Why Marriage Is So Hard


We all know marriage is hard. But why is that? No two people agree 100% of the time. But many couples argue. Almost daily. Neither person feels like they are being heard. Other couples avoid conflict and lose connection in the process. So where do you begin when it seems you can’t win?

Well, you’re going to need to unlearn some things you believe, but just aren’t true about your mate. And you are going to have to replace that misinformation with the Truth about your Gender Differences, Miscommunication, Individual Personality Traits, and Expectations.

When you fall in love, you focus on the beauty of being with one another. And most men and women ignore – sometimes consciously – the underlying misunderstandings and disconnections occur.

But sooner rather than later, they will make your marriage difficult.

After more than 20 years counseling individual and couples, and training other counselors to work with couples, I have observed the primary factors that make marriage so hard.

In each case, instead of enjoying and/or appreciating our individual differences, we resist them. Usually out of fear.

But when couples understand each other’s personality traits and personal history, they begin to find better ways to be together.

They can appreciate and enjoy their differences, while finding healing and growth for each of them, as well as for their marriage.

A Difficult Marriage Does Not Have to End in Divorce

I know the pain of divorce. First my parents’. Then my own. At 40 years of age, I began college to achieve my lifelong goal of becoming a psychologist. Now I work with men and their wives.

Because I don’t want anyone to go through what my family did.
But also because the vast majority of marriages could be saved!

NOTE: Serious issues (such as domestic violence, infidelity, addictions, PTSD, childhood abuse) make marriage really difficult and usually require professional help to resolve. Those issues must be resolved before you can safely and effectively resolve these more universal problems.

What are the most common problems virtually every couple encounters?

I wholeheartedly believe that – with the right information and tools – you can do a lot to get your marriage on track without professional counseling. The following is intended to help you get started on your journey.

Misunderstanding Gender Differences is the first thing that will make your marriage difficult.

We need to stop criticizing and making fun of our mate’s God-given gender differences. And stop reading stuff from those who claim to help marriages when they are – in fact – teaching that it’s acceptable and normal for you to humiliate your mate. Even in public. Two top Christian Marriage “experts” do that repeatedly. And they dishonor and devalue their own mates in the process. Makes me so very sad … & angry. Please don’t listen to them!

No, wives are not crazy. And husbands are not stupid.

But men and women are different. Always have been. Always will be. We prefer it that way. But our differences go far beyond how physically strong we are or the way we dress.

We are different at the DNA level. No amount of social, physical, or personality adaptations can change that fact.

  • Women have two X chromosomes.
  • Men have only one.

I often think of that missing “leg” (i.e., XX has one more “leg” than XY) as if it were “Adam’s Rib” in the biblical account of CreationOpens in a new tab.. What Adam gained in the beautiful mate God designed especially for him more than made up for what he lost in the process of her creation.

… the man was not created because the woman needed him; the woman was created because the man needed her.

1 CORINTHIANS 11:9, TPTOpens in a new tab.

Yes, from the beginning, man is the one who is lacking something.

In the second chapter of Genesis, The Story gets really good. I love the way the Lord shows us more detail about just how He creates Adam. He tells us man is formed from the dust of the ground, and that God Himself breathes into Adam the Breath of Life.

Then He sets the man down – smack in the middle of Eden – with enjoyable and fruitful work to do (pun intended). Adam is now the Resident Gardener with amazing freedom. He can eat anything he wants … except for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That sounds easy enough, yes? I’m sure Adam thought so, too.

Now we get to the really good part. Well, it’s actually the “no-so-good” part. That is, what is not-so-good at that point – compared to everything else, which is good – is that Adam is alone. He needs his own Someone. So God does surgery … while Adam’s sleeping, of course. The Lord removes a rib to create his Someone – Someone just for him.

Can you imagine Adam’s excitement when he wakes up?

A totally cool setup – just for him. He already has the whole world at his fingertips. Lots of food. Freedom to putter around in a lavish Garden. Then God gives him a wife, too? She’s the perfect addition to make his life the Paradise God wanted him to enjoy.

That’d be better than having control of the remote, don’t you think? Besides, they were the only two people on Earth at that point … and the football hadn’t been invented yet.

Just think about it. Adam has everything going for him. The Garden is pure pleasure for all his senses. Sight, sound, fragrance, taste, touch.

Nevertheless, the Lord thinks of one thing more He wants for Adam.

