“Don’t give up on your marriage” is a favored line from people who love the marriage institution.
Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with loving marriage: the problem is when the marriage relationship is elevated above the individuals.
It’s when we focus on helping all marriages succeed without acknowledging that some relationships are harmful and meant to be exited.
So let’s talk about Christian marriage advice and why the “don’t give up on your marriage” talk is often directed at the wrong spouse, i.e., the suffering spouse—instead of the betraying, deceptive, abusive, neglectful, controlling one.
I asked this question on my Facebook page and got many great answers, and today’s post is a combination of our thoughts.
Let’s dive in.
Reasons Why “Don’t Give Up on Your Marriage” Advice Is Directed To The Wrong Spouse
1. External demeanor vs. private behaviors
For the most part, problematic spouses present well in public, compared to the suffering spouse, whose goal is not to lie and manipulate.
She might also “present well” in public, but at some point, it becomes impossible to hold up the facade of a good marriage.
And that’s when outsiders pick on her stress, anxiety, or boundaries and label her the problematic one, believing her demeanor is indicative of who is to blame for problems—not recognizing that her body and spirit have hit a breaking point and have drawn a line.
2. Tendency to distribute responsibility
People will say, “don’t give up on your marriage” because they tend to distribute responsibility. They’ll say things like, “It takes two to tango. So what’s your part in this?”
The truth is, a healthy marriage takes two, but a harmful marriage takes just one. See 20 Things Not to Say to People in Harmful Marriages
3. Preservation of the marriage institution
Advice givers love to urge the suffering spouse to stay and fight because many Christians want to preserve the marriage institution. The spouse at their breaking point is an easy mark for their wishes.
Toxic, misogynistic ideas like women are easily deceived, or women are complainers and nags who must be pushed and reminded to do the right thing are still very much with us.
And so, by encouraging women to stick it out, many Christians believe they are doing the world of marriage a great service.
5. The belief that all problems are created equal.
Many Christians don’t understand the difference between regular (not necessarily acceptable) marriage problems and destructive individual problems in marriage.
“They think abusive marriages are equivalent to just being married to an unbeliever so the wife “may win over” her husband and should stay. News flash: being an unbeliever doesn’t make you an abuser. These are not equivalent situations.” Commenter
6. Misapplication of Scripture
The practice of pulling Bible verses out of context has harmed many.
“a wise woman builds her house while a foolish one destroys with her own hands” (a Biblical text) has been misunderstood. Marriage basically becomes a one-sided affair whose sanctity, happiness, and efforts solely rest on the woman.”
7. Cultural lenses
In many cultures, marriage is seen as a prized jewel; something women should covet and, once attained, must protect at all costs.
“Because marriage is seen as a prize to the woman, failure in this aspect would “devalue” her.”
8. It is easier and less messy to pressure the victim to quiet down.
The suffering spouse will receive the “don’t give up on your marriage” advice because she is likely easier to “talk to.”
“The victim wants the marriage to be healthy and hangs on false hope. When the false hope is fueled by false teachings in the church and by church leaders who do not want a scandal, pressure is put on the more compliant spouse to “get in line” and take false responsibility. Very simply, it is easier and less messy to pressure the victim to quiet down.” Commenter.
“The suffering one is usually the vulnerable one. The one willing to seek advice. The one willing to listen and change. So they’re the easy target. It’s easier to coerce someone who’s been broken down already.” Commenter.
9. Refusal by the Christian community to take ownership
“Acknowledging the harm of manipulation in marriages would also mean acknowledging the harm of manipulation in “Christian” culture. Many advice-givers don’t really want to address the real problems.”
10. It is so easier to place blame on a victim than it is to get a victimizer to take ownership
Many people pile the pressure on victims “because they know the harmful spouse won’t change. So to preserve the institution of marriage at all costs they must convince the one who wants to do the work to do it.” “It is so much easier to place blame on a victim than it is to get a victimizer to take ownership.” Commenter.
11. “Don’t give up on your marriage” – the fear factor
“If the abuser is a good faker, not only do people not want to be unpopular with him, they don’t want to stick their neck out when they know that so many others around them will not see the need for it and will oppose them.”
“Often the harmful one is charming, knows how to use scripture to sound “just right” and is really good at hiding the harmful behavior from others.”
12. Social conditioning
“The cultural climate is that divorce rates are up and we have to get them down. Feminism has ruined the Christian family so if a woman wants out of the marriage she’s just being selfish and ruining families like all the other women supposedly have. We are all uncomfortable in the current social climate and in churches, feminism is their favorite scapegoat. Male failure to serve is never the first culprit they point to. … So when women say they are enduring abuse, but we’ve been told that females standing up for themselves is the root of all our discomfort, we see her as responsible to fix her family and by extension all of our families.”
As long as marriage continues to be valued more than people, as long as the church refuses to engage with the real issues women face in marriage, “don’t give up on your marriage” will continue to be used as a war knife, slicing and scaring women who need empathetic, compassionate, empowering support.
We can better. We must do better. I hope today’s post gets us owning our part as the body of Christ.