What To Do About A Loveless Marriage
“I’ve fallen out of love with my husband and I want to leave but we have two young children. We’ve been married for nine years. We have a seven-year-old and a four-year-old. I can’t help it, but I just don’t love him anymore”. My client was almost in tears as she was describing to me why she had come in for counseling.
She explained further in detail, “I was physically attracted to him, but I don’t feel any sexual attraction to him at all now. For the past three years, I’ve tried to avoid sexual intimacy whenever I could. At other times whenever I couldn’t, I’ve just tried to pretend it’s okay. It’s terrible having sex with someone you don’t love. And yet, my husband says that no matter what, he still loves me and would never leave me. It would be selfish of me if I don’t stay and try to make this work. But I’ve felt this way for so long. I don’t know what to do. Maybe I would be happier with someone else,” she surmised. I’m 36 and I know how lonely single life can be. But I think I’d rather be single than stay with him in a loveless marriage and be unhappy. I feel trapped and like a villain, if I talk to him about splitting up. So, what’s your advice?” she asked.”
The advice I gave her was spoken from the heart, born of my more than 25 years in the trenches working with hundreds of couples in “loveless” marriages. First, I responded, “I don’t think you should do anything hastily.”
Then, to help her weigh her options, I asked, “What leads you to think another relationship would be any better? How could being on your own make you happier? If your husband is not physically abusive, I’d say that if you and he would be willing to follow a workable plan, there is a good chance that your feelings will change again.”
I was not being presumptuous or insensitive in giving her this advice. After all, as a counselor for over 25 years who has worked with hundreds of couples in loveless marriages, over 86% of couples with whom I’ve had the privilege of working, have come to discover that indeed, love is fragile. Yet however fragile it may be, if it breaks down it is repairable. That’s the way God designed love to be.
I shared with my client about a couple I had recently worked with. They had attended one of my Marriage Intensives about a year or so ago. I had just recently met with them for an annual follow-up session and so their story was fresh on my mind. To protect their privacy, I’ll refer to them as Jim and Janet. They’re in their mid 30’s and have been together since high school. They have three children. In my session with them, I identified two or three different stages their relationship had gone through.
There was a time after their second child when Janet said that she didn’t feel any attraction or love for him, but they rode it out for the sake of the children. She said, “We are at a completely different place now; happy and in love again, spending time together and with the children. “It hasn’t been easy. The marriage-intensive experience was very healing. And vital to our success” she said, “we have our interests and projects as well as doing the challenging work you recommended of rebuilding our marriage. Our relationship is now becoming more affectionate and characterized by affection and respect.”
If Leaving Isn’t the Answer…Then What Is?
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If you’ve stayed with me and read this far, perhaps you find yourself in a loveless marriage. You too may be wondering; “If leaving isn’t the answer, what is?” Certainly, God wants the best for us, which means he wants us to live in obedience to His ways. God doesn’t guarantee our happiness. Jesus is a great example of this. Was he always happy while he was on this earth? Whenever we’re in a tough situation and catch ourselves thinking maybe we should just opt out and get a divorce, it can be helpful to remember how Christ died on the cross and took the punishment I deserved, to forgive me and give me a better life.
God’s plan for marriage does not come with a lifetime refillable prescription for thrills and feel-good. It is not a game plan for producing soul mates whose only objective is personal fulfillment and happiness. An important aspect of God’s design for marriage is transforming His people to be more like Christ. What people often discover is that once they choose to follow His plan and stay through the difficulties of life, personal fulfillment often comes as a by-product of obedience and willingness to fit into God’s plan.
Some confused people of ancient times, eager to take advantage of the fine print in their marriage vows, once asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
Rather than getting bogged down in technicalities, Jesus pointed to the grand purpose and design of marriage. “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:5).
In Malachi 2:16 God tells us what He thinks about dissolving a marriage: “I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel.” Our creator, God, loves us and cares for us. That’s why He hates divorce. He loves us so much that He hates divorce because of what it can do to us. God wants what’s best for you, that’s why He wants you to stay married. He wants you to stay married, but He wants to help you turn an unhappy marriage into a happy one. With Christ, a loveless marriage can be a thing of the past. How?
