After 18 years of marriage, my wife and I have decided that we need to work on our marriage.
Not that it’s bad… it isn’t. But we’re seeing unhealthy patterns that need to be addressed if our marriage is going to be everything God – and we – want it to be.
Fixing the leaky faucet, so to speak, in the bathroom. Figuring out why the basement smells musty. And re-engaging some of the other problems that we don’t even notice any more.
I’ve talked to enough couples to know that we’re not alone. Whether you’re a year, a decade or 40 years in, having a healthy, growing marriage is hard work.
As my wife and I enter a season of renovation and renewal in our marriage, these 24 things are on my mind. By the way, I’m not doing all of these things, or any of them perfectly. I’m right there with you, down in the trenches, asking God to help me make progress.
I’d love to see which ones resonate with you as you refresh your own marriage.
- Be honest with yourself. In the middle of a busy, full life, it’s challenging to step back and honestly assess where we are. It takes courage, too. On a scale of 1-10, where would you place your marriage today?
- Take responsibility for what you see. We never see the full extent of our issues. Thank God, truly. He simply asks us to take responsibility for what he has shown us. For example, I need to be less critical and more accepting in my marriage.
- Repent. Once we see something that doesn’t honor God and our spouse, we have some humble pie to eat. We should simply ask God, then our spouse, to forgive us.
- Talk vulnerably with your spouse, but don’t demand a response. If you’re seeing the need for growth, approach your spouse after you’ve started to process your own ‘contributions’ to the problems with God. Let your heart show, and don’t insist that your spouse respond in the moment. It may take some time for them to take it all in and reciprocate.
- Ask for more clarity. God is able to show us other areas we need to work on, things we may not yet see. Good to ask him for that.
- Do you care? It’s one thing to notice a problem and take responsibility, but our hearts can stay icy and self-protective. And not really care about how it affects our spouse. Slowing down to think about that, and asking God for a heart that cares are huge. And often used by God to help our spouse care, too.
- Do you believe God can (really) help? When we don’t see any evidence of change, we can become cynical and start to think God isn’t really able to revitalize our marriage. It’s not the right, Sunday School answer, but we might need to confess this is where we are, and remind ourselves of what’s true. ‘I am the Lord, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?’ (Jeremiah 33:27)
- Determine you won’t take the easy ways out. When things aren’t great, it’s so easy to… do what’s easy. Hide behind work, our kids, hobbies, exercise, TV, wine, our favorite websites, or blogging, LOL. It can feel better than facing our problems or engaging God, but never goes well long-term.
- Remember everything you love about your spouse. What do you love about your spouse? It’s worth getting specific and dwelling there, and maybe even listing every single thing you can think of. Among (many) other things, I love the way my wife cares for the women in her life, often sacrificially. ‘Whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).
- Pray. Talking to God and crying out for help is so important. ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7). And effective: ‘I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.’ (Psalm 40:1 (NIV))
- Ask your friends to pray. It’s so tempting to act like we – and our marriages – are awesome. But it’s a veteran move to let trusted friends peek under the hood and invite their prayers. (See Paul, who often asked his congregations to pray for him.)
- Find Scripture that will encourage you, and pray over it. As an example, I’m thinking about how forgiving and generous the father is in the parable of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15, especially verses 22-24).
- Make the problems ‘our’ problems. Focusing on the other person and their role in your challenges isn’t… the way to go. Song of Solomon 2:15 gives us a better model: ‘Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom’. Without excusing sin, we need to make the problems (‘foxes’) in our relationships (‘vineyards’) our problems, not his/her problems.
- Don’t be afraid to get good, biblical counseling. We tend to think of counseling as a ‘last resort’ for when things get ‘really bad’. Which can make us feel like failures – especially if other people find out. It’s inconvenient financially and time-wise, too, especially if you have kids. But as long as we’re sinners living in a broken world we can benefit from proactive, outside input. And, while secular counselors can be helpful (and less expensive due to insurance), a thoughtful, nuanced biblical counselor can help us make deeper, more lasting changes.
