WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT AN UNHAPPY MARRIAGE?
QUESTION: “What does the Bible say about an unhappy marriage?”
One thing we know for sure: being in an unhappy marriage is not biblical grounds for divorce. In Mark 10:11–12 Jesus said, “A man who divorces his wife so he can marry someone else commits adultery against her. And a woman who divorces her husband so she can marry someone else commits adultery.” Based on the Bible, we see that people don’t have the right to dissolve an unhappy marriage. God intended that marriage be for a lifetime.
Ephesians 5 presents marriage as a picture of the relationship God has with us. This is one reason why God has such an interest in keeping marriages intact. Failed marriages and broken homes are devastating to the husband and wife, not to mention the children involved. Financial ruin is only one of the unhappy results of divorce. The family unit is the basic building block of any society, and rampant divorce has a tragic impact on all of the culture.
This is not to say that God wants to force us to remain forever in an unhappy marriage. He doesn’t ask us to just grit our teeth and suffer through it. When God approaches marital problems, He does so from the perspective of how to fix them, not how to dissolve the marriage. For example, Paul writes of demonic impact in marriages (1 Corinthians 7:5). He states that the couple should be active in the sexual relationship so that Satan cannot tempt them. Peter encourages husbands to treat their wives with understanding so that their prayers will not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). From these passages we can see that marriage is a spiritual battlefield. It takes work to fight for the relationship, not to fight in the relationship.
God encourages us toward reconciliation. Matthew 18:15–16 demands open, honest communication that deals with hurts and frustrations caused by sin. It even encourages us to get help to resolve problems. God also calls us to find our joy or happiness in Him (Philippians 4:4). The joy of the Lord is something you can have regardless of conditions. In all of God’s guidelines for experiencing joy, none of them require a spouse to cooperate. A spouse does not control our capacity to have joy or peace. James 1:3–4 tells us that deep, abiding joy comes as we persevere through trials, with God’s help, and as our faith matures and strengthens.
The book of Philippians is a great study in the difference between joy and happiness. Written by the apostle Paul while imprisoned in Rome, this book uses the words joy, rejoice, and joyful 16 times and teaches us how to have true contentment in Jesus Christ, despite our circumstances. In chains, Paul talks about his faith and trust in Christ and how it had changed his whole perspective on suffering.
God has given husbands clear-cut instructions in Ephesians 5:25–28:
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it. . . . So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself.”
To wives, God’s instruction is to submit to their husbands’ leadership (verse 22) and to respect their husbands (verse 33). In a Christ-like spirit, both are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). If both spouses are living up to their biblical responsibilities, there will be joy and happiness in the marriage.
WHAT WOMAN WOULDN’T RESPECT AND SUBMIT TO A MAN WHO LOVES HER THE WAY CHRIST LOVES HIS CHURCH?
AND WHAT MAN WOULDN’T LOVE A WOMAN WHO RESPECTS AND SUBMITS TO HIM?
The unhappiness that is present in too many marriages is often a result of one or both parties refusing to submit to God and obey His revealed will for marriage. Sometimes the unhappiness is exacerbated by unresolved issues of one party that have leaked into the marriage. In those cases, individual counselings may be helpful in addition to marriage counselings.
Even if an unhappy marriage results from a believer being married to an unbeliever, there is always the possibility the believing spouse can lead the unbelieving spouse to the Lord by his or her chaste conduct and kind demeanour.
“Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1).
The Bible specifically addresses those who are married to unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7:12–14:
“… If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.”
In the end, we must remember that “the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil” (1 Peter 3:12). God knows the pain of an unhappy marriage, and He understands fleshly desires, but He has given His Word to us on this matter and He does ask for obedience. Obedience to God always brings joy (Romans 16:19).
HOW SHOULD A CHRISTIAN RESPOND TO BEING IN A LOVELESS MARRIAGE?
QUESTION: “HOW SHOULD A CHRISTIAN RESPOND TO BEING IN A LOVELESS MARRIAGE?”
ANSWER: The term loveless marriage can describe several situations, ranging from a loss of initial feelings of love to the experience of violent abuse. (In the case of spousal abuse, the abused spouse should seek help through legal and emotionally supportive avenues. Physically removing oneself from the situation is often necessary while ongoing therapy takes place. An abused spouse should never resume living in the same house with a former abuser who has not proved his or her trustworthiness.) For the purposes of this article, we will define loveless marriage as one in which no physical abuse takes place but in which one or both spouses have lost all affection for each other and live as silent roommates.