For years, divorce has been recommended as the best remedy for a loveless marriage. But a recent study suggests the idea that “they got divorced and lived happily ever after” is a mere fairy tale ending. People who divorce are not, on average, happier than spouses who stay in difficult marriages, researchers say in the study, released by the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank based in New York. According to the researchers, most spouses who stick with difficult marriages are much happier five years later.
The study, conducted by a research team based at the University of Chicago, suggests there is a significant difference between those unhappy people who choose to remain in their loveless marriages and those who decide to divorce. The researchers looked at data on more than 5,000 adults. Here’s what they found out about those who were divorced:
- Symptoms of depression did not decrease.
- Self-esteem did not increase.
- Their sense of “mastery” (being in control of their own lives) did not increase.
- Only about half of them were happy five years after the divorce.
Here’s what they found out about those unhappy people who stayed in their marriages.
- Things often improved with time.
- Spouses who stayed together often actively worked on problem-solving, communication, and behavior patterns.
- Individuals worked at improving their life skills. That had a positive effect on their marriages.
- Two-thirds of them were happy five years later.
“Divorce is not a clear and obvious solution for an unhappy marriage,” says syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher, a scholar at the Institute for American Values and co-author of the report, “Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings From a Study of Unhappy Marriages.”
The truth about divorce: It doesn’t bring happiness. In fact, in most cases, divorce creates more problems than it solves. I’ve spoken to lots of people who have been divorced for five, ten, many even fifteen years or longer with wounds that just won’t heal. Like me, they failed to anticipate the pain and turmoil that divorce leaves in its wake. I’ve heard numerous divorced people say that they still struggle deeply with the same old issues in their loveless marriage that they thought they were leaving behind when they got their divorce. They learned too late that you don’t really leave your problems behind but instead end up taking them with you into the next relationship.
I’ve heard many disillusioned divorced individuals express regrets about their belief that their ex-spouse was the problem, only to discover similar problems in their second marriages or even more surprisingly, in their newly single lives. They admit that their unproductive patterns of interacting, and the old habits they developed over the years are re-created in their new relationships, and they are still unhappy.
Yes, divorce is a painful, heartrending experience, but so is living in a miserable, loveless marriage. And I agree life is too short to be miserable. The good news is that even if your relationship is in severe trouble, regardless of how unloving your marriage feels now, and as impossible as it may seem, you can still turn the direction of your marital journey around. Despite the pain, you are feeling and the problems you may be facing today, you can stop the downward spiral of negative actions and reactions that can destroy a marriage. You can open the door not only to regaining the love you once had but also to discovering a more loving, fulfilling marriage than you have ever known before.
I’ve seen miracles happen with couples who didn’t seem to stand a chance. I can say with confidence, that with God’s help the greatest marital heartbreak, even including adultery, can be overcome, and God can turn around the bad and use it for good. God can breathe new life into your loveless marriage.
Over the years, we’ve worked with countless couples on their marriages. Usually, by the time we see them, it’s often their last cry for help before separation or divorce. It’s a sad state of affairs to see a couple who’s come to the end of their rope and feel there’s nothing left to do but call it quits. Without a doubt, there are few things in life more disheartening.
That’s how it was with Jim and Chris. After dating for over a year they married. Chris reminisces about their dating days and the good times, “I especially remember the candlelight dinners that Jim treated me to”. When we were dating we always went to church together,” she says.
But apparent problems began to develop early on in their relationship. Not that it’s that unusual for couples to encounter problems early on in a marriage. Most couples do run into some difficulties in the first year of marriage. Like others, Jim and Chris encountered the typical range of marital problems. Jim was working long hours in the auto business. Chris was in school and had a baby on the way. Soon, along came another child, a mortgage, bills, and careers, and with each came increasing demands on their resources and time. But, other complicating factors ultimately led to the demise of their love and marriage.
“Unfortunately,” says Chris, “just after we got married we got so busy that we eventually quit going to church and our active spiritual lives went downhill”. Subsequently, their relationship took a downward spiral and eventually spun out of control. As the years came and went, many of their problems, conflicts, and issues were left unresolved. Dreams were hampered by harsh realities. Tensions mounted, and stress started taking its toll.
Jim said that he often dreaded coming home after work because of the constant tension and hostility. He felt shut out by Chris. He frequently chose instead to go out socializing and drinking with his co-workers and friends.
