Accept an Unhappy Marriage?

I had an email, from a woman, asking how we go about accepting an unhappy marriage.

Wife unhappy with her marriage © CandyBox Images |

This actually brings up a couple of other questions. Should we accept an unhappy marriage? When should we accept an unhappy marriage?

First let’s be clear we’re talking about unhappy, not abusive or destructive. Second, please know long term marital unhappiness is actually rather rare. One large study done in the USofA found that when unhappy couples stayed married two-thirds of them reported being happily married five years later. Less than 3% of those in the study said they were unhappy in their marriages for more than five years.

As to when: I’d say you need to give it five years. Keep praying, working, and hoping, because the odds are good it will get better.

As to should we: I have to say yes. For better or worse till death does us part makes no room for “I’m not happy” or “I’m not fulfilled” or even “I’ve given it my all for five years.” If there is no abuse, danger, or ongoing sexual sin, I think those who follow Jesus are stuck. I don’t like that, but I can’t find a way around it without doing damage to the integrity of God’s Word. 

So then, how does one accept an unhappy marriage?: Let’s start by saying this is not God’s will. He didn’t do this to you and He doesn’t want you to suffer this way. God’s will is for you and your husband to have a great marriage that blesses both of you. Thing is, we all have free will, and as Lori and I often say free will sucks. (Actually, my free will is fine, it’s everyone else’s that’s a problem!)

For whatever reason, you’re stuck in a marriage that makes you feel like you’re dying inside. If it’s been five years, who cares about where to place the blame. It’s no fun and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get much better. At this point, I suggest you choose to have a life you enjoy while staying with the man you married. Give him what’s due if he makes that possible, and then get out there and get a life. If you think he’ll listen you might explain this is what you’re going to do. Tell him you have no intentions of leaving him, but neither are you going to sit home and be miserable. 

~ Paul – I’m XY, and I know some women with awesome lives despite being married to stick-in-the-mud men.

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27 Comments on “Accept an Unhappy Marriage?

  1. There are certain things that are missing in my marriage. I really want those things, and none of them are wrong or unreasonable. They are good things – but unless something miraculous happens, I am never going to have them.

    What I do is if I start getting upset over something I’m missing, is I give myself a few (very few!) minutes to just be upset, and then I visualize myself standing with God beside me, folding that thing up like a sweater and putting it in a box and putting it in a closet. I just pack it away.

    I don’t mean I am in denial or avoiding anything. And I am making constructive changes to take care of myself physically and emotionally (normal things like exercising, going shopping or spoiling myself a little, going to Bible class), and I am building a good life. I miss those things I can’t have, but I am trying to focus on the things I can have and leave everything else to God.

    It’s not fair, but life isn’t fair. I spent a couple of years in a really painful spiral asking “why?” or stamping my foot and saying “that’s isn’t fair,” and I didn’t get any answers, and it didn’t bring any peace. Once I just let go, God was able to move me past that. I still don’t have answers, but I have peace. And that feels so much better.

    • Wow, Sunny, this is great! I like your ideas. I need to try this.

      I wouldn’t say my entire marriage is unhappy, but there are things I feel are missing, like my husband being attracted to me. He says he is, but I don’t see it or believe it. I allow this negativity to drag me down. Perhaps if I try your “sweater” tip and just pack my desire to be loved and desired away, I will be a much happier, peaceful woman.

      • If it makes you feel any better, that is also one of the things I pack away. (And an associated one – the likelihood I won’t have children.) I don’t want to make it sound like it’s easy, but the idea of just setting it aside – not pursuing it but not abandoning it, just setting it aside and leaving it to God – is a comfort to me and it helps me focus on the areas I can control and edify in my own life.

  2. The problem with ‘happiness’ is that it’s a moving target, and one often based on cherished expectations, comparison and perceptions of what others have. (especially one’s parents, if one’s childhood was ‘happy)…and I think this is a large part of why many marriages seem ‘unhappy’.

    The problem with all of this is that these categories are all mental, and like the shine you imagine on your ’66 Corvette never being matched by the one that comes from elbow grease, no marriage will match the one our have in imagination or memory as a model.

