MARRIAGE ON HARD MODE SERIES: 6 Ways You May Be Doing Marriage on Hard Mode

by | Sep 7, 2021 | Series | 16 comments

6 Ways you May Be Making Marriage Harder Than it Needs to Be

Are you doing marriage on hard mode?

In a few weeks Keith and I will be taking a two week vacation down east in our RV. We’re heading to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and we’re going to do some hiking and I’m going to eat a lot of seafood chowder!

Whenever we go out in our RV, we tend to play a computer game at night. We start on our first day there, and we just play that campaign throughout our vacation. Keith runs the computer and the mouse while I knit, and we decide on moves together.

Right now our favourite game is Stellaris (if anyone cares). When you’re starting a new campaign, you have all kinds of decisions to make, and one of them is the level of difficulty you want to play with. You can do super easy or super hard or anything in between. Do you want your enemies to always be technologically superior? Or to tend to win in fights? Do you want your planets to have more resources or make it harder to find what you need?

We used to always play on Easy, but I’m slowly letting Keith make it a little bit more challenging.

Making things more challenging is great for games. It isn’t for marriage.

There is no point in making marriage harder than it needs to be.

And that’s what we’re going to be talking about this month in our series on Doing Marriage on Hard Mode. We’re going to look at whether we’re inadvertently making marriage more difficult than it needs to be, and causing ourselves unnecessary and avoidable stress in our relationship.

As Rebecca and I talked about last week on our Bare Marriage podcast, we often say in Christian circles that “marriage is hard.” And we agree that life can be hard. And relationships require us all to be less selfish for them to work well. But that doesn’t mean that marriage needs to be hard. And as we’ve been talking about this on social media and on the blog, many of you have agreed. Marriage can, and should, be something that makes your life easier, that makes it easier to handle the ups and downs of life.

Yes, you will have trouble when you are married that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Had I not been married, I would not have had a baby die. Some people have challenges that make life more difficult. We may have difficulty with sex, or with in-laws, that certainly do contribute to stress in our lives.

But marriage should not be a long hard slog that you have to get through. It should be something that helps you get through the long hard slog of life. And if it is difficult, that’s often a sign that you need to seek help.

So let’s look today at the different ways that we can do marriage on hard mode that we’ll be looking at throughout the month!

Sometimes how we view marriage can make marriage harder:

1. We can have a faulty view of marriage

As Rebecca and I talked about on our podcast last week, when we believe that marriage is automatically hard, then when we experience hardship, we can think, “this is just the way things are,” and we’re less inclined to actually try to get help or work through something.

We’re trained to think that things are going to be hard, and if hard is the default setting, then we may not realize that this isn’t something we have to chronically live with. Believing that all relationships are hard can also encourage some people to make poor choices in mates, because we don’t realize that our mate should make our life easier, not harder.

2. We can have a faulty view of gender roles

What do you believe about gender roles? As we’ll look at later in the month, if you believe that the point of marriage is for a husband to make decisions when you disagree, then your assumption going into marriage is that there will be lots of times when we disagree, and disagreement is normal.

If, on the other hand, you believe that the point of marriage is to follow God together as a team, then you’ll assume that the default is for you to agree. When you don’t agree on something then, or when you feel distant,  you’re more likely to realize that this is something to be dealt with and fixed, rather than just the natural state of things.

Or if you believe that men should be the primary breadwinners and women should always stay home with the kids, then if she starts earning more money than he does, you can make marriage harder than it needs to be because your marriage will be viewed as “wrong”. Often the things that we believe about roles can either cause conflict or cause us not to properly solve conflict.

Are you GOOD or are you NICE?

Because the difference matters!

God calls us to be GOOD, yet too often we’re busy being nice. And sometimes, in marriage, that can actually cause problems to be even more entrenched.

What if there’s a better way?

Sometimes we can overextend ourselves and make life more stressful

3. We can overextend ourselves financially

Do you spend more than you earn? Have you bought a really expensive house, perhaps too early in your marriage? Do you just live in a very expensive city and find it hard to make ends meet?

We’ll look at how sometimes our financial decisions, including just where to live, can make marriage harder than it needs to be. (But this post is not for those who are just getting by and are doing the best they can, but rather for those who have made some decisions that perhaps weren’t necessary! We know that many people truly have little choice).

