Is Marriage Terrific or Awful?

On the Facebook page for our podcast, Sex Chat for Christian Wives, we often share Bible verses or quotes that apply to marriage. Consequently, I’ve done a lot of perusing quotes lately, and it struck me today how strong people’s opinions are about the worthwhileness of marriage.

Blog post title + illustration of wedding rings

Some believe marriage is terrific, some believe it’s awful. Take a look at these examples:

Marriage is terrific

“There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.” – Martin Luther

“A happy marriage is a long conversation which always seems too short.” – Andre Maurois

“Love is not weakness. It is strong. Only the sacrament of marriage can contain it.” – Boris Pasternak

“Marriage is the most natural state of man, and…the state in which you will find solid happiness.” – Benjamin Franklin

Marriage is awful

“Marriage is like putting your hand into a bag of snakes in the hope of pulling out an eel.” – Leonardo da Vinci

“Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage.” – William Shakespeare

“A marriage is no amusement but a solemn act, and generally a sad one.” – Queen Victoria

“Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?” – H.L. Mencken

So which is it?

When my marriage was in the pit of doom and despair, I would have answered that my marriage was awful. And yet, somehow I believed deeply that it could become terrific. (See When My Marriage Seemed Hopeless, What Made Me Stay?)

It has become a happy marriage, such that I also wrote 6 Things I Love about Being Married. And believe me, that’s not an exhaustive list!

I know some marriages are awful. One or both spouses are buried in a pile of pain so deep they can’t imagine how they can possibly claw their way out — at least not together. Some of you have experienced the lion’s share of hurt on the issue of a sexless marriage, although most failing marriages are dealing with other issues as well.

Perhaps you’re at the point that you feel like one of these people:

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” – Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

“Marriage is miserable unless you find the right person that is your soulmate and that takes a lot of looking.” – Marvin Gaye

You think that you were dealt a bad hand or married the wrong person, and you don’t feel like your marriage can ever find health and happiness.

I don’t believe in soul mates. If God created a single person out there intended for you, that strikes me as a cruel shell game to try to find them. Moreover, the Bible shows example of various reasons for getting married, and God’s perspective seems to be that living out the Gospel in your marriage is what brings you holiness and happiness.

Living out the Gospel in your marriage is what brings you holiness and happiness. Click To Tweet

Hands-down, that’s what saved my marriage and brought us from awful to terrific. See Miracle or Quick Fix, in which I confess this what I learned during that process:

I had to commit to being the kind of Christ-follower God wanted me to be. Often we know what to do. We simply don’t do it. We find excuses for not being as loving, patient, selfless, and kind as we should. We don’t give the other person the benefit of the doubt. We focus on defending ourselves and thus offending our spouse. If God directly responded to many of our prayers for a better marriage, Jesus might simply pop into our living rooms long enough to say a “Woe unto you” for neglecting His commands.

What makes the difference?

Perhaps the difference between good marriages and bad marriages is our willingness to be humble about our shortcomings, forgiving of one another, and invite God into our relationship day after day after day.

That’s not a magic pill, but a daily regimen.

The good news is that I’ve been around long enough to see not just a few but many marriages go from awful to terrific. Yes, I’ve also seen some go from terrific to awful — and that stings for all involved. But there are a lot of happy marriages out there (see The Good News about Marriage by Shaunti Feldhahn), most of which required intentionality, effort, and grace.

There are a lot of happy marriages out there, most of which required intentionality, effort, and grace. Click To Tweet

Maybe your marriage is already there, but maybe it’s awful at the moment — which means it might just be pre-terrific. Don’t give up.

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35 thoughts on “Is Marriage Terrific or Awful?

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Jane Austen’s a good writer, but she’s also an idiot. Happiness in marriage, as in much of life, is to a large degree a matter of choice, not chance.

    Yesterday severe pain made me collapse in the yard, and a neighbour summoned EMS. My wife came home at told them not to bother transporting me, as I would not want to go in hospital, and I’m a DNR, Do Not Resuscitate. I’d rather die at home than with tubes stuck where they shouldn’t be.

