When we are deeply unhappy, we can become stuck in our own misery, feeling there is no way out—especially if the situation we’re in never seems to change. Yes, it’s hard to be positive when you’ve struggled in a hard marriage for years. It’s hard to be positive when we feel as if we are the victim and that our spouse is the one with the problem. At one level, that’s true: we are not the alcoholic, we are not the abuser, and we are not the irresponsible one. But we can change some things.
Let me share six realities—focusing on how we think about ourselves and our marriage—that can start to pull us out of that “no way out” sense of hopelessness.
I am responsible for my own attitude
Reality living approaches life with the assumption that we are responsible for our own state of mind. Trouble is inevitable, but misery is optional. Attitude has to do with the way we choose to think about things. It has to do with focus. If you focus on how terrible the situation is, it will get worse. But if you focus on one positive thing in a situation, another will appear. In the darkest night of a miserable marriage, there is always a flickering light. If you focus on that light, it will eventually flood the room.
My attitude affects my actions
If we have a pessimistic, defeatist, negative attitude, we will express it in negative words and behavior. At that point, we become a part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The reality is that you may not be able to control your environment; you may have to deal with sickness, an alcoholic spouse, a teenager on drugs, a mother who abandoned you, a father who abused you, a spouse who is irresponsible, and on and on. You can, however, control your attitude toward your environment. And your attitude will greatly influence your behavior.
I understand that when you have been dealing with a problem for years it becomes harder and harder to muster up a positive attitude and the emotional energy to focus on solutions. Negative thoughts have created deep neurological pathways in the brain. But as humans, we are capable of altering these pathways. Attitude affects actions, and actions influence others.
You can control your attitude toward your environment. And your attitude will greatly influence your behavior.
I cannot change others, but I can influence others
The two parts of this reality must never be separated. That we cannot change a spouse is a truth we recite often, but we often overlook the truth that we can and do influence a spouse. Because we are individuals and because we have free will, no one can force us to change our thoughts or behavior. On the other hand, because we are relational creatures, others do influence us. Advertisers make millions of dollars each year because of this reality.
All spouses influence each other every day with attitudes and actions. This means that your spouse’s words and behavior may cause you tremendous pain, hurt, or discouragement. But this reality also means that through positive actions and words, you can influence your spouse toward positive change.
The reality of the power of positive influence holds tremendous potential for desperate marriages.
My emotions do not control my actions
In the last several decades, Western society has given an undue emphasis to human emotions. In fact, we have made emotions our guiding star.
The search for self-understanding has led us to the conclusion that “I am what I feel ” and that authentic living is being “true to my feelings.” When applied to a desperate marriage, this philosophy advises, “If I don’t have love feelings for my spouse any longer, I should admit it and get out of the marriage. If I feel hurt and angry, I would be hypocritical to say or do something kind to my spouse.” This philosophy fails to reckon with the reality that human beings are more than their emotions. The truth is, you experience life through the five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. In response to what you experience through the senses, you have thoughts, feelings, and desires. And you take actions. In your thoughts, you interpret what you experience through the five senses.
You can learn to acknowledge your negative emotions but not follow them. You should not deny that you feel disappointed, frustrated, angry, hurt, or bitter, but you can refuse to let those emotions control your actions. Taking such positive actions holds the potential for bringing healing to a relationship and restoring positive feelings in your marriage.
One positive action does not heal the hurt of a lifetime, but it is a step in the right direction. A series of positive actions holds the potential for turning the tide in a troubled marriage.
Admitting my imperfections does not mean that I am a failure
Most miserable marriages include a stone wall between husband and wife, built over many years. Each stone represents an event in the past where one of them has failed the other.
These are the things people talk about when they sit in the counseling office. Each spouse recounts what the other has done to make the marriage miserable. This wall stands as a monument to self-centered living, and it’s a barrier to marital intimacy. Demolishing this emotional wall is essential for rebuilding a desperate marriage. Destroying the wall requires both individuals to admit that they are imperfect and have failed each other. I am not implying that the responsibility for the wall is equally distributed between the husband and the wife. Many times, one is more at fault than the other, but the fact is that neither spouse has been perfect.
To acknowledge your imperfections does not mean you are a failure; it is an admission that you are human. As humans, you and I have the potential for loving, kind, and good behavior, but we also have the potential for self-centered, destructive behavior. For all of us, our marital history is a mixed bag of good and bad behavior.
Admitting past failures and asking for forgiveness is one of the most liberating of all human experiences
When you admit your failures and request forgiveness, you begin tearing the wall down on your side. Your spouse may readily forgive you or may be reluctant to do so, but you have done the most positive thing you can do about past failures.
Many people have found the following statements to be helpful in verbalizing their confession of past failures: “I’ve been thinking about us, and I realize that in the past I have not been the perfect husband/wife. In many ways I have failed you and hurt you. I am sincerely sorry for these failures. I hope that you will be able to forgive me for these. I sincerely want to be a better husband/wife. And with God’s help, I want to make the future different.”
I want to encourage you to tear down the wall on your side. You may feel that the bulk of the wall is on your spouse’s side, and that may be true. But the reality is that you cannot tear down his or her wall; you can only tear down the wall on your side. However small it may be, this is a step in the right direction.
Love is the most powerful weapon for good in the world
Most of the couples who sit in my office talk about the lack of love, affection, and appreciation they have received from a spouse through the years. Their emotional love tanks are empty, and they are pleading for love. I am deeply sympathetic with this need. I believe love is humanity’s deepest emotional need. The difficulty in a desperate marriage is that spouses focus on receiving love rather than giving love.
The final principle of reality living declares love to be the most powerful weapon for good, and that especially applies in marriage. The problem for many husbands and wives is that they have thought of love as an emotion. In reality, love is an attitude, demonstrated with appropriate behavior. It affects the emotions, but it is not in itself an emotion. Love is the attitude that says, “I choose to look out for your interests. How may I help you?” Then love is expressed in behavior. The fact that love is an attitude rather than an emotion means that you can love your spouse even when you do not have warm emotional feelings for him or her. Love can be learned because it is not an emotion.
Adapted from Loving Your Spouse When You Feel Like Walking Away by Dr. Gary Chapman (©2018). Permission given by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.