God’s design for marriage was revealed in the Garden of Eden when God created a woman for Adam and brought her to him as a helper (Genesis 2:21–24). The word translated “helper” comes from a Hebrew word that is also used in describing the help God gives (Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:26; Psalm 33:20). So a wife’s God-given role is to assist her husband in the tasks God has given him and provide support, wisdom, encouragement, and sometimes deliverance just as God gives us. The husband’s role is clearly laid out in Ephesians 5:25–33. Loving his wife is not a suggestion for a husband; it is a command. Any husband who is not working to display selfless, Christ-like love toward his wife is in direct disobedience to God’s Word. If a husband fails to do this, his prayers will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
Sometimes a loveless marriage is the result of being unequally yoked together with an unbeliever (see 2 Corinthians 6:14). The unbelieving spouse couldn’t care less about obedience to God’s Word. In those cases, the apostle Paul gives instruction: if the unbelieving spouse consents to remain in the marriage and is not abusive, the Christian should stay and demonstrate the love of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:12–16). The first fruit of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22–23 is love. When we have no human love to offer, we can call upon the Lord and ask that the Holy Spirit love the spouse through us. It is doubtful that Jesus felt warm, emotional affection for the men who were nailing Him to a cross. Yet He asked the Father to forgive them, and He died for them anyway (Luke 23:33–34; Romans 5:8). Jesus’ demonstration of love can be an inspiration for us all, even in regards to our marriages.
If counselings is available, loveless marriages can benefit from the wise, objective viewpoint of a biblical counsellor (Proverbs 11:14; 15:22). Sometimes a marriage grows stale through neglect and ongoing, inconsiderate behaviours of which a couple may be unaware. An outside perspective can quickly spot problem areas and call attention to them. If the couple is willing to work, a loveless marriage can quickly return to loving. Even if one spouse refuses to cooperate with counselings, the willing spouse can benefit from going alone. An objective viewpoint can sometimes help one spouse see things differently and therefore respond in better ways to the unloving spouse.
Like a rock thrown into a pond, changes thrown into dysfunctional cycles create new patterns of response. Here is an example of the way one spouse can change the course of a loveless marriage: if Sue no longer screams at John when he is rude, he must react to her gentle response in a different way than he has previously done. Instead of escalating the anger, he scales back his boorish behaviour to match her more mature attitude. Her quiet smile and refusal to engage showcase his own selfishness, and he often responds with less hostility. The fight cycle is interrupted, and a new cycle begins with less stress and more kindness (Proverbs 15:1). Over time, that new, healthier cycle can evolve into affection, and the couple learns to enjoy each other once more.
THERE ARE SEVERAL THINGS A CHRISTIAN CAN DO TO REINVEST IN A LOVELESS MARRIAGE:
1. Set healthy boundaries. Learn when to walk away, disengage, or reject hurtful words or patterns. Refusing to engage in fights that lead nowhere is one way a boundary can strengthen a marriage.
Pray for each other. The best way to forgive and love someone who has hurt us is to lift him or her up before God (Ephesians 4:32). God is for the marriage, so we know we are praying in accordance with His will when we pray for restoration of love and hope (1 John 5:14–15).
Watch your words. We tend to believe what we speak. If we find ourselves regularly bashing our spouse or complaining about the marriage, we will start believing it. Wisdom dictates that we practice controlling our tongues and speaking only that which is “true, and Honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable” (Philippians 4:8).
4. Pay attention to the little things. When a couple first falls in love, they notice every little thing and are eager to please each other. However, if we are not intentional about continuing those practices, we fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Restoring love to a loveless marriage is done one little thing at a time. Discover the spouse’s love language and work to meet that need eery day.
A Christian should respond to a loveless marriage by refusing to participate in the behaviours causing the problem. Even if one spouse shows no interest in reestablishing an emotional connection, a Christian should do what is right. We are not called to retaliate or return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). We are called out from the world to be light-bearers (Matthew 5:14), the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), and a chosen priesthood (1 Peter 2:9–10). Our mission is not to please ourselves but to please our heavenly Father (1 Corinthians 10:32). He is pleased when we endure difficulties with patience and do whatever is within our power to revive a loveless marriage.
Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
More insights from your Bible study – Get Started with Logos Bible Software for Free!
FURTHER RESOURCES FOR STUDY: