Tools to Build Healthy Pastor Marriages


Patrick and Mindy Crowder

We have sat face-to-face with hundreds of pastors and leaders over the past few years in our leader care ministry. Marital dissonance has been the #1 challenge pastors bring to us. Relational thriving within ministry challenges can be difficult.

Being fully heard and fully known within a loving relationship is a gift that transforms almost everything

We offer good news! Marriages that have embraced the following learnable, research-validated, biblically-sound communication skills have been transformed by this toolkit of skills you can put to work from day one.

If your marriage could use a tune-up, READ ON.

LEANING INTO these proven approaches helps couples hear one another well. Being fully heard and fully known within a loving relationship is a gift that transforms almost everything.

In This Article

  1. Ministry marriage is challenging
  2. Pastors can thrive in ministry yet struggle in marriage
  3. Practicing marital best-practices
  4. The Gottman Ratio for a greenhouse marriage
  5. Four practices that saved us but now kill us
  6. Two tools to reduce Criticism
  7. Two tools to calm Contempt
  8. Two tools to defang Defensiveness
  9. Two tools to stall Stonewalling
  10. New dance steps

1. Ministry marriage is challenging

Pastors and leaders are thrown into an Olympic level marital challenge far tougher than what is faced by a typical married couple. Pressures like: 1) being on call 24 hours a day, 2) a fish-bowl existence of being watched and judged by others, 3) typically lower pay and longer hours, or multi-vocational, 4) facing unrealistic and foggy expectations from a broad swath of stakeholders, plus 5) dark spiritual forces aligned against their calling. If a couch-sitting potato-chip-eating non-athlete jumped into the Olympics, it would not go well. Leader marriages require additional levels of training and coaching to attain the elite level of couple fitness needed to flourish. Without it, they may find themselves slipping into a daily dissonance that is only band-aided with coping skills while they relentlessly keep moving—but for how long?

2. Pastors can thrive in ministry yet struggle in marriage

I learned in the hardest way possible that a pastor can love the Lord deeply, thrive in ministry, serve as a Bible College professor, and be an effective church planter, yet fail at marriage. My first marriage ended against all efforts to save it. My story was part of the reason. I became a Christian in college after watching my parents divorce and my dad marry multiple times. I learned the skills of ministry, and enough relationship skills that others looked up to our marriage; but there were deep unaddressed dysfunctions leaving my marriage skills insufficient to bear the expanding weights of ministry. Eventually the wheels came off and we failed to stay together despite our best efforts with what we knew.

Later, with the blessings of my denomination, I became a “single-again” pastor. Eventually I connected with Mindy who I had known since age seven when we grew up in a neighborhood church plant. She had followed a more “Christian” path than me which also led her into pastoral ministry. Like me, she too had grown up in a home where her mother was married several times. As Pete Scazzero explains: We can have Jesus in our hearts, but our parents are still in our bones. Childhood patterns are very sticky.

Being effective Christian leaders did not necessarily build for us the higher-level marital skills we needed to thrive under ministry pressures. Mindy’s brilliant husband, working beside her, was a very effective pastor and marketplace Christian leader, but he came to rely on closet alcohol use to cope with the heavy stresses. The final fifteen years of her marriage she describes as being so unbearable that his sudden death caused by the alcohol abuse felt in many ways like a relief. There had seemed to be no way out from their hidden struggles, especially with so many around her relying on their continuing presentation of a "pretty picture"–to look like they were thriving.

We both had both fallen into the unfortunate reality that pastoral marriages can look swimmingly healthy on the outside while inside they may be treading water to stay afloat.

3. Practicing marital best-practices?

When Mindy and I found each other among the ashes of our prior ministry marriages, we knew the odds were against us if we got married. Almost half of Christian marriages end in divorce, but second marriages fail 75% of the time. A second failure was not an option for either of us. We simplified life as much as possible to focus on finding better pathways and tools for a healthier marriage. We had huge deficits to overcome in spite of our combined decades of respected ordained ministry. The first few years of our marriage we made a relentless search for “best-practices” for leader marriages. We read over twenty books with one another, often on our back porch, stopping to converse idea-by-idea. I pursued a doctorate in the care of pastors and Mindy a masters in counseling.

What we found transformed our lives…

4. The Gottman Ratio for a greenhouse marriage

Renowed marital researcher John Gottman discovered there must be at least a 5:1—positive to negative—ratio of comments/ gestures/ touches/ inputs for a marriage to survive long-term. Another researcher, Dr Marial Losada, applied the ratio to the workplace and discovered a ratio window between 3:1 and 9:1 was the place where relationships in businesses thrived best. The Gallup organization did a global study and learned organizational productivity and satisfaction could continue to grow all the way to a 13:1 positivity ratio.

Where does your marriage land? One highly respected mega church-planting pastor shared with us recently that when he and his wife were devastatingly honest about their home life, they realized they had a backward 1:3 positive to negative ratio of communications in their home. After focused practice for six months, they now evaluate it has finally flipped to 3:1 positive. He said they plan to continue pressing forward toward better than 5:1, riding the growing momentum as they enjoy the fruit of their changing ethos.

5. Four practices that saved us but now kill us

Habits that protected us in childhood can sometimes destroy us in adulthood. We form patterns of reaction that may have somewhat gotten us what we needed to survive growing up but left unchecked four of these common communications habits will be marriage killers. Gottman can predict with 94% accuracy whether a marriage will survive by watching a couple process an intense conflict for fifteen minutes. Along with his 4:1 “Gottman Ratio,” he discovered what he calls “Four Horsemen” that significantly factor into whether a marriage will thrive or fail. Briefly, they are: 1) Criticism: attacking the person and motives, 2) Contempt: derisive dismissal or insults, 3) Defensiveness: reversing blame to protect, and 4) Stonewalling: withdrawal as disapproval and punishment.

