August 23, 2019

6 Ways to Grow Back Together

Gary Thomas — 

Emily and William were deeply in love fifteen years and three children ago, but time and responsibility have taken their toll.

“In the end, we’re different people who want different things. I’m just not sure we can make it work anymore,” Emily said, and William nodded in agreement.

The cynical side of me wanted to ask, “What’s not working?” while pointing to pictures of their three beautiful children, a comfortable home, and a slew of memories, but I knew what Emily meant.  They didn’t want to be roommates and parenting partners anymore. They wanted to be married again.

The common thought during this not uncommon stage of a marriage is to assume it’s simply “easiest” to start over with someone new. I can understand this sentiment, but absent abuse, adultery, or severe addiction issues, it’s almost never true. Divorce is never an “easy” option even when necessary. The preferred plan that honors our vows to each other and to God is to build a new marriage with an old spouse.

I’ve qualified for the Boston marathon three times but would be hard pressed to come within twenty minutes of qualifying today because I haven’t been doing the little things you have to do to run long and fast: run a certain mileage base, maintain a certain body weight, perform speed workouts. Having once been in shape—even for a long period of time—doesn’t guarantee that I stay in shape. Once I stop doing what keeps me in shape, my fitness level decreases.

To requalify today, I wouldn’t need to find a new body, a new heart, or buy new legs. I’d just need to train my old heart and my old legs to do what I know they are capable of doing by performing the same things I did before, faithfully and persistently. It’ll take time. If I’m seriously out of shape, I can’t decide to get back in shape in one day, or even one week. It’s going to take several months of persistent, faithful training.

The same thing is true for marital intimacy. If your marriage has been drifting, you can’t turn the passion back on overnight. You have to start feeding it slowly and patiently wait for it to come back to you, still pressing forward even when you don’t see initial returns. But trust me: the happiest road is found by putting in the effort to reconnect with your current spouse instead of seeking a new one.

Set Your Goal. Tell your spouse what you want, but do it as a commitment from you:  “I want to be the best husband in the world; where should I start?”

“I want us to be the close couple we used to be. What do I need to change for that to happen?”

Listen to Each Other Again. When we lose empathy, intimacy shrivels. Renew your curiosity about your spouse’s frustrations with life, vocation, relationships, health, etc. It may sound simple, but it’s true and effective: questions for more information are the lifeblood of marriage.

In Cherish, I talk about Dr. John Gottman’s observation that a healthy marriage is one in which each partner is capturing about ninety percent of each other’s “bids”—comments, questions, and communications. Tuning each other out slowly kills our marriages. Learn to pay attention again. Make it a game—if you currently catch fifty percent of your spouse’s bids, aim for eighty the next day. And build on that even more by asking follow-up questions.

Laugh. Go to a Christian based Comedy Date Night. Get together with those friends who regularly leave the four of you holding your side. Play with a baby. If you can’t remember the last time you’ve laughed together, it’s like trying to be married while holding your breath. At least once a month, be intentional about a “laugh date.”

Pray for and then serve someone outside your home. Selfishness is spiritual rust. It spreads and gets worse over time. Having an outward focus—another couple, another family, another ministry—that you pray about, give to, and serve will do more for you than it will for them. If your marriage is only about your house, your bank account, and your kids, it’s too isolated to thrive. Jesus urges us to seek first God’s kingdom, not ours (Matthew 6:33).

Praise Each Other Every Day. Most marriages have tiny moments of frustration just about every day. “Why would you say that?” “How come you didn’t call?” Over time, these build up until the weight of them crushes our affection. One intentional praise is like taking five of those frustrations away: “I’m so thankful that I can always count on you.” “Sometimes I watch you with the kids and am just amazed at how good of a parent you are.”

Read a Book. Romans 12:2 says we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. If you’re serious about your marriage, you’ll read at least one book on Christian marriage a year (or perhaps listen to an audible book as you drive). Marriage is too important of a relationship not to regularly stretch your mind to remember your first vows.

