I have been overwhelmed with email since posting the previous blog about the gift of divorce for those in abusive situations. Obviously there are a lot of people out there in very broken relationships, who fear even for their lives in dealing with an abusive spouse. My heart goes out to them and I pray God will give them the courage, wisdom, and help to find their freedom. Life is too short to live as the captive to someone else’s pain. I was also blessed to hear from so many for whom my blog relieved them from shame they had long been carrying for having gone through a divorce.
But I also received a number of emails like the one below, from those who seem stuck in an unfulfilling relationship with a partner who is unwilling to address their desire for something more:
My husband is very disconnected emotionally–and we’ve been married 20 years. I’ve been struggling with what to do–things are just so bad between us and not because he’s abusive in any way. As long as there is no conflict, everything is good in his mind. He doesn’t like conflict at all so real conversations don’t happen very often. I finally told him that the only way I knew to deal with our marriage was to lose any expectations I had regarding him or our marriage and since I really don’t know how to do that, it would most likely translate into more distance. I’ve reached a point where I just don’t care anymore. It’s difficult to have a happy marriage by yourself.
Her last sentence says it all. It is not only difficult it is impossible. The question is what can we do about it? In this case they had been to counseling and her husband just didn’t care about deepening the relationship, or even that his wife had a desire to do so. What a tragedy! It does take two people and a bit of energy to see a marriage deepen and grow over the years for a lifetime of affection and romance. But I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want that, if not for themselves then at least for the man or woman they vowed to love. A life of growing affection, seasoned over time, is one of the greatest gifts of living in this age.
Sara and I are once again feasting on the fruits of another shift in our marriage, where God’s revelation in an area of her life challenged me to change in a way that could support and celebrate what was happening in her. There have been numerous moments in our marriage where we had to risk the status quo of our marriage or embrace the process that would deepen our relationship. Staying with the status quo seems so easy, even if it is unfulfilling. And risking change is, well, a risk with no guarantees and always challenges the bondages of our selfishness that aren’t fun to face. But the fruit of doing so, especially when both do it together, is so amazing.
I can’t imagine any husband or wife refusing the adventure to an ever-deepening relationship of love, but I know everyone isn’t always in the same frame of mind at the same moment. It saddens me deeply to hear that one partner wants to go on this journey and the other is reluctant or even hostile to the idea. I have some thoughts that might help, but none of this is directed at the woman who wrote the above email. I don’t know her, her husband, their situation, the dynamics of their marriage, or anything else that would allow me direct my counsel to her. But I will comment in general, in hopes that others will see marriage not just as an obligation to get through life together, but the greatest opportunity to know community with another human being, and enjoy a lifetime adventure of loving and being loved as God continues to bring both people closer to himself. Obviously the Spirit will have to lead you, but this may help:
Sara and I now know that two very selfish people got married 37 years ago. We thought we were “in love”, and for people young and innocent, we were. But we “loved” each other for what we got out of the other and negotiating for what we wanted in the marriage always had to do with who had the influence to get their way. Making a marriage thrive, however, is not about power or getting one’s way, but about cherishing the other and serving her. But what if I’m the only one cherishing and serving? Won’t I just be taken advantage of? And the answer is, you will. Is that acceptable? It depends. If loving and serving someone opens a door to their heart, it can be awesome. But if it leads you to feel exploited without any hope of healing on his side, then it can be incredibly hurtful.
But this is not something we can negotiate. If I’m going to love and serve you only if you love and serve me, then we’re back to negotiating power by finding a mutual accommodation of self-need. While that accommodation is certainly far better than two selfish people repeatedly arguing and scheming to get their own way, it will not nurture a deeper love and affection. Somehow our service has to come from an inner transformation that finds our own selfishness unfulfilling and asks God teach us how to love our spouse the way he loves us.
Yes, this is impossible to do in human terms, especially with a non-responsive spouse. Unless we can become a conduit for the Father’s love toward our spouse, we will never know the deeper relationship we are hoping for. We have to see through their eyes and ask why are they seemingly disinterested in a deepening relationship. Does he have no hope it will happen? Does he feel overwhelmed by your expectations? Is he just worn out from the endless conversations about their relationship? Is he just so broken inside he doesn’t know how to engage that process? I know most partners take it personally when their spouse doesn’t want to engage a deeper relationship, but usually there’s an underlying reason and that usually isn’t because they don’t care about them or the relationship. So what is it? Only an honest conversation in a no-pressure environment can help unlock that answer.
And I don’t want abused partners to read that and think they must continue in an abusive relationship. Abused spouses almost always stay in a destructive relationship too long. They either blame themselves, hope for change when none is coming, or feel so trapped that they keep explaining away what their heart is already telling them to do. Love will want the best for your abusive partner, and that does not include giving them the opportunity to continue on a path of destruction. Love in the face of abuse will demand that it stop and that your spouse get help for their own good as well as your own.
