Toni Nieuwhof, author and a former divorce attorney, discusses marriage, staying together, and choosing divorce in Before You Split: Find What You Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage (WaterBrook, Jan. 2021).

Why did you decide to write this book?

After all I’ve observed in my practice as a divorce attorney, there isn’t an easy or pat answer to what is “right” for divorce. It is obviously subjective, influenced by each individual’s beliefs, values, culture, and community. My aim is to help couples see and understand more clearly what may be going on when they’re feeling “stuck”—what their options are and what the consequences of those options are.

What is the most prevalent issue in marriages, and how can readers correct it?

In my experience, the biggest threat to a relationship is emotional disengagement. The important questions in a marriage are, are you really connecting at a heart level? Are you being honest and vulnerable with each other? Can each of you apologize when you’ve hurt the other? If not, why? A couple going through the motions of marriage without an authentic connection is merely surviving. In the surviving state, the marriage is at risk of imploding, whether through a gradual buildup of complaints or by way of a crisis, such as an affair.

Can you share the worst words you can say, or not say, to your spouse?

Rather than trying to pinpoint the words, it’s helpful to be deliberate about your approach. It’s critical to keep communication flowing; if one spouse is inclined to zone out or stonewall, that’s a problem with a root worth uncovering. Also, I’ve come to believe there are no empty words. Words hold power, period. In your marriage, the words you speak to your spouse will either build them up or tear them down.

What was one of the hardest parts about writing this book?

Reopening communication is so multifaceted, it took me a whole book to cover the angles. For example, for a couple who feel like they’re on the brink of breakdown, the first step may be to make a pact to be on the same team. It’s natural to feel divided into us and them when the relationship has deteriorated, but it’s vital to resist the attitude that one’s spouse is the enemy.

How have traditional Christian values impacted marriage?

I believe the “divorce is not an option” stance has the potential to be harmful when it’s used defensively. When it’s used as a placard that prevents someone from being honest about his or her shortcomings, that’s a problem. It may allow thoughtless or injurious behavior to continue, because the relationship is “guaranteed.” However, the loyalty and the unconditional love, which are products of authentic Christ- following faith, have the potential to help a marriage so much.

Ann Byle is a writer living in Grand Rapids, Mich., and coauthor of the new e-book The Joy of Working at Home (Credo House).