- Find a way to follow-up on your times with the counselor. Sometimes, it can be easy to feel that our times at the counselor are the key to our progress. We receive a new insight or strategy and feel hopeful, only to return to normal life and remain stuck. (Been there!) It’s important to find some way of remembering what you learned, and, following through. For me, it’s taking a few notes, reading them every day or two, and praying through them. I even set notifications on my phone to remind me.
- Involve your church. OK, this can be scary because some of us have been burnt by ‘the church’ before. And maybe our current church. Or, maybe you wonder if your leaders are really able to listen well and help you make meaningful progress. I’ve seen it go both ways, honestly. But, God has placed your leaders there to ‘keep watch over your souls’ (Hebrews 13:17), and at a minimum they can pray for you, check in on you, and perhaps connect you to other resources. If they’re not willing or able to pray and care, maybe it’s time to gracefully move on and find another church.
- Let your small group in. This could be 15b, but we see our small groups (or whatever your church calls them) more frequently than our leaders, and probably have a deeper level of trust and relationship with them. They may not be our most intimate friends in every case, but at least some from our small group will want to pray and walk alongside us.
- Talk to your mentor(s), or, find one. Joshua had Moses; Elisha had Elijah; Timothy had Paul; the disciples had Jesus. The bible is filled with examples that show us the value of having an older, wiser mentor who can encourage us and speak a word of loving truth. Seasons of struggle in marriage are a good prompt to call a mentor and/or find a new one who has been down the (marriage) road you’re on. In general, you will have to be the one to make the first move.
- Look for other resources. It may be a book, website, online course, sermon series or something else. While these are often not tailored to you individually, they are inexpensive, easy to access, and can be completed at your own pace. Your spouse might be willing to do it with or alongside you, too. Although these aren’t specifically geared towards crisis marriages, I can recommend Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage and Winston Smith’s Marriage Matters, which also comes with an optional, separate study guide.
- Move toward your spouse, even in small ways. Say goodnight before going to bed. Offer to handle a detail for the kids that your spouse was planning to do. Send flowers or a postcard. Pack a lunch with a small note. If your relationship has been icy for some time, it may not work overnight, but if you can hang in there and persevere, God may use it to thaw your spouse’s heart as you model His love.
- Remember, it’s supposed to be hard. Hollywood and Hallmark tell us that marriage is supposed to be butterflies, violins and koala bears, but (spoiler alert) marriage is not exempt from Genesis 3 and The Fall. When we know – and expect – this, though, it helps. (For a really helpful exploration of this, see Paul Tripp’s What Did You Expect?‘, which also has a DVD version.)
- Remember the gospel & Christ’s unconditional love. In Ephesians 5:25-33, Paul reminds us that the gospel and marriage explain each other. More accurately, marriage is patterned after the gospel, God’s unconditional love for us in Christ. (Keller’s book does a great job here.) This means that once we’re married, God’s call for us toward our spouse is to model this unconditional love, even when it’s tough. It can encourage us to know that Jesus has shown (and is showing) us more grace than we could ever show to our husband or wife.
- Keep it simple and do what matters most to your spouse. Don’t come up with a five-point plan for how you’re going to turn this thing around in a week. Listen to your spouse, and prioritize the things that would matter most to them. Again, for me it’s being less critical, more accepting, and more transparent about my own struggles.
- Celebrate the victories God gives you. It’s so natural to focus on what’s wrong or where progress is still needed, isn’t it? But God calls us to celebrate his grace and the little victories he gives us. Did you follow through on something your wife requested? Did your wife do something nice for you? It’s worth pausing – either on the spot, at the end of the day, whatever – to give God (and your spouse) thanks.
Well, that’s a lot more than I intended when I started this post, but I’m sure a lot more could be said. I’ll hope you’ll add whatever I’m missing in the comments below.
The bottom line is that our God is a God of hope. Sometimes, without us even fully realizing it, our marriages become a little stale and stuck. If we’ll seek him, there’s real grace for wherever our marriage is today.
God can revitalize your marriage, too, making it a beautiful, living pictures of his relationship with us, his church.
Your turn (by commenting, you’re not implying that your marriage is in trouble!) —
- Which idea above seems – or has been – most helpful to you in your marriage?
- What idea would you add to the list above?
PS – If you found this helpful, would you consider sharing it? From what I can tell, a lot of couples could use some encouragement in their own marriages.