From the beginning of their relationship, Jane and Simon felt as though they were soul mates, complementing one another in every area of their lives. People around them routinely said theirs was a dream relationship because they were so perfect for one another. A year into their marriage, though, Jane started to feel different. The easygoing nature that originally drew her to Simon became infuriating. She continually felt as though every decision was left to her because Simon couldn’t be bothered. Simon, on the other hand, wondered what happened to the woman he married. When they were dating, he was fine with letting her take the lead and was frustrated that, a year into their marriage, she was continually nagging him to decide where to eat, what to watch and where to go.

A year into Mark and Elizabeth’s marriage painted a similar picture. What once were conversations that dove into culture, theology and history were now arguments about why her parents were coming over again or why his mom continually undermined Elizabeth at family gatherings. In addition to their in-law struggles, they constantly disagreed about where their money was going and what was on their grocery list. It reached a point where they didn’t even want to talk to each other because every discussion would end up, inevitably, in a fight.

Adrian and Lydia similarly found themselves in a very different place a year after exchanging their vows. For Lydia, things started to feel like a struggle a few weeks after returning from their honeymoon, but she read books and sought advice from people on how to make her marriage everything it should be. She continually catered to Adrian’s needs, hoping that if she could make him happy, she would feel happy too. But it was never enough. Eventually, his disregard for her opinions and ideas left her keeping those thoughts to herself to avoid his often negative reactions.

What’s going on in these relationships?

Some might say that Jane and Simon are in a difficult relationship. Their struggles are too much to bear and there’s too much to fight about. It may seem as though Mark and Elizabeth are in a destructive marriage. Unable to say two words without arguing, they both feel isolated and frustrated in their relationship. Lydia’s plight may just be chalked up to disappointments based on unrealistic expectations about her husband and the reality of marriage.

But mislabelling a struggling marriage can cause great harm, not just to the relationship, but also to the individuals in that relationship.

What does it mean to have a disappointing marriage, a difficult marriage or a destructive marriage? And why is it so important to be able to tell the difference?

As a counsellor to struggling couples for over 35 years, Leslie Vernick has determined the key differences between these three relationships and what wives and husbands can do to not only improve their marriage but to also take care of themselves as God desires.

Disappointing marriages

Jane and Simon are in what Vernick calls a “disappointing marriage.”

“[The marriage] is not quite what we thought it would be,” she explains (1). “There’s not obvious sin, but there is some disappointment.”

Disappointing marriages may include:

  • Lack of romance
  • Not as much talking, sex or connection as expected
  • Lack of financial security or extra money for a new house, nice vacation, etc.
  • Lack of adventure or excitement
  • Boredom in the relationship

All of these things can add up, leaving a husband or wife to feel gypped because the perfect person they thought they married is just as flawed and real as every other person in the world.

How you respond when you’re disappointed in your marriage is what really matters.

You can recognise that every marriage is going to have frustrations, unmet expectations and disappointments, and communicate those disappointments with your spouse, thereby growing and maturing into a deeper relationship with them and with God. Or you can choose to let those daily disappointments go unspoken and grow into resentment, bitterness and anger that will inevitably lead to destructive behaviour toward them.

Vernick warns that letting a disappointing marriage grow into a destructive one can result in infidelity or divorce in the search of a more “perfect” partner.

If a spouse finds themselves disappointed in the relationship, they may benefit from personal counselling, practicing gratitude, unpacking expectations, or simply taking the time to get to know their spouse for who they are, not who they want them to be.

Difficult marriages

Mark and Elizabeth are in what Vernick describes as a “difficult marriage.”

“A difficult relationship is one in which there are many stressors pressing in on the couple that make the relationship challenging,” she explains. “And these stressors and difficulties in marriage can cause a lot of conflicts.”

Difficult marriages may include:

  • Blended family issues
  • In-law issues
  • Health challenges
  • Financial pressures
  • Job changes
  • Difficulties with children
  • Personality and cultural differences

Whereas a disappointing marriage originates within our own perspective of the marriage, difficult marriages are plagued by circumstances outside the relationship, but the two people within the marriage are still – at their core – on the same team. They don’t belittle each other or demean one another, but they may not know how to process their frustrations or resolve conflict in a healthy way.

How a couple handles those external challenges and their internal emotional responses will set them on a path for either a stronger relationship or a destructive one.

“If a couple in a difficult relationship can handle these stressors with mutual effort, compassion, respect and care, usually the relationship becomes stronger, not destructive,” Vernick says. “But if they don’t handle these stressors wisely, then that relationship can easily move into a destructive relationship.”

In a situation like this, a couple may benefit from short-term counselling, or workshopping communication and conflict resolution tactics such as Heart Talk or a conflict management process. Conferences and retreats such as Focus on the Family’s Marriage Enrichment program or Hope Restored may also be helpful options for couples who want to learn practical tools from trained marriage therapists when they find themselves feeling like life is pushing in on them.

Destructive marriages

Unlike Jane and Simon or Mark and Elizabeth, Adrian and Lydia are in what Vernick identifies as a “destructive marriage.”

“A destructive relationship is one that’s very different than just a disappointing relationship or even a difficult one,” Vernick explains. “It’s one in which the very personhood of the individual in the marriage is regularly disrespected, diminished or demeaned or even destroyed.”

Destructive marriages often include:

  • Absence of mutual care
  • Absence of mutual honesty
  • Absence of mutual respect
  • No effort at mutually repairing the relationship wounds
  • Lack of responsibility and accountability
  • A power dynamic where one spouse has more control than the other – whether physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, spiritually or all of the above
  • Wounds are diminished and denied
  • Blame is often transferred to the abused
  • Lack of freedom or feeling of safety to voice concerns
  • Strong reactions of badgering, pressure and punishment when concerns are voiced
  • Chronic deceit
  • Indifference to feelings and needs of the abused

Abusive or destructive marriages can often be difficult to identify because they all look different and they often appear very different to those outside the relationship than to those inside the relationship. Excuses can easily be made and moments of abuse may be written off as uncommon, but Vernick notes (2) that the important thing to look for is “repetitive attitudes and behaviours that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth.”

“In summary,” Vernick writes in her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, “an emotionally destructive marriage is one where one’s personhood, dignity and freedom of choice is regularly denied, criticised or crushed. This can be done through words, behaviours, economics, attitudes and misusing the Scriptures.”

In a destructive marriage, it’s important for the abused spouse to seek help and safety – and ultimately understand the simple truth that God sees your pain and does not desire you to continue in it. The article “8 truths to hold on to in a destructive marriage” can be a helpful place to start, but we recommend that if you are in a destructive relationship, you contact a counselling team.

Whether you’re in a disappointing, difficult or destructive marriage, it’s important for you to be able to name the reality of your challenging relationship in order to take appropriate steps to change and improve your marriage.

“Every marriage goes through seasons of closeness and separateness, happy times and hard times,” Vernick writes. “It is in marriage, more than any other relationship, where we come face to face with the best in ourselves and the absolute worst in ourselves, as well as the best and the worst in our spouse. How we do – or do not – face this awareness and respond to it becomes the running theme of our marital and personal story and will determine the success or failure of our marriage, and much of our life.”

1 Leslie Vernick, “The difference between a difficult, disappointing, and destructive marriage,” YouTube, August 26, 2013.

2 Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, WaterBrook, 2013.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Amy Van Veen

Editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

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