How do I know when it’s okay to give up on my marriage?

Reader Question of the WeekEvery Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Today I’m going to do a heartbreaking one: When have I done enough and tried hard enough to save my marriage? I get variations on this quite frequently, and I’ll share two with you today:

It took me a long time to figure out why I was so angry at him for so many years. It felt like he was holding back love and affection from me and that he didn’t care about or for me. Even when I tell him I would like to be hugged or touched he could barely do it. I feel rejected from my husband. Being a Christian woman I do not believe in leaving and I really do not want to. I feel like a prisoner in this relationship. I cannot leave for the commitment I made but I am dying inside with lack of affection. What am I to do? How much daily rejection can I keep taking. I touch him nicely on the shoulders or back and he acts like I am not even there. He has all sorts of “good” reasons to not be affectionate to me they all stem to something I said or did years ago.

Here’s another:

My husband has been pushing me away last November. This last June it got to the point where he wasn’t talking to me anymore and asked for more space and independence. I freaked out and took my kids to my in-laws, in another state for a long weekend to give him space. When I got back he told me that he’s been thinking about divorce or separation for a year now. At first I chased him, begging him to not leave me. Then, in the middle of summer, I started working on my relationship with God and got really close to Him. It seemed to help me emotionally, but every week there would be a set back in our relationship. Around our anniversary he got really nice and started acting like the old days again. However, after finding condoms and phone records of him talking every day to and from work to a woman he works with, our “progress” was set back 10 fold. After many talks, he’s realizing now that I’m going to look out for our young kids and myself. I’m falling out of love for him, like he says he’s not in love with me anymore. We don’t trust each other. How can this possibly work? I don’t want to disappoint God by leaving this loveless marriage. I’ve tried several things to work on my end-praying, reading my Bible, trying not to be selfish, figuring out his love language and working on that, the Love Dare, etc. Thoughts?

I can just hear the heartbreak in these women’s letters. The first woman, as far as I know, is living in a loveless marriage but not necessarily in one that involves an affair. The second one looks like it does.

When is it okay to give up on my marriage? Thoughts for those in miserable relationships.

Is There A Sign That Tells You When to Give Up on Your Marriage?

I can’t tell you how to know when to give up on your marriage. I don’t know both sides of the situation, and most stories are really, really complicated. That’s why I absolutely believe that if you’re walking through something this lonely and this difficult you simply must get help–a third person to talk to. Maybe that’s a counsellor, or a pastor, or a mentor. Maybe it’s even a mentor couple who can sit down with the both of you. But you really need someone who knows you in real life, who knows your husband, who understands the situation, and who can help pray with you, hold you accountable, and also tell you when it’s just too dangerous to stay (because in abusive situations, or situations where affairs or porn use have become too rampant, it just may be).

Thus, likely the first thing you should do is find that someone to talk to. I know that can be difficult, especially if you or your husband are on a leadership position in the church. But you simply must. And remember: the embarrassment of finding someone to talk to is still less than pulling the family apart when no one understands why.

Sometimes Separation is a Good Life Lesson–and Can Save a Marriage

Let’s take a situation where a guy has been texting another woman, and refuses to give her up, but wants to stay at home. Or a situation where your husband refuses to get a job because he likes living at home, but also won’t care for the kids when he is at home. In these cases, what a guy may very well need is a kick upside the head. And the best way to give it to him, sometimes, is for reality to sink in. “What you are doing now will end the marriage.” If you continue on this path, we cannot go on.

So find that someone to talk to, and ask them to help you pray through and figure out if this is the right strategy. Separation does not always end in divorce–quite often it ends in reconciliation. When you start to both realize what it’s like to live apart, and he understands how hard it will be to live like that, he may get a new lease on life.

That’s also much of what James Dobson recommends in Love Must Be Tough, about how to help a wayward spouse understand the consequences of what they are doing. You can read more about that here.

If Your Marriage Collapses Because of Something Your Spouse Did, You Are Not a Failure

When you walked down the aisle I’m sure you never dreamed that your marriage would end. You thought you’d make it through to the end, grow old together, live happily ever after.

