How Do I Stay in a Difficult Marriage?

Marriage, Jesus says, was designed by God to be a relationship in which two lives fuse into one. Your names become one, your finances become one, your bodies become one, your futures and your families become one. Marriage demonstrates the unconditional love of God: I am binding myself to you no matter how much you disappoint me or let me down.

That kind of unity cannot just be walked away from. Marriage was never designed by God to be a contract where you have a buy-out option. In Matthew 19:6, Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (ESV). No caveat. No dash. No asterisk. No fine print. No recommended reading. Period. End of Sentence. 

Which raises the question, how should I stay in a marriage that’s difficult?

Before I give the Apostle Paul’s answer, let me pause to address two important issues. First, there are legitimate and biblical reasons for a person to divorce—most notably, adultery, abuse, or abandonment. But Jesus’ point here is one that Christians throughout the centuries have recognized: A divorce is like an amputation. Yes, there are moments when amputation is medically necessary. But a doctor who recommended amputation for every ailment would have his license revoked.

Second, I know the phrase “difficult marriage” covers a wide range of experiences. If you think you’re in an abusive relationship or if you’re concerned for your safety (married or otherwise), reach out to the domestic violence support hotline. You don’t have to be alone.

Alright, back to the question at hand: How should I stay in a difficult marriage? 

1. Reject the “Right Person” Myth.

The “right person” myth says that there’s a right person out there for you and that a good marriage—and therefore your happiness—is determined by finding that person. If you aren’t happy in marriage, you probably aren’t with the right person. Press reset and try again.

But here’s the thing: You always marry the wrong person. How do I know that? You’re both sinners who will disappoint and fail one another! Plus, you’ll both change over time. And God’s purpose in marriage was never to restore the missing part of your soul through another person anyway. That missing piece in you is only found in him. 

2. Do It for Jesus.

The covenant you made in marriage was first and foremost to him. Even if you weren’t a Christian when you got married, marriage was God’s creation, and you did it in his name. You may not feel, in the moment, that the person standing in front of you is worthy of forgiveness or your continued faithfulness. But Jesus always is.

3. Soak Yourself in God’s Grace.

What precedes Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19 is his teaching on forgiveness. That’s no accident. Ultimately, what kills a marriage isn’t a specific action; it’s hardened hearts. It’s not the fights or the frustrations or the lack of fulfillment. It’s a posture of the soul. The good news is that Jesus can soften your heart through the gospel and his Holy Spirit. So lean into that.

4. Do It for Others. 

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul urges that a spouse stuck in an unfulfilling marriage to an unbeliever lift their eyes beyond themselves to the positive effect that remaining in the marriage will have on others, particularly their kids. Sociology has borne this out today: Except in cases of abuse, dissatisfied spouses who choose to remain together lead to much better outcomes for their children than children of those who separate. “Do it for the kids” is actually decent advice. 

When we consider leaving or divorcing, we, as believers, must consider what that communicates to those around us about the love of God. When we walk away from a marriage because we are unhappy, we implicitly tell others that God’s love is conditional, that when we annoy him or disappoint him or make him unhappy, he leaves us. 

The world desperately needs to know a different kind of love—the patient, steadfast, never-giving up love of God. Let’s show them.