“Sometimes, I’m shocked when he speaks,” my friend confided. “After living with him for five years, I somehow feel like I’m married to a stranger.”

Following a job change, her husband worked from his home office five days a week. His previous work required a fair amount of travel, so initially, they were thankful for the extra time together—long talks over dinner, afternoon walks, lazy weekend mornings. But as the months went on, something shifted in the tone of their home.

Used to only being accountable to his own schedule, she’d wake often to find him not home—off fishing or biking with a friend. A high-level boss in his previous role, he began making household decisions without her input, insisting he was just taking responsibility off her plate.

Annoyance replaced gratitude. Avoidance replaced evening talks. And frustration replaced my friend’s previously exultant feelings of her husband home.

“How did we get here?” she asked.

My heart broke for my friend. But at the same time, I could relate.

Married to a stranger

How well do you know your spouse? I mean, I could rattle off my husband’s height, weight, eye color, even his social security number and high school mascot (pirates, in case you were wondering). I could tell you his favorite cut of steak and his favorite drink. Or maybe his favorite childhood toy was and who his best friend was in high school.

When it comes to the superficial, you probably know your spouse pretty well too. But we often mistake the basics for the deeper stuff.

When Josh and I married, we were 21 and 22. Not at all the people we are now, approaching 40. And as we both grew, I’m sure each of us thought we were married to a stranger at some point. But we’re still the people we always were, just grown and shaped through sometimes powerful life experiences.

My husband has seen me grow through more roles than anyone else: know-it-all 19-year-old, new bride with zero domestic skills, insecure young mother, still-insecure working mom with two kids. And I’ve seen him wear different hats too.

But each role we play, each birthday we check off on the calendar, every life experience—miscarriage, the death of a parent, giddy success or sidelining failure—changes us a little. And like my friend and her husband, some stresses—job loss, illness, an empty nest—make those changes glaringly obvious. It’s no surprise you might wake up thinking you’re married to a stranger.

If you do, rest assured you aren’t alone. Most marriages go through times of re-getting to know each other. Here are a few ways to start bridging that gap.

1. Bring attention to the elephant in the room.

If you’re feeling a profound sense of disconnect, chances are your spouse is feeling it too.

Pick a less busy time of day to bring this up. If you bombard them with it over breakfast, while they’re heading out for work, the moment they walk through the door, or another less opportune time, they’ll likely feel attacked. It might help to simply say, “Hey, there’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about. Is there a good time for us to chat today?”

Gently tell them how you’ve been feeling. Keep any accusations out of the conversation at this point. As best you can, communicate how you are feeling (using “I” statements rather than “You …”). I’m feeling like we aren’t as connected lately. I realize sometimes that affects my sense of security and closeness to you. Can you help me find a solution?

Be prepared: On the flip side of feeling like you’re married to a stranger could be them not feeling known by you. Both can cause strong emotions. Don’t assume your spouse has changed, pulled away emotionally, isn’t attracted to you anymore, wants to head for the hills, etc. And keep in mind your own actions could be contributing to the distance (Do you pay more attention to your phone than your spouse?).

2. Make time to catch up a priority.

A friend of mine has a weekly coffee date with her spouse. On Sunday or Monday, they meet at a local coffee shop or even the backyard patio to converge their schedules.

But it’s more than who’s going to pick up Junior from soccer practice or grab takeout after work. They pencil in time for each other as well—be it a date night, late night talk after the kids are in bed, or even a quick lunch in the middle of the day.

These two make time to prioritize each other. When you know you’re important to your spouse, you’re more likely to open up and share those things changing inside you. And when you pencil your love into your calendar, you create opportunity to continue getting to know them.

If this feels undoable, consider this your wakeup call.

Sadly, our culture often mistakes side-by-side busyness for connection. Yes, you sat together at the school play, dinner with the family, and coffee over breakfast the next day as you skimmed the news updates on your phone.

