Do You Have a One-way Marriage?
I have been married for over 47 years to a man who has centered his life and interests on himself.
When he and I were dating, he attended church with me occasionally and was active in his own church youth group, so I thought that we had the same commitment to church and God. We were only 18 years old, I was naïve, and I should have made a greater effort to make sure that we shared the same faith.
In the first weeks of marriage I asked him several times if he would like to begin visiting churches. He finally told me that when he was a child he was forced to go to church, and “Nobody is ever going to make me go again.”
I expected that he would be loving, gentle, and kind. But within one month of the wedding, he was shoving me around and making me leave the room when his friends came to our apartment. One time, I was sitting on the couch with him and he kicked me with his foot, knocking the breath out of me.
This needed to stop. I told him I would not be mistreated, and I began packing my suitcase. He apologized and said he would never do it again. And to his credit, he has not mistreated me physically ever since. Of course, I have experienced many other types of pain over the years.
He was almost always negative with his words, and rarely positive. A couple of times, I discovered that he was having a fling or an emotional affair.
It’s important to understand that I did not accept all of my husband’s mistreatment without any attempt to confront his behavior and plead with him to change. Though he considered himself king of the home, I did not accept all of his behavior or his decisions in the name of blind “submission". I often urged him to consider counseling, either as a couple or individually, and he refused. “Counseling is for nutcakes,” he said. I left him books to read, and I got him to attend marriage conferences. For awhile I tried to make myself more appealing—I participated in many Bible studies on how to be a godly wife, and I read books on how to understand men. Those things were helpful but not the ultimate answer.
In the end I realized that nothing I could do would change my husband—he was a hardened, self-centered man committed to living his life the way he wished. I knew I needed to give him and our relationship to God, and ask Him to give me the strength to persevere and to love my husband.
When people hear my story, some wonder why I did not get a divorce. They say that I should have moved on and found someone to love me, that I deserved to be loved. They say I have been too subservient, and have stayed too long in an “abusive” relationship. We had three children, and some feel I should have taken them out of the house to protect them.
This is a difficult and sensitive issue to address because so many couples today do not stay together in circumstances like mine. Many cannot conceive of enduring hardship as I have. But I have been convinced that God has wanted me to keep the vows I made before Him.
I would not counsel wives to remain in the home if their husbands are physically abusive, or if they feel their children are threatened by severe emotional abuse. But my husband has kept his word for 45 years and has not hurt me physically since those incidents early in our marriage. He was not physically abusive to the children. And as difficult as he has been to live with, his treatment was never strong enough to lead me to seriously consider separation or divorce.
Strength and wisdom
As I’ve grown in my faith during my marriage, I have relied on God to give me the strength and wisdom to stay with my husband and to keep our family together. I think about what the disciples learned during their time with Jesus. As Robert Coleman writes in his book, The Master Plan of Evangelism:
Following Jesus seemed easy enough at first. It soon became apparent that being a disciple of Christ involved far more—it meant the surrender of one’s whole life to the Master in absolute submission of his sovereignty. There could be no compromise. There was a cross in it—the willing denial of self for others. This was strong teaching. Not many people could take it.
The same is true in some marriages. It’s difficult to stay in a “one-way marriage”—where you are the only one making an effort to keep it going. There is a cross in it, and not many people can take it.
God has taught me many things through the years of heartache and disappointment. Five essentials have allowed me to thrive in a one-way marriage.
Essential #1: Commit to trusting God without reservation
Before you can know that peace and joy, you have a huge decision to make. Will you love Jesus more than you love yourself? How far are you willing to go in this love relationship? What holds you back? The better you know God’s character, the more your fears will dissolve. You cannot lose living life God’s way.
Over the years my husband has been out of work several times. One of those times, he didn’t bother seeking a new job. He sat and played solitaire every day or watched television. This went on for a year and a half. I had a little part-time job, and when our extended family asked if I would get a full-time job, I said, “No. He needs the pressure.”
