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One-Sided Marriage: What Do I Do?

Dear CMR,

What if in a marriage, only one person wants to stay in the marriage and is working and fighting for the relationship to continue? What would you say to them?


A Desperate Friend

Dear Desperate,

That is a great question. Thank you for asking. If only one person is fighting for a marriage then the marriage cannot be saved because you two have become one (Gen. 2:24).  It will be as fruitless as trying to walk with only half of your body.  However, all hope is not lost.  There are many things that you can do to re-engage your spouse so that you can work together on your marriage.

  1. Walk in the Spirit - Even before you engage your spouse, the Holy Spirit should be invited into your process so that you are never truly alone.  Remember that you can do nothing without the empowering of the Holy Spirit. (I often have to remind myself of this truth because I am so used to tackling problems with a solo mindset.)  However, it is through Him that we are able to do the things necessary for reconnection like showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, especially in times of trial.   
  2. Seek to honor God first and foremost - “[W]hatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31b).   It can be really easy to become self-focused when we feel alone and hurt by our spouse. (Can I hear an amen?!)  However, marriage is not meant to be self-serving but an avenue through which we can honor and proclaim the greatness of an all deserving God. Many times this requires sacrifice, a sacrifice that would be impossible without first having an awareness of and satisfaction in God’s greatness.
  3. Practice selfless love as Christ modeled - Christ consistently modeled selfless love and Paul urges us to be imitators of Him (Eph. 5:2).  Husbands are explicitly admonished to selflessly love their wives (Eph. 5:25-27) and we all have been called to love one another as Christ loved (John 13:34-35). One of the things that helps me to be more selfless, when I actually do it, is thinking about how selflessly  Christ loved me despite my unfaithfulness towards him.  In times of strife, we need to reorient our hearts to strive to be imitators of Christ’s love. 
  4. Pray - Pray for your marriage (including acknowledging God’s greatness and ability to solve any problem, sharing your pain and fears to God, and thanking God for what he has provided and for his sovereign action Phil. 4:6-7).  Pray for wisdom in how to address the trial (doing so will allow you to cooperate with God’s will, James 1:5).  Pray for empowerment from the Holy Spirit to produce good fruits in you (which not only bring glory to God but it opposes the fleshly tendencies that would only further exacerbate the situation, Gal. 5).
  5. Reflect on your contribution to the disconnect - This one burns for me, but I say...let it burn.  Marital disconnect usually is co-created.  Contributions to the disconnect could be anything from blatant actions or subtle inaction, aggressively demanding to passively withdrawing, enabling the other person to seek selfish desires.  When you take the time to humbly reflect on your part you can be better able to make changes and to understand things from your spouse's perspective.
  6. Remain available and avoid chasing - Often what can look like a spouse giving up is actually withdrawal (an effort to self-protect and to avoid further damaging the relationship). There is a huge temptation with a withdrawn spouse to start to pursue them more aggressively (complaining, criticizing, or making demands), however, this will further push your spouse away.  Instead, try to communicate that you are available to them by offering a gentle response to his or her complaints or defensiveness and through inquiring about his or her needs in the marriage.  This is a TOUGH one.  (See Dr. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight for more).  
  7. Notice the small steps - We remember what we pay attention to. Look for the small things that your spouse may intentionally (or unintentionally) be doing that make you feel a little bit more loved or respected and then acknowledge it. I can take the power of acknowledgment and gratitude for granted (and I know I am not alone in that).  However, in the times I have taken notice and expressed gratitude, my spouse was more empowered and I benefited from an increase in something that was desirable to me.

I realize that all of these suggestions are easier said than done, and I confess that I can improve greatly in every one of these areas.  Nevertheless, I believe that striving to do these things will help to unlock a disengaged or defeated spouse so that you can both fight for the marriage together.