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Intervening When Sin
Is Destroying a Marriage

by Joe Beam, Family Dynamics Institute

This is the short version of the Family Dynamics Intervention Document. The complete version can be found on their website.

          Every marriage can be saved. No matter how bad it is, what has happened, or what is happening, every marriage is salvageable. Not just salvageable. It can be made wonderful and loving. Our nonprofit ministry, Family Dynamics Institute knows from experience that even those marriages that appear to be the most hopeless really aren't hopeless at all. God can do anything, including changing a relationship between two people who no longer even want the change. God still works powerfully in the lives of people and can salvage and make wonderful the most hopeless marriage in your church.

     When a couple is at each other's throat, or when one or both are involved in behaviors destroying the marriage, the couple must be calmed; they must be moved back from the precipice before any constructive work can be done to salvage the marriage. No amount of explaining, lecturing, teaching, pleading, or anything else gets through to a person when he or she cannot think logically. The only way to reach the mind is to calm the heart.

     If the marital crisis exists because of an addictive sin practiced by either spouse, there must be intervention by people who have a relationship with the couple.

     What do we mean by addictive sin? We define it as repeated involvement with a person, chemical, or anything else that destroys the relationship between the married couple. The key isn't just that the behavior is repeated but that the repetition makes the marriage unworkable.

     When this kind of addiction -- to a person (adultery), to a chemical (alcohol or any other drug), or to anything else (such as gambling, spousal abuse, etc.) -- exists, someone close to the addict must intervene to stop the destructive behavior. The only marriages that cannot turn around and become what God wants them to be are those where one or both mates refuse to quit the sin destroying the marriage. When the sin stops, the right things can happen to create love and intimacy and commitment. Until it stops, nothing can save them.

Intervention -- Interrupting Addictive Behavior

     The good news is that intervention does work.

     The bad news is that church leaders often avoid intervention because the very need of it usually presents them with anxiety and apprehension. They often fear they don't have enough evidence, enough skill or training, or enough understanding of the situation. Not knowing what to do, they do nothing at all. It isn't that they don't care; the simple fact is that they don't know the pathway. The don't have a valid process.

     If there were ever a case where inaction is worse than the wrong action, this is it! We understand their fears, doubts, and apprehensions, but the most likely result of doing nothing is that the crisis will escalate and the marriage will end. If shepherds in the kingdom don't act, they can't expect anyone else in the church to act, either. If people God placed in positions of leadership step in to help the marriage, the power of God will be with them.

The Proven Process of Intervention

     In the early 1960s Vernon E. Johnson developed a model for intervening with chemically dependant people. People, even experts, believed things like: "You can't help someone until he reaches rock bottom" or "You know you can't help someone who doesn't want help." Johnson ignored those prevailing views and forged ahead. He felt that there must be a way to help people who don't want help. He realized that the chemically dependent person remains in that state only because he or she lives in a state of self-delusion. He reasoned that if a focused group of people could break through the alcoholic's or drug addict's rationalizations, they could bring him to a point of lucidity where he would recognize a need for help.

     The same principles for intervening also hold true for a person caught up in any sin controlling his or her life. Why? Because the same process of self-delusion occurs. At the very moment a person accepts that truth about himself, he usually accepts the path of healing offered by those who brought about the realization. That process works just as well with someone enmeshed in adultery or addicted to gambling as it does with a person addicted to alcohol or drugs. Break through the self-delusions and you have the opportunity to put the person on the path to recovery. To understand how that works, it is essential to understand the process of self-delusion.

     The First Phase of Delusion -- Rationalization

     Self-delusion differs from normal rationalization in that when a normal rationalization is confronted, "a dose of the facts is usually enough to bring him or her back through the rationalization to reality." But in self-delusion, "Every [inappropriate] behavior is rationalized away, and the person is swept further and further from reality and further into delusion . . . The intellect continues to suppress the emotions and defend against reason until the truth is buried beyond reach."[1] A kind of pathological mental mismanagement takes over.

     The person convinces himself on a conscious level that his actions aren't wrong, no matter what anyone says, but on the subconscious level something quite different happens. "His bad feelings about himself have been locked in at the unconscious level by a secure, high, and seamless wall of rational defenses. This is why he can believe what to everyone else seems patently unbelievable. Because of the wall, he cannot get at those bad feelings about himself. He is not even aware that they exist. But they are, nevertheless, chronically present in the form of a free-floating mass of anxiety, guilt, shame, and remorse."[2] Without intervention, those negative emotions lead to the next phase.

     The Second Phase of Delusion -- Projection

     The free-floating negative emotions caused by intense rationalization usually express themselves by attacking others. The most vitriolic attacks typically aim themselves at anyone who tries to convince the sinner that his or her actions are sinful or that he or she should stop the behavior. He quickly assigns them evil motives and/or evil actions and responds emotionally in proportion to the threat he perceives from them.

     While these projections appear to be mean and spiteful, the self-deluded person sees them as vindicated and just. Just as rationalization must be an unconscious act to benefit the self-deluded, so must projection.

