Most of us know someone who lives in a desperate marriage -- a marriage filled with pain, a relationship where it appears there is no hope for true love or happiness. Perhaps you’ve even asked the dreaded question, “I know God hates divorce... but what about my marriage?”

Dr. Gary Chapman, best-selling author of The Five Love Languages, has encountered many struggling marriages in his counseling, speaking, and writing career. He’s even experienced that sense of desperation in his own marriage. In his book Desperate Marriages (Moody Publishers, 2008), Dr. Chapman seeks to dispel the common myth that "some marriages are just hopeless." Here’s what he had to share with Crosswalk readers in a recent interview:

Crosswalk:  In your introduction, you share 3 reasons you wrote this book.  Could you share with our readers the inspiration behind Desperate Marriages 

Gary Chapman: Yeah. One of them was a young lady I encountered at one of my seminars. I had just talked about my book Hope for the Separated: Wounded Marriages Can Be Healed, which is written to people who are already separated. It is encouraging reconciliation, how to seek it. She said to me, “Why don’t you write a book for me?”

I asked her what she meant. She said, “Well, I am not separated. My husband and I have been married for like 17 years, and we are Christians, and we don’t believe in divorce, but we are miserable.” She said, “Why doesn’t somebody write a book for us?”   

Her question kept coming back to me. I never saw her again, but this book is for Maria and people like her... the hundreds of couples who have been in my office over the last 30 years... who really don’t want to divorce, but they are miserable and don’t know what to do. 

I [also] wrote this book because of my own marriage.  My wife and I struggled greatly in the early years of marriage. In spite of the fact that we were Christians before we got married, we prayed about getting married, we believed it was God’s will for us to get married, and we still had great struggles. So, I know the feeling of being married and thinking, it’s not going to work. There is no way we are going to get it together. We are never going to have an intimate marriage. I know that sense of pain and hopelessness of being married, but miserable.

CW:  In your years of counseling and writing, what factors have you observed that might lead a marriage to become a desperate marriage?   

GC: Well, I have chapters addressing specific things, such as [being] married to an alcoholic [or being] married to a spouse that won’t talk to you. You talk to them, and they just sit there like a stone wall, and eventually just walk out of the room.

[Or] being married to someone who won’t work. They lose a job, and they are home for a year. Or to a workaholic who is never home. “So how can you have a marriage,” they say, “when they are never [there]?” 

Or a marriage to someone who verbally abuses you over a long period of time or physically abuses you. Or [being] married to someone who was sexually abused as a child and never dealt with it, and they brought it into the marriage. It’s still there, and it affects their relationship. Those are the kinds of issues I am dealing with in this book which render a marriage desperate.   

CW:  What are some of the myths that keep couples in a state of desperation?   

GC: I think one of the myths is that people don’t change. A lot of people believe that. Their spouse has been an alcoholic for the first 10 years of the marriage, and they say they are never going to change. 

Well, the reality is, if you go to the library and read biographies, thousands of people have changed, radically changed. St. Augustine was one of them. He lived a terrible a life for the first 33 years, and then he radically changed. We can certainly see contemporary examples of people who radically change. As long you believe your spouse will never change and you keep telling yourself that, then you live with no hope.  But if you understand that that’s a myth, then you open up the door to hope.   

I think another [myth] is that some marriages are just hopeless. This is a common thing I hear from people, “Well, I just think there are some marriages that are hopeless, Dr. Chapman, don’t you agree with that?”  I say I understand the feeling, but the fact is that there are no marriages that are hopeless because of two realities:

(1) We are human, which means we have the potential to make things different. 

(2) God. God has the potential of touching people’s hearts and changing them.

I think one of the other myths is that your environment determines your happinessThat if you are living with an alcoholic or living with a depressed spouse for a long time, you are just going to be unhappy. Or if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, then there is really no hope for you to have a good relationship. That is another myth that we have to throw off, so that we can get into what I call Reality.   

CW: Which is my next question – could you talk a little bit about “Reality Living” and how that helps marriages become what God intended them to be?  

GC: That is really the theme of this book. I deal with 6 realities:

One [reality] is that I am responsible for my attitude. I can be in prison, and I happen to get a chance to go outside. I can look at the mud, or I can look at the stars. I am the one who decides which way to look. That is true for every one of us. We can look at the pain in our lives. We can look at the way we have been mistreated, and we can have an attitude of, I will never amount to anything. I have been wrong about people all my life. I am going to pay somebody back for this.

