Is suffering in marriage inevitable?

Maybe so–but that doesn’t mean that suffering is always bad. Dr. Carol Peters-Tanksley has written a few posts for me now on menopause and how sex changes as you age, and today she joins us to share a personal journey she’s walked through as her husband has recently passed away. I’m so honoured to welcome Carol as she helps us process some of the difficult things that marriage inevitably brings.

Here’s Dr. Carol:

Suffering in Marriage - Suffering in Marriage: When it Hurts to Love Well

Marriage isn’t supposed to be about suffering, is it?

There may be a few marriages where everything goes smoothly and life is truly “happily ever after,” but truthfully I haven’t known any marriages like that. I considered my marriage very happy, happier than most, but it was not devoid of suffering. But it was actually those challenging aspects that brought me the greatest satisfaction and became the most valuable.

Suffering in marriage is a touchy subject. That idea may immediately bring up thoughts of abuse, control, manipulation, addiction, violence, and any number of other painful and destructive ideas. I just want to get this out of the way right now: those behaviors are never OK. Never. Period. End of story. If there is abuse, manipulation, or violence going on in your marriage, get some help now!

But there’s a whole other aspect to “suffering” that is much more common, perhaps universal.

As human beings we are basically selfish, and when two selfish people become joined in marriage there is certain to be suffering.

You are certain to be hurt if you get close enough to someone, and you are certain to hurt them also. And life has a way of bringing its own suffering in a thousand different ways. It’s not a matter of if, but of when. But it’s what you do next that really counts.

Suffering can crop up in many different ways. Your spouse wants sex when you don’t, or you want sex when your spouse doesn’t feel up to it – over and over again. Your spouse develops a serious illness. Your teenage child gets involved in drugs. Your baggage or your spouse’s baggage from your family of origin spills over into your life now. You’re forced to choose between a job you love and doing what’s best for your marriage or family.

Your suffering may be larger or smaller than someone else’s, but it feels really heavy – and probably unfair.

Marriage is not supposed to be about suffering, but it’s not about happiness either. We lose much of what marriage is all about when we assume that its purpose is to make us happy and that our spouse is there for our benefit. That’s a recipe for disaster, disappointment, and misery.

When to Welcome Suffering

Marriage is not about suffering or happiness; rather, it’s about learning to love well. And at some point loving well will involve suffering.

My husband struggled with chronic illness during our entire marriage. The last year of his life he became increasingly dependent on me, and he hated it. His doctor’s visits, medications, medical equipment, and physical limitations took over more and more of our schedule and our lives. He fought hard. We fought hard together. Still his death in February of this year seemed to come much too soon.

And I wouldn’t trade a moment of the suffering we endured together for anything in this world.

Couple Comfort - Suffering in Marriage: When it Hurts to Love Well

Of course I wish he had been able to regain his health and that we could have done the things we dreamed of doing together. I wish we had had many more years to share life with each other. But there’s something precious and valuable about loving each other unconditionally and without reservation even when it’s difficult, about knowing your spouse has given you everything they have and are and that you’ve given the same to them, about trying to outdo each other in doing everything you can to lighten each other’s load.

Marriage never works when one or both partners are primarily looking for what they can get out of it.

Marriage does work when two people become good forgivers, good givers, and learn to love well. That doesn’t mean your own needs aren’t important, but it does mean that you almost forget about yourself as you focus on serving each other. You don’t keep score. You both give 100%.

And sometimes giving like that means suffering. It means that sometimes:

  • You lose sleep to take care of your spouse when they are ill
  • You have sex or don’t have sex based more on your spouse’s desires than your own
  • You go on the vacation your spouse needs most
  • You work hard to understand your spouse’s feelings when you have a conflict
  • You become willing to change the parts of your own character that are hurting your spouse

Sure, there were plenty of times I desperately wanted sleep when my husband needed my help. Becoming his caretaker was hard, but he suffered too. Needing help made him vulnerable, and it was hard for him to accept that help. He also gave me all he possibly could by struggling to do things for himself whenever he could, by frequently putting his own needs aside and working to help me in my profession and ministry, and encouraging me in every way possible.

“Suffering” together in some of those ways brought us closer as a couple, and it taught us both more about God. Love hurts – here in this world. And it made us both even more hungry for eternity.

How Do You Know it’s “Good” Suffering?

If you’re still reading this, you may wonder if your “suffering” is necessary or unnecessary, healthy or harmful, constructive or destructive.

Here are three questions to consider that can help you sense whether you are giving to your spouse in a godly way, or being unwise.

  1. How is your giving received? Does your spouse accept what you give gratefully? Or do they see it as something they are entitled to? You cannot keep score! But if both of you give what you have to give, you are on the right track.
  2. Are you enabling bad behavior in your spouse? If so, it’s NOT “good” suffering. If you are putting up with abuse, violence, or addiction, you are harming your spouse instead of loving them well.
  3. Are you finding ways to feed yourself emotionally? You cannot give endlessly without getting filled up again. If your spouse can’t or is unable to meet those needs, you are responsible for finding other healthy ways to take care of yourself while still serving them.

Don’t assume marriage is supposed to be easy or make you happy. Treasure all the moments when it’s good. But also treasure the moments when you answer the call to be unselfish, and to give more than you thought you could. When both of you approach marriage that way, even the suffering will be beautiful.

Thank you for that important reminder, Dr. Carol! And thank you for your amazing perspective even in the loss of your husband. We are all sorry. 

Dr. Carol - Suffering in Marriage: When it Hurts to Love WellDr Carol Peters-Tanksley is a licensed OB-Gyn physician and ordained Christian minister, sometimes known to her friends as “Doctor-Doctor.” Her new book Dr Carol’s Guide to Women’s Health: Take Charge of Your Physical and Emotional Wellbeing is available wherever books are sold. Dr Carol invites you to connect with her at her ministry website www.drcarolministries.com, Twitter, or Facebook.


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And thank you to Sarah Ball, too, who has guest posted for me before! She has written a ton about anxiety, and she’s a great friend who is going places and has such an important message. This week, while I’m away, Sarah’s going to be jumping into the comments and participating a bit since I’m not around. Thanks, Sarah!

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