4. We can get too busy

Marriage is just going to be hard if you have little down time together. You’ll grow apart, you’ll always feel stressed,  you’ll always be exhausted.

So when we make decisions, especially in the fall as school is starting up again (which is why we wanted to do this series in September!), let’s remember to keep a lot of our calendar clear.

And this can even include shift work! Some people work opposite shifts and then never see each other. This may make sense for the kids, or financially, but is it doable long-term?

Sometimes we can ignore problems in our marriage that are fixable

5. We can fail to get help

I was talking with a woman on Instagram yesterday who has put up with sexual pain for nineteen years in her marriage because she thought that’s what she was supposed to do. It’s made her resent her husband and resent marriage. But after listening to our podcasts and learning about vaginismus, she’s finally getting help both from a counselor and a pelvic floor physiotherapist.

Sometimes we’re dealing with things in our marriage where help is available, whether with medical issues or trauma or relationship issues. But getting help can be hard. How do you know where to look for help? How do you know how to tell if someone is good? And what about the cost?

But if help is available, it’s often the very, very best investment in your marriage  you can make!

6. We can fail to deal with the issue, or issues, that is driving our marriage apart

Often when our marriage feels distant it’s not because everything is bad. Instead, there’s often one thing that we haven’t dealt with that is coloring everything else.

Maybe it’s in-law issues. Maybe it’s housework issues. Maybe it’s sex.

That one issue then blows up and affects everything else.

What would happen if you could isolate what the root issue is that is hurting your marriage–and then deal with it?

Now, there are some of you for whom marriage is hard but there isn’t a simple reason like these.

In fact, that’s one of the big lessons that I want people to learn: How to identify when your marriage ISN’T normal-hard, but that something bigger is actually wrong. I have heard so many women in abusive marriages say things like:

The idea that “marriage is hard” kept me trapped in a toxic marriage with an abusive narcissist for far too long. I accepted toxicity as normalcy. I always thought I could just try harder, pray more, be better. Thankfully I am no longer in that situation.

One of the things I’m hoping that this series can do is to help us all recognize the difference between normal-hard, where there’s something we just need to sort out and deal with, and hard-hard, where there’s actually a character or maturity issue with your mate that you can’t solve which is undermining the marriage itself.

You can’t fix another person. You can’t be so submissive and so kind that someone stops being mean to you or starts considering your feelings. If someone truly doesn’t care about you, you can’t make them care. That’s terrible to type and even worse to hear, but it’s also true. And I’m hoping that by dispelling this idea that marriage is always hard, people who are in truly difficult marriages can see that they have a real problem.

You may also enjoy:

6 Ways You May Be Doing Marriage on Hard Mode

So that’s what we’ll be looking at this month! As you look at the list, is there one particular that stands out to you today that is hurting your marriage? Or is there one that USED to hurt your marriage, but you overcame it? I’d love to hear your story in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. A2bbethany

    Life has definitely been hard! But our relationship has been a big comfort to us. Getting married and being very poor is a very good way to test your commitments!

  2. Megan B.

    I clearly remember the time when my personal mantra changed. In the few years I was a single college student, I lived by the ideal I created for myself: “Never be afraid, never be ashamed, never be in a hurry.” It served me well and made me feel empowered. A few years after marriage, I realized that without any thought or intention, I was falling back on a new phrase that was very different. It was “Lean into the pain.”

    I contemplated this new phrase when I realized that’s what I was saying to myself throughout the day. I decided it was okay. Worse, and God forgive me, I once gave it as marriage advice to someone on a plane. Thankfully, she responded with appropriate horror – so I don’t think I damaged her.

    How I interpreted it was that I was leaning into the pain of the relationship because one day I’d push THROUGH to the promised land of feeling loved and heard and delighted in.

    Talk about choosing “hard” mode.

    To be fair: We did both work hard on making the relationship better. We read all the Gottman books (still highly recommend), went to the church marriage classes, read all about love languages and money personalities and strengths-based marriage. We were in marriage counseling on and off for years, at his request.

    But none of that addressed the underlying issues of how he viewed me as a Junior partner, and thus a continual source of frustration because I refused to accept that lower level status. When I couldn’t fight it any more but I also couldn’t go against my values and personality and just SUBMIT, I shut down completely. I ended up in a partial hospitalization program for depression and anxiety and in outpatient treatment for YEARS. I was living in a continual trauma response.

