A man or woman comes into your office with a refrain you’ve heard too many times: “Pastor, this marriage isn’t working, and I think it’s best if my spouse and I part ways.” And then come the reasons—excuses—as to why this decision seems best.
How will you address the excuses? What can you say that might make a difference? Here are five excuses that I’ve heard from people before, and a discussion on the validity of each excuse and how you could respond.
1. “Our personalities have changed over time. He’s (she’s) not the same person I married.”
Perhaps we should amend the traditional marriage vows (“for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health”) to include a line that says, “I vow to never change, grow, evolve, or mature. I promise never to expand my understanding, my interests, or my waistline. I vow to stop reading, listening, experiencing, and learning so that I never doubt or rethink my current beliefs, values, and priorities. I will be a pond instead of a river. And this I pledge even though you yourself will change and will feel the freedom and justification to do so.”
I understand people want consistency in the world, including in their life partners, but the expectation that their spouse not experience or express any significant changes over ten, twenty, thirty years is profoundly unrealistic. And the truth is, they will like some of those changes, will be neutral to others, and will dislike some. And the same will be true of their spouse’s response to their own changes.
Share with the individual (or couple) Colossians 3:13 and Ephesians 4:2, where Paul says to “bear with one another.” And let me offer the Presson paraphrase and Tallahassee translation of that: “You need to put up with one another because you’re all a little weird. You all have quirks and say/do annoying things. None of you are without sin, bad habits, and irritating behavior. So I suggest you accept the flaws and funkiness of others as they are forced to accept yours.”
Yes, I’m aware that we’re talking about personality differences and behavioral quirks. I’m not suggesting that in accepting one another and accepting changes that they ignore and enable wrong behavior. I recommend having the couple read Boundaries in Marriage by Drs. Cloud and Townsend for help in recognizing and responding to inappropriate behavior.
2. “Our interests diverged, so we spend less and less time together.”
Couples largely experience closeness on three bridges of connection: conversation, shared activities, and touch. When couples drift apart, they tend to connect less on all three bridges. Regarding shared activities, couples often need to rediscover previously enjoyed activities as well as discover new ones. Season of life, available time, physical energy and health, geographic location, finances, and other factors may require adjusting shared activities. Being newlyweds in Colorado may have meant enjoying a number of weekends together on ski slopes … until the birth of the first child. Later the couple moves to Phoenix, and later to the Florida coast. Each relocation eliminates some activities and offers new ones. Each stage of life usually alters what is possible and what is enjoyable.
The key for every couple is to be curious and creative, willing to explore and try new things, allowing each spouse to have personal/independent interests but also being committed to finding the places of overlap where they both can genuinely enjoy the activity. Here are some interest and activity categories I have couples consider: outdoor recreational; indoor recreational; music, live theater, and movies; spectator sports; travel; intellectual/educational stimulation; spiritual growth; and community involvement, to name a few. Within each of those categories exists an almost infinite number of possible actual activities.
3. “I should have listened to my parents. They were not entirely comfortable with our decision to get married.”
When something gets difficult, it’s a natural reaction for people to second-guess their decisions. “Maybe I should not have married this person, become a parent, moved to this city, taken this job, leased this car, bought this house, painted the room this color, enrolled in this course, gone back to school, gotten this gym membership, eaten both desserts.” Parents or friends may second their second-guessing, especially when their are marriage troubles. “Well, I didn’t wanna say anything negative about Bill while you were so excited about picking out bridesmaid dresses, but …”
It’s amazing how many people will rise up and confess to being prophets about marriage troubles AFTER the couple is struggling. And there is nothing very helpful about retro-critique and concerns. Be sure to communicate that while it may confirm that they are not the only ones who have had doubts about their marriage, what others may have felt or forecasted about the marriage is hardly helpful direction for what to do about it now.
4. “We’re no longer intimate/romantic with one another.”
Physical intimacy is both the thermostat and the thermometer in a marriage. The presence or absence of sexual intimacy both influences the emotional connection in the relationship AND is influenced by the emotional connection in the relationship.
The Apostle Paul advised couples to keep the sexual fire aflame, “Do not deprive one another except by mutual consent for a limited time” (1 Cor. 7:5 BSB, emphasis added).
Let the individual (couple) know there are several unrealistic expectations about sex that couples who’ve been married for a number of years get tripped up by:
- For it to be exciting and enjoyable, marital sex must be spontaneous.
