It all started with a simple “How’re you doing?” after church.
While the words he used were fine, something in his eyes betrayed the mask he was wearing. A call later that evening confirmed my suspicions. His marriage was in trouble. Not the kind of trouble that would cause any spectacular public failure, but the kind that slowly suffocates a couple in loneliness and despair.
From the outside, they looked like a model couple. They had good jobs, a nice house, and beautiful kids; they were even active in the church. But he didn’t feel connected with his wife. He wanted more, but she didn’t think anything was wrong. Can you relate?
It’s one thing when your home is filled with constant fighting or you’re dealing with the consequences of a major betrayal. It’s obvious you need help. But what do you do when things look okay by comparison?
How do you work on your marriage when your spouse won’t?
10 ways to work on your marriage
Maybe you’ve tried nagging or passive-aggressive comments. No matter what you try, something always seems to be more important than you—a job, parent, child, or hobby. You find yourself lamenting, If only I would get half the attention that ______ gets.
While change may seem impossible, your marriage can do more than just survive. It can thrive. Here are 10 things you can do to work on your marriage, even if your spouse won’t.
1. Understand your marriage calling.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that marriage is supposed to be a 50/50 endeavor. You do your part, and I’ll do mine. But that’s hardly the view of marriage we get from Scriptures, such as “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church”(Ephesians 5:25). Or “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22). These are not 50/50 statements; they are more like 100/100. Both husband and wife giving 100% of themselves, regardless of how much the other person gives.
Traditional marriage vows contain phrases like in sickness, for worse, for poorer, and till death do us part for this reason. The moment we start grading the effort of our spouse, we’ve missed the heart of marriage. Marriage is supposed to be a picture of the gospel, where even “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). To be married is to commit to a self-sacrificial kind of love. Ideally, both spouses will offer this type of love for the other, but even if your spouse falls short, your calling remains.
2. Get support for yourself.
It’s always important to have a support network outside of your marriage, but when your spouse doesn’t love you well, such support can be a lifeline. “Woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10).
If you want to work on your marriage but your spouse won’t, spend time with life-giving, same-sex friendships. Let their wisdom and support carry you through the lonely seasons. If you’re having trouble finding people, talk to your pastor. Most churches have men’s and women’s groups specifically designed to help people connect with and support each other in life. If your church doesn’t have one, find one that does. There’s nothing wrong with going to one church on Sunday morning and a different church’s small group on Wednesday night. The more support you can get, the easier it will be to manage.
3. Understand that seasons change.
A season is just that, a season. Even though it might feel as though things will never change, most likely, they will. Jobs change, homes get sold, kids move out, injuries heal, and health comes and goes. But through it all, your love can remain constant.
I’ll never forget one particularly dark season in our marriage. It was like a perpetual winter. Everything looked grim, and I couldn’t see a solution. Then one day, my work situation changed … and just like that, spring arrived.
“Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5, NIV).
4. Work on you.
Sometimes it’s easy to see your spouse’s faults. But seldom does our spouse deserve 100% of the blame. Even if you are 99% right, you still have 1% you can work on. And 1% adds up over time. Ask God to show you what He would have you learn during this season. Is it patience, humility, peace, or longsuffering? Remember, God has something to teach you, too. Don’t miss the opportunity to grow because you are too distracted looking at what your spouse needs to learn.
“You hypocrite, 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).
5. Watch your expectations.
Disappointments stem from unmet expectations. The problem is, our expectations often change over time and can sometimes be wildly unfair. Are you comparing your spouse to others? Are friends telling you your spouse should be something more? Love your spouse for who they are, not who you wish them to be. This doesn’t mean you stop helping them grow, but it does mean you need to release yourself from the responsibility of making that growth happen. Only God can change your spouse. You are not God. Trying to take God’s place in your spouse’s life will only lead to exhaustion and disappointment.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:5-7).
6. Grow your faith.
It’s easy to use our spouses’ behavior as an excuse to limit our spiritual growth, but our spiritual growth is our responsibility. Pray, study the Bible, and go to church—even if you must do it alone. Your spouse may never work on your marriage or engage with you the way you’d like, but that doesn’t mean you have to let your relationship with God stagnate. Do whatever you need to do to continue to grow in your faith. The more you allow yourself to conform to the image of Christ, the easier it will be to experience joy in the midst of your struggles.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
7. Guard your heart.
Prolonged periods of marital dissatisfaction can leave you vulnerable to extramarital activity. It doesn’t matter if you are the most loyal person in the world and the only contact you have is with a troll-faced mail carrier 20 years your senior. If that troll cares for you in a way your spouse doesn’t, beware. Even if you never cross the line physically, emotional affairs can be just as damaging. Guard your heart against engaging in fantasies with people, real or imagined. It is better to appear slightly rude than to risk your marriage.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11).
8. Find your joy in Christ.
Contrary to what movies teach us, your spouse will never complete you. Only God can. God loves you and has prepared wonderful things for you to accomplish in this life. Let your meaning and purpose in life flow from Him. When you learn to rest in your identity as a child of God, every other good thing in life becomes a bonus.
“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
9. Thank and invite.
It’s easy to get so focused on the negative that we fail to notice the small ways our spouses choose to show love. Make an effort to thank your spouse for the things they do that you might normally overlook. Your goal is not to treat them like a puppy or manipulate them into behaving a certain way, but to learn to genuinely appreciate their efforts. When you do, the downward spiral turns around, and it becomes easier to notice the good. And when it comes time to make a request, do it in the form of an invitation. “Would you like to go out with me on Friday night?” will be received better than, “We never spend time together.”
So never stop making invitations. Invite your spouse on a date, to share a cup of coffee in the kitchen, or to go on a weekend getaway, like FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember. When you consistently thank and invite, spending time together becomes more attractive.
10. Continue to work on your marriage and don’t give up.
My parents struggled for most of their marriage. There were times when even I wasn’t sure if the struggle was worth it. Some problems can take decades to work out, and when you’re in the middle of it, it can feel hopeless. But they never gave up, and ever so slowly, their relationship improved. Today, they can’t imagine life without each other. My mother and I often reflect on the difficult years and how close they came to ending it.
Sometimes, the hardest part of marriage isn’t so much the marriage, but trusting that God has something great in store for you on the other end of your struggle.
“But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-9).
Copyright © 2023 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Carlos Santiago is a senior writer for FamilyLife and has written and contributed to numerous articles, e-books, and devotionals. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Carlos and his wife, Tanya, live in Orlando, Florida. You can learn more on their site, YourEverAfter.org.