This may sound odd to some—was I neglecting my children? Of course, I was sometimes concerned for the house and car payments and other expenses. Often I had little food in the house; but through a variety of ways, God met each of those financial needs. I’m glad I had matured in my faith before that time so that I knew not to nag but to trust God for everything. I trusted that God would not allow us to go hungry, and sure enough, we always had food on the table.
At one point I fed my family of five with only $20 for two weeks. It was the worst our food situation had ever been. During those two weeks, God gave me unbelievable ways to stretch that $20. For example, eggs went on sale at a tremendously low price. I made pancakes, egg salad sandwiches, deviled eggs—all providing the protein for our meals.
You would think those two weeks were a dark time, but it was actually exhilarating as I started each day telling God, I wonder how you’ll provide today. I learned from that experience to have faith and depend on God without reservation. And because our food situation had gotten so bad, I knew that God must have a plan to provide my husband with a job very soon. I even told my prayer partner that I felt confident that a job was coming, even though I had no evidence. Once again, God provided.
The Bible contains verses that speak of God meeting the needs of widows or a wife abandoned in her youth. These have been a great comfort to me because they reveal that God really understood how I felt. Trusting in His love and provision for me helped me to commit unreservedly to Him.
Commitment to your husband is tied to your commitment to God. When you pull away from your husband emotionally, you’ll discover you have pulled away from God. If you toy with the option of leaving your husband or divorcing, then you will feel tossed about without God’s peace and presence.
John 4:34 (Jesus speaking): “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His works.”
Essential #2: Know God’s character
Bill Bright, founder of Cru, wrote in his book, God: Discover His Character, “Everything about our lives is determined and influenced by our view of God. Once you see God as He is, you’ll see your life in a whole new light.” I have certainly experienced this in my own life.
In the early years of our marriage, I heard a sermon on the character of God. My heart and soul latched on to this teaching. I wanted to know what God was like intimately and personally, so I began a Bible study of each of his key character traits: sovereign, loving, eternal, holy, omniscient, faithful, etc. It changed my life dramatically. It became my foundational teaching to everyone I encountered. I prepared a brief list of Scriptures to support each trait and gave them to those I loved, mentored, or taught. I continue to share this teaching 35 years later. (You can find that list at the end of this article.)
You may wonder how this applied to a difficult marriage. When you consider that God is sovereign and rules over the universe, you realize that He is in control of every person and circumstance in your life. Even if your husband is making a poor decision, in the long run it will work for good. It does not mean God causes poor decisions, but He may allow them so that He might receive glory and mature our faith. You can never lose by being obedient to God.
One decision my husband made years ago was to become a partner in the business where he worked. The other partners had an attorney write up the contracts and my husband signed them without a counselor of his own and without even reading the documents. I was not happy when I learned about this, because I was worried about whether his partners would be honest. But I eventually had to let go of the matter and ask for God’s protection.
Several years after he had been in this partnership, he came home one morning and said he had been forced out of the company. He was making too many mistakes as their office manager.
We discovered that his mistakes were due to damages from a stroke, and he applied for disability. The disability process was going to take six months before we could begin to receive any income, but then his former partners gave him a large sum of money to buy him out. It was enough to cover paying off our home and one of our cars, with enough left to carry us through the six months.
Through this experience I saw that God, in His sovereignty, used my husband’s “mistake” to provide for us. In our case God protected us with honest business partners who cared about what would happen to us.
Knowing God’s character will keep you from dealing with unnecessary fear or anxiety about the future or your current situation.
Psalm 27:13-14: “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
Essential #3: Commit to studying and obeying God’s Word
The discipline of regular Bible study is foundational. It will help you know God in a personal way, provide you comfort and guidance, and show you how to deal with the ups and downs of a difficult marriage.
After years of praying for my husband, I couldn’t understand why God hadn’t changed him. I also struggled with anger toward him, and I wished God would let him die so I could be delivered from the pain of our marriage. I sometimes had pity parties for myself. But when I went to the Word and in prayer admitted my helplessness and asked forgiveness for my sinful thoughts and attitudes, God abundantly met my needs. I learned that my husband was not my enemy and that God longed for him to change as well. God was not weak or inactive, but long-suffering and patient.
