovered that the person had so thoroughly retrained their mind-set that they had much less negativity overall. (Can you imagine training all the negativity out of your congregation?) We found the results so amazing that we created a complementary small group curriculum.
For 15 years, my main priority has always been to partner with churches and equip leaders in their mission of helping people thrive in their relationships and faith because you are the ones out there on the front lines. Thank you for what you do. I truly hope that these five truths not only impact those you love and serve—but help you as well.
1 This article is based on research shared at the 2017 Adventist Conference on Family Research and Practice, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States and at the 2017 Adventist National Christian Family Conference, Sydney, Australia. N.B. These “transformative truths” do not take the place of professional marriage counseling. They may, however, be instrumental in preventing marital breakdown.
2 Shaunti Feldhahn, The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage and Divorce (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books,2014).
4 Shaunti Feldhahn, Through a Man’s Eyes: Helping Women Understand the Visual Nature of Men (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2015).
5 See Shaunti Feldhahn, For Women Only: What You Need to Know About the Inner Lives of Men, rev. ed.(Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2013) and Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn, For Men Only: A Straightforward Guide to the Inner Lives of Women,rev. ed. (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2013).
6 Church resources can be found at the 30-Day Kindness Challenge website, jointhekindnesschallenge.com/churches.