I’m often surprised when people seem shocked that Sacred Marriage isn’t my only marriage book, so just in case, when it comes to marriage I’ve written:

Sacred Marriage: What If God Designed Marriage to Make us Holy More than To Make Us Happy?

Devotions for a Sacred Marriage

(For women) Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband

A Lifelong Love: How to Have Lasting Intimacy, Friendship, and Purpose in Your Marriage

Cherish: The One Word that Changes Everything for Your Marriage

I’m hesitant to mention others, because then I’m asked why I didn’t include other books and many of these authors are friends, so ask around. One that recently came out, Vertical Marriage by Dave and Ann Wilson, is certainly worth a read. It would be a good follow-up to Sacred Marriage if you’ve already read that.

Sheet Music by Kevin Leman gets a lot of attention for those wanting to give a boost to their sexual intimacy; Trading Places by the Parrotts is an excellent look at the importance of empathy in marriage; and Kingdom Marriage by Tony Evans and The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller both offer overall studies of Christian marriage in general.   


None of the above points are “magic elixirs” that will fix everything overnight. But if you steadily employ them over time, your marriage is likely to be back in shape, “marathon ready” in less time than you might think.

You can change your marriage without changing your spouse.  Couples do it all the time. Yes, it usually takes two, so I’m not faulting those of you who are in it on your own; this post may help, but it won’t “fix” your marriage. But if you and your spouse are both willing to grow back together, it can be done.

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11 responses to 6 Ways to Grow Back Together

  1. I’ve recently claimed a do-over with my husband. Things became very stale, our marriage wasn’t thriving at all, we were frustrating each other more than we were partnering with each other. Through a long journey, I came to realize a lot of it had to do with my selfishness–I was very inward focused. I felt I had to claim a “do-over” in order to have a marked beginning–from this point forward, things will be different. One of the “conditions” I made was that we would read a marriage book together. I recently heard your podcast on Focus on the Family where you discussed A Lifelong Love (yes, it was an older podcast)–there were so many things that really stood out to me! Would reading this book together be a good starting place? Or should we start with a different book?

  2. I would really love to have a relationship filled with the actions you outline, but as others have mentioned, TWO people need to pursue these activities. I am utterly alone in my marriage sometimes. It’s only until I ask for Separation or sadly Divorce will he acknowledge the aching pain that our marriage exacts upon me. I am 18 years into this marriage and would be devastated if it ends, but I’ve hung onto the knot at end of rope for many years. Your blog and emails are immensely helpful and I thank you for them. God bless you and the work you do. I

  3. It takes two to tango. When you want a relationship to change, both will have to change, otherwise the marriage will break. What to do if your better half thins everything is oke and nothing needs to change?

  4. Hard to do this on my own for years and years now. Just had (not celebrated) my 25th anniversary and my wife is so cold and disconnected it is hard for me to keep plugging away and be kind, serving and loving. I find myself harboring bitterness and resentment as she stonewalls me, gives all of her love and affection to our children and her friends and family. Even the dog gets more love and affection than I do.
    As I read over this list, i am 100 percent on board with everything. But a marriage takes two to tango and I have been danced solo for pretty much the last decade with no hope of having a dance partner anytime soon.