That’s why abuse or exploitation in marriage is so insidious. If the joy of marriage can only be discovered when both lay down their lives for the good of the other, it is ruined when one is willing to take advantage of the other for their own desires. It kills love before it ever gets to take hold. Love expressed in mutual care and service never grows stale over time, but continues to uncover ever-deeper realities and romance that has proved to be the greatest adventure of my life in this age. And also, it is the greatest impetus for Sara and me to keep changing and growing.
Learning what it means to love Sara has not always been a smooth road, but the fruit of doing so as always been well worth any cost of mine. I’m convinced that marriage is the laboratory where God intends our flesh to die and where we truly learn to love another human being and become part of their journey. There is no great joy than that discovery, and yet our flesh screams against every opportunity to learn to do so. Yes, a marriage can just persevere for decades by finding a mutual accommodation of what we each want, but it will leave both people starving for love and leaves little room for romance.
Our default setting as humans seems to be to prefer the status quo that we know (unless it is too painful to endure) to the risk inherent in growth and change. So when a spouse is approached about deepening the marriage, the response is usually negative. They can feel judged as a failure, intimidated by the request, or overwhelmed with so many other things in their life, that they don’t feel they have the energy to do whatever needs to be done to improve the relationship. So don’t take it personally. It may not be meant that way. There may be other internal reasons that make them resistant.
That’s why simply asking them to be more connected probably won’t work, especially if your frustration bleeds through and it makes the other one feel like a failure, or if your hopes are communicated as a fantasy he has no hope in. That’s why love is always an invitation, never a demand. Remember when you were first attracted to that man or woman you ended up marrying? You couldn’t demand they love you back, you could only woo them and hope that a similar passion was kindled in their heart.
Do you remember how intoxicating it was to be in their presence, and how much it delighted you when something you did brought them joy? Unfortunately that often gets swallowed up in the daily responsibilities of life and the distractions of this world. Our relationships get complicated with expectations, resentments, and hurts. To re-ignite the passion it often takes some breathing space to sort through some of that and to recapture the affection that delights in the joy of the other.
That usually isn’t done through confrontations, but by a bit of humor, tenderness, romance without manipulation, and even some playful flirting. At some point, hopefully a conversation can emerge in an environment that allows hopes and dreams to be discussed with honesty and compassion so our spouse isn’t put on the defensive, or with the feeling that they have to come up with a plan to make it happen. That can be intimidating itself. And if communication has been really squelched in a marriage, that may take a third party to help you communicate in a way that leads to greater love and understanding. A good counselor can be incredibly helpful here, but so can an older married couple who have been through it themselves.
Who knows that maybe sitting down and reading this blog together may open a door of conversation between you? Just don’t bring a lot of agenda with it, but share some simple hungers and hopes and see if your partner can’t find a way to embrace the adventure with you. And for the reluctant partner, try to remember what it was like the day you decided to marry your spouse. What hopes had you for them? Why wouldn’t you want to be part of fulfilling the deepest hopes and dreams of that young life? You may not know how to do it, or get past some of your own disappointments, but if you could truly find a way to relax into a different reality, wouldn’t you want that for him or her, and even for yourself?
It isn’t an exact science, but hopefully you can find a way back into your spouse’s heart and you in his. It is a process and it may take some time, but any relationship can find a way to share God’s love together. Just remember the encouragement of Scripture for life-long loving was written in a time when most marriages were arranged, not chosen. How much more can these things be true with the woman or man who captured our hearts at a young age, and with whom we made so many promises on the day we got married?
Ask God to walk you through this. It will be more his wisdom than yours and his leading to the more propitious moments for the kind of conversation that may help you turn a corner. And regardless how your spouse may or may not respond in the short-term, God will still have a way forward for you to be fulfilled in him and to know best how to love your spouse right where they are. That’s a great attribute of love. It doesn’t demand anything of the other. Love starts where he is, not where you might want him to be. It realizes that pressuring someone to do what it wants, is a betrayal of itself and thus can only give of itself and not seek to manipulate the other.
I overheard a song earlier this summer and the ending refrain caught my heart. The song is Midnight Train to Georgia, and heard this refrain:
“I’d rather live in her world, than live without her in mine.”
Those words captured my heart as soon as I heard them. They express so well the work God has been inviting me into this summer and maybe that’s the heart of life-long loving. Rather than scheme to get my way with Sara or drag her into my world, I simply enjoy being with her in hers. Sara has done that far more for me over the life of our marriage, than I have had opportunity to do for her. So I’m learning to live in a part of Sara’s world that I never knew existed and we are finding so much joy in that relationship.
Was this not at the heart of the Incarnation? God could have stayed in his heaven without us, but wanted to be in our world with us and by loving us open a wider door for us to know what real life is. The hope for joy and transformation in your marriage is not to press your spouse for what you want or even think best, but in your willingness to love them the way he loves you—right where you are with all your brokenness and struggles. In this kingdom, your struggles don’t make you unacceptable, they only make you more endearing to those who truly love you.
Let him love you like that, then you’ll know how to love your spouse like that. And there’s no telling what love will do from there!