Or we can choose the attitude that says, I have been wronged. People have hurt me, but with the help of God, I am going to learn how to return good for evil, and I am going to make a difference in this world.   

Secondly, my attitude affects my actions. So, if I have a negative attitude about it, then it is going to show up in the way I respond, but if I have a positive attitude, then I start looking for the things I can do that will make my life better and make the lives of people around me better. 

The third reality is that I cannot change others, but I can influence others... we can’t change people, but we can and we do influence people, and we do it every single day.   

I will give you a simple example.  If I walk in the house, and I greet my wife, and I give her a hug, kiss her on the cheek, and I say to her, “Honey, how’d your day go,” and I listed to how her day went. If I say, “Is there anything I can do to help you,” and she tells me, “Honey, if you could peel the potatoes,” or whatever, I have influenced my wife in a very positive way.   

On the other hand, if I walk in the house, I don’t even bother to find her, I just walk in the den and flip on the TV, get myself something to drink, sit down, start unwinding, I have influenced my wife in a very negative way. Every single day in a marriage, we influence each other. It is a matter of am I going to have a positive influence or a negative influence?  

The fourth reality is that my emotions do not control my actions. By nature, most people are controlled by their emotions. They feel sad, so they look sad.  

Now I am not minimizing emotions. Emotions are an important part of life. Emotions are our spontaneous response to life. We have these emotions, but if the emotion is a negative emotion, then I have a choice to say, “I am feeling sad tonight because this happened, but I am not going to let my sadness keep me from engaging my wife in conversation. So, I am going to go sit down and say, ‘Tell me about your day.’  I am going to engage her in conversation, even though I am very, very sad over something maybe she did or something that happened outside the marriage.”   

This is a huge thing if you are going to have a positive impact on your spouse. You have to not only realize this, but you have to practice this.   

The fifth reality is that when I admit my own imperfections, it doesn’t mean I am a bad person. In a difficult marriage, both of us have failed each other. Even though one may be the major problem, (and in this book I am acknowledging that one may be the major problem), you also have failed often in the way you have responded to them, the way you have treated them, in the way you have handled your hurt and your pain.   

So, when I am willing to admit to my spouse,  

“You know, I didn’t handle that very well last night. You came in drunk again, and I took the butcher knife, and that wasn’t very nice to threaten you like that. It wasn’t loving. It wasn’t kind. What I should have done in retrospect was to go and see my mother, spend the night with my mother, and I want you to know that I am sorry that I said what I said, and I am sorry I can see myself holding that knife, and I am sorry about that. That was wrong.”

Sometimes when the spouse is really the culprit, it is hard to admit what you consider your little failures, but if you are going to have a better relationship, you admitting your part in the dynamics is a step in the road to healing.  Because if they see you modeling apology, for example, and they see you modeling love, they may well get the idea that maybe they need to apologize.    

The last reality is that love is the most powerful weapon in the world for good.  I really believe that. We all desperately need love. If a spouse in a difficult marriage will learn the love language of that spouse, and they will, with the help of God, consistently speak their love language no matter how they are treated, over the long haul, many of those people will begin to reciprocate, because you are meeting a basic need in their life, the need for love, and they know they don’t deserve love many times. 

I can’t say that everybody is going to turn around, but it is a powerful weapon to touch their heart and move them, stimulate in them the possibility that they could reciprocate that love to you.   

CW:  One aspect that I really enjoyed about your book is how you set up these realities, and then you walked the readers through all these different scenarios and showed the reader how it played out in specific marriages. Could you pick one story that you could briefly share with our readers that touched you?   

GC: Well, one that jumps in my mind is the one of the lady whose struggle was that her husband was never at home. He was a workaholic. When he did come home, Saturday was his day to go do his thing. Sunday they were at church. There was no time, never any time for the two of them or really for the family. 

So, one Sunday afternoon, she told him that she would like for them to take a ride in the country. She talked him into taking a ride. She was driving. She took him to a really, really nice retirement center. They pulled in the parking lot.

He said, “What is this?”   

She said, “Well, you’ll see.”   

So, they walked inside. There was really a beautiful atrium; just super nice, the lawn was really great. It had a golf course and everything. He noticed this little sign. 

He said, “This is a retirement center!”  

She said, “Yeah.” 

He asked, “Why did you bring me here?” 