In addition to completing many Bible studies on how to be a godly wife, mother, and woman, I did word and topical studies. I feasted on those Scriptures like a starving person. If I was feeling hopeless, I looked up all the Scriptures on hope and wrote them out in a notebook. If I was afraid, then I did a word study on fear.
Another valuable word study was on the tongue. I have a quick and sharp tongue that needed taming, and those Scriptures—plus the Holy Spirit’s power—often helped me not to say sinful things to my husband.
God’s Word also taught me how a wife should live with an unbeliever. First Peter 3:1 says, “In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.” This verse became my guide for knowing how I should behave toward my husband.
My husband has always controlled all of the decisions in our marriage, whether big or small—I could not even paint a room or buy a bedspread without his approval. I hated being treated like a child. But in the last 15 years, my husband has developed serious health problems and disabilities due to strokes. For the first time, I’ve had to assume the bills, pay taxes, maintain the car, etc.—all the things he was used to taking responsibility for. When he received disability, the government required that he not have access to his check. Now for the first time in 30 years of marriage, I have full control of our money and all major decisions.
I was tempted with thoughts of revenge—I was in a position to treat him the same way he had treated me for so many years. I could demand to have things my way, keep important information from him, or deny him money for things he wanted to buy. The Holy Spirit did not let that last long before I was convicted that as much as possible, I needed to continue to treat him with respect, keep him informed on our finances, and ask his opinion on matters.
I looked to God’s Word for wisdom while considering my new role. Even in Colossians 3:18 where it says “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” I saw that I could choose to submit on as many things as possible that were not critical to money management or major decisions. I find unique ways to allow my husband to feel like he has some control of his life and has my respect.
God’s Word is a great source of comfort, encouragement, and wisdom. It has given me great peace in dealing with difficult situations or decisions with my husband.
Luke 11:28: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”
Essential #4: Pray
Sometimes in our marriage I was angry or hurt, and I told my husband in a very unpleasant manner how I felt. I would try to make him feel guilty. I gave him books on how to meet your wife’s needs. I tried all the things that a human can try, without success.
I also learned to pray and trust God with our children. My husband loved his children, but he did not make the effort to spend time with them or build a relationship with them. Just as he was with me, he was continually negative with them, and rarely had anything positive to say.
I found myself in the position not only of being the primary parent for my children, but also working with my husband to soften him and help him understand their needs. For example, if he was too harsh in disciplining a child, I would talk with him to help him think about whether his “punishment fit the crime.” When a child brought home a report card from school, I would encourage him to praise the child rather than just criticize for what he considered a low grade. It was a constant process.
Yet I also realized that sometimes that I needed to depend on God. I remember one time in particular when I was upstairs in our home, and I heard my husband criticize our children with excessive harshness. It broke my heart. On other occasions I might have run down and defended my children or removed them from the room, but in this case I cried out to God. I asked God again to give me the strength to deal with my husband and to help my children understand their father. I prayed for my husband to cease his words to them at that moment. God answered each of those prayers.
God also answered my prayers about my children’s attitude toward their father. My husband would seldom go to our son’s sports events or our daughters’ piano recitals even though I told him how much it would mean to them. He said those things were boring and that our son didn’t play well.
The children would say, “Dad doesn’t care about me. He won’t go to my games or recitals. Why?”
I told them I knew they were hurt by his choices and I was sorry but they needed to forgive their father. I told them I was not sure he knew Jesus as his Savior and we all needed to pray for him.
Today my children have compassion for their father—no anger, bitterness, or resentment. And we continue to pray for him. It is very freeing to rest in this principle and know that it is God’s battle, not mine.
Prayer is powerful. It can go where you cannot. It reaches inside your husband’s head and heart.
In addition to praying for your husband, it’s also important to find a friend you can pray with regularly. I have had the same prayer partner for over 35 years. Our personalities are total opposites, but we have in common a love for studying God’s Word and a deep commitment to obey the Word no matter how we feel.
Another thing we have in common is a difficult marriage. We have each gone through cycles of weak faith, hopelessness, and despair. We were able to encourage each other during our weekly prayer meetings. It has not always been easy to meet every week, but we committed to come together no matter what was going on in our lives. Getting through some of the difficult times would have been nearly impossible without the support of my prayer partner.