    And most unhappy marriages have more good moments in them that husband or wife can imagine. Those moments are simply sacrificed ton the altar of invidious comparison.
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser recently posted…Your Dying Spouse 185 – Listening to GodMy Profile

    • @Andrew Budek-Schmeisser – Interesting thoughts. I agree, but the other side is what happens without a goal that challenges and stretches us. We have to find the sweet spot between the two.
      Paul Byerly recently posted…1 Hour Act of ServiceMy Profile

  3. One thing I am learning is living my fullest within the boundaries and restrictions my spouse places. It has been well over 5 years. Things have improved, but not the changes I would have ordered. Some of them are like ordering a great sounding dish at a restaurant, and only getting one of those tiny, artsy servings and having to pay a lot for it. But, I can at least savor every bite, even if it still leaves me hungry.

    I may only get vanilla sex, but it can be the best vanilla sex. I may only get a 30 second back rub, but instead of inwardly whining about only 30 seconds, I can enjoy ever second if that back rub.

  4. Wrestling with this myself.

    “For better or worse, until death do us part” is not from the Bible, it is tradition. If it was a part of one’s vows, then God would want us to honor our vows…but it usually is preceded by “Love, honor, and cherish..etc. etc.” What good is keeping half a vow?

    “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” is in the Bible. How does God join together? What does that even mean? What does it mean to be put asunder? How does it happen? I’m struggling with this question myself, as we are contemplating divorce. I’m pretty sure it’s not a legal concept or a piece of paper, though. Maybe the marriage is unhappy because people are already “put asunder.” What good is staying legally married if you have already broken the essence of God’s commandments?

    Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 cover the “til death do us part” but I find it interesting that multiple Christian marriage bloggers conveniently find their way around these verses. Even justifiable divorce doesn’t permit remarriage. To preserve the integrity of God’s Word, why aren’t they stuck with finding a life they enjoy while being single, like you are suggesting unhappy wives should do while being stuck with their marriages? If God blessed their future marriages, why wouldn’t he bless ours?

    “If there is no abuse, danger, or ongoing sexual sin, I think those who follow Jesus are stuck.”

    What if the ongoing sexual sin is one’s own? Maybe it is better to divorce, remarry, ask for forgiveness, and start over. But this feels like a cop-out to me. Because it is, or because I’ve been so conditioned to see it that way? I don’t know. OTOH, if I keep falling into sin I’m probably not God’s child anyway (see 3rd John) so I should just do what I want and be happy and not worry about the Bible. Or maybe I should try to repent (again???) and take physical measures to prevent future sin (Matthew 5:27-30)

    For the record, I’m not the one who emailed, but I’ve been looking for the same resources (how to cope in an unhappy marriage) and I don’t think they exist.

    • They don’t exist because there’s nothing that can fix it. If what you’re looking for is a silver bullet or a flashing sign saying to #yolo, you’re not going to find it.

      What good is keeping half a vow? … What good is staying legally married if you have already broken the essence of God’s commandments? Because God doesn’t say, “welp, you’ve sinned. You can do whatever you want now, it doesn’t really matter!” In Malachi, he even says to go back to the wife of your youth and to leave your current (in that case, pagan) wife. The point is to make it right. Repentance isn’t a get out of jail free card.

      I have no idea what your situation is, so I am going to speak broadly but not to tell you what to do. I’m being theoretical here. But I would break it into a couple of different fronts.

      First, just be committed to your marriage.
      Second, grieve whatever it is that you’ve lost or never had, and then turn it over to God and let it go.
      Third, get your heart right. Walk in (Godly) love, act with kindness, let go of bitterness and anger. I am not saying you need to be all lovey-dovey or act like nothing is wrong or even (necessarily) to “fix” your relationship; I am saying only get to get your heart and attitude right.
      Fourth, focus on the areas of life that you can and make them good. Your relationship with your spouse may be so damaged that you really can’t be more than friends or roommates anymore. Maybe you can’t get the marriage you wanted. So what’s next? Focus on hobbies, health, your spiritual walk, your career, your family – build a good life, as far as you can.

