Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

Loving the Unloving Spouse

  • Paul Coughlin Contributing Writer
  • 2008 30 Sep
Loving the Unloving Spouse
We sometimes fail to live our lives with the appropriate level of passion and urgency. And the tender place where this neglect often wounds us the worst is in an apathetic marriage.

This problem can begin on our honeymoon, though it usually happens later as the comfortable routine of married life sets in then takes its toll. Slipping away are passion and energy, like heat drifting threw the cracks of a winter window. Passion and excitement are replaced by apathy then soon discontent, resentfulness and even bitterness. Is there anything I can do? asks the alarmed spouse. Thankfully, there is.

Apathy in marriage comes from two main sources: the absence of passion, motivation and excitement, and the suppression of these marriage-igniters.

Why would someone suppress passion? Mainly, this is due to some kind of emotional injury that a spouse protects against. Or this kind of suppression can be the result of fear of intimacy in general. Intimacy can be risky business—too risky for some.

Suppression of passion in marriage is like the cold indifference we witness from some adolescents. There aloof and seemingly careless approach toward life is really fear toward life’s risk, uncertainly, mystery and wonder—qualities marital intimacy also share. It’s too much for some people, so adopting an indifferent pose, well, this keeps us safe and looking sophisticated at the same time. The same is true for some apathetic spouses.

If you sense there is a suppression of passion, talk about the possibility of intended and unintended wounds. Though difficult, you might discover and remove the thorn in the side of your intimacy.

Who Moves First?

If you’re reading this article, then chances are you’re the one more interested in rooting out apathy, and it’s usually the more concerned and discontented spouse who needs to moves first.

Waiting for the problem to work itself out on it’s own is a very big gamble. It hardly ever works, and usually leads to more resentment and bitterness as your good efforts to rebuild love and intimacy are met with a blank stare and often avoidance, usually through hobbies for husbands or manufactured busyness from wives.

Express what you’re feeling, but not everything you’re feeling. And keep it to 5-10 minutes at the most. Be a mirror of reality to your spouse—explain how apathy is hurting your marriage but without attacking your spouse. Try admitting your own weaknesses first, which can help an apathetic spouse open up.

Compatibility is a process and a willingness to exert yourself—not a destination, so give your words some time to sink in. During this time, give your spouse more freedom than you did before—which is difficult for most disgruntled spouses. Usually when a spouse feels pushed away from an apathetic spouse, they grasp and badger even more for intimacy. The fact is that freedom is the fuel of intimacy. “Love” born of pressure isn’t love. 

Now might be the time to orchestrate one of the most intriguing dynamics in such a marriage. “Sometimes,” writes Dr. Dobson, “it’s necessary to interject a challenge into the relationship in order to motivate a disengaged spouse.” [page 197, Love Must Be Tough] By challenge, he recommends that the more engaged spouse create a demeanor of self-confidence, mysterious quietness, and independence. This approach can cause apathetic spouses to change their frame of reference, even causing them to wonder if what they have taken for granted is slipping away.

And during this pivotal time, bring in some laughter. Start having fun again: read humorous works together, or go see funny movies during date nights.

Gender Preferred Intimacy

There are four primary forms of intimacy, which often escape our gender-biased eyes. When this happens, we often conclude that our spouse isn’t interested in intimacy when he or she might be.

Generally, women prefer to share intimacy through talking and thinking together, as men tend to prefer intimacy through touching and togetherness [Married But Not Engaged, pages, 62]

Good marriages have a combination of all four and—this is the important part—spouses sometimes have to force themselves to experience their spouse’s preferred form of intimacy. For example, if you know that your wife feels closest to you when talking about important things, then slowdown and actually listen to her with empathy, something you might not want to do at first. Likewise, men are more likely to open up when doing something physical, so going for a walk with your husband while you talk about matters of your heart [togetherness + talking] may be the right change for you.

Overcoming hard feelings in this kind of marriage can be challenging, but not impossible. Bring your expectations in line with reality: Is your desire for intimacy reasonable? For example, some wives expect their husbands to listen to and understand their most every emotional need—and get angry when their husbands are unable to carry this impossible load. Likewise, some husbands expect more physical intimacy than their wives desire, and get angry when they don’t. Bringing expectations back to earth will help drain resentment and bitterness.   

In a twist of destructive irony, apathy in marriage often transforms from not having enough urgency to an explosion of interest—eventually through the experience of separation, affairs, and even divorce. By addressing this problem sooner than later, you will have done what you can due to be both married and engaged.

Paul Coughlin is a popular speaker about marriage, child-rearing, and co-author of “Married But Not Engaged: Why Men Check Out and What You Can do to Create the Intimacy You Desire.”