  5. I’ve been with my spouse for 25 yrs, married for 22. And for about 22 1/2 yrs it’s been filled with anger, resentment, adultery, lies, manipulation & struggle. The walking time bomb of anger (him) stopped about 10 yrs ago when I finally asked for divorce, he refused it, counseling, or separation. The Adultery finally stopped Sept 2017. I thought we could take off from there & be great…I was actually done being married when he finally decided to stop his affairs. He’s a Narcissist & some others too. I don’t think he’s actually stopped his online affairs (or others) actually, talking to him about fixing our marriage & working together, he gives lip service to, always has. I would rather have the happy marriage I had hoped we’d have, going into our “old years”, but we’ve been roommates & parental partners for far longer then we were ever happy. There’s more times where walking away is the better option then trying, but the gluten for punishment part of me, keeps sticking my neck out to see if it can happen. But after hitting rock bottom 2 1/2 yrs ago & realizing that I was done trying to save our marriage, keep, repair, salvage or hang onto it any more…which was a rather shocking realization to me to know beyond a shadow of a doubt our marriage was officially dead….I started focusing on myself (& our kids) & pulling myself up out of the quagmire that I had been stuck in the whole time & realized that I wasn’t the dependent, weak minded, worthless person that I had turned into. And because of my choice to change back to who I was, he took noticed & sort of started changing. Though they don’t last long, it’s sort of like a cat & mouse game….he changes for a couple weeks or month, long enough to see if I’m going to go back to the old ways & when I don’t, then it’s time for our monthly argument & when I fail to engage (& some times I do), then he pops back into a happy go lucky mood like he was never a jerk 2 minutes prior.
    I don’t know how long you’ve been married, but after being married to a narcissist(etc.) as long as I have. You have to sit down & decide if you want to be roommates till death does part you or if it’s time to walk away. Only you will know when that time has come. As there will be no more excuses, options, choices. The answer will be as clear as day. Put your issues into God’s hands & ask Him to lead you to the right door to go through.
    For me, yeah divorce is the right choice (not the easy one, not even with the abuse & affairs), but the right one. But it took me all this time to get to where we could buy a house for our kids & being a stay at home mom for most of my marriage, I don’t have the income necessary to buy out his share of the home & I’m not going to be the cause of my kids losing their first & only home. So…I’ve chosen to stay & just live the best way that I can & help our kids to do better then what I’ve done. Outside of them……Nothing else matters. I lean on God when I need to (which is often LOL)

  6. Oh so good! Being in a fulfilling marriage of 30 years & empty nesters, I see “us” in this list of ideas! We are like new marrieds again with the place to our selves… and we are still learning about each other. Another excellent book besides Gary’s, Shuanti Feldhahn Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages.

  7. Showing and speaking Appreciation goes a loooooong way.

    The grass appears greener “on the other side”, but that’s bitter weeds which need mowing or turn brown.

  8. I love the analogy of the marathon trainer. This puts the need to grow your marriage in a very practical, day to day commitment kind of way. I hate it when people say, “You just have a good marriage.” No, we’ve worked at it for 40 years!
    Excellent post once again, Gary! Sharing it with our current marriage group—going through your Cherish videos.

  9. Gary – I am inone of those “one-sided” marriages, in that my wife, as great as she actually is, is also somewhat narcissistic and will not consider outside thoughts or information. Her basic response is “who are they to be telling me what to do?” How does one begin to inspire her to consider this type of good guidance? And yes, I’ve asked, emailed, shared my own efforts, applied them, etc.

    • Dennis, this is a fair question, but I’m not sure I have a good answer. It’s why I tell singles, if you don’t want to be married to (for instance) an angry person, don’t marry an angry person, because marriage rarely changes someone. And the same could be true of someone with a narcissistic bent. Part of marriage, when the issue isn’t blatant sin, is learning to live with our choice.

      You can find great joy, however, in being a loving husband when you’re “God centered” and loving His daughter out of reverence for Him. Second, you can learn to cherish an imperfect person, and I’ve got an entire chapter on that in Cherish. Third, you can try to get her to read a book like Linda Dillow’s fine “What’s It Like to Be Married to Me?” but it sounds like she may not be open to that. However, you could try this: “Give me one book to read, and I’ll give you one book to read” and maybe she’ll go along with that.

      I know this can feel like a lonely marriage. I’ve done a few blog posts on this if you scroll around–how spouses have navigated somewhat lonely or one-sided marriages. I don’t want to downplay the frustration at all. But I also don’t want to over-promise that such marriages are easy to “fix.”

      • There are red flags for those who are still dating, concerning the narcissistic person. They will never ask “What do you want to do/where do you want to go”…etc. You will not be able to buy the right gift…unless you ask. It is all about…them, no matter what is being considered.