    Today is rough, but there is always the choice available, to be happy in the midst of things. I could see the whole DNR thing as depressing, but I can also choose to see it as just another part of life, one that need not darken the beauty that remains.

    It’s the same with marriage. One can choose to overlook faults and foibles, and concentrate on supporting the good things that are in nearly every spouse, or one can concentrate on the things one thinks one lacks, that the ‘other’ isn’t providing. A lot of unhappiness in marriage comes from an inflated sense of entitlement, perhaps?

    The vows we take before God and community aren’t about what we’re entitled to receive; they are about what we promise to give.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Jane Austen is not an idiot, because she absolutely didn’t believe that. She had Charlotte, a character, say that line, and then her main character disagrees: “You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.”

      But I agree with you that we do always have a choice. Your theory of entitlement is a good point. And I’m so sorry for all your struggles. I pray God will give you peace and comfort.

      Reply
        1. J Post author

          No worries. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. My heart aches for you, and you are in my prayers.

          Reply
  2. Anonymous

    I believe the institution of marriage is neither good or bad. Good or bad marriages are formed by our decisions and actions in response to life. Of course our decisions are influence by many, many things such as our family of origin, education, friends, education and our DNA.

    Reply
  3. Holyterror

    The fundamental point of marriage which few people today understand: marriage is not designed to make you HAPPY, it’s designed to make you HOLY.
    Happiness is frequently a byproduct of a holy-making marriage, but it’s not the purpose.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      Where is that in the Bible? I truly want to know. I can’t find it. I can see where marriage is encouraged so you do not commit sexual sin outside of marriage, but I do not see where it is either the cause or effect of holiness. I thought God’s grace and the sacrifice of His Son is what makes us holy. We can pursue holy behavior by trying to model Christ and do His will in our lives, but we cannot make ourselves or our spouse or the institution of marriage holy in itself. So many people use this phrase. What is the Biblical passage where it is found?

      If I, as an abused wife, have to sit through another sermon of “marriage is to make you holy instead of happy” with tears streaming down my face, my stomach in knots, and the oppressive weight it gives me from the spirit of hopelessness and despair…..I seriously may throw up or lose it. If I have to have that phrase glibly punched into my gut, then someone please at least give me specific scriptures that show that it is God’s directive, not well intentioned but fallible church rhetoric.

      Reply
      1. J Post author

        Oh, my dear sister, that’s not what this phrase means. And if someone told you it did, they are wrong. Yes, marriage can cause us to become more holy by applying God’s holiness to that relationship; that is, to have a good marriage, you have to lessen your selfishness and consider the other person (Philippians 2:3-4), struggle through challenges that should cause us to rely more on God than ourselves (1 Peter 5:7), and face opportunities to live out the biblical view of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).

        But taking abuse does not make us holy. I hate the idea sometimes perpetuated that unnecessary suffering somehow makes us like Jesus. In John 10, people tried to stone Jesus, but He didn’t stand there and take it — “he escaped their grasp.” Why? Because it wasn’t the suffering that made Him holy, but He was holy and then suffered for that. He faced persecution when He had to, when it was His calling for the cross.

        The idea that marriage is intended to make you holy is a core principle of Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas, but please go read this post from him about abuse in marriage: Enough Is Enough. And then go get help from someone who believes that God wants you to be safe and loved. Because He does.

        Praying for you.

        Reply
      2. Erin

        I so agree. After hearing from my depressed husband that I made him want to kill himself and did it bother me that he didn’t care who he had sex with he just wanted a female body and I was the only option, I said to a coworker “I never expected marriage to make me so sad”. She responded with “well marriage is meant to make us holy no happy”.

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          What?! *slams head on desk*

          Go forth and find ye better and wiser friends. I wrote once about finding supportive friends, and some of the ideas there apply here: .

          For the time being, I’ll be the girlfriend that tells you plainly that’s malarkey. Indeed, when I was researching my book, Intimacy Revealed, I learned more about the verse that says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). You don’t sharpen iron by blunt force or hard hitting; rather, it’s a slow process of removing the burred edges of the iron. THAT is what becoming holier in marriage looks like, not being physically or verbally or sexually mistreated.

