Editor’s note: The following article is for anyone in an unhappy marriage, but it is not meant for someone in an abusive relationship. If this is you, please read, “Are You in an Abusive Relationship?”
If you’re in an unhappy marriage, you’ve likely thought about getting out. Or you’ve panicked over the thought that you can’t. We humans do not like to be unhappy—particularly when we don’t foresee a change in our circumstances.
As a newlywed, I was surprised (and a little ashamed) at how quickly I thought, Oh no, did I make a mistake? when I felt disappointed in my new husband and our marriage. It wasn’t really that those moments were bad. It was the way they colored the future I imagined us having together. My mind played an ominous game of “what if?” and my heart followed suit. What if we’re doomed to have an unhappy marriage?
Maybe you feel stuck. Or maybe those “what ifs” have become all-consuming, and you’re sick with dread that the unhappiness you feel now will stretch on indefinitely.
Living with unhappiness, loneliness, being misunderstood, disrespected, or feeling invisible is a kind of suffering. It is completely natural to want to make that suffering stop. But like any other suffering, we should not only assess if and how it can be alleviated, but also how we approach it.
What is our posture toward marital suffering? How should we think about it? There are at least two main approaches to any kind of suffering: one offered by our modern culture and one by the Bible.
Culture’s view of suffering
Our culture says, “You shouldn’t have to suffer, so don’t (if you can help it).” But reality is this: every person suffers.
Marketers are very much aware of this reality, and they want to sell you a solution. Sometimes these solutions alleviate actual suffering, but more often they sell distraction. A way to tune out and go numb. A book, $20. A date, $60. A car, $30,000. But distraction from the nagging feeling of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness? Priceless.
Suffering taints every aspect of human life, because sin taints every aspect of human life. Relationships, our bodies, and the earth are all good. But all are going to be marred to some extent until Jesus makes all things new (see Revelation 21:5). Contrary to what our senses tell us when pain arises, joy isn’t found in the silencing or squelching of suffering.
In This Too Shall Last, K.J. Ramsey puts into words our conflicting feelings about suffering:
“We are haunted by our original goodness. We want to escape the terrible cloud of suffering because it feels antithetical to being human. We want to escape suffering because we were not made for pain. We were made for love. . . suffering is not a detour or a delay but the place where Love finds us.”
Suffering in relationships can be frustrating because we were created for intimacy with God, intimacy with others, harmony with our physical bodies and world. Indeed, we were made for love, not pain. Maybe your heart breaks as you look at an unhappy marriage bringing your heart so much grief. You think, I got married for love, not pain.
What to do, dear friend? The culture says keep running—see if you can get enough space between yourself and any suffering or discomfort.
Even if that were possible, is that the best path to love, joy, and flourishing?
God’s view of suffering
While the culture sees suffering in an unhappy marriage as a failure or a barrier to happiness, love, and joy, God sees our suffering more compassionately. Come to me, our gentle Jesus said. Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest (see Matthew 11:28).
What are your deepest longings? To be deeply known and loved? To feel safe or wanted? What are your deepest fears? To be rejected? To not be enough or to be too much? Or to fail?
Could it be the pain you feel in your marriage is, at least partially, because you’ve placed the deepest longings and fears of your eternal soul squarely upon the shoulders of your spouse? Or perhaps, your own soul is so parched for God’s love and comfort that you couldn’t receive love from your spouse if you tried.
What if this pain, this longing, these overwhelming fears are NOT an invitation to leave your spouse in search of greener pastures, but instead, an invitation to have your deepest core longings and fears met with compassion, love, and power.
Jesus meets us in our suffering
Jesus, a man of sorrows, is well acquainted with pain, disappointment, and grief. He experienced the ways sin and suffering mark our relationships and bodies. He knows what it’s like to fervently pray for a painful process/outcome to be taken away (see Matthew 26:36-42). And He knows what it’s like to be in an unhappy marriage. One with neglect, flirting, adultery, disrespect, apathy, waywardness—the list goes on.
How does Jesus respond to this difficult marriage? To His broken wife (the church)? He attends to her wellbeing. He remains united to her as one entity. And He even gives His life for her (see Ephesians 5:25-33). There is no greater love than that (John 15:13).
You may be thinking, Yes, but He’s Jesus, and I’m … not. True. But Jesus being entirely human meant loving us to death brought real suffering for Him. And God the Father chose to sacrifice His one and only Son—whom He loved—to get us for Himself (God is a grieving parent).
If you grew up in a church, these things can become less shocking, but these are not easy choices! These are choices of suffering, of pain, of incredible sacrifice—these are choices of Love.
(Un)Happily ever after?
Jesus’s faithfulness in the face of His bride’s sins and shortcomings is ultimately what makes the union a joyous one. It was for joy that Jesus endured the suffering of not only the cross, but also hostility from the very ones He came to love (Hebrews 12:2). Because His love endures forever (Psalm 136), because nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8:38), because His kindness leads to repentance (Romans 2:4) … Jesus and His bride will indeed live happily ever after.
And because Jesus loves us with a “never stopping, never giving up, always and forever love,” (to quote Sally-Lloyd Jones in The Story of God’s Love For You) even in the face of our unfaithfulness, He’s made a path to joy in every circumstance.
The pain of an unhappy marriage does not need to be minimized. The hurt, longing, and disappointment are real. But like all suffering, the hurt is an invitation to have your deepest longings and fears met with compassion, love, and power.
Your spouse cannot bear the weight of the longings and fears of your eternal soul. Instead, bring all your pain to Him. Receive His compassionate understanding, His transformative kindness, His healing love. Pour out your heart to Him and allow Him to gently lead you to peaceful streams, to renew your strength, and to guide you along the right paths (see Psalm 23).
As you walk with Him in His green pastures, you may find your view of your spouse transforms from “enemy of joy” to a “co-journer toward joy.”
Your path together still may not be easy. But if you’re wondering if the only path to joy is escaping an unhappy marriage, first take some time to bring all unhappiness before the Spouse who laid down their life for you and the Father who was bereaved for you. Love is waiting for you both there.
Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Laura Way serves with FamilyLife as a writer and lives in Orlando, Florida with her high-school-teaching husband, Aubrey, and their two vibrant young daughters. She and Aubrey lived in East Asia for seven years until relocating last year. She enjoys writing about becoming more fully human while sojourning through different places, seasons of life, and terrains of mental and spiritual health at hopeforthesojourn.com.