God sees Adam’s need, and gives him the Perfect Partner. His Bride is there to rescue him from being alone. Now he has a companion – Someone like him – only different – very different. Someone with whom he can enjoy the pleasures of God’s Creation. Plus they are both totally naked. She’s beautiful beyond words … and totally irresistible.

Adam names her Eve.

He can hardly believe his luck! No competition anywhere. Complete Freedom, and no 2-hour commute to work 5 days a week. Plus Endless Rapture with his Sweet Companion. Sex with her whenever he’s in the mood – which I’m guessing is pretty much all the time.

And Eve’s only desire is to be beside her Dearest Husband, to give herself completely to him, and to bask in his love. She experiences his desire for her as pure Joy and Bliss.

No meals to cook. No dishes to wash. No house to clean. No kids to pick up after. And no dirty laundry to do. Only a totally Hot Husband who adores her. Lucky girl!

Learning to look at gender differences in this way, what seemed difficult in your marriage, at least on the surface, turns into your delight! Just as it was when the two of you first met … only better.

Marriage Is Often Hard Because You Speak Different Languages

At the beginning of each meeting with a couple, I check in to see how things have been going the previous week.

A report from one husband:

“We were sitting at Starbucks, having this great conversation, enjoying the morning. Then all of a sudden, she glazed over and refused to talk. I don’t get it. I couldn’t figure out what happened, and she refused to tell me.”

Or a wife reports something like this:

“I was talking about what we’d learning in our last session, and he suddenly got angry. He made a sarcastic comment, and then wouldn’t talk anymore. I thought we were making progress. What happened?”

Like the folks at the Tower of Babel, everything seemed to be going well. Then all of a sudden, they lost their ability to communicate. They didn’t realize it, but they were actually speaking different languages … although it still sounded a lot like English to both of them.

So why does that kind of miscommunication happen so often between men and women?

By now, we all know that a man is more sensitive than a woman. And he’s vulnerable to different things than she is. So most of the time, a woman has absolutely no clue that she might be saying or doing anything that could be even remotely related to attack, blame, or criticism.

This is where we need to understand the power of our language, and that words often hold very different meanings for a man than they do for a woman.

For example, I was counseling an engaged couple who had hit a roadblock on their way to the altar (metaphorically, not literally). As they struggled to understand one another, the woman looked at her fiancé and said,

“I hate that I’m causing you so many problems. Maybe you’d be better off without me. Maybe it’d be better if I just walked away.”

You can understand that statement, right? She sounds like she’s willing to sacrifice her happiness for his.

That’s not what he heard at all! What he actually heard was,

“You’d better get your act together, Bud, or I’m outta here.”

He was deeply wounded by her statement and didn’t want it to show. So he stiffened his upper lip, and shut her out … to protect himself.

When I translated how he heard her statement, she looked at us both in disbelief. Then he confirmed my translation from female expressive language into male receptive language.

What she’d said was not what he had heard.

His sensitivity to rejection … to not being good enough … to his failure to please her … had colored the meaning of her words. He was listening though the filter of his emotions … through his vulnerability and intense fear of being found inadequate.

We misinterpret one another’s body language, too.

Dr. Deborah Tannen is an expert in the field of interpersonal communication. She conducted a study of same-sex pairs of children (elementary school through high school) who were asked to take two chairs into a room and wait there for the researcher.

I used to show video clips of this study in my class at Azusa Pacific University. It was amazing to watch.

  • The female pairs were consistently engaged in face-to-face conversation as they were waiting for the experimenter.
  • Conversely, the boys placed their chairs in a side-by-side configuration, rarely saying more than a few words to one another and avoiding eye contact.

So just how do you think this tendency might play out in conversations between men and women?

For a man, the face-to-face approach may make him feel like he’s being challenged … especially if his woman is upset. Instinctively, he prepares to defend himself. And as every football fan knows, the best defense is a good offense. Which tends to be not-so-good for her.

Tip: One of the best ways to get a man – of any age – to talk to you is simply to engage in a joint activity that puts you side-by-side. Then let your conversation flow naturally, and before you know it, he’ll be talking about more serious stuff.

Find an enjoyable activity (or semi-enjoyable activity, like washing dishes) that he would like you to do together that puts you side-by-side.

  • Don’t pressure him to start talking.
  • Just listen and see what happens.

NOTE: For women, the side-by-side approach may feel like her man isn’t that interested in her … or that he simply doesn’t give a rip about whatever she’s saying. If she feels like she’s being ignored, she’ll “hit” harder with her words, trying to get him to respond to her.

Which makes marriage more difficult than it needs to be.

Couples who don’t appreciate their mate’s unique personality will have a harder time with marriage.