Chris recalls how she felt so empty, disappointed, angry, and all alone. She admits, “After living like that for so long, I became very resentful and difficult to live with”. Their marriage became further complicated when Chris, empty and desperate for acceptance, resorted to having two affairs.
Jim says, “Our marriage became characterized by deceit, unfaithfulness, and hostility.” That year Jim was recruited to a new position and they moved to Houston. He recalls that they were leading separate lives and their relationship continued to deteriorate. “We were disconnected and disgruntled,” Jim says, “Basically just coexisting under the same roof with no intimacy, just surviving, living in our worlds.”
Chris says, “I became so resentful toward him that I began subtly undermining his authority with the children”. Her anger turned to resentment, and her resentment turned to bitterness, and eventually her bitterness into years of apathy. Chris says that she eventually became ambiguous in her feelings for Jim. Unresolved issues and painful events of the past had eroded the relationship to a point of despair; they found themselves in a loveless marriage.
After eighteen years of this loveless marriage, and with two children, their marriage was in shambles. In the end, Jim says, “Distrust destroyed our relationship. Despite my adamant beliefs against divorce, I saw no hope for our marriage. There was nothing left but to leave and move on with our separate lives. I knew that our marriage was over.” Disgusted and discouraged Jim willingly moved out.
Chris was devastated, and the night that he moved out she turned to the Lord for His saving grace. She prayed, “Lord, I’ve fouled up my life trying to do it my way, so I’m turning it over to you for your way”. During this time, Chris started attending church regularly and sought help from a counselor.
During their 2½-year separation, Jim started noticing a sincere change in Chris, even though he still wanted to proceed with a divorce. “She was becoming a much kinder, and more compassionate person. Then one day,” he says, “I called and asked her if she would consider a mutual dialogue of reconciliation”. Chris thought it through and told Jim that she would be willing. “But,” she said emphatically, “I truly believe that we can’t do it without God’s help.” Jim agreed.
Just days earlier Chris had heard on the radio about one of Cornerstones’ New Beginning, Marriage Renewal Weekends. She told Jim about it and they attended in March. What happened to them at the weekend changed their lives. “Most importantly,” Chris says, “We were able to talk through things and forgive each other for the years of pain and hurt we had caused one another.”
“Most significant for me,” Jim says “was realizing I needed to see the pain I had caused Chris and the damage I had done to our relationship. Then for us to experience a deep level of healing of the painful ways we had caused each other.”
After the weekend, Jim and Chris diligently worked at applying the principles and using the tools they had learned. A few months later, they moved back in together. I had the privilege of conducting a ceremony for the renewal of their wedding vows. Jim and Chris, like many others we know, experienced a new beginning. Their new marriage is growing in love, caring, and understanding. Sure, like every couple, they will always encounter snags, challenges, and difficulties along the way. But they now have the tools to work through the difficulties. They know that “With God, all things are possible.” God can change a loveless marriage into a bountiful, loving relationship.
If you or someone you love has been in a loveless marriage and seen a restoration, you know an incredible feeling. To see a couple in distress rekindle their love and restore their marriage is thrilling! And to see them, by the grace of God, come out of their crisis together in harmony is amazing!
You may feel beaten down by the disappointments in your loveless marriage. The fabric of your relationship may be deteriorating due to deep, ugly, scars. You may think it’s over. That’s where God and the strength of your vows can carry you through the tough times you’re facing. You can get through this dark period, and rediscover your love again.
I have spent considerable time researching the conventional advice on marriage given in our culture. Some advice I have found helpful. Some I have found questionable, and some downright absurd. However, the more serious research done on marital relationships confirms one important fact. A person’s best hope for experiencing happiness and fulfillment in marriage is to stay with the same partner for a lifetime.
I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who observed, “The only way out is through”. There is no easy way out of the difficulties and tough times you may be facing presently. But there is a way that leads to healing, restoration of love and intimacy, and greater contentment and happiness.
Click here, if you’d like to find out more about how your marriage and be saved from the downward spiral leading toward divorce. Whatever your situation, once you decide to avoid divorce at any cost, you are ready to focus on the goal of repairing your marriage. The principles outlined in this booklet have helped to save hundreds of marriages.
Even if you fight constantly or struggle with lies, jealousy adultery, addictions, abuse or a past affair don’t give up. With God’s help, your marriage will once again have love, trust, hope, and happiness.