So your marriage is in the messy middle. You’ve been drifting, and things aren’t headed to where you want your marriage to go. It’s never too late to change the trajectory of your relationship, but that takes doing something different than you’ve been doing. It requires taking hold of the wheel, and choosing to navigate your marriage through the messy middle.

There are two important mindset elements you’ll need to embrace to successfully navigate forward. The first is to choose hope. Hope may seem hard to come by if you’ve settled for a miserable marriage détente. But there is good marriage research documenting that couples who choose to press forward in dealing with marriage challenges can get to the other side with more connection and satisfaction than they ever had before. Hope is worth choosing.

The second mindset element is one of learning. What you’ve been doing isn’t working, so you’ll need to learn something else. As seasons of life change, your marriage often requires new skills, perspectives, or investments. It’s possible you will have to unlearn some things you brought into the marriage that are no longer serving you well. You’re capable of learning.

And now three questions that will be key to navigating your marriage through the messy middle.

What’s it Like to be Married to Me?

You can’t change your spouse; you’ve probably learned that by now. But you can do something about you. What impact do you have on your spouse? How would you like to live with you? What’s it like to be married to you?

Your feelings and desires are important. They matter. But contrary to much popular opinion, God never intended marriage primarily for the purpose of making you happy. As Dorothy Greco says, “Our marriage vow should never be a credit card we swipe at will to get what we want.” (Marriage in the Middle) In God’s economy marriage is much more about learning to love well.

Looking in the mirror does not excuse any bad behavior by your spouse; it only focuses first on what you have the most power to change; your own attitudes, responses, and behavior. Who does God need you to be to your spouse in this season? And if you easily dissolve into shame, or believe being “nicer” would make your spouse behave better, stop right there. What may be required of you is setting boundaries or finding your voice.

This is only step one. But without taking this step, your heart won’t be in the right place to take any future steps.

What do We Want Our Marriage to Become?

If there is any goodness in your marriage at all, if you are both basically people of good will, sit down together and consider what you want your marriage to look like in, say, five years. It’s a guarantee that you marriage won’t look like that if you allow it to continue to drift. But this is your opportunity to take the wheel and point your marriage in the direction you want it to go.

It may be ideal for each of you to consider individually what you want your marriage to look like in the future, and then come together and talk about it. Your dream for the future probably won’t be identical to your spouse’s; that’s why it’s important to talk together and use your individual desires in building a shared vision for your marriage.

Then look at the difference between your marriage now and where you want it to be. You’ll have to inject some energy into the “system” of your marriage if you want to get there.

This is not crafting a ten-year “business plan” for your marriage. Neither you nor your spouse are machines. Humans are complicated. This is, however, becoming intentional. It requires dreaming together, listening deeply to each other, and raising your sites beyond the very real frustrations of today.

How do we Cooperate with what God Wants to Do In Our Marriage?

God is working. Pray. And pray both individually and together. And then you will need to take action as you see something of what God is wanting to do in your relationship. This will involve things you do individually, and things you do together.

Individually, you may need to learn how to deal with some old unhealed baggage, handle your own emotions more maturely, feed yourself, or set healthy boundaries.

Together, if you want your marriage to be a safe place for both of you, how will you nurture safety? If you want to be able to trust each other better, what needs to happen to get there? Perhaps you want to be better friends; what memories will you plan to create together? Perhaps you desire a whole new level of intimacy; how will you invest in building that? You may need to learn some communication skills as a couple.

Taking such action steps is how you navigate your marriage through a challenging transition. Empty nest, menopause, retirement, health or financial issues – these can all be opportunities to address still-unhealed wounds and develop even greater love between you.

God has a plan for your marriage, and it’s not over. Together you can navigate your marriage to that desired future. And in the next couple weeks we’ll offer some specific ideas for wives and for husbands.

Your Turn: If your marriage has been drifting, what action step will you take next to change the future trajectory of your relationship? Leave a comment below.

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