Which of these statements is true?

  • Opposites attract.
  • Birds of a feather flock together.

I have a theory about that. Working with all ages throughout the years, I’ve noticed that younger couples tend to pick someone with an opposite personality type. Older couples, however, tend to be drawn to someone who is more like themselves.

At least that’s what I’ve noticed, both in my clinical practice, as well as in my social interactions. What about you? What have you noticed? Is your partner more like you or your opposite, personality-wise.

I have often used a questionnaire to give couples a snapshot of their relationship when we begin working together. Among the characteristics measured are personality traits, which are those aspects of a person’s personality that remain relatively stable over time.

For example, an extrovert is not likely to turn into someone who prefers being alone all the time. And someone who favors stability and avoids change probably won’t suddenly decide they want to “just go with the flow.”

So if these traits are stable, we need to find ways to appreciate and maximize the benefit of each trait. Trying to change another person doesn’t work. It will just make them angry. And more determined theirs is the “correct” way of being.

Finally, we to deepen our expectations.

Your family, friends, pastor, and premarital counselor will tell you that your marriage is not going to be romantic. The romance is going to disappear. That’s a given. You might as well accept it.

So we start to expect that. Then something goes a little sideways. And we automatically think “the honeymoon’s over.”

We set up expectations that are so incredibly low. It’s no wonder we fail.

We’re going to work towards what we believe is possible. And if we’ve been told it’s impossible from the beginning – either from watching our own parents or from people who are trying to give us advice – it won’t work.

The answer to that is to realize that marriage is actually meant to grow and deepen over time. I mean think about it:

  • You marry your best friend.
  • He’s sexy and cute.
  • He’s funny and brilliant.

Why not focus on enjoying all those good things about him?

Then when you look at what is it about him that you don’t get, you want to understand that part of him better. Now you’re on a lifelong treasure hunt to find the good of this guy!

Yes, I have met guys that have been so wounded, who have had put up such strong defenses, that they actually are mean and cruel.

But most of the guys – I would say anywhere from 75 to 95% of men are actually really good guys!

But men don’t understand any more about women than women understand about men.

Men have been told that there’s no way you can understand a woman. Women are beyond a man’s ability to comprehend. So they just shake their heads and give up.

But as women you know that’s not true. We’re really simple and very straightforward. We just use a different language than the guy does.

When I was teaching at Azusa Pacific University, I would tell my undergrad students,

“Don’t marry someone that you like where they are now. The person who seems to fit you perfectly. Instead, marry somebody that you want to spend the rest of your life getting to know. Because it’s going to take that long. It’s a great adventure. There’s so much good inside a spouse. And it’s your job to find that treasure.”

When I was a professor at Azusa Pacific UniversityOpens in a new tab., I was asked to assist a student with her research. She wanted to expose Hollywood’s unrealistic, high expectations for romance.

I disagreed with her premise. She held to her bias and moved on.

I believe that romantic movies illustrate Our Dream of Loving and Being Loved. But most importantly, those expectations far from being too high.

Our expectations for marriage are too shallow!

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement:

“God didn’t create marriage to frustrate us, test us, or to make us feel unworthy or inadequate. He created marriage to be the most fulfilling and sacred of all human covenants. It was designed to be passionate and rewarding and to meet our deepest needs and desires. And it was meant to last a lifetime.”

Jimmy Evans, Pastor

So What Can One Person Do When a Marriage is Difficult?

If your situation is one of the first four listed, you can seek professional help – with or without your spouse. Working on healing and growing yourself is your best approach.

But if your marriage is best described by one of the latter challenges, learn all you can about how the opposite sex operates. Then experiment by applying the suggestions provided and evaluate the outcome. Remember you will have to be consistent. Otherwise, it feels like manipulation. And manipulation leads to drama, not real change.

I look forward to hearing from you. So let me know how it goes!

Did anything change? Do you have more questions?

Finally, keep learning and, whether you experience success or failure, always remember to keep moving toward your higher callingOpens in a new tab..

DrDebiSmith

Dr. Debi is passionate about helping Christian couples & single adults learn more effective ways to apply Biblical principles & the findings of psychological research to everyday life. She is an author & former *professor, as well as a California Licensed Psychologist (21711) & a Texas Licensed Psychologist with Provisional Status (38600). At this time, she is not accepting new patients so she can devote more time to writing & creating educational programs for couples. * Dr. Debi has taught psychology courses at MidAmerica Nazarene University, Azusa Pacific University, & Biola University.

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