    I am incredibly grateful that my path led me to people who could help me see clearly and set me on a healing journey. No more hard mode for relationship for me. Boss battles, some days, for sure. But not a constant daily struggle.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Megan, I’m so sorry. Yes, the “junior partner” is a trauma. It’s saying that you don’t matter, and it’s erasing you, and that’s really what traumatic actions do. I’m glad you’re through it!

  3. Laura

    I’m so glad to be learning all of this before I remarry someday. Twenty-two years ago, I went into my first marriage thinking it was going to be hard because we would have to adjust to different living arrangements and each other’s schedules. A young pastor who married us told us that the first year of marriage is usually the hardest year and if we could make it in that first year, then we were doing well.

    Well, the 2.5 years we were married, most of it was turmoil which my ex blamed on my mental health issues and later, lack of sex. Before our first anniversary, his solution was handing me a relationship book (it was secular) and telling me to read this so I could make our marriage work. Like it was ALL up to me to take responsibility for the hardships.

    I’m not sure how I got this view that marriage was so hard because my parents had a great marriage and I came from a family with long-lasting marriages. I think I got that idea first through my experience, then reading those Christian marriage books and some church sermons didn’t help. Things I’ve heard pastors say about marriage: Marriage is supposed to make you more holy, not happy. A wedding is like a funeral; the person who is dying is you because marriage is not about you and you have to die to your selfish ways.

    Then on the other end of the spectrum is those inspirational or Christian romance novels where almost everything is so hunky-dory that I just want to vomit. The main characters (hardly anyone is ever divorced; they’re usually widowed if they’re single parents) fall in love quickly and everything just seems so easy. Then I’ve heard people say, “Well, when you find the right person, things will just fall into place and marriage won’t feel like hard work.”

    Well, after hearing those two extremes, I will take the single life for now. Of course, singleness can be both hard and easy and there’s two extremes to that.

    • Maria Bernadette

      “Marriage is supposed to make you more holy, not happy.”

      Someone actually said that? Ok, not surprised. Seriously, does this person believe that everyone in Heaven is miserable? Because if happiness and holiness are mutually exclusive….

      “A wedding is like a funeral; the person who is dying is you because marriage is not about you and you have to die to your selfish ways.”

      Uhm…No. When your selfishness dies, you find new life in Christ. It’s not death in Christ. Sheesh.

      And then there is the other extreme you pointed out, Laura.

      “Well, when you find the right person, things will just fall into place and marriage won’t feel like hard work.”

      If someone thinks “I married the right person, that’s all it takes for a good marriage.” Well, what about “I need to be a good spouse, too.” Because if it’s all up to who you married, then the success of the marriage hinges entirely on your spouse. It would mean you have no responsibilities aside from making a good choice initially.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        To be fair, the happiness–holiness thing is more like the main concern is holiness, and if we’re working towards loving the other person, we’ll create happiness. But if you aim for happiness you’ll tend to lose it, because happiness is a by-product of something you work to create. I do agree with that. I think that the emphasis though on expecting marriage to be a hard slog is the problem, though.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Marriage is like a funeral because someone dies?!?! Oh, my goodness. How did we get to the place that people don’t notice how messed up that is?

      Yes, we all die to self for the sake of Jesus. But even Jesus cared for his own needs! He withdrew from the crowds; took time to himself; rebuked those who needed rebuking. Oh, dear.

      • Margot

        I heard many times that “the first year is very hard”, so was genuinely surprised that my life seemed so much easier after the wedding. Suddenly, I had someone to hug at any time of day. Someone to do half the housework. Someone to share the stresses of work with. Someone to challenge me to think differently. Though we faced huge issues external to “us”, the first year was wonderful and set a good foundation for the years since.

  4. Emmy

    One way to have a marriage on hard mode is to be involved in a conservative Christian movement where “having a good marriage and family life” is a proof for being fit for ministry or other type of leadership in the church.

    This way, your own home becomes a kind of training camp, instead of a place of rest. It can be very draining, especially if you are married to a man who has “ambitions for being fit for ministry”. As his wife, you get tested and scored every day, as well as your kids.