      There are a lot of problems in the world; I don’t want to minimize yours. But after awhile, unhappiness is a choice. Choose to be happy.

      • Sunny, you’re assuming I haven’t done all that ;)

        • Trying not to make assumptions, but you know. ;) These are things I am doing myself.

          I have a friend whose husband had his bags packed and was waiting by the door when she got home because he was sick of being married. They’d had some problems, but nothing that seemed anywhere near “divorce” level, and she was completely floored. You may not have any control over whether you stay married. But if you are married, the only thing I would encourage, is to commit to doing what’s right because it’s right, but also realize that God is still moving in your life and you can find joy. That’s all — just have a little hope for something.


          • “Your relationship with your spouse may be so damaged that you really can’t be more than friends or roommates anymore.”

            I just fail to see how this can still be defined as a marriage. What is required to keep one’s vows? Be celibate and don’t move out? Yet I feel convicted that that’s what I need to do. OTOH, I’m not convinced that it’s any more obedient, or any less of a divorce, than legal divorce.

            “They [resources] don’t exist because there’s nothing that can fix it. If what you’re looking for is a silver bullet or a flashing sign saying to #yolo, you’re not going to find it.”

            I’m not looking for a resource to fix it. Sometimes resources are for support and encouragement. I have medical conditions for which there is no fix; I belong to support groups for the comraderie, where you can get encouraging words and even tips for making things more bearable.

            If God truly wants divorcees and unhappy marrieds to keep our vows (even when it mean celibacy!) that’s a lot of unhappy people. You’d think there would be support groups. If there are, I don’t know how to find them.

    • @Anonymous – You are right better or worse is man’s attempt to define what God said. It’s simple, but I can’t find fault in it overall.
      You are also right about divorce and divorce with remarriage being two very different things. This is something we tend to ignore in the discussion. I wrote the TGH version of this article yesterday (it’s out Thursday) and I mentioned it there. I think a lot more folks would choose to work on their marriages if they understood remarrying would be wrong in God’s eyes. (Sexual sin does allow for remarriage, BTW.)
      If there’s sexual sin on your part, I’d suggest you do all you can to deal with it as you are now – which is married. Neither being single nor remarried is going to make it go away, and odds are it will make it all the more difficult to deal with.
      Paul Byerly recently posted…A Safe PlaceMy Profile

      • Sexual sin does not permit remarriage for women. If you disagree, please cite your scripture reference.

        Matthew 5:32 offers the only exception to divorce. It allows a MAN to divorce for fornication, not adultery. This would have occurred during an engagement period, not a marriage. (If they were married, the woman would be stoned for adultery, and thus the man would be free to remarry.)

        “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” doesn’t apply here. God doesn’t hold men and women to the same expectations. God allowed men to have multiple wives. During wartime, God instructed the men to take concubines. Jacob had multiple women, and God blessed his family through them; when Sarah and Rebekah were each taken as wives by tribal leaders, those leaders faced punishment by God.

        Men and women are not created equal. I don’t like it, but it doesn’t make it untrue.

        P.S. If sexual sin allows for divorce and remarriage, then anything goes. Any husband who has looked at porn and lusted is guilty of sexual sin, and his wife would be free to divorce and remarry. By your logic, I am free and clear to follow my heart.

        • @anonymous – Fornication is a horrible translation of the Greek word used in Mt 5:32. The Jews of Jesus time and the fist century Christians used the word as a catch-all for sexual sin. Jesus did only apply it to men, but women were not allowed to divorce by Jewish law, so it was not addressed. As to adultery, both man and woman were to be stoned, but the male-dominated Jewish society managed to ignore that.
          Multiple wives were allowed, but I think that was another case of “because of the hardness of your heart.” A man who took another wife was not allowed to reduce the amount of food, clothing, or sex he provided to the first wife. This makes two wives a stretch for most men, and more than that impossible. Again, the Jews ignored this. BTW, God specifically forbid multiple wives for kings, something most of them ignored.
          Porn and lust are an interesting issue. We don’t take either sin seriously enough.
          Paul Byerly recently posted…A Safe PlaceMy Profile

        • Excuse my error. Matthew 19:9 also allows divorce only for “fornication.” Marrying another woman in this case would not be remarriage.

