‘We’re still in the honeymoon phase.’
I was thrilled to hear a younger friend say this when I asked how he and his wife were doing. And - since they’ve only been married a few months - it was entirely appropriate.
But at some point, as the saying goes, the honeymoon is over. The excitement of learning about each other, the fun of setting up an apartment together, and other ‘firsts’ wears off as reality sets in.
This is true for every marriage. Good, bad and anywhere in-between.
I count myself incredibly fortunate to have a good marriage, but obviously it’s not perfect. After we became unexpectedly pregnant four months into our marriage, and my wife developed intense nausea, our honeymoon was over. Later, after we got through the first year of our daughter’s life, all the baggage we brought into our marriage finally burst open, spilling our dirty laundry all over the floor.
And then the honeymoon was really over.
But whether it’s four weeks, four months, or four years, at some point we realize that we’ve married a real person. A sinner. And they make the same, shocking discovery about us.
The real question is not whether we’ll discover our spouse’s shortcomings, but rather, how we’ll handle them when we do.
We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
- Stanley Hauerwas, quoted in The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller
The real question is not whether we’ll discover our spouse’s shortcomings, but rather, how we’ll handle them when we do.
Hope For Every Marriage
I don’t know how you feel about your own marriage right now. Maybe it’s thriving. Maybe it’s just okay. Or, maybe you’re not even sure it’s going to survive.
What I do know is that Christ offers real hope for every marriage. After all, it was his idea, created to give you joy and reflect his relationship with us, his church.
After reflecting on the marriages I’m familiar with, I’ve been thinking about what separates the good ones from the ones that have ended. And what distinguishes couples who are real partners from ones who are more like business partners or roommates.
It’s complex, and I don’t pretend to have ‘the answer’ here. But I’m confident that these factors are part of the equation. And that, with God’s help, our marriages can keep growing well after the buzz of the honeymoon is over.
Strong marriages can struggle with the things that characterize unhealthy marriages. That’s good news, because none of us are perfect, and we don’t have to get everything right to have a marriage we’ll love.
The Anatomy Of A Failed (Or Lifeless) Marriage
How is it that once-vibrant relationships can sour?
In a blog post, I can’t cover things like why we stop dating our spouses, or how we can start that up again. Or, the challenges having kids presents. Those things are real, but they aren’t the core issues.
Also, strong marriages can struggle with the things that characterize unhealthy marriages. Mine does. That’s good news, because none of us are perfect, and we don’t have to get everything right to have a marriage we’ll love.
Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman puts apathy (‘stonewalling’) toward the end of a journey that predicts divorce with an amazing degree of accuracy.
- Criticism: Stating your complaints as a defect in your spouse’s character. For example: ‘You never clean up after yourself. You’re so lazy.’
- Contempt: Claiming that you’re superior. For instance: ‘You’re a jerk.’
- Defensiveness: Instead of listening to your spouse’s critique, defensiveness redirects criticism by proclaiming your innocence and their guilt. For example: ‘If you didn’t work so late all the time, maybe we’d have sex more often.’
- Stonewalling (apathy): Withdrawing emotionally from interaction with your spouse. Instead of getting angry or defensive, you just don’t care anymore. For instance: Even though your spouse is trying to communicate with you, you continue looking at your phone, failing to give them the normal feedback that conveys interest, concern, and respect.
Again, according to Gottman, ignoring these warning signs will end your marriage, functionally if not literally.
But as helpful as Gottman’s analysis is, God’s word allows us to go even deeper. To move toward our ultimate goal of overcoming mid-marriage struggles, we have to descend a little further down the rabbit hole first.
From what I see, in unhealthy Christian marriages one or both spouses exhibit some of the following patterns. They…
Focus On Their ‘Rights’ And The Other Person’s Failure To Meet Them
When we took our wedding vows, we promised to love our spouse ‘for better or for worse’. This obviously involves things that aren’t our spouse’s fault, like an illness, but also includes things that are our spouse’s fault, like sin patterns.
To be clear, I’m not talking about bearing with things like abuse or adultery. Those things cannot be excused for any reason.
But even in the best of marriages, our spouse will let us down and fail to meet our expectations. Perhaps expectations we didn’t even know we had, like an unreasonable demand for affirmation. Expectations that may, or may not, reflect who we are as children of the King.
If we demand that our spouse meet our expectations, we will become angry, bitter judges when they don’t.
Lose Sight Of Their Own Sin And Excuse It
So an unhealthy husband or wife can focus on their spouse’s shortcomings, but it usually doesn’t stop there. Often a husband or wife like this will also largely overlook, and minimize, their own sin.
For example, during the early, hard years of our marriage I can remember being angry with my wife for her issues. But instead of dealing with my anger, I justified it by focusing on her issues.
Lose Sight Of The Gospel And Its Hope
The gospel, as Jack Miller put it, reminds us that we’re worse sinners than we ever dared imagine, but more loved than we ever dared to hope. We’re so bad that Jesus - the only perfect person who ever lived - had to die a criminal’s death on our behalf. And yet, so loved that he was glad to do it. (Let that sink in for a moment.)
But obviously, Jesus didn’t stay dead in the tomb. He rose again to a new, indestructible life that will never end. What happened to Jesus will happen to every one of us that trusts in him. And to the entire universe.
That means there is hope for even the worst marriage. But in weaker marriages, the power of the resurrection feels like an afterthought. Irrelevant on any (often every) given day. Established patterns seem to be immovable, with little hope that things might improve.
It’s going to get (a lot) better in a moment, but let’s zoom out and recap here. Unhealthy couples take their eyes off the gospel, locking in on their spouse’s sin while largely excusing their own. They also forget that the same power that rose Jesus from the dead is alive, and available to them on the fiercest battlegrounds of their marriage. This produces the marriage-killing symptoms that Gottman describes in his work.