    The logic behind it goes somewhat like this:
    1. The guy has ambitions for ministry. The church leadership tells him he needs to have a good marriage and family life. One that can not rule his own house cannot take care of the House of God.
    2. The guy marries a girl, in order to have a good marriage and family life.
    3. The church leadership closely watch if the guy has a good marriage and family life. They of course define how good marriage and family life look like.
    4. The guy knows his marriage and family life are closely watched by the church leadership so he starts to watch his wife and kids under the microscope and seeks to improve them.
    5. The church leaders see shortcomings in marriage and family life of this guy so they start to put pressure on him.
    6. The guy starts to put pressure on his wife and children for not meeting his expectations and the standards set by the church leadership.
    7. The wife wishes for his husband to succeed and is frustrated because their marriage and family life does not meet the high standards of the church. It must be the kids. She starts to put pressure on them…

    Well, yeah, I guess you can imagine the rest.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      The kids kick the dog? 🙂 JK, I actually think that’s a good description of what happens in many marriages and homes. I do believe that many churches are realizing that emotional health looks very different from what we’ve often been taught, and we need to have church cultures that contribute to emotional health rather than detract from it. I do believe that those churches are out there (I’ve been in them), and I hope that, if people are in the kind of church that Emmy describes, that they can find one that focuses on emotional health instead, because that is what Jesus wants for us.

  5. AJ

    Love this article.

    Particularly love your idea of playing strategy games together. Me crocheting while my husband picks the moves sounds like it would work really well for us. Do you have any game suggestions?

  6. Jane Eyre

    Late to responding: I really like this list.

    There is a lot of pressure to do marriage on hard mode. When an engaged couple is pushed to put on a showstopper wedding, their energy goes to wedding planning, not building a relationship. They end up in debt or stretched thin.

    Then people expect the babies to pop out 9-10 months after marriage, baby announcement coming in around month 3. This couple is still figuring out sex, sharing household chores, and whose family they see on Thanksgiving. Yet pressure is on to have kids. Have one kid, when is the next one coming. Have a kid, you need to buy a house, a new SUV, maybe Mom needs to cut back her hours at work.

    Then we wonder why couples are so miserable in their marriages. Give everyone some breathing room!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! I think the rush to buy a house can be a big problem. In many cases it’s a great idea. But if you overextend yourself, it’s a problem. Also, many people can only afford houses when they’re further from the city core, so they end up living in isolation from friends, church, etc., while in their apartment they were in the thick of things. One of the things I loved about the apartment we lived in in Toronto when the girls were little is that I could walk to playgroup, the library, the museum, a petting farm (there was one downtown), swimming lessons, and more. I always had stuff to do with them. If you’re living far out in the suburbs, that becomes much harder and you need two cars.

      Apartment living is hard, but there are some upsides.

    • Laura

      Jane Eyre,

      You pointed out something very interesting here: other people’s expectations of your marriage is what puts marriage on hard mode. While I get that people with more marriage experience like parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends want to offer their words of wisdom to you and your spouse, you still need to figure out what works best for the two of you.

      I was married to my ex when we were both in our 20’s. His mother often gave us unsolicited advice like, “You should buy a house before you’re 30,” “You must have children so you won’t be alone when you’re old especially if one of you dies first,” and “Son, you need to have an established career by the time you’re 30 so you can afford to support a family.” Thankfully, she didn’t start telling us when to have kids. After 2.5 years of marriage, we got divorced.

      What worked for other couples may not work for you and your spouse. It also depends on your ages when you marry. As a woman in my 40’s, getting married is going to be far more different for me than it was in my 20’s. At this point in my life, I’ll listen to the advice of others, but that doesn’t mean I have to take their advice.

  7. Belinda Partridge

    This is the series I have needed. I was always told by all the older married women in church that “the 1st year is the hardest” even by our pre-marriage counselors.
    This coupled with “His Needs, Her Needs. Affair Proofing your Marriage” (such an encouraging book, NOT) as required pre marriage counselling reading, I ignored ALL the red flags and keep praying, compromising and “affair proofing” in my marriage.
    OMG, the last 25 yes have been a $*%# show and now there is so much to undo & relearn. I am so thankful for your blog and podcast for helping me see issues for what they really are, and for preparing a new generation of newly weds and teens have a healthy view of what God intended, and for helping us older ones get back on track the best we can.
    You are doing GOOD WORK, thank you x 1000.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad you’re here, Belinda, and that I could help you!


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