          In addition, this is still only cited for men, not women. Women are never granted an exception, and are explicitly commanded to remain single or reunite with their spouse until the death of that spouse. Men are commanded that it is adultery to marry a divorced woman. There is never an exception given to that, though many people try to assume one based on the two scriptures in Matthew.

          • To further illustrate that the rules are not equal for men and women, men are never explicitly commanded to remain unmarried until the death of their original spouse. This is specifically addressed to women.

  5. I like to use the term, contentment, to describe this choice. Contentment doesn’t mean you’ll always be happy, you won’t. Because, like Andrew said, happiness is a fleeting emotion at best. Contentment means you have accepted your circumstances and choose to make the best of them. Contentment means you have peace even though your circumstances are not ideal. This is what both sunny-dee and libl describe in their comments.

    When you think of it this way, I’m not sure about your 5 year advice. Why shouldn’t we try to get to a place of contentment as soon as possible? We tend to think acceptance means giving up or defeat. It doesn’t have to. Like forgiveness, acceptance is important for us. Without acceptance of a circumstance, one cannot be happy. So, why wouldn’t/shouldn’t we strive for contentment as soon as possible? Acceptance is also necessary to help us make rational choices regarding the situation. Acceptance helps us focus on the good in our situation.

    I didn’t give up hope when my marriage was sexless. I learned to be content in the situation and focus on the good in my husband and the marriage. Refusing to accept the situation could have caused strife in the marriage which would have made for an unhappy marriage for both of us. By choosing contentment, we had less to repair when things did turn around. And, my acceptance didn’t mean I gave up. I initiated All.The.Time knowing what the answer would be. I continued to be hurt, but the hurt was minimized because I had accepted the situation.

    I like how Wikipedia describes contentment.
    “Contentment is a mental or emotional state of satisfaction maybe drawn from being at ease in one’s situation, body and mind. Colloquially speaking, contentment could be a state of having accepted one’s situation and is a milder and more tentative form of happiness.”

    • K – I like what you say, but for me, it would not have been possible. Now I think it would, but not for who I was 30 years ago. Accepting it would have meant no longer fighting for change. It would have meant giving up all hope. I’m not suggesting that is right or good, but it’s where I was when I was in that place.
      I suspect there is a strong gender bias on this, although I know men and women who fall on the other side of the line I think I see.
      Paul Byerly recently posted…A Safe PlaceMy Profile

      • Unfortunately, I think that’s true of many people. And, I agree it may be somewhat gender biased, especially if the issue is sex. I don’t think it’s what God wants for us or what he calls us to do. The Bible is peppered with scripture about contentment. Many of the verses specifically refer to socio economic status and coveting, but not all of them. I don’t think God wants us to be unhappy in our marriage even when are forced into less than ideal circumstances. (Again, not talking about abusive situations.)

        It seems when people refuse to accept their circumstances and make the best of their situation, they run a great risk of damaging the relationship even more. When things turned around for us, I began to question whether my acceptance had enabled things to go on longer. We will never know for sure. But, when I survey the entirety of what took place, I think refusal to find contentment would have made things worse, not better.

        We need to rethink what acceptance means and how it looks. If you think it means defeat, you’re gonna miss out the peace and happiness you deserve.

  6. Please don’t be offended, but as someone going through this, the comments had me in tears. As a wife who is dying inside from feeling like a failure in every respect and living with a husband who is intensely disappointed with me as a wife, who says he loves me but I see no evidence if it outside of a sense of duty to me and our children which I do sincerely appreciate, and who tries every day to repeat like a mantra, “You can do it. You can live without love. Do your duty like he is. Stop caring. Crush your emotion. Stop longing and hoping that day, he’ll turn to you and say, “You are great as you are. I accept you as you are. I’ll stop trying to change you and criticizing you. I truly, sincerely love you.”

