Married, with Prodigals

Wayward children can push you apart. Norm Wright explains how to keep your marriage strong while helping your kids get back on track

The parents of rebellious children desperately want their kids to straighten out their lives and fear the outcome if they don't. They also often find their marriage in crisis, because of guilt, blame or conflicting ways of approaching their wayward child.

Marriage and family counselor H. Norman Wright, the author of more than 60 books, knows first hand the corrosive effect a prodigal child can have on the parents' marriage. For four years, Wright and his wife, Joyce, watched and prayed for their daughter, Sheryl, as she stumbled through progressively more destructive stages of rebellion.

"You worry," he says, "not only about the prodigal's potentially dangerous lifestyle, but also about the real danger to your marriage."

Combining what he learned from his own experience with extensive research he's done, Wright wrote Loving a Prodigal (Chariot Victor Publishing) as a "survival guide for parents of rebellious children." He talked with Marriage Partnership at length about the marital difficulties experienced by parents of a prodigal.

First of all, how do you define a prodigal child?

A prodigal is someone who goes against the family's value system. A prodigal says, "I'd rather go this way, and I choose to reject all this over here." In a sense, it's going counter-culture to the way the person has been raised. Prodigals have an intensity in their rebellion that is missing in the actions of other highly disobedient kids.

How can the behavior of a prodigal child damage his or her parent's marriage?

It's not a given that their marriage will be damaged. But the effects can be devastating if the parents aren't in agreement on how to deal with this child. Maybe a wife makes decisions with her head. She thinks their child has done a wrong and therefore needs to experience the consequences. But the husband makes decisions with his heart. He thinks, "We've got to cut this child some slack. Maybe with love and empathy and concern we can bring him back." So you've got that clash, and the child knows it. Kids are experts at pitting their parents against each other. And so the child's behavior becomes a divisive force within the marriage and polarizes the husband and wife.

It's hard enough for parents of cooperative kids to agree on discipline. How can parents of a prodigal child keep divisiveness out of their marriage?

If couples have built a solid relationship to begin with—one of good communication and solid commitment—you then have a source of strength to draw from. But if you've got a tenuous, shaky marriage, any kind of crisis could throw you because you feel isolated. You feel like a married single. You have the sense that you're suffering through this ordeal alone.

On the other hand, if you're really together and you've worked for years creating intimacy and a strong spiritual dimension to your marriage, you've got tremendous strength on which to build. You have a basis for working on the problem together.

People are afraid of being condemned by others — especially by other Christians.

And then it goes back to your attitude. James 1:2-3 says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance." The word consider there means make up your mind to regard that adversity as something to welcome. It doesn't say to make up your mind immediately, but eventually you look at it and say, "Okay. I didn't want this to happen. I wish it hadn't happened. But I'm going to learn through it." You don't let the crisis destroy you.

The couples who make it are the ones who pull together. They're the ones who pray together for their child and their marriage.

What can a couple do to reconcile their opposite approaches to dealing with a rebellious child?

The first thing is not to ignore these differences, since they can drive a wedge between you. And personality really comes into play here. One person might feel shame—believing that if he or she were somehow a better person that the child wouldn't be so off track. But that person's spouse might say, "Kids rebel. We've just got to live with it."

Or one spouse might want to go to a pastor or counselor for help. But the other spouse says, "No, let's keep this within the family. We don't want anyone else to know. Don't even share this with your closest friend."

Is it a common reaction that one spouse would want to keep problems with a prodigal private?

People are afraid of being condemned by others—especially by other Christians. People wonder, "Should I still serve as an elder in the church if my kid is living this kind of life? Should I still be teaching Sunday school? Should I still sing in the choir?" They begin to question their fitness for ministry. This way of thinking is misguided, however. There might be a few judgmental people in the church, but we don't need to listen to them because they're not the final authority.

If this tendency to become isolated is so prevalent, what can a couple do to overcome it?

The parents have to talk about what they're going through. Even if one spouse doesn't want to, the other has to create some sort of a safe environment to encourage discussion.

I wouldn't counsel couples to try to deal with their prodigal child on their own, since neither of them is an expert in this area. Read books that deal with the subject. Get help from the organizations and support groups that minister to parents of prodigals. You have to be willing to talk and get support and realize you can't face this crisis alone. You need the help of others.

How can couples resolve their differing feelings about what they're going through?

A good place to begin is to understand that having a prodigal child is a crisis—something to grieve over—and that we all grieve at a different pace and in different ways. The problem with a prodigal is that you don't always have closure—this can go on for years. The best thing you can do is learn more about the grief process—what you're going to go through. And realize this process and these feelings are normal. People go through all sorts of feelings.