That was likely an important value to you. You grew up revering marriage and wanting to honour it. Many on this blog also have a Christian element to it; we know God hates divorce, and so how can we fail in this big a way? Will God be angry?

God hates divorce because of what it does to families and communities, but He does not hate the person who divorces. And He, unlike the rest of us, is also able to see to the heart. He understands the turmoil, and He knows what went in to the marriage deteriorating.

I once heard a speaker couple at a marriage retreat say that if both parties want to work to save a marriage, then that marriage has about a 95% chance of making it, no matter how big the problems are. On the other hand, if only one person wants to work to save the marriage, that marriage has a much lower chance of making it, no matter how small the problems are.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your spouse decides that the marriage isn’t worth it. Your spouse moves on. God sees that, God understands, and God is still with you and is still carrying you, and is determined to care for your children, too. God took care of me after my parents’ divorce, and He can take care of your kids, too.

Dayspring Peace Mug

Be Wary of Searching for Justification to Leave

One word of caution, though: when we are completely and utterly miserable in our marriage, quite often we look for reasons to leave. I think that’s why many of these women write to me. They want to be told: you’ve tried hard enough, and it’s okay to leave.

But in Christian circles, the only justification for leaving tends to be adultery, abuse, or addictions. Many women close to me have tried to “blow up” their husbands habits to fit with one of these things. I had one close friend tell me her husband was an alcoholic because he had a beer every night after work. (When they split up, he didn’t increase his drinking at all, and has always been a light drinker). I had another woman tell me that her husband was verbally and emotionally abusive towards the kids because he was much harsher than she was. Yet when they split up, she somehow agreed to him getting the kids about 2/3 of the time. And I had another woman tell me that her husband, who was in counseling for a porn addiction and was now getting clean, had committed adultery with porn and thus she was justified in leaving.

Some guys do commit adultery, some are abusive, and some are addicted. But be careful of labelling your husband in one of these camps because you want to be able to say, “I had no choice but to leave”, or “I have biblical grounds.” Again, this is why having someone walk through this with you in real life is so important.

Will I Be Miserable Forever if I Don’t Leave?

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know, and this is a really, really hard thing to say, and even harder to hear: Your happiness, and your misery, is not God’s primary concern. What He really cares about is your character. Now I don’t believe that God zaps us and punishes us until we learn something important (though He does discipline us), but just because you’re miserable does not mean that you have reason to leave a covenant. I can understand the pain in the first letter writer’s words, for instance, but that does not look like divorce is the answer in that case.

There are times when you have virtually no choice, and when leaving is definitely the healthiest thing to do for all involved. But these are the MINORITY of divorces, not the majority. And the vow really does matter. I have known many marriages that were utterly miserable for ten years that turned around afterwards.

Whether or not you will be miserable forever largely depends upon what you do from this time forward. Sometimes the way forward means recognizing that you may have been contributing to the problem and driving him away, as this post shows:

Why He Won’t Meet Your Needs

Sometimes, though, it really is because he’s checked out emotionally. In that case, these posts may help:

Changing the Dynamic in Your Marriage (and changing the things you can!)
I Messed Up“. How recognizing your own wrong (even if it’s minor) can help you change the bigger things in your marriage.
Living in a Loveless Marriage
Encouragement for Those in Tough Marriages

I know many of you are looking for a simple statement–you can leave IF he does this. You want to know when to give up on your marriage, because you’re desperate for some simple sign. But I don’t think that simple test exists. I have known marriages that have survived huge affairs and I have known marriages that have not survived an emotional texting affair. There is not a black and white answer, because every relationship is different.

These things I do know, though: God is with you, always. God wants to help you do the right thing. Having someone walk alongside you and help you see things clearly and pray for you is crucial.

So please, talk to someone in real life, and pray hard. Don’t despair. No matter what happens, it is never the end of God’s plan for your life, and He can work even in a miserable marriage, or a lonely, sad divorce.

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