She said, “Well, I was just thinking about when we retire, we can come here, and you can play golf everyday, and we can have sex every night, and we can just have a wonderful time.” 

He said, “What are you talking about?  I am 39, and you are 37!  This place may be gone by the time we get here.” 

She said, “I know, and I don’t intend to wait until we retire to have a life with you. I want us to have a life now, but if you don’t want to have a life, if you want to wait until retirement, then you are going to have to retire with somebody else.” 

Tough love.   

Let me emphasize, she had done the soft love. She had done the love language thing for a long period of time, now she was doing tough love.

He said it was a wake up call for him. He went home, and he said, “Okay, I will work at making some changes.” He got another job. Their life is totally different. He takes time for his family, his kids. He has slowed down. He said he didn’t know if he ever would have done that if she hadn’t done her little thing of telling him how much she loved him and how much she wanted to have a life with him. He said he knew she was a wonderful woman because she had treated him kindly through the years in spite of the fact that he wasn’t there. He didn’t want to lose her, and he didn’t want to lose his family. 

CW:  Wow, so a combination of soft love and tough love helped save this marriage. Now, you have tackled some marriages that most people would say have no way of working out. Could you talk a little bit about an abusive marriage, which is one most people feel have absolutely no chance?   

GC: Yeah, yeah. Physically abusive and verbally abuse marriages are very, very difficult situations. I fully understand people in those kinds of marriages who think there is no hope. I also know that the advice that is given by most people is simply... get out of there as fast as you can. 

Well, the getting out part may well be true. Because if you have tried the tender love thing... typically the abuser is not going to change until they are pushed in a corner.

It is very similar to an alcoholic. Very few alcoholics get into a treatment program until they are at the end of the rope, often when they feel like they are about to lose something that is important to them, namely a wife or their family. The same is true with those who are physically and verbally abusive. The pattern often has been entrenched since childhood... they don’t think that there is anything wrong with them because that is the way they were brought up in their family.   

What I say to that person in applying these principles in that situation is, yes, there is a place to apply tough love. Really, the sooner you do it in the marriage, the better. For example, the best time to help a person who is physically abusive to you is the first time they abuse you. If they slap you in the face, the next day is the time for you to say,  

“You know, I don’t know how you feel about what happened last night, but that is not appropriate behavior, and I want you to know that I love you very much, I want us to have a wonderful marriage. I want us to grow old together, but I will not allow that to happen again. If you ever do anything like that again, I am telling you now that I am moving to my mother’s, and I will not come back until you have had extensive counseling to deal with your anger. I am willing to go for counseling with you. I am willing to do anything we can. In fact, I will do it now. We will do it before you do that again, but if you ever do it again, I want you to know that is what I will do.” 

Then you follow through with it. That is the easiest time. Obviously, as you well know, there are people who have been in abusive relationships for years. Sometimes, it is also associated with alcohol or drugs. The person may not be an alcoholic, but they get drunk from time to time, and that is when the abuse takes place. Wherever you are, however long it has been that you have been in the abusive relationship, it is time for you to take that kind of stand. Assure them that you are not abandoning them. You are saying to them, 

“I love you, and I love you so much that I have really done you a disservice by staying here for 10 years and letting you do this. I finally realize that I love you so much that I will no longer sit here and let you do this. I can’t keep you from beating people up, but I can keep you from beating me up and beating the kids up, and we are not going to be here. When you come home tonight, we will be gone. I am not abandoning you, I am just saying to you if you want to have a marriage, then you go for counseling. Whenever the counselor wants to talk with me, I am fully willing to talk with the counselor. Whenever you learn how to understand yourself and your anger, then we can start marriage counseling. Whenever you, me, and the counselor feel like it is good for us to come back, then I will come back.” 

CW:  Thanks, Dr. Chapman. Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know about your book before we close?   

GC: I hope the reader’s sense that I am deeply empathetic with the pain of being in a desperate marriage, but I also believe that the person who is married to the abuser or the alcoholic or whomever has the greatest potential for helping them. So, this book is really a book on how to be a positive change agent in a very, very difficult marriage. I am not promising that all individuals will be responsive to the approach I take, but I do believe that many marriages could be saved... could be healed. That is my hope.   

CW:  Wonderful.  Thank you very much. 

To purchase Desperate Marriages or learn more about Dr. Gary Chapman, visit his website at http://www.garychapman.org/

Published March 3, 2009