          Here’s another book worth looking at: Boundaries in Marriage by John Townsend and Henry Cloud.

          Reply
      3. Amy

        Dear Anonymous,
        Please dear sister, find help!
        I would encourage you to go to these websites to find out the truth about abuse and God’s Word:
        https://cryingoutforjustice.com/
        https://lightfordarktimes.com/ (a pastor who writes about abuse from a biblical perspective)
        https://www.leslievernick.com/blog/
        http://www.hurtbylove.com/blog/
        https://graceformyheart.wordpress.com/
        and lastly, my own blog about my experience of an abusive marriage:
        https://lifeinspiredthoughts.wordpress.com/

        Marriage does not make us holy, accepting God’s grace and salvation does.
        If you are living in an abusive marriage, that is NOT okay nor will it make you holy, it will only destroy you.
        I pray for you to find the support you need to free yourself from the abuse, for God hates violence and destructiveness of one spouse towards the other within marriage.

        Praying….

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          Honestly, it took me a couple of days to let this post through, because I had to find time to check out the links. I cannot vouch for everything on these sites, but they all seem to be committed Christians passionately speaking into abusive situations. And I have been to Amy’s site, which I will vouch for. Thanks, Amy, for sharing these resources. Anonymous, I hope you find something helpful here. God loves you so much and wants you to “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

          Reply
          1. Anonymous

            Thank you, J, for allowing my comment through. I didn’t even think when I wrote it about all the links in it, but they truly are very helpful and credible blogs for those dealing with abusive situations.

  4. Terry

    “I don’t believe in soul mates. If God created a single person out there intended for you, that strikes me as a cruel shell game to try to find them. ”

    I don’t use the term “soul mate,” but I do believe that God has one special, “best” person in mind for everyone. And finding that person might be a cruel shell game if God did not bring the two people together. I don’t think this idea competes with living out the gospel, but enhances it as my husband brings out my best qualities like (I believe) no other man could have, and otherwise shores up my weaknesses, as I do his. This allows both of us to go out into the world, serve, love people and share Christ because we’re not fighting a two-front battle, both out in the world and at home. And if other couples look at our marriage and wonder what we have that they don’t, then God is glorified all the more.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      That’s definitely a good way to look at it: that God will lead you to that right person.

      But my concerns remain in that:
      1. Marriages happened in the Bible for all kinds of reasons, and God never intimates that marriage problems are the result of not marrying the right person per se. Yes, marrying a pagan was denounced, but not someone who just seemed incompatible.
      2. What do you tell someone whose marriage doesn’t experience what you have? (“My husband brings out my best qualities like (I believe) no other man could have, and otherwise shores up my weaknesses, as I do his.”) I know spouses who have left a marriage, breaking up a family, by claiming that the messed up choosing that person and God really has a different soul mate in mind for them.

      I do believe compatibility matters and that some choices are definitely better than others. But I remain convinced that the Word of God focuses on having a successful marriage not by finding and marrying that one right person, but by two people (whomever they are) committing to being the right people for one another.

      Surely we’ll one day discover in Heaven exactly how God worked all this out.

      Reply
      1. Terry

        People did get married for many reasons in biblical times, but not necessarily the “right” ones – arranged marriage, marriages of convenience, taking a wife from among the captives, etc., and husbands and wives may well have put up with each other because they had to. But like slavery and even polygamy (prior to Mosaic law), God may have simply acknowledged these type of arrangements even though they weren’t His original plan, while still expecting spouses to honor their vows due to the larger picture at stake. And we do see examples in scripture of couples who were clearly incompatible and had obvious marriage issues (although again this did not warrant divorce) – e.g., Abigail and Nabal (Nabal was a moron), Jacob and Leah (Jacob did not love her), Jezebel and Ahab (Ahab was dominated by his wife – although neither was a believer anyway).

