We know marriage is hard. We all learn that by the second week. But there are different kinds of hard. There is hard and hopeful, and there is hard and hopeless. The most difficult marriage, of course, is the one that is hard, distant, and with little reason to think it will change. In some of those cases, there might not be overt betrayal or cruel behavior or blatant sins that children would see. Instead, the marriage is . . . disappointing, lifeless, lonely.
To make it more difficult, you witness marriages that seem happy, or at least better than your own. You see spouses who enjoy each other. At those times, jealousy might sneak in for a moment, but you rarely land on coveting. Instead, the reminders just leave you a bit more disconnected from other people.
And to make it more difficult still, your marriage doesn’t receive much attention. Broken ones do. Struggling but growing ones do. But disappointing ones don’t. Consider this as a reminder that you are remembered in some small way.
What Can I Do?
You might feel as though you have tried everything and nothing helps. Yet this remains true: one person can make a difference in a relationship.
Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38). In other words, you are a walking tabernacle, and the Spirit who lives within you will be living water in a desolate place. Very influential indeed. The apostle Paul wrote about wives of unbelievers who were willing to live with them. He said that the wives were holy, and that holiness spreads (1 Corinthians 7:14). God can use your holiness in Christ to promote the work of Christ in others.
Notice how this resists a drift toward hopelessness. One reason we are hopeless in marriage is because there is nothing else we can do, so we resign ourselves and try to build a more independent life. But when we have confidence that the Spirit will use us, we become more resilient, creative, and engaged.
Avoiding Silence and Frustration
Now reflect on the tendencies that have emerged within you. Do you lean toward silence, words spoken in frustration, or both? Silence is not a biblical strategy. Though there are certainly times when we decide not to speak, that is not a long-term solution in any relationship. Life with God is filled with words, and we imitate God’s ways in our everyday relationships.
Words spoken in frustration are also guaranteed to fail. They are natural but are rarely spiritual or helpful. They separate rather than invite. They look down upon rather than come alongside.
The goal, of course, is wise words, which will make you a learner for life. We never quite arrive at the place where we have finally mastered how to speak them. Instead, wisdom is a search for a treasure that always contains more. The more we search, the more we discover.
Wisdom is founded on the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10), which means that we are astounded by his love for us and we mature to be humble listeners before him (for example, Psalm 5:7). As we listen, we notice his characteristic style with us. He is gentle, patient, and careful in his words. When we read through the book of Proverbs, we also notice that his words are typically adorned as a way to make them meaningful and attractive. His words, in short, are good.
Even his rebukes are good. All his words invite us to come closer as he comes closer to us, and he anticipates our response. He speaks to us, and he wants us to speak to him. The way of wisdom is to enjoy his words to you and delight in listening to him. Then you bring that culture to your relationships. We treat others as we have been treated.
Seeking Wisdom and Creativity
This mission of speaking wise words is decidedly spiritual. You may have many natural abilities that you bring to your relationships, but wisdom is something different. It is a gift of the Spirit. So the work in front of you has two parts. First, you want to hear God’s wise, good, loving words to you and enjoy them. Then you ask him for something you desperately need and only he can give. You ask for skillful, beautified words — “apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
Then you get creative.
“I have recently been struck by the goodness of God’s words to us and have been praying that I would grow in the way I speak to others . . .”
[Your spouse wants to talk about something “later.”] “Yes, I find these things hard to talk about too. But they seem important. Could we set aside some time on Saturday morning?”
“Both of us probably bring a lot of our parents into our conversations. How have you seen me do that?”
“Today I really struggled with [the kids, complaining, my health . . .]. Could you pray over me?”
“I was thinking about things I would like to know about you. I would love to know one thing that you enjoyed about your day, and one thing that was hard. Could we trade stories on our day?”
When you live in a disappointing relationship, you are not always sure how to talk about it to friends or ask for prayer. Here is a way to ask for prayer: you can ask others to pray that you would be skilled at hearing God’s good words to you so you can pass them on to others.
Learn from Your Differences
Disappointments tend to arise out of differences between you and your spouse. Perhaps you once saw your similarities — or how your differences were complementary. Now you just see differences. For example, you want to talk; he wants to avoid conflict. You want to partner in an activity; he prefers solitary tasks and interests. You hope to know and be known; he seems uninterested in either knowing you or being known by you. As a general rule, differences lead to frustration unless you understand those differences. The more you understand your husband, the more patient you will be.
A discussion about the kind of culture we experience in our early years at home is always a worthwhile way to understand differences. It might be easier than talking about the marital relationship. The primary risk is when we critique the other person’s family.
A second category to understand would be the ways your two minds are uniquely structured. The purpose here is not to talk about sins but personality styles or mental abilities. You probably already have a preliminary sketch you could offer him. For example, “I have been thinking about us and how, like any couple, we think in our own unique ways. You seem to think like a builder or engineer, who sees a problem and then figures out a way to solve it. That makes me imagine that, when I want to talk, you could easily think that it is always about a problem, and a problem with no apparent solution. Does that seem possible?” The basic idea of this approach is that your spouse has his reasons for his responses that are more than him simply being sinful.
Chronic disappointment has a hard time seeing small steps in the right direction. If those steps ever existed, you quickly backtracked, so you have stopped looking for them. But remember that Christ is at work in you, and his work will affect those around you. Remember, too, that the Spirit’s work is powerful yet oftentimes subtle. We will miss his work when we are not looking for it. With this in mind, keep your eyes open. Look for one way the Spirit is working in you and one way the Spirit is working in your relationship. When you see something, it is worth mentioning.
These thoughts are not new. But they might put a light on truths you know but have faded. In that sense, they are part of that small step of seeing the Spirit at work in the way he gently reminds us of things that are true and good.