I love these traditional wedding vows because they set the right expectation for marriage:
I take you to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.
These vows show that the good and bad are both part of our journey. No marriage is always happy. And sometimes, husbands and wives are downright miserable.
Why do we struggle in our marriage? How can we repair our broken relationship and find contentment in the midst of the down times? Let me offer a few suggestions.
Find the problem
What is at the root of your unhappiness? This can be a tricky question to answer. Sometimes it’s straightforward: You’ve grown apart and have become more roommates than partners in life. But often there’s a deeper issue. Use the following questions as a starting place for self-revelation:
- Is the unhappiness rooted in your own depression or anxiety?
- Do you have addiction issues?
- Do you need to deal with baggage from your past or stresses in your present?
Besides personal issues, sometimes there are factors about the relationship itself:
- a lack of trust
- poor communication
- no spiritual connection
- a disappointing sex life
- not enough quality time together
The list of potential problems is nearly endless. Even little things can build up. Do some of your spouse’s habits drive you a little crazy?
After clarifying the issues that are making your relationship challenging, talk about those issues with a Christian counselor to get an outsider’s take on your relationship. A counselor will most likely be able to help you gain insight on the issues you’ve identified as well as see something you may have missed. (Focus on the Family has a great counselor referral network.)
Plug into the source of a real cure
Christ is the only One who can bring us true fulfillment. When we look to Jesus to be our main source of life, He becomes the highest priority in our lives. Everything starts with Him.
Sometimes we’ll try to replace Him with friends and loved ones, success and possessions, work or vacations. But in one way or another, they’ll all fall short. And when we ask our spouse to be the source of our ultimate fulfillment, it places an unfair burden on him or her and sparks an unhealthy dependency in us.
The best thing you can ever do for yourself — and for your marriage — is to develop your personal connection to God through an active faith. Allow God to be the source of your happiness.
Take great care of you
This may sound selfish, but it’s important to understand that you can’t fix a broken relationship if you’re feeling empty and exhausted. You’ll have nothing to give.
Remember what we’re told in Mark 12:28-34: We need to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love others as ourselves. That means taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally. All four of these areas need to be in balance. When you’re abundantly full of God’s love, this takes the pressure off your marriage and empowers you to love your spouse regardless of how he or she is behaving.
Build a strong support system
Each spouse needs friends of the same sex who will walk with him or her during difficult times. Your married couple friends can provide accountability and help protect your marriage from an affair (either emotional or physical) or from fantasies about a life without your spouse. Be honest with these friends, along with mentors and counselors. Talk to these friends and other supporters about having feelings for or being drawn to another person. When you bring this into the light, the secrecy and power are removed.
Talk to your spouse directly
You might be rolling your eyes about now. “I’ve talked to my husband a million times and nothing has changed!” you say. Hopefully, the difference now is that this conversation starts with you plugged into the right source — looking to Christ, not to your husband or wife, for your ultimate fulfillment. Instead of a desperate attempt to get your spouse to change so that you can feel better, you can approach this conversation from a place of abundance.
Of course, that Christ-centered abundance doesn’t mean that you’re perfectly happy or your marriage is fixed. But hopefully, a healthier you will create a stronger foundation to build a different type of marriage relationship. This new conversation needs to address what is and isn’t working for both of you.
Find connection points
This can be the fun stuff — the sorts of things you enjoyed together before the troubles began. Or it can be completely new interests and passions to renew your relationship. There’s just one requirement: The activities need to be things you do together to foster unity and attachment. Here are a few quick ideas:
Have a weekly date night so you can have some fun together. (But make a rule you won’t discuss the kids, hot-button topics or your family’s business affairs.)
Invest time in a common hobby or shared interest.
Find a bunch of “conversation starters for couples” online and take turns answering the questions at dinner, while on a walk or driving in the car — anytime when you can find 10 minutes to talk at a deeper level.
- Go to bed at the same time. This gives you an opportunity to cuddle and engage in some pillow talk, have sex or pray before drifting off to sleep.
- Do some of your chores together. Make the bed together. Cook meals together. Do the dishes together. Fold laundry together. Grocery shop together.
- Prioritize sex. Oxytocin, the hormone that is released after orgasm, increases your feelings of trust and connection.
- Fight self-reliance. You’re in a partnership. Tell your spouse what you need from him or her, and ask what you can do for him or her.
- Develop a shared dream that you can pursue together.
What if my spouse doesn’t want to deal with the issues in our unhappy marriage?
If this happens, you will most likely feel frustrated and emotionally abandoned. This pain is deep, and something to prayerfully bring to the Lord, seeking His wisdom. I recommend that you deal with the loss with the help of a licensed Christian counselor. And I can tell you from what I’ve seen during years as a counselor and seeing the results of Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored marriage intensive program: Many people in unhappy marriages are often able to turn it around and over time, build a relationship that both are thrilled with. And this isn’t just my take.
One research study found that couples who stuck it out during the difficult years in their marriage ended up happier. Results reveal that 68 percent of couples who were initially unhappy after the birth of their first child reported being anywhere from “happy” to “extremely happy” 10 years later. Another study chaired by sociologist Linda Waite found that married adults who reported being unhappy and yet endured were much happier five years later.
What did these couples in the Waite study do to turn things around? According to the study, the researchers identified three important components: marital endurance (circumstances that naturally change); marital work (where spouses actively tried to fix their problems); and personal change (where spouses tried to improve their own happiness, regardless of what state their marriage was in).
We take our spouses to have and to hold in good times and bad, and boy, sometimes those bad times can be terrible. But we do have hope — through time, through effort, through better communication and, especially, through Christ. And through Him, you and your spouse can find the good times again.Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books.
A variety of marital issues can lead to challenges or even hopelessness for one or both spouses in a marriage. Gaining a sense of hope and direction often requires understanding the underlying issues and relationship patterns which may have led to the crisis. Reach out to well-trained helpers even if you are the only person in the marriage willing to take action at this time. We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or