Psalm 16:8: “I have set the Lord continually before me.”
Essential #5: Choose daily to love whether it is returned or not
People who know my situation often ask me how I can be so consistently joyful. Well, for one thing, I am not always joyful. I have to continually practice these principles because there are always fresh challenges, hurts, and temptations. My joy does not depend on outward circumstances. It is a choice.
I love cooking and trying new recipes. It takes planning and a lot of work to make a really nice meal. I was so disappointed the times my husband came home late without calling. Sometimes he would say, “What is this slop?”
For birthdays or anniversaries, I hoped for a surprise, a gift, or at least a card. I shared my expectations or gave modest suggestions of what I would like. Most years he gave little acknowledgment to the occasion and gave me nothing. . .or he gave me something he wanted. Through these experiences I learned to take my hurts to the Lord and ask Him to heal my heart.
Intimacy was another problem area. My husband was selfishly driven in the area of sex. He wanted sex, but not non-sexual affection. I would sometimes tell my husband, “I’m sorry, but not tonight.” Then I would promise another night that same week. Sex is God’s plan and is very important in marriage. I did not want to put my husband in a position to be driven outside our home to have that need met. Nor did I want to disobey God.
If this area is difficult for you, just remember that God will reward your obedience. The major turning point for me was one instance when he wanted to make love and I did not, but I sensed God bring to my mind that I should anyway. As a result, we conceived the only one of our children that I birthed. This was particularly special because we struggled with fertility issues and never expected to be able to have children outside of adoption.
Part of loving your husband involves forgiving him daily. Keep short accounts and don’t let the negatives build up. When you do that, you give up the right to seek revenge. It brings peace for you and your home.
One of the times my husband was having a fling with a woman in his office, I thought my heart would break. When I told him about my suspicions, he replied that she had only hugged him and brought him treats to eat. He even had the nerve to say, “I’ll get the recipe for you of this dip she makes for me.”
I wanted the ground to swallow me up so I could escape the pain. I felt so helpless. Crying, I told my husband how he had hurt me. He was unmoved by my tears and even had a smirk on his face. He knew I would do nothing about it. He also knew I would not leave him.
I asked God to examine my heart and actions. Had I not given him the attention he needed or sex when he wanted it? Had I taken him for granted and drove him to her by my neglect? I could not find an example. In fact, at the time I had been reading books like The Total Woman that recommended fresh, new ways to be alluring.
God brought to my mind that I should do something nice for him. So one day the children and I surprised him with a picnic blanket and lunch on his office floor. I was cheerful—no guilt trips. And I never brought up that woman again to him. Like so many other issues in our marriage, it was something I had to release to God while continuing to love unconditionally.
What does unconditional love look like? First Corinthians 13 is a great model of what commitment to love your husband should look like. “Love is patient, kind, not jealous and does not seek its own nor take into account a wrong suffered. Love bears all things and hopes all things. Love never fails.”
God has given me joy
Some people who hear my story feel that I have responded to a bad marriage by adopting some type of unrealistic, super-pious spirituality, or by hiding behind a shroud of “submissiveness” when the truly loving thing to do would have been to confront my husband. But both of these assumptions are far from the truth. Whether I kept my mouth shut or confronted my husband, the bottom line is that I feel like God wanted me to stick it out in my marriage and that there was no way I could do that without relying on Him. The essentials I’ve mentioned here have helped me to do just that, but I learned them over many years of trial and error as well as failed attempts to fix things on my own. I have certainly not practiced them perfectly. I’ve failed many times, and I’ve acted unbecoming of a follower of Jesus Christ. But confession and repentance bring me back to where I should be.
Do I still wish I had a husband like I’ve seen others have? Yes. Is it my ultimate goal? No. When I let go of my expectations and gave them to God, I was set free. He offers a joy that no one can steal and a peace that passes all understanding.
In a sense, God has become my Sweetheart—one who loves me perfectly and never fails me. His companionship has become so real to me over time. I’m reminded of the verse in Isaiah 54:4 that describes God as a Husband. So although I wish I could have had a loving husband, I wouldn’t trade that for the oneness I have experienced with God as a result of my trials.