- For marital sex to be exciting and enjoyable, both spouses must have almost identical levels of interest and desire.
- The interest in and frequency of sex should not lessen over the years.
Hollywood has conditioned us to believe that only spontaneous sex is exciting and that married sex is boring. Notice how few love scenes in a TV show or movie involve two people who are married to each other. Next notice how it’s like spontaneous combustion that becomes a wildfire out of control. Unable to contain the passion, their clothes cannot come off fast enough despite being anywhere but a bedroom (lawyer’s office, hospital supply closet, hotel elevator, JCPenney dressing room, etc.).
I teach couples about “planned spontaneity” and tell them that if most married couples waited until they were both independently and simultaneously desiring sex, it would rarely happen. Plus, when such couples try to detect subtle signs of interest, they will seldom see any interest at all. Instead they’ll see their spouse’s busyness, preoccupation with other tasks, fatigue, etc. In short, as one husband said, “I can’t tell that sex is even on her radar so I’m hesitant to hint or flirt, because I guess I fear confirming that she’s not interested and that will feel like rejection and then I’ll feel stupid, and that will make me even less likely to try again the next time.”
The irony for many couples like this is that BOTH report not being satisfied with the frequency of sex in their marriage, and yet both continue to rely upon attempts at mind-reading or upon sending/receiving subtle indications of interest because of the fear of rejection.
“Planned spontaneity” means preparing for and protecting the time for intimacy, which also creates anticipation. The resistance I hear is usually about “not wanting to schedule sex.” I understand that. My comeback to that is that we don’t seem to have a problem with planning ahead and setting aside time for everything else in our lives that is important to us. Why do we insist that marital intimacy is the one thing that must sneak up on us and surprise us like a sneeze or winning the lottery?
For example, let’s say that Rick and Stacy agree in a counseling session that they would like to be intimate twice a week; it still raises the question of when twice a week is actually going to happen. After further discussion, the two like the idea of having midweek lovemaking to look forward to, as well as one weekend evening. Getting more specific, they determine that Wednesday and Saturday nights will work well for them. Okay, that’s the “planned” part. The “spontaneity” means Rick and Stacy can do anything they want to during their special time together. And “planned” certainly allows for flexibility (Tuesday this week instead of Wednesday because of an evening work event, or Friday night next week instead of Saturday because of a wedding out of town). This flexibility requires good communication, and this good communication eliminates mind-reading, misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and frustration. This necessary talking is great practice, because good communication is ultimately the key to great marital sex—sex that is physically and emotionally satisfying for both spouses.
5. “Surely God wants us to be happy—and we’re not!”
I’ve heard the phrase “God is interested in your holiness, not your happiness,” and while I understand and agree with it to a degree, it seems to present a portrait of God who is saying, “I don’t care how miserable you are; I just want you to behave and not embarrass Me.”
How many parents have heard a child after a rough day at school or during a weekend of studying say, “I hate school.” You understand the frustration (remembering your own), but you don’t say to your child, “Well, it’s crucial that you love every minute of your education, so if you’re unhappy with any of your current teachers, just let me know and I’ll talk to the principal and get you different teachers. If you don’t like the school, we’ll move so you can go to a different school. If it’s school in general that you dislike, then we’ll homeschool you. If the idea of homeschool seems like being tortured in a dungeon by your mother, then we’ll let you just stay home and play video games and surf the net. Whatever we have to do to keep you from having any negative experiences and feelings about school is our first priority. That’s more important to us than your getting an education.”
If marriage is one of God’s great gifts to us, then I believe He intends for us to enjoy and be blessed by it, just as He desires that we enjoy and are blessed by our relationship with Him. But if a couple makes “happiness” the goal and the measure of their marriage, then they’re setting themselves up for frustration and failure in any marriage, not just the current one they are “unhappy” in.
I’m not a big fan of happiness-seeking, because happiness is so fickle. How happy I am as a husband or father today can fluctuate day to day, just as my happiness quotient as a counselor, business owner, and writer can.
Note that I’m not saying to tell the individual (or couple) to ignore the feelings of unhappiness. Encourage them to treat those feelings like a warning light on a dashboard that is alerting them that the car needs some kind of attention and service (an honest conversation with the spouse, or perhaps couples counseling). Ask, “When your engine light comes on, what are your thoughts?” Their thoughts will automatically go to assessment and repair. They don’t react to a warning light by putting the car up for sale.