Marriage in Trouble? Don’t Work Too Hard at It


When the resentment level was rising quickly in my first marriage, I heard lots of advice about working harder at being married. So I did. And when it didn’t work, the resentment rose twice as fast, until I knew I could stand no more.
No one said to me what I will say to you today. Unless you’ve been staying away, sleeping with someone else and leaving your spouse with all the chores and all the bills, do not work any harder at your marriage.
What you do for your spouse when you work hard at marriage doesn’t help. It’s actually manipulative, which is why you feel so much worse when it doesn’t have the effect you hoped for.
You know how to love well. You know how to make your spouse, this particular man or woman you married, feel loved. You know how to shower him or her with affection. I know this because you two are married. Unless you married to escape your parents’ home or an eviction notice, you’ve done a great job of loving your spouse.
And you would do it again in a flash if you felt loved. And respected. And cherished. No one would even need to suggest it. You’d do it because it’s what follows from feeling that way.
You’d do it brilliantly and with joy, not resentment.
So instead of working on your marriage, work instead on feeling loved.
Be present. Take your time. Notice more. Focus only on the positives. Erase “yes, but” from your mind. Remember your spouse’s strengths. Lock eyes and see if you still see your soul reflected back at you even a little bit. Smile or say thank you for anything that deserves it. Don’t wait for the resentment to drain away first.
Watch for signs you are trusted, respected, admired, cherished, wanted. Many of them are so ordinary after a few years together that they are easy to overlook. Pay attention.
Don’t try to love harder. Just try to feel the love you’re offered.
It’s like a seedling. At first, you’ll notice just a tiny bit of green poking out of the dirt. But then there will be two little leaves. And a stem will branch into two and sprout two more. And all four will grow larger, even as another stem branches off and starts anew. Flowers will bloom. Just keep adding the sunshine and water of your attention to the love you’re offered.
These have been missing as you focused your attention instead on what you thought your husband or wife ought to do to bring back your sense of being loved.
No one will need to tell you what to do next. When you feel loved, respected, and cherished, you are a great lover, an irresistible one for the man or woman who married you.
And two people in love are a powerful force. You won’t need manipulation to get what you need in a disagreement or a clash of interests when you’ve got a powerful ally again.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • This confirmation of the ability to love is very beautiful and poetic. Makes perfect sense to me – drop the “try harder” and start living and loving again. Thank you, Patty!

  • I am a 35 y/o father of 3 children whose wife of almost 11 years has had enough of the marriage. She says if she doesn’t move forward with the divorce she will lose herself.
    I’ve made a list of things I know she wanted me to work on. One of the major things is that we live right next to my parents and she has to act a certain way around them that isn’t quite herself. I don’t mind her being herself, but over the years this catering to my folks has made her angry and bitter.
    She is resentful towards me because of my inadequacies at solving logistical problems and I always disappoint her and above all, my inability to grow up out of my parents’ sphere.
    We had lofty dreams prior to marrying of traveling and adventure, but when our first child was born we couldn’t quite get the lid on controlling finances and spreading emotions between our subsequent children and, for her, my extended family.
    I had dreams of pursuing a graduate degree and a military career and ministry, but I had put that aside for years to help care for the children. Now, she is the one working full-time and I watch the kids.
    Naturally this became tiresome. I seemed unmotivated to her to continue my ambitions (although she would gripe before that my ambitions would drive us to the ground!), and became largely unattractive. I no longer pursued many of my youthful visions because I was focused on our kids.
    So she declared a separation, although we are still living together, and a month into it she is asking for a peaceful divorce.
    Initially I made the standard mistakes of begging and apologizing and got rejected every time. I am an emotional mess. I don’t know what we will do with the kids.
    She is spending a lot of time away from home, sometimes spending the nights at friends’ homes. I am not under illusions she’s not capable of having an emotional or even physical affair, but I asked her to let me know and that I preferred honesty, and she said she would tell me if there was something going on. It’s possible she’s just seeking affirmation from her friends. I don’t know. And I try not to pry.
    I am currently undergoing marriage coaching from two different experts, one says to affirm my wife’s desire to divorce so I can open a connection with her and have her relax and the relationship can rebuild. The other coach says not to enable this process and keep buying time and not make it easy. Then use other ways to rebuild.
    Both coaches are working with me to be more attractive and winsome.
    She has recently agreed to go to counseling, but only after divorce papers are filed and waiting for finalization. If I agree and file, then there may be a chance to find a good counselor and perhaps save the marriage. But if I go along with filing it would start an emotional and practical war over the children, property, finances and logistics which I am not willing to go through.
    I also cannot bear the thought of my children being half-raised by a step-father. They are already somewhat aware their parents aren’t in good terms with each other, and her absences are acutely felt, especially by our daughter, who is the youngest.
    I am trying to fight resentment against her, especially since she is willing to destroy this family to “find herself”. I understand where she is coming from, I just don’t believe divorce is the only option.
    What should I do? She seems convinced this is the only solution. I don’t know what to do at this point.

  • Jake, I don’t think you ought to focus on affirming or blocking the divorce. Divorce is not her goal. Finding herself again is. (And in truth, I think she’s going to be very surprised how little divorce does to help with this.)
    Can you join in helping her find herself? Can you offer to put some distance between her and your parents, whether it’s renting temporary quarters while the kids are out of school for the summer or setting fixed times for interacting with them, in their home, without your wife? (I can hear you saying “we can’t afford a summer home”, but I would argue that it is likely to cost a lot less than a divorce.)
    Can you volunteer to keep the kids while she gets out and invite her to share with you what she finds fun while she’s out, not in a jealous or snooping way, but to learn more about what activities might work for the two of you if you’re successful in joining her in her quest?
    Can you check in with her on those lofty dreams from before you had kids? And if you both still think they might be worth pursuing, can you do some research to start moving in that direction? You might research ways to travel on a shoestring, find adventures close to home, or begin to bring in income again, in a way that’s compatible with raising your children.
    And can you start looking for ways to provide whatever care your parents need in new ways that make your home more welcoming for the woman you love?
    Let her know you’re disappointed in where your lives went, too, and willing to make some big changes so that you both rediscover those people you were before responsibilities swamped you.
    It’s so easy to convince ourselves that large parts of our lives are unchangeable. I sure did before my husband died. But as soon as he died, I started questioning all of my assumptions about what was necessary. So much of it was not.
    I wish you two luck in putting things back together again.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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