When Marriage Feels Like Work

Once upon a time there were a finite number of blogs and I read them all. You could do that back then, in the early days of blogging. There was a circle of secular bloggers I loved to read and I got really into reading them, all the time.

These days, of course, the blogosphere is a strange combination of over-saturated and also (according to some) dead. Which is to say, it’s hard to keep up with everything and I’ve mostly, this past year or two, gotten out of the habit of reading any blogs at all.

But here and there, lately, I’ve popped back on to these blogs, people I knew and was invested in once upon a time and imagine my sadness to discover that almost all of these great bloggers, ten years later, have had one or two kids and are also now divorced.

Today’s discovery was just the latest and for some reason it really stuck with me what this woman said, upon announcing the breakdown of her marriage, that she just didn’t really want to be married anymore and she had finally worked up the courage to tell the truth. She was celebrated by her friends and relieved to get that out of the way.

What a strange concept, I thought, and how very sad indeed. That was my primary feeling, just a profound sadness for someone I don’t know at all.

But don’t you think, I wanted to tell her, that we’ve all had moments when marriage felt like work? Don’t you know that there are no perfect marriages and just because you’re feeling like you want out, that doesn’t mean that these feelings will always be thus?

Of course I could never say those things to this person I don’t even know, and of course I don’t know the reality of that marriage. And that is the truth universally: none of us can speak into any marriage other than our own.

But it got me thinking, wondering, how many people out there feel trapped or unfulfilled in their own marriage because they have a skewed concept of what a happy marriage actually is. Which is to say that there are indeed happy marriages, but that who among us — even those in the happiest of marriages — has not had a season (perhaps as short as a few hours, perhaps a long, dry drought of a time) where this thing we got ourselves into is not exactly what we had in mind?

I can tell you when I had those feelings and they were very strong. In the days after having our third and then fourth babies, I felt trapped and alone and when Paul walked out the door to work every morning it felt like a spectacular betrayal. “How can you leave me here with all these children?” I would ask (some mornings through tears). It was not a pretty season and while it didn’t go on forever, I’d be lying if I said that every single day of every single year has been complete and utter bliss in the marriage and parenting department. It has not. Some days have been extreme sacrifice, ugly, gut-wrenching tear-stained work.

And here’s another thing: these feelings of boredom and ennui? They don’t necessarily happen in the “later years”. Paul and I recently celebrated our 21st (woah!) anniversary and I feel happier and more fulfilled in this marriage than ever. No, for me, the hardest times were much earlier on. Now they feel like a billion years ago but I was surprised when I experienced those bumps in the road, the times when it suddenly felt very hard and much too challenging.

The thing is, marriage is work. It must be if God uses it for our sanctification. Those of us who are married acknowledge that being married means we recognize this is how God is getting us to heaven — through our spouse. And part of that is through our own little mortifications — learning to die to ourselves, learning to grow, learning to acknowledge that sometimes, feelings are just that — feelings.

Paul has a story he shares when we talk at Engaged Encounter every year, a story about a friend of his who got a divorce when he discovered several years into his marriage that his wife had “changed.” She wasn’t the person she once was and that made life tough. Change must mean it was time to move on.

That part of the story is sad, but Paul loves making the point that he’s so glad that this, too, has been the case with us. Change isn’t a bad thing. “I’m glad Rachel isn’t still the 22-year-old she was when we got married.” And so am I!

It’s important to be cheerleaders for marriage. I love being married and I want people to know that happy marriages exist and they are worth the effort.

But equally important is to be willing to be honest with couples who are struggling — this too shall pass. You are not alone. Marriage can be very tough indeed, but that’s where grace and peace and prayer bring us forward. Seasons of hardship and growth yield good fruit that can help us be closer to who God wants us to be.