But maybe it’s time to reevaluate what might be keeping you from deeper conversation, quality time—even sex. Could it be you or your spouse are too busy? What could you possibly cut from your schedule, or even slide to another day to create space for your spouse?

Receive more encouraging content like this delivered to your inbox!

3.  Pray together.

Oddly, this is one of the most awkward and meaningful things you can do with your spouse. Don’t worry, the awkwardness passes. God breaks down barriers when spouses pray for and with each other.

Praying together with your spouse opens you both up to a greater level of intimacy (between both you and your spouse, and between you and God).

There have been many times my husband expressed concerns in prayer I didn’t know he had. How did I miss that? I wondered. As a side benefit to the spiritual unity of prayer, its vulnerability often results in a greater knowledge of our spouse’s dreams, fears, and insecurities. Be mindful to not use anything said during prayer as ammo for your next argument.

But maybe the thought of praying with your spouse feels about as likely as a Southern snowstorm in July. I get it. When my husband and I were going through a particularly rough time and someone suggested we pray together, I laughed. My heart hurt and I wasn’t ready for the feeling of being exposed that praying with someone creates. But Romans 12:12 was a steady reminder to persevere: Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer (Romans 12:12).

If you’re struggling with even wanting to bow your head next to your spouse, pray by yourself for God to chisel away those hard parts of your heart toward them. And ask Him to resolve the issues standing in your way—pride, embarrassment, bitterness, lack of trust, or even fear.

4. Freely offer forgiveness.

Like my friend’s situation with her husband, feeling like you’re married to a stranger is rarely the result of intentional hurt. My friend had to forgive her husband’s seemingly selfish behavior to get to the root of how they were both adjusting to his new role. And through that forgiveness they found reconciliation.

What actions or behaviors are you holding on to? Has your spouse confessed something painful? Are you harboring bitterness because of the ways you feel they might be changing … without you? Forgiveness isn’t easy, and it by no means lessens what you are going through, but it is part of the healing process.

If that hurt is heavy or the change you are witnessing in your spouse isn’t healthy (addictions, anger issues, other self-destructive habits), consider my next point.

5. Consider finding counsel.

There have been moments when I felt at the end of my rope with my marriage. When my friend told me she felt she was married to a stranger, I could see she was there.

But when it was me dangling at the end of that rope, I had two choices: let go of my marriage or let go of my pride. It isn’t easy to reach out, but we all get to a point when we need someone else to lift us up. And to be honest, I don’t know that we would still be married if I hadn’t finally admitted to a trusted friend, “We’re struggling.”

Is there an older couple in your church or elsewhere you admire? Some close friends who you know will be honest and impartial? Or maybe you need to start by meeting with your pastor to talk about how to get past the disconnect in your marriage.

If you find yourself wanting to flee every time your husband or wife walks in the room, it’s time to consider a professional marriage counselor. At this point, I know more couples who have had some form of counseling than haven’t. My own marriage included.

Married to a stranger? Don’t give up

Feeling disconnected to the one you’re supposed to know best can feel lonely, hopeless, and downright scary. Sometimes a long overdue date night can make a world of difference. But other times it takes more than that—a slow but steady process of relearning who each of you are, and learning to reach toward the person they’ve grown to be.

Don’t be discouraged. Don’t give up. Consider it both a personal challenge and a gift to your spouse to know them better. Study them—not as a crash course in your love, but a lifelong learning of who God is creating them to be. (Here are 10 great questions to ask your husband or wife every year!)

Yes, your spouse might have changed. But you aren’t married to a stranger. You’re still married to the one you chose in times of better or worse. What next step will you take today to get to know them again?

Copyright © 2020 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

Lisa Lakey is a writer and editor for FamilyLife. Before joining the ministry in 2017, she was a freelance writer covering parenting and Southern culture. She and her husband, Josh, have been married since 2004. Lisa and Josh live in Benton, Arkansas, with their two children, Ella and Max.