        I certainly would not advocate for leaving a marriage due to “incompatibility,” short of outright physical or emotional abuse (and even then separation and counseling would be preferable to divorce); but I do think that people should take a long look at a potential spouse so as to avoid that I-married-the-wrong-person “realization” (for lack of a better term). And I don’t describe my marriage to be boastful but out of gratitude for something that apparently so few couples have. I would venture to guess that just as people who are saved at a young age and grow up in the faith experience less hardship as a consequence of sin (although there are no guarantees), those who seek God’s will from a young age are more likely to find their “one” partner. And just as there may be a “backup plan” for those who are saved in their 20’s or 30’s, there may be an “alternate” spouse when/if the “best” one is no longer an option. I’m speculating of course, and I agree that God is sovereign and we’ll never know for sure this side of Heaven.

        As for “being the right people for one another”, I could see the potential for a bad marriage to make me more like Christ; but even if I myself committed to being the right person for a domineering (though not abusive), always-has-to-be-right husband (which I have what-ifed about), a good marriage would still be a two-way street. Even if he were a believer I could so see myself wilting upon ending up in a 1’x1′ square in the corner after all of his emotional space had taken up the rest of the room. I wouldn’t want to limit what God can do in me or in someone else, but most people (including me) are only going to change so much this side of Heaven. Thankfully speculation is moot because I married someone I didn’t have to change, and I tell him frequently how glad I am that I didn’t marry a jerk. In summary I can see your point about the sanctifying side of marriage (which still applies for us), but considering other scenarios still makes me bristle.

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          I hear what you’re saying. I agree that we should prayerfully make the decision of who to spend our lives with. Absolutely true.

          But what you conjectured in your final paragraph is not at all what I meant by being the right people for one another. Rather, I believe TWO people committed to Christ, loving as 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 describes, putting effort into their relationship and nurturing intimacy…can have a good marriage.

          Reply
  5. Wayne

    My quick answer to the question is marriage is hard – but well worth it when it’s good, and ours is good on balance after 24 years (in May). So it follows that there are some awful moments, and some terrific ones. The good news for us — and my wife feels this even more strongly about this than I do — is the awful moments have been the result of spiritual attacks from the outside by an overwhelming margin.

    I too feel like I want to throw or hit something, or scream, when I hear yet another recycled cliche. I’d like to pass that on to the anonymous sister, and I hear her cry about the whole “happy vs. holy” discussion – and I’m not even in an abusive marriage. My son-in-law and I actually had a fairly lively discussion about this not too long ago, but long experience with him has taught me it’s pointless to debate it with him. So instead I asked him in what context he had heard that preached. He said he’d get back to me on that. I’m still waiting. However, without context anything can become a cliche, or a pointless exercise in semantics. My Bible is not a book of cliches.

    I’ll have to remind him that that discussion is not something you want to try to feed to an abused spouse, if it comes up again. I think he would agree with that much.

    There is one other aspect of terrific vs. awful moments that comes to mind, too. When I read Stasi Eldredge and her husband John’s book on marriage, she called loneliness in marriage the loneliest place on earth, and I could instantly relate. I wonder if she sees such loneliness as more prevalent among women, since she mentioned it twice – John doesn’t mention it at all. I don’t know, what do you think?

    Maybe that last part makes me an unusual guy (somewhere my wife is nodding her head in agreement), but she wouldn’t like it if I were like everybody else. And vice versa.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      On the loneliness question, I hear from both wives and husbands who, sadly. feel lonely in their marriage. I suspect wives are more likely to say it, though. Husbands often suffer in silence. Not to say that wives don’t as well, but by and large, women have larger support networks throughout their lives than men. That’s not a scientific answer, but my two cents based on experience.

      Reply
  6. Fonz

    Well, this is actually a simple question. Of course marriage is wonderful, because it is created by God. However, due to the state of affairs, even the apostle Paul advised *against* marriage. To make things worse, the commands God through Paul gave to married Christians for a somewhat happy marriage, are by large masses of people completely ignored. To add to that, many people live lives full of sin, hating the people most close to them. The end result? Marriage is completely awful in practice for most people (to the point where divorce rates have reached 50%, even for “Christian pastors”)

    My advice? I can only follow St Paul here: don’t marry, but if you must, at least make sure your future husband or wife fully agrees to God’s commands on marriage (your body belongs to your spouse for sexual pleasure, don’t separate or divorce, husband head of the wife, wife submits to husband, husband leads wife by sacrificial love) through Paul.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Paul spoke to a specific context, and we should remember that. God’s Word as a whole is marriage-positive. And I do know situations where people are not ignoring God but their marriages are struggling terribly. That was our situation. Yes, looking back, we were not fully living out God’s commands, but we were not in complete rebellion either. I also know couples who had a really difficult time in their marriage because of baggage or external circumstances (e.g., death of a child) that made the journey so much harder. While we should call them to godly love, I have great compassion for their situation as well.

