Distant. Cold. Bitter. You know married couples like this (or perhaps these words currently describe your own marriage relationship). These couples are not divorced, but they no longer have a thriving, growing marriage.
As husbands and wives, we can be united “as one” but not close emotionally. We can be “together” but not connecting physically. We can say “I love you” but not mean it from the heart.
It’s heartbreaking and difficult, especially since no couple ever plans to end up like this.
Unfortunately, it’s easy for our marriages to slowly slide into a dull, lifeless state. Too often, the death of a marriage doesn’t come from those “big” marriage killers (such as infidelity and abuse), but instead from something much more subtle and insidious—our daily choices.
Our thoughts, words and actions have the power to strengthen or to hurt our marriages. That’s both a liberating and sobering thought, isn’t it?
How can we best manage our ongoing thoughts, words and actions to build (and not destroy) our marriages? And what can we do to repair a marriage if we find ourselves in a relationship that is filled with bitterness and distance?
Marriage Gone Cold? You’re Not Alone
First things first: If you feel coldness and bitterness in your marriage, you’re not alone. We’ve all felt this marital distance and are continually tempted to take this path toward bitterness.
I’ve felt that pull toward marital death time and time again in my own (strong and happy) marriage. I’ve felt the temptation to stay angry, to dwell on my husband’s faults, to speak badly about my husband to my friends, and to get even for how he’s hurt me.
I know that these are the moments when I must choose life or death for my marriage. These are the times when I have to choose to love my spouse despite my feelings, to keep my mouth shut instead of speaking out in anger, and to choose to forgive instead of getting even.
Just like Moses challenged the Israelites to follow God or their own desires in Deuteronomy 30:19, we must regularly consider how our daily choices have a long term affect on our marriages.
Listen, I understand that there are many complicated—and often extremely painful—factors that can lead to marital problems. Sometimes our spouses hurt us in unfair or even unbiblical ways, and it’s extremely difficult to look beyond the emotions of the moment to make a good choice toward a stronger marriage.
But the truth is that our thoughts, words and actions have power.
Proverbs 14:1 says “A wise woman builds her house; while the foolish woman tears it down with her own hands.” We must harness the power of our thoughts, words and actions to build and not destroy our marriages so that we can experience the true vitality and joy God designed for marriage.
A Choice Toward a Stronger Marriage or a Distant Marriage
How many of us have seen (what we’d believed to be) strong couples “suddenly” fall apart, even after decades of being together?
Relationships are built layer-by-layer, a little at a time. Every interaction we have with our spouses is a chance to grow closer or to distance ourselves from him or her.
I believe that, quite often, those situations happen because a couple has unknowingly allowed little choices to eat away at their marriage foundation and when life’s storms come, the marriage foundation simply crumbles under the pressure.
We all go through seasons where we feel a bit more distant from our spouses. We may have allowed life’s demands (a career, financial struggles, illness or parenting issues) to place our marriage relationship on the back burner, and now, suddenly, we find ourselves in hot water. Or perhaps we’ve fallen into a habit of speaking harshly to one another and now unforgiveness has built walls in the relationship.
However, these “walls” or painful relationship areas can be the turning point toward change. Let me explain.
You’ve heard the story about how frogs react to boiling water, right? If you place a frog in boiling water it will jump out every time. But if you place it in lukewarm water and slowly raise the temperature to boiling, it will grow accustomed to the temperature and slowly boil to death.
No one plans to create a marriage where there’s distance and coldness. We would “jump out” of the proverbial pot every single time. But we can—without even realizing it—allow our thoughts, words and actions to slowly poison our marriages. Just like the frog boils to death because he doesn’t notice the creeping temperature rise, we can blindly continue through life and not pay attention when we have conflict and strife building in our marriages.
But what if when we noticed distance or bitterness building in a relationship, we saw these as opportunities to notice the “boiling water” around us and fix the issue?
What if we developed an internal sensory system—a warning alarm of sorts—that alerted us when bitterness begins to develop in our marriages?
The longer I’m married, the more convinced I am that marriages stay healthy because they actively recognize and respond to these “hot water” threats.
Since marriage is comprised of two imperfect people, it’s important to recognize that no marriage is immune from bitterness and anger; however, we can include habitual ways to assess the state of our marriage relationships and make repairs as quickly as possible.
How to Create a Bitterness “Warning System” for Your Marriage
Since marital growth and closeness is a moment-by-moment decision, it makes sense that the condition of our marriage really does start with each individual’s own heart perspective.
Proverbs 4:23 instructs, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If we keep a close eye on our hearts, then we can develop the thoughts, words and actions required for our part in a healthy marriage.
Here’s two ways we can create a “warning system” that keeps a close watch on the bitterness and anger in our marriages.
1) Ongoing question to ask ourselves: What’s my heart condition?
First, we can regularly ask ourselves: What is the condition of my heart toward my spouse? Do I want to help him and encourage him, or am I frustrated and annoyed by him?
Some warning signs that we’re allowing our hearts to be bitter include:
- dwelling on our spouse’s faults
- not wanting to love him, to serve him or to put him first
- not wanting to talk to him
- believing lies about our relationships (“he doesn’t care about me”, etc)
- believing that the marriage issues we’re working through are all our spouse’s fault
- extreme thinking about our marriages (feeling like the relationship is doomed and we’ll never get past this)
2) Question to ask when bitterness is building: What’s the healthiest way to deal with this?
Second, when faced with marriage frustrations (and we’re tempted to fill our minds or our mouths with angry words), consider: What’s the healthiest way to deal with this? Is this thought or action going to strengthen my marriage; or is it going to cause my marriage to be weaker and lead me down the path of bitterness?
Other questions I often ask myself include:
- What’s going on under the surface? What’s the true source of my frustration?
- What can I do about what I’m feeling? Do I need to talk to my spouse about it, or is it something that I need to work out with God on my own?
- What have I done (or am doing) to contribute to the bitterness I feel toward my spouse?
Prayerfully ask yourself these questions and invite God to give His perspective on what’s really going on in both of your hearts. And if you decide that you need to speak to your spouse about what’s going on, here are some great conversation starters for those tough marital issues.
Choosing a Thriving Marriage Over a Bitter Marriage
Honestly, I’d rather ignore the warning signs of bitterness in my marriage (and unfortunately, sometimes I do). My life is full and busy, and it seems much easier to just let those thoughts percolate in my mind than to address them head-on.
But God has taught me that if I ignore what I’m feeling and let bitterness build, I end up with a bigger mess to clean up later. That’s why I encourage you to keep these types of questions in the back of your mind as a simple check on the state of your marriage too.
God wants your marriage to be rich and vibrant through every life season! I pray that he’ll remind you to stay aware of how your words can build or destroy your marriage so that you can experience a joy-filled, thriving relationship with your spouse.
Photo credit: @Thinkstock