It’s an agonizing, daunting place to be—perhaps one of slammed doors. Tense voices. Tears dripping from your jaw when you’re alone. Somehow you’re asking the question that never flitted through your mind when your rings were shiny, eyes dreamy: Is my marriage over?
The relationship around which your universe once spun now feels like a black hole of dread. Fear. Vulnerability.
If you’re asking “Is my marriage over?” it likely means two gritty realities.
First, things have gotten bad. Maybe emails have been uncovered. An addiction has taken a grave turn. The consequences of one spouse’s mental illness threaten a child. A distressing relational pattern shows no signs of ending. Or maybe you’re just miserable and haven’t felt truly happy for months, years. Or your spouse has decided to throw in the marital towel.
Something makes you wonder if the horror of ending this, of getting a divorce, could somehow be better than the horror you’re in.
Second, you’re looking for something that says, There’s still hope here. Some part of you, however small, isn’t sure you want this marriage to die.
What can you do?
“Is my marriage over?” The first step to turning a bad marriage around
The first step to turning a bad marriage around? A determination to stubborn, committed love. Even if you’re the only one.
You may ask, Can a marriage change if only one person wants it?
Try it this way: Have you ever known someone who’s loved a difficult person, and thus created something breathtaking? Not a doormat. Not a shrinking violet. But strong, volitional, unflinching love?
It’s within the husband bringing soup to his bed-ridden, depressed wife. The wife who quietly refuses to let her husband bulldoze her. The husband who shows up for counseling at his wife’s rehab.
In A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships, author Paul Miller writes of what he dubs “stubborn love”:
Once we discover that the other person is deeply flawed, we often pull back, thinking everything is wrong. A bad marriage is one where neither spouse does the hard work of love. But as soon as one spouse begins to do hesed [steadfast, one-way love without an exit strategy], the bad marriage disappears. (I’m not saying this marriage is easy; just that it isn’t somehow intrinsically flawed.) We are left with the good challenge of loving a difficult spouse.
Miller insists death to self and ego is at the center of love. Sometimes that death is as simple as reaching for her hand after arguing. Or it’s choosing “us” over the thing between you. Or it’s forgiveness after the unspeakable. (Ligon Duncan wrote, “People don’t fall out of love. They fall out of repentance and forgiveness.”)
The love stories we gobble up in movies or which leave us amazed in real life all boast a common characteristic: They overcome. They are Velveteen relationships of sorts. Through enduring, they become real.
An ancient, unwavering brand of love
Take an example from the Old Testament book of Hosea. God delivers a mystifying command delivered to the eponymous Hosea: In order to create a picture of God’s relationship with an idol-worshiping Israel, Hosea’s told to marry a hooker (see 1:2—you can’t make this stuff up).
Perhaps no rocket scientist is necessary to predict Hosea’s wife doesn’t cease her dallying when her husband provides a faithful, safe home for her. It’s not clear if their children are his.
But the overarching narrative of the book, rather than a justified divorce, is one of God’s continued, insistent love for His own people (2:14-23). Eventually, the biblical narrative reveals God will go 100% of the way to rescue His Bride, His people. In fact, He will soon go so far as to die for them.
It is entirely possible for one person’s commitment, one person’s returning of kindness for unending insults, one person’s dogged persistence to get the help this relationship desperately needs to alter the state of a marriage. It may be the labor of a lifetime—but it can be a beautiful, unsung way to engage your life.
And somewhere within, it’s the retelling of God’s own dauntless love story.
It’s not a life without boundaries, or a life throwing fate to the wind. Yes, marriage is trust. But it’s not primarily trust in your spouse.
It’s a lifetime of leaning on God like so many others in horrific circumstances: The biblical Abigail. Ruth. Sarah. And yes, Hosea. You have an omnipotent co-signer, a safety net even in exquisitely painful places.
What love isn’t
What this isn’t: “Just hang on. You can love your spouse out of that abuse or addiction or affair.”
Sometimes, a separation with the end goal of genuine reconciliation is how we break slavery to disastrous patterns with statistically grave recidivism. (See “Are you in an Abusive Relationship?”)
What this is: Confusing neither love nor marriage with happiness, met expectations, and fulfillment.
For those of us with kids, getting a divorce from them would generally be unthinkable—even in a miserable season lasting years. It wouldn’t be an option even if they committed a crime. But somehow, we qualify marriage’s brand of love differently—as worthy of less long-suffering, less sacrifice.
What would you do if divorce wasn’t one of your options?
Your marriage is a thousand daily, grinding decisions toward the hard work of love: when asking about your spouse’s day. When you’re disciplining your kids (but disagreeing on how to do it). When picking up your spouse’s jeans … again. When you’re agreeing on a movie, or one of you has a crappy day. When choosing to ignore that flirty social media message from an old flame.
That slowly healing marriage is a thousand decisions that choose to love as God loves. Choosing someone else’s lives in place of our own. Setting aside rights, status, the love and honor we deserve. And wrapping ourselves in the realities of tenacious love instead.
What if “Is my marriage over?” is the wrong question?
So when asking, “Is my marriage over?” start with what you can answer.
- Am I willing to do the hard, daily work of continuing to forgive this person—even the inexcusable? Will I rid myself of cynicism and resentment?
- How can I get more honest about the impact my own weaknesses and faults have on this relationship? How will I be intentional about overcoming those, asking for forgiveness I personally need?
- What does it look like for me to set healthy boundaries, while still remaining responsive to my spouse?
- Am I committed to the (at times overwhelming) long game of creating a healthy marriage, even at the expense of my happiness?
- Am I willing to trust myself and my marriage to a God who creates life even in dead things (John 11:25)?
In one of the most clouded, wind-whipped seasons of your life, a dead end isn’t your only remaining outlet. What if an uphill road meant a different road for the generations after you—and a marriage paved in far more than emotion?
What love story could lie around the corner?
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.