      By the way, your summary of God’s commands on marriage could be debated. (For example, “your body belongs to your spouse for sexual pleasure”? Actually, 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 is more about mutuality than possession.) But I do appreciate that choosing a mate who also follows the Bible and Christ is an important foundation for a healthy, holy, and happy marriage.

      Reply
      1. Fonz

        Of course I quickly summarized on commands on marriage; careful study of relevant passages in 1 Co 7, Eph 5, 1 Pet 3 etc. will reveal the details. E.g. 1 Co 7:4 “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” The mutuality here is that both spouse have the authority of the other spouse’s body. the context is about sexuality. Hence “your body belongs to your spouse for sexual pleasure”, which holds mutually for both spouses.

        Out of curiosity, what context do you think Paul spoke of when he instructed that it is better not to marry? Do you think his command is not applicable anymore?

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          1 Corinthians 7 begins with, “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” So apparently, there were some suggesting that celibacy was a higher ideal, an idea which Paul debunks with his statement that sex should be mutual in marriage and not withheld. Then, there was sexual immorality occurring, which Paul addresses with the reiteration that sex should be happening exclusively in marriage. And Paul isn’t speaking a command, but rather wisdom addressed to the believers of his time when he says, “Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is” (ESV).

          Reply
  7. Fonz

    Thanks for sharing. Why do you think what Paul is telling is not a command? If something is not a command from the Lord, can it not still be a command to follow? Furthermore, you ignore some other verses in 1 Co 7

    8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.

    38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

    Now verses 8 and 9 are not introduced with “I have no command from the Lord”, so for these it is harder to argue that singleness is NOT better than marriage.

    Furthermore, you write “in view of the present distress”; if you think what Paul wrote was only valid during “the present distress”, when did distress end according to you?

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      This theological discussion, while interesting, is diverging from the main point. If you have a different take, fine. But I’ll let my comments stand. I think they are sufficient, and people should go read for themselves, and I need to move on.

      Reply
      1. Fonz

        You choose to respond to my point that Paul shows a preference of staying single above being married, and you indicated you think Paul was not saying that for all people for all times. You have not shown why Paul’s advice is not for all people for all times and don’t wish to further discuss it, I’m fine with that, but that leaves the matter unsettled on the matter if it’s better to stay single or to marry. We can agree on many of the other points mentioned.

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          It’s not that I can’t or don’t want to have this exchange. But in the limited amount of time I have, this isn’t in line with my core mission. I think it’s better to marry, but some people are called to singlehood. But yeah, let’s stick with what we agree on. Thanks.

          Reply
  8. mepharisee

    Thank you. It is a breath of fresh air to hear someone else who has found the real solution. Many people think Jesus might save them eternally, but never see how He wants to save us now. In our predicaments. I would say my marriage now is great. I married my best friend. My wife. My lover. After 27 yrs of marriage I can say I am still in love with her. She is amazing.

    That’s not without almost getting divorced though. The answer I found, & am still working on today, is God’s plan. I was raised Christian, yet ran my life into the ditch. Separation wasn’t a result I wanted, nor did God. After my panic driven attempts to save my marriage God showed me the solution. It wasn’t fix this or change that. It was get me right with Him. Me. All of me. In order to become the man my wife could be married too I had to become a child of God. A man that pleases God whether I stayed married or became divorced. I quit trying to save us & let Jesus lead me.

    That’s the short version. My wife & I have both grown & still are. The dynamic has changed over time from train wreck to terrific. It’s amazing what a right path, patience, & trusting God at His Word will do.

    Reply

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