Change For Struggling Marriages

IMG_1141 This week’s post is a guest piece written by a couple who were both Christians when they were married, but who had significant relationship struggles in the first few years. They hope that their story encourages other Christian couples who are facing relational challenges, especially if they are hiding those struggles from those who could help.

We were all huddled around a game at the dining room table. The snow was deep and the temperatures frigid; there was no better place to be than together in a warm kitchen. My husband patiently explained the strategy of the game (again) only to be hit with another volley of questions from confused kids. We grinned at each other over bowls of popcorn, content and filled with mutual enjoyment.

This peace in our marriage and home has been hard fought for. We never had that “year of bliss” so many refer to in the early time of marriage. Somehow we missed that turn, and ended up on the crash and burn highway, struggling over big issues soon after beginning married life. We did have several things in common: we loved the Lord, each other, and were committed “’til death do us part.” But many days, that did not seem to be enough. It’s painful for us to look back. In fact, we do very little reminiscing of the early days and instead rejoice in God’s faithfulness to us and our relationship today.

There were minor issues which resulted from immaturity, as well as two very different sets of expectations of what it meant to be a husband and what it meant to be a wife. We clashed over differing levels of responsibility in the home, finances, and just about anything that seemed to be important. It wasn’t as if every day was awful, but a general tension overshadowed our marriage, one feeling like they could never do enough or be enough, and the other frustrated with the other’s actions or lack thereof. On top of this, sin and my reaction to it began to cut seriously into our relationship. I learned quickly the temptation to make a spouse’s sin all about “me,” caring more about how it affected me than caring about my spouse at all. While sin did need to be dealt with and repented of, I was often less interested in reconciliation and more interested in justice, caring more that my spouse felt some level of the pain and grief they had caused me. This led to nights of turned backs, cold beds, and silent spaces; it was a cop-out and only produced shame, guilt, resentment, and more distance to be crossed.

And so there we were, falling apart and thinking there was no way forward, all the while looking like the happily married couple everyone expected us to be. We had strayed far from God’s intent for marriage, but with His grace there is no such thing as a dead-end marriage.

Change wasn’t overnight and it wasn’t easy. We were on opposite mountaintops, wanting to end up at the same place but having no idea how to cross the hurts and differences between us. But change did happen, and over a decade later we consider our marriage one of the greatest gifts that God has worked in our lives. In retrospect I can identify key shifts in our thinking and actions that transformed our marriage.

Respect your spouse. If you’re in a relationship where you’ve been wronged your hackles are probably are already up, and you might be exasperated thinking, “If he/she gave me something to respect, I would!” You’re right: sometimes a spouse’s actions don’t merit respect, but their being and position do. Respect your spouse as a gift, not as property you are entitled to treat however your feelings dictate. When both a husband and wife regard the other as a unique person, not property entitled to but a gift to be cherished, then both end up feeling their value.

Love your spouse now, rather than when they become what you want them to be. Nowhere in Corinthians 13 does it say that our love is to be earned. It is to be given as Jesus loves, unreservedly to the undeserving. Ask God to write the words of Corinthians 13 on your heart and let them spill into your relationship; meditate often on how Jesus loves us. Sometimes when we stop trying to change the other person and instead show love, the other person may finally feel love where they are at, rather than what you want them to become. And that’s when change can often happen, in both of you.

Agree on where you want to go. When neither of us was happy where we were (we could at least agree on that), we identified specifics of what we wanted to become as a couple. We talked about marriages we admired and couple who mentored us (without ever knowing it!). We wanted our life to be spent for God and others, and imagined ourselves grey-haired on the porch swing with our Bibles open and fingers intertwined. Recognizing this common goal made us able to dissolve insignificant conflicts and persist lovingly in areas we had larger issues. We were willing to jump puddles and die to self in order to obtain the larger prize of peace and joy in a relationship that honored God.

Find your value in Christ. Your spouse is not your savior, Jesus is. Looking to your spouse to fill all your needs, affirm your worth and fill your emotional tank is a set-up for failure and frustration on both parts. Free your spouse from the burden of supplying all your happiness and instead seek abiding joy in Christ. Then, patiently learn together how to communicate value, and how to give each other great joy and affirmation in your relationship.

Form your own life together. This is the leaving and cleaving talked about in Genesis 2:24. For us, moving away from everyone we knew forced us to depend on each other and grow in companionship. It gave us the opportunity to share experiences that were ours alone. We discovered more of the joy and reason we had fallen in love in the first place. We explored together, missed “home” together, and admired each other in a completely new context. We had fun together, something that had been woefully missing the first years of marriage.

Realize that each day you are moving your relationship in either a positive or negative direction. Each marriage has a culture that is formed by a thousand daily actions that either strengthen or weaken a relationship. People don’t usually wake up one morning and have an affair or decide to be a jerk to their spouse: it happens as a result of a general wearing down or fraying of a relationship over time. The encouraging part is, God can give you the strength and desire to start moving positively today even if everything is awful and miserable and you just threw a Subway sandwich at your spouse yesterday or tipped over the dining room table in a fit of anger (true stories from couples that look just like you).

Pray with and for each other every single day. Some relationship hurdles seem too great, exhausting or complex to know where to even begin repairing. But if you can commit to one thing, do this: pray. You are limited in your ability to change yourself or your spouse, but God has the power to transform our thoughts, desires, hearts and wills. Bring each other daily to the cross; humble yourselves, confessing your failures and shortcomings. God has promised to finish the good work he has begun in us; we can cling to His faithfulness and perfection in the midst of our unfaithfulness and failure.

I wish I could add that we sought biblical counsel from others but we didn’t. I was hesitant to speak to anybody out of fear of affecting their opinion of my spouse. We were close to our pastor but the combination of not wanting to be a burden and our pride kept us from approaching him. In truth, we were afraid of disappointing those we knew well. Seeking the counsel of a godly pastor or counselor would have accelerated our journey back to a healthy thriving relationship.

After well over a decade of marriage we’ve moved across continents, had a passel of kids (one with severe disabilities), endured months of sleep deprivation and hospital stays, suffered job loss and struggling finances, and became entrepreneurs. By God’s grace and learned practice, each circumstance has strengthened our love and commitment to each other, rather than tear us apart. We are not grey-haired yet and don’t have a front porch swing, but each night I smile as the Bible closes, the light clicks off, we wrap each other up tight and he whispers into my hair, “This is the best part of my day.”