I finally accepted that my marriage might not ever get any better. You might think that realization would plunge me into despair or hopelessness, but it was actually the opposite: I felt an incredible sense of freedom and peace as I released my marriage to God.
Someone once asked me how I would feel when my husband passes away. Would I be relieved that he couldn’t hurt me anymore or cause my life any more stress? My response was no. As God has helped me grow over the years, He’s also given me a genuine love for my husband. I released my marriage to Him, knowing that it would never be a fairy-tale romance, and He has filled in the gaps where it fell short.
I am so grateful to God for teaching me these spiritual disciplines. Today my marriage is not the major struggle it once was. In our older age I have increasingly become a caregiver in our relationship because of his disabilities, and our home has mostly become peaceful. God has given me great joy in life. You, too, can thrive in a difficult marriage and experience an intimacy with God you never thought possible.
EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the most difficult issues to address today is, “How long do you stay in a very unhappy marriage?” In this article an anonymous wife describes her experiences and what God has taught her during a long, difficult relationship. We first published the article in May 2009, and it evidently touched a nerve with many readers. Many commented that they were encouraged by the author’s experience in surviving a difficult marriage, while others labeled the experiences as “abuse” and have wondered why she stayed with her husband.
The author asked if we would add the following note to this introduction:
I feel I need to address the concerns of those who think my children and I have been abused for 47 years. We have not. The examples I provided of his behavior have not been constantly repeated. Yes, he continues to be self-centered and bitter. He was a workaholic and had a very sad upbringing himself. As a father, he soon left most of the parenting to me. As young adults our children worked through forgiving him, have compassion for him, and were very careful about who they married in part because of what they learned through our experience.
They are concerned for their father’s salvation. They have thanked me for keeping my covenant with God and my husband. I asked them recently if they felt they had been abused. They said not at all—just ignored. The love of Jesus has kept us healthy and whole. He defines who we are.
Some readers have also felt I have dishonored my husband by writing so honestly about our relationship. I can understand this concern. This was the reason I have remained anonymous. But I also am concerned for the many women who are enduring marriages like mine, and I felt that my honesty would encourage them to see hope in their relationship with God, as I have.
Characteristics of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Following is the scriptural teaching that has been so foundational to my Christian walk.
Sovereignty = Supreme Being, God rules over man’s events
Deuteronomy 4:39; Isaiah 45:5,6; Daniel 4:35; 1 Timothy 6:15; Job 12
Righteousness = Holiness, goodness
Leviticus 19:2b; Psalm 25:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Psalm 145:17
Justice = Fair, perfect in His judgments
2 Chronicles 19:7; Hebrews 10:30,31; Hebrews 12:6; James 3:17
Love = His love is unchanging, forever, and depends on His character, not on us.
John 3:16; Jeremiah 31:3; Romans 8:38,39; 1 John 4:8
Eternal = He had no beginning and no end.
Psalm 90:2; Psalm 93:2; Lamentations 5:19
Omniscience = He know all things
Jeremiah 16:17; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Psalm 139:1-6; Romans 11:33; 1 Samuel 16:7; Hebrews 4:13; Proverbs 15:3
Omnipresence = He is everywhere simultaneously
Proverbs 15:3; Psalm 139:7-10; Isaiah 66:1
Omnipotence = All powerful
Nehemiah 1:10; Job 42:2; Isaiah 40:12, 22, 23, 25, 26; Psalm 147:5; Luke 1:37; 1 Chronicles 29:11
Immutability = He cannot change
Veracity = Absolute truth
Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 25:10; Numbers 23:19
Faithful in keeping His promises—Numbers 23:19
Faithful to forgive—1 John 1:9
Faithful in keeping us saved—John 10:28
Faithful to deliver us in temptation—1 Corinthians 10:13
Faithful to protect us—2 Thessalonians 3:3
Faithful to carry out His plan—2 Timothy 1:9; Jeremiah 29:11
Faithful to provide for us—1 Thessalonians 5:24; Matthew 6:31-33