We sit across the table from one another. Tears brim. I speak the painful words I have contemplated with so many:
Sometimes the loneliness in marriage is lonelier than being alone.
Her marriage is not suffering the tragedy of adultery or the horror of abuse. Instead, a cool distance has set in where warmth once bloomed. The quiet tragedy of lives lived beside one another, but not in union with one another.
Older people warned us. They told us they weathered difficult times. We thought they meant the Great Depression or a war or an illness. One woman married over sixty years was asked if she ever considered divorce. “No, I never considered divorce,” she replied. “But I did take out the revolver a couple of times.” Behind the humor is the reality of a different kind of pain.
In every marriage there is the gradual wear and tear of life on life. Sin rubs against sin, causing relational blisters that are difficult to heal. The person that once brought smiles of joy now causes tears of pain. You used to talk for hours, now the silence screams angry.
Are some destined to a Narnia-like marriage where it’s always winter and never Christmas? Is there hope for a couple when the chill sets in? Throughout years of ministry, I have witnessed spring bloom time and again in marriages and I believe there is hope. In the midst of a wintery season, how can a couple till the soil of their marriage to encourage new growth?
Embrace the Promise
At some point most marriages face a rough patch. Being annoyed, frustrated, or emotionally distanced does not mean you married the wrong person or have a difficult marriage. You have a marriage. There’s a reason we make a promise “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” The necessity of a promise presupposes that at some point we may want to abandon ship. While most Facebook pages are full of apple picking families, romantic get-a ways, and birthday celebrations, believe me, the numbers of difficult stories behind those seemingly happy stories are countless. I regularly meet with women struggling in their marriages. But who shares on their newsfeed: I cried myself to sleep last night because I had a terrible fight with my husband or my wife confessed she isn’t attracted to me anymore? An unrealistic expectation of a trouble-free marriage has a tendency to increase our dissatisfaction with it. Accepting that wintery seasons are a normal part of many healthy marriages can be a helpful first step towards healing.
The Lord is able. He saved Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace (Daniel 3). He caused the sun to stand still (Joshua 10:12). He brought down the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6). You may feel that nothing can save your marriage. God can. He is able to tear down the walls that divide. He is able to build back delight. What is impossible with man is possible with God. Hope in Him. Pray to Him. Keep seeking, keep knocking, keep asking.
Don’t wait to love until your spouse starts loving you. Begin today. Consider how you can demonstrate unconditional love in your marriage. In what ways can you display patience and kindness? How can you let go of resentment or irritability? What does it look like today for you to bear all things, believe all things, hope in all things, and endure all things?
Does it sound like too heavy of a cross to bear? Then most likely you are loving your spouse in the very way Jesus loved you. It may feel like death to let go of hurts and unfulfilled longings, but loving in the way of the cross is the pathway to redemption.
Examine your Affections
Are you seeking from your spouse what only the Lord can give? No other person can fully satisfy or save us, but we often place unrealistic expectations on our spouse. We expect them to care perfectly, understand sympathetically, and know our needs before we even ask. Only the Lord can be this source of comfort in our lives. We have an eternal thirst that can only be fulfilled by an eternal God. If we seek in our spouse what only the Lord can give, we set our marriages up for failure or idolatry.
Remember with Thanksgiving
Take time every day to reflect upon things your spouse is doing that you can offer up in thanksgiving. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). We can stoke the fires of resentment or the fires of passion by what we choose to think about with regard to our spouse. As Elisabeth Elliot noted:
A wife, if she is very generous, may allow that her husband lives up to perhaps eighty percent of her expectations. There is always the other twenty percent that she would like to change, and she may chip away at it for the whole of their married life without reducing it by very much. She may, on the other hand, simply decide to enjoy the eighty percent, and both of them will be happy.
Find a couple that’s been married over a decade (even better if they’ve been married two or three). Most have gone through a season of difficulty. They’ve seen that God can revive a weary and worn marriage. Be careful with your words as you share. Share honestly while honoring your spouse. Ask for their advice. Seek their prayers.
Every marriage is an uncomfortable union between two sinners. We may find that Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven” is not theoretical. One friend told me, “Oh, we passed that number long ago. I counted.”
Choose to entrust your hurts to the Lord. Don’t keep an index file of wrongs to pull out as zingers for the next argument. Paul exhorts, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). This type of forgiveness is impossible without the work of the Spirit within us. Thankfully, His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
Remember that spring follows winter. Expect the Lord to work in your marriage. Look for signs of new growth. God wants your marriage to be a beautiful reflection of Christ and the Church. Laughter and joy can bloom again.
To those in a difficult season of marriage, cling to Jesus, placing your ultimate hope in the wedding that is yet to come. At the same time, dare to hope for your earthly marriage, anticipating with the Psalmist:
I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:13- 14)