     The Third Phase of Delusion -- Repression

     The sinful behavior controlling the person tends to escalate during Phase Two. She sticks to her arguments and justifications for her behavior but they aren't enough anymore. She has to find a new way to cope with her sin. Without awareness of what she is doing, she moves into Phase Three -- Repression.

     "They continue to rationalize some of their behaviors (those they can bear to face), and they repress those they cannot rationalize."[3] Every action he or she can no longer justify now just disappears from memory. The "amnesia" comes from completely psychological origins. She chooses not to remember, but the choice isn't made with the conscious mind; it's made in the subconscious. She's keeping herself from facing her own contradictions.

     The Fourth Phase of Delusion -- Altered Memory

     If one can convince himself that his spouse has always been a bad mate, or that life has been a man-made hell for years, then it's easy to rationalize that leaving that spouse isn't a sin; it's survival! A person in Phase Four doesn't alter memory about just the distant past: they've reached a stage of self-delusion that alters memories of things that happened recently. It's the next logical step after Repression. If he can't forget an act, he alters the interpretation of what happened so that it justifies the act.

     It's not important that you understand all the nuances of self-delusion but you must grasp the two basic points we made about them. First, the self-deluded person is incapable of extricating him- or herself from the controlling sin. Second, you should not let the addicted sinner's rationalizations and defenses cause you to lose your focus during the intervention.

Deciding to Intervene in the Delusion

     The key is to act NOW. Every day you wait makes the situation worse, allowing another phase of delusion to take over or to become stronger.

     You need to know the pathway to healing that you'll offer a couple when you convince the addicted sinner to stop his or her destructive behavior and to work on saving their marriage. We at the non profit ministry Family Dynamics, for example, have several options to offer you. If you wish to use our tools as a pathway for a couple when you encounter that "moment of lucidity," we recommend the following:

We offer a powerful and effective three-day seminar, A New Beginning, for troubled couples that works even if they don't have any desire to save the marriage! Go to http://www.familydynamics.net to learn more.

We offer intense training workshops for couples in your church who want to help marriages. We'll teach them how to conduct two unique and effective interactive marriage courses in your church. Go to 20 Programs information to learn more.

     Whoever you choose to aid you in your working with families, we suggest that you choose a resource organization that offers tools for couples at various stages rather than a "one size fits all." It takes a little more work but the results are astounding.

Performing the Intervention

     In its simplest form, intervention is presenting reality in a receivable way to the person out of touch with it. Intervention breaks down the defenses long enough for truth to shine through.

     Presenting reality means presenting specific facts about the addicted sinner's behavior and the consequences that have happened or will happen because of that behavior. The intervention must be objective, unequivocal, and caring. While intervention is confrontational by nature, it isn't punishment.

     Intervention involves six steps.

     First, Gather the Team

     Recruit a group of three to five strong team members. Each team member should have some type of relationship with the addicted sinner that is being negatively affected by his or her actions, must be willing to risk the relationship with the addicted sinner, and have specific knowledge of unacceptable behavior on the part of the addicted sinner or specific knowledge of a negative consequence the addicted sinner will face if he or she continues to pursue the sin.

     Second, Gather the Data

     The intervention team must be prepared to convince the addicted sinner of his or her sin. The information with which to confront him must be specific incidents or consequences that will cause him to admit -- even momentarily -- his sinful behavior.

     First present him or her with evidence of the sinful behavior. Everything must be in unsparing detail. "I saw you kiss her" instead of "I thought you were being a little too familiar."

     Second, present him or her with the consequences that already have been or will be if the person continues in this behavior.

     During the rehearsal each member reads each of his or her statements aloud to the group. The group either approves or amends the statement. They make sure that every written statement is devoid of antagonism, generalizations, and subjective opinions.

     Take turns playing the part of the addicted sinner, responding to the group in every possible way that you can imagine the real addict might respond. With each reaction from the "sinner" the group discusses and decides what their best response to that dodge should be and who should make it.

     Fourth, Finalize Details

     Decide the date, time, and place for the intervention. Decide who will get the addicted sinner there and what method he or she will use. Know who will go first, who follows, and the like. Know who will give each response to anticipated reactions. Know who will give the response to any unanticipated reaction. Set every detail and then make them happen.

     Fifth, Do the Intervention

     Do the intervention just as rehearsed.

     Of course, the prayer that went into the preparation for this meeting will bring the wisdom of God, as He promised. Bathe the process in prayer from beginning to end and the results should be that the person finally has a moment of spiritual lucidity.

     Sixth Step, Be Willing to Do It Again

     If you recall that the person is addicted to sin and that the sin so controls her that she isn't thinking clearly, you won't let yourself become too discouraged by apparent failure. If the intervention fails to get the addicted sinner on the path to healing, reconvene the team and do it again. Gather more data -- both of actions and consequences -- and give it another try. If that doesn't work, try it again.

     Keep doing the interventions until the person starts the path of healing.

[1] Ibid. page 25

[2] Ibid. page 31

[3] Ibid. page 45


HEARTLIGHT(R) Magazine is a ministry of loving Christians and the Westover Hills church of Christ.
Edited by Phil Ware and Paul Lee.
Copyright © 1996-97, Heartlight, Inc., 8332 Mesa Drive, Austin, TX 78759.