Which one of the four is your biggest marital challenge to avoid?

How about for your spouse?

Thankfully there are specific learnable, communication tools that can become new habits which can help antidote each of the Four Horsemen. We’ll explore these tools in depth in future articles, but here are two primary antidotes for each bad habit.

6. Two tools to reduce Criticism:

a. I-over-You (IOU)

Use “I” rather than “you” to express experiences, needs, impact, struggles, tensions, opinions, complaints, requests. Say “I feel/ I need/ I experience…” rather than “You always/ you never…”; “You make me…” This helps break the deadly tendency of attacking a person’s motives or character while still being able to ask for what you need and share what you experience.

b. No Scorekeeping

We judge ourselves by our good motives but tend to discount other’s intentions. Love is a sacrificial calling asking us to give more than we get. Do we want to be right or loved?

Stop keeping score. Assume the best.

7. Two tools to calm Contempt

a. Reframe the 69%

Research shows 69% of marriage disagreements can’t really be resolved, so we learn to reframe them. Embrace our differences! Think: “I’m glad we have different genders, values, tastes, personalities, strengths.” “She is so cute the way she…” “We are better together!”

b. Embrace A.D.A.M. and E.V.E.

The Bible and scientific research have shown that, though we are individuals with unique needs, there are some tendencies that provide opportunities to better communicate across genders. These are generalizations but can be helpful for better understanding: Men usually need to love their wives by being more present; and men often hope wives will love them by celebrating our competence. Men crave admiration; women want to be known and heard (without attempting to fix). Varying degrees of giving both love and respect can be helped with the tools: A.D.A.M. and E.V.E. He needs you to notice his many efforts, so you can Anticipate-Daily-Admiration-Moments. She needs you to be more present and empathizing, so you can Echo-Validate-Empathize. Try these. They  work like magic as you learn to speak the opposite gender’s love language.

A.nticipate           E.cho

D.aily                       V.alidate

A.dmiration         E.mpathize


8. Two tools to defang Defensiveness

a. Bids for Presence

Answer your spouse’s “bids” for attention by being truly present; it reaps huge results. Couples make multiple bids each day; each a chance to turn toward your spouse (or ignore them). Research has shown that thriving couples match bids for attention with presence more often than not.

b. The Floor

“The Floor” is an active listening process, sometimes called a “Speaker-Listener” tool. Give your spouse “the floor” until you “get it.” “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” Take the time to hear each other well. Simply hand them something and say, “I want to hear you better. As long as you are holding this, I will work at paying attention and not thinking about my response. When you are done, and you hand me the floor, I will do my best to repeat back to you what I think you are saying. You can continue to clarify until I’m actually getting a good handle on what you are saying. I may or may not agree with your perspective, but I will do all I can to at least hear you well.”

9. Two tools to stall Stonewalling

a. The Scale

Assigning a scale of importance from 1-10 for ideas can help communicate values and preferences or relay levels of intensity for expectations to better arrive at good compromises. This helps to avoid our tendency to fall into an “all or nothing” way of hearing and expressing ourselves. It can greatly reduce the tendency to push-back unnecessarily and keeps things cool and nuanced enough to avoid a need to withdraw from an escalating conversation. Turn the dial rather than run.

b. The Pause Button

If a conversation moves beyond helpful to harsh, hit “Pause” and schedule a restart. Better to wait than to risk harm, but don’t avoid reengaging in the conflict in a healthy way later. As you pause, reassure your love, loyalty, and desire to hear, then reschedule and refresh yourself before meeting. Those who are best at this learn to do things that self-soothe like exercise, or enjoy some nature, or take a nap, or eat, before meeting again so that you have more capacity to engage in a healthy way later.

10. New dance steps

Trying out these proven marital communication practices might feel like learning a new dance – awkward and discouraging at first. We won’t do it perfectly. But each time we catch ourselves in an old rut, taking some steps in a healthier direction helps to form a new way of relating. Lean in. Like locking-in a new golf swing, new habits will begin to replace old toxic ones if we practice. Then we will be better prepared for whatever challenges ministry throws at us with Olympic-class marriage skills.

Key Sources for Research and Concepts (recommended for further study):

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman and Nan Silver; Communication Miracles for Couples, Jonathan Robinson; Fighting for Your Marriage, Howard Markman, Scott Stanley and Susan Blumberg; Intimate Allies, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman; Love and Respect, Emerson Eggerichs; Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas; Finding the Right One After Divorce, Edward Tauber and Jim Smoke; How Full Is Your Bucket, Tom Raft and Donald O. Clifton; The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller. Love Busters, Willard F. Harley, Jr.; Created for Connection, Sue Johnson and Kenneth Sanderfer; Feel Better Fast and Make it Last, Daniel G. Amen

A picture of Patrick Crowder

Patrick and Mindy Crowder

Patrick & Mindy Crowder have a long and winding, mostly wonderful history of pastoring churches and people. The detours and mishaps of their collective lives brought them together and ultimately to this season--one of coming alongside and caring for pastors, leaders, and their families in the context of ministry and leadership. As consummate learners and authentic humans, they provide pastors and leaders a safe place to share their struggles and find increasing health amid the mess and chaos of ministry. Seven children and fourteen grandchildren fill their lives with more joy and chaos. They serve as the lead pastor care therapists at Marble Retreat helping pastors and vocational Christian leaders in crisis via eight day intensives (