I have a chart in the book called "A Ball of Grief" that has about 40 different words in it. It's like a ball of string with these 40 varied feelings all tied up in the grief process. I use that illustration with people who are grieving. It helps them identify and articulate the feelings they have. Then they'll ask, "Did you write this for me?" And I say, "No, this is what we all go through." We have to discover the normalcy of grief and that it can be long-lasting.

You also point out in the book that a prodigal will throw couples for a loop if their marriage somehow balances on their child's behavior. How does that happen?

That's a situation where couples think they must be getting along okay if their kids are behaving and responding well to them. But the truth is these parents aren't close as spouses. There's a distance between them that they don't recognize because they are basing the way they evaluate their marriage on external factors.

So what happens when you take away the externals? It's like the child had become the glue that held the parents together, and when the child's behavior changes for the worse the glue is no longer there. Any change upsets the balance causing the spouses to lose the closeness they thought they had.

What about blame? I imagine the urge to blame yourself or your spouse for your child's rebellion is pretty strong.

Blame comes into play in a big way. Spouses throw around accusations like, "You weren't strict enough with him. You didn't teach her. You were never home." There's also the self-blame: "If only I hadn't done this. Why didn't I handle things better?" This type of exchange is usually inaccurate and never helpful. It amplifies the extremes and doesn't lead to a constructive discussion.

But what if some blame is warranted? What if a parent did or failed to do something that may have contributed to the child's prodigal lifestyle?

Because every parent is imperfect, we're going to make mistakes. Inadvertently, sometimes parents choose to put in more time with one child at the expense of another. Or they pour themselves into their career and shortchange their children. But you need to remember that you could be the most perfect parent in the world. You could have done everything according to Scripture, and that child still could choose the wrong path in life. Look at God, the perfect Father. He created two individuals, and they both turned their back and rejected him.

But if there is legitimate blame on our part we need to resist the temptation to pass the buck. One of the ways we try to avoid accepting the blame is to turn it around and say, like Adam did, "Lord, the woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit." We blame our spouse.

If there is some failure on our part—and which of us has never made a mistake?—remember that parenting mistakes are like any other. We admit it. We accept the responsibility. There's a passage in 2 Corinthians 7:10 that says, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret." This means we don't have to live with regrets in our life. We can be free from that. 1 John 1:19 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." If we confess, we can be cleansed.

The other question I ask people is, "What good does it do to blame your spouse for his or her failings as a parent?" That is the past. We can pour our energy into placing blame and condemning the other person. Or we can say, "Okay. What do we do now?" Parents of prodigals must be present-focused and future-focused. It's counterproductive to pick apart the past to try to determine who was most to blame.

And what can that focus on the future do for their marriage?

I see a lot of couples who have been somewhat distanced in their marriage. But the challenge of parenting a prodigal child gives them an opportunity to look forward and to unite, to work together, to pull together. In any crisis, any tragedy that you face, you are given an opportunity to grow. Choose that path and you'll have the greatest chance of success as you struggle with the pain and sorrow of parenting a prodigal child.

Accentuate the Positive

It's easy for parents of prodigals to get overwhelmed by their child's negative behavior and not see any good. Big mistake, according to Norm Wright. He encourages parents to focus on their child's many positive qualities—even at the height of their rebellious behavior—and praise your child for them.

Having trouble finding any positives in your prodigal? Wright suggests answering these questions:

  1. What positives could you see before your child chose his worldly direction?
  2. What good things has her teacher or pastor said about her?
  3. What positive qualities have your relatives pointed out about him?

"Look for ways to encourage the child, to believe in her," says Wright. "You could say, 'I don't agree with what's going on, but I believe in you and I value you and I love you.' This puts pressure on the prodigal, makes them uncomfortable, but inwardly they value it."

—Caryn D. Rivadeneira

When Your Prodigal Comes Home

You and your spouse have been praying that your wayward child will come home—either figuratively or literally—and now he or she is back. To make this re-entry a success, key in on two essential elements of reconciliation: forgiveness and acceptance.

Forgiveness is not something that can be earned; it must be given. You are responsible for forgiving your child, but for reconciliation to take place, your child must be willing to forgive you as well.

Here are several facets of the mutual acceptance that must take place between you and your child:

  1. Both of you have to be able to accept yourselves and each other with your strengths as well as your defeats
  2. Both of you need to be willing to admit your own failures
  3. Both have to want healing for the broken relationship
  4. Both have to be willing to give up their demand that they were right
  5. Both have to be willing to give up any desire to make the other "pay" for past wrongs

—H. Norman Wright

Adapted from Loving a Prodigal, by H. Norman Wright. © 1999 by H. Norman Wright. Used by permission of Chariot Victor publishing, Colorado Springs, Colorado. All rights reserved.

NOTE: For your convenience, Loving a Prodigal, by H. Norman Wright is available for purchase from the ChristianityToday.com Bookstore.

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Children; Marriage; Parenting; Prodigals
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2000
Posted September 30, 2008

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