7 Ways Your Marriage Can Thrive When Honeymoon Is Over
That can feel like a dump truck of bad news. But my heart in sharing those signs of dysfunction is to help us recognize and move away from them. And, to long and pray for better things.
Here are some qualities that healthy marriages share. No doubt there are others, of course.
And again, these are horizons that we’re slowly sailing toward with God’s help. We won’t do this perfectly, and that’s okay.
When a husband and wife are both giving their imperfect best, that’s where the magic happens.
The world sets us up for dissatisfaction with an unrealistic picture of what marriage is like. Photos of happy couples on sunny mountaintops suggest that we can escape the futility and frustration of the fall (Romans 8:19-23).
By grace, we will have many beautiful moments, but we are still fractured people in a sin-stained world. That will severely limit us, our spouse and (therefore) our marriage. For example, my wife graciously bears with my tendency to get hurt and self-protective. It still frustrates her, but she expects it and that helps her be patient with me.
By nature, we like to start with our spouse’s failures, but Jesus tells us to start with our own. ‘First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye’ (Matthew 7:5).
What might happen if, every time we felt critical toward our spouse, we asked the Lord to reveal similar logs in our own lives? And what if, before we approached our spouse about their sin, we considered how we struggle in the very same area?
Graciously Speak Truth
Starting with ourselves does not mean minimizing or ignoring our spouse’s sin. Marriage - like any Christ-centered relationship - is meant to encourage holiness in the people we love (see Ephesians 5:26, for example).
For many of us, it’s easier to just keep quiet, but our spouse needs us to ‘speak the truth in love’ so that they can mature, playing their part in helping God’s people grow in love (Ephesians 5:15-16).
Admitting we need help in our marriages needs to be the norm for God’s people. Not just for couples who have really messed up, or are close to giving up.
Ideally, most of this should happen organically with our friends, small groups and other situations. For example, at our church, every week we have prayer stations where people can receive prayer from other members of the congregation after the sermon.
Other times, when we can’t find the wisdom and support we need through our normal relationships, we may need to approach our church leaders, or find a good, biblical counselor.
I can still remember a wise counselor (literally) sitting between my wife and I during an appointment when we were struggling. God used his insights, prayers, and counsel to help us turn things around at just the right time.
It all starts with a willingness to be vulnerable, and the belief that God’s help often comes through his people.
Treat Them Like An Individual
It’s easy to slip into patterns where we treat our spouse like they treat us. Or, love them as we want to be loved.
In some cases, that’s fine. But because each of us is unique, we need to be students of our spouse and love them in accordance with God’s design.
If a friend invited us to her birthday party, we wouldn’t choose her gift based on what we’d like to receive, right? No, we’d start by thinking about what she enjoys.
But when we relate to our spouse, often we start with ourselves. We might think that, for example, if an intense debate works for me, it should work for our spouse, too. Or that, if we don’t need much affection, then our spouse shouldn’t either. Or that, if we don’t need sex frequently, our spouse shouldn’t either. But this approach is ultimately selfish, and fails to see God’s artistry in our spouse. They will feel ignored, invisible and disregarded.
I’ve got to be honest here, and say that this was one of my biggest failures in my marriage for way too long. Far better to notice how God has put our spouse together, and treat them like the unique person God has made them to be.
Show Patience & Love
Part of what makes marriage so challenging is that it requires two sinners to put God first. And then, each other second. When a husband and wife are both giving their imperfect best, that’s where the magic happens.
Of course, on any given day and season, one person may be more invested than the other. It’s critical during these times that the ‘more invested’ spouse show humility and patience toward the other. Instead of growing cold, bitter, or - worse - vindictive.
Some time ago, a pastor with a struggling church acknowledged it was hard, but told me ‘you’ve got to love them where they are.’ He was saying that the only way to help someone grow is to hang in there with them. They have to know we care before we can be part of what God is doing in their lives.
The same principle is certainly true for marriage. If our spouse is struggling, or not where we want them to be, we ‘have to love them where they are’. We can pray for change and encourage it, but not control the outcome.
Our hope is in God, whose ‘mercies never come to an end’, and are truly ‘new every morning’. We put our trust in him and ‘wait quietly’ for him to work (Lamentations 3:22-26) in us and our spouse. Through the testing and trials, God is at work, bringing about maturity that would’ve never happened otherwise.
Take Small, Consistent Steps Of Love & Obedience
Everything we’ve just talked about sounds great… until you have to actually do it. Especially if you feel like your spouse isn’t reciprocating.
This is where Christ’s example is so powerful. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). His sacrificial love has changed us, and there is great hope that our sacrificial love for our spouse will change them, too. But even if it doesn’t, Christ is honored and we become whole.
Are you willing to do the next, small thing Christ is calling you to do in your marriage? Day after day, regardless of what your spouse does?
It might be saying goodnight to your husband and giving him a kiss instead of just going to bed. Maybe it’s giving your wife an hour off from the kids even when you’re tired from the grind at work. Planning a date night. Committing to listening the next time your spouse challenges you. Or not blaming them in a moment of anger.
What About Your Marriage?
Marriage is awesome, but it’s also hard work. Especially after the initial high wears off. That’s where the real work begins: we come to terms with our spouse’s - and our own - weaknesses. We learn to put sin to death, and to slowly, faithfully do the (often hard) things that will make our marriage thrive so that it can be a faithful picture of the love Jesus has for us.
Wait... before you move jump back to that cat video, why not take a small step to invest in your marriage with what you've just learned?
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