    And day after day after day passes. And you can’t stop hoping no matter how many times you recite to yourself, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Just accept it. You will be married another fifty years probably. This is your life. Try to stop loving him and caring so much. It’s been so many years.

    There is no hope unless the Lord works a miracle in both of us.

    Telling me that I’ll just feel better if I join a book club or start gardening really feels patronizing. I know that was NOT what was intended, but I promise you. A hobby isn’t going to fix this.

    • Dear Anon, I hurt for you, and know that you are feeling despair. If you need a shoulder to lean on, or cry on, let me know. We could figure something out.

      Even though you hurt so much, I hope you won’t really try to stop caring and longing. This can be accomplished, and I learned that it doesn’t make anything better. It can even make it worse.

      I also hope that your husband can come to realize that criticism is destructive, and care enough to change. Criticism is one of the four things that marriage researcher John Gottman discovered leads to either divorce, or empty-shell marriages in which the partners co-exist in parallel but separate lives.

      Don’t know if they would help you, but I got a lot out of reading John Gottman’s books. I can’t recommend them highly enough. Especially “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” and “10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage.” They showed me some mistakes I didn’t know I was making, and how to respond to my husband’s criticism and contempt more productively. My husband was willing to read them, and it made a huge impact on him and his attitudes.

  7. Not sure how much longer I can survive in my unhappy marriage. How does one get around the fact that while their spouse claims to love them, his actions show otherwise. My husband has an anger issue. 2-3 times a month he’ll get really upset. Usually something really trivial triggers it, but he’ll go on for two days with verbal vomit. Calling me names, putting me down, swearing, yelling, blaming me for the reason he hates his life. If we’re in a vehicle when he gets upset, he’ll drive recklessly. Telling me that if only I did xyz we’d have a great marriage, great life. Then he’ll be sorry, apologize, treat me well for a little bit…until I finally allow sex. Then it all starts to go downhill again. How do I just ignore this and still have a great life. I am very sad. Unhappy. And we have 5 kids, I worry about what they see and hear from their dad. BUT he does apologize and says that’s not who he wants to be. He had a horrible dad growing up and he’s definitely wrestling with a lot of baggage and questioning God. If I leave him, then he says I’ll be a b**** just like his mom. I want to be the godly example of love and grace that he needs. But not sure I can stay this hurt and unhappy much longer.

    • Ruth, your husband is psychologically abusing you. To ignore this is to allow his destructive behavior to continue. You state he says acting the way he does is not who he wants to be, then he needs to change. Period. He is not taking responsibility for his actions even if he does apologize. There apparently is no reason for him to change what he does. It works for him. But it doesn’t work for you or the kids. It is not healthy, it is destructive to the family.
      In this case, change will need to start with you. I would suggest a couple resources for you:

      You can just keep ignoring his behavior and be stuck in an unhappy marriage or you can take steps to break the cycle of abuse and hopefully have a loving fulfilling marriage if your husband is willing to change.

      Praying for you.
      Amy recently posted…When life drives you to your knees…My Profile

  8. When I married, both of us were very damaged. I have spent 12 years improving my relationship with Christ and those around me. My husband has always said he was, but recently he told me that he cannot be saved. I have spent the last 8 years being told “if onlys”. I have taken them to heart because it made me a better, healthier person (and because Paul Byerly says work on yourself first). He has always said our marriage was bad because of me. He has called me horrible things, refused to have sex with me, accused me of cheating, but as I have changed, he can no longer blame me. It is obviously him. I started praying really hard about a year ago for God to take up this fight. Now he is just indifferent to me. He tells me regularly he wishes I would find someone to make me happy, but he knows I don’t believe in divorce. I believe I have no valid reason to leave. I love him. He is very sick. I didn’t know how sick when we married, and it has gotten worse as a result of his job and personal choices. I don’t want to give up, but I would love to stop hurting. The worst part is I do feel myself being pulled towards sexual sin. My heart hurts for all of y’all who have shared. I will be praying for all y’all.

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