Question: "What does the Bible say about an unhappy marriage?"
Answer: One thing we know for sure: not being “happy” in marriage is not biblical grounds for divorce. In Mark 10:11–12 Jesus said, “A man who divorces his wife so he can marry someone else commits adultery against her. And a woman who divorces her husband so she can marry someone else commits adultery.” Based on the Bible, we see that people don’t have the right to dissolve an unhappy marriage. God intended that marriage be for a lifetime.
Ephesians 5 presents marriage as a picture of the relationship God has with us. This is one reason why God has such an interest in keeping marriages intact. He is the One who established the concept of “until death do us part.” He established this for our own good. Failed marriages and broken homes are devastating to the husband and wife, not to mention the children involved. Financial ruin is only one of the unhappy results of divorce. The family unit is the basic building block of any society, and rampant divorce has a tragic impact on all of the culture.
This is not to say that God wants to force us to remain forever in an unhappy state. He doesn't ask us to just grit our teeth and suffer through it. When God approaches marital problems, He does so from the perspective of how to fix them, not how to dissolve the marriage. For example, the Lord speaks of demonic impact in marriages (1 Corinthians 7:5). He states that the couple should be active in the sexual relationship so that Satan cannot tempt them. He encourages husbands to treat their wives with understanding so that their prayers will not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). From these passages we can see that marriage is a spiritual battlefield. It takes work to fight for the relationship, not to fight in the relationship.
God encourages us toward reconciliation. Matthew 18:15–16 demands open, honest communication that deals with hurts and frustrations caused by sin. It even encourages us to get help to resolve problems. God also calls us to find our joy in Him (Philippians 4). Joy is a superior experience to happiness. Happiness is temporal and temporary, but joy rises above all circumstances and lasts for eternity. Joy is something you can have regardless of conditions. In all of God’s guidelines for experiencing joy, none of them require a spouse to cooperate. A spouse does not control our capacity to have joy or peace. James 1:3–4 tells us that deep, abiding joy comes as we persevere through trials, with God's help, and as our faith matures and strengthens. Mere happiness tends to be fleeting and depends upon temporal factors like circumstances or other people. Joy, on the other hand, is true contentment that comes from internal factors like our faith in the Lord. True joy is everlasting and not dependent upon circumstances. The book of Philippians is a great study in the difference between joy and happiness. Written by the apostle Paul while imprisoned in Rome, this book uses the words joy, rejoice, and joyful 16 times and teaches us how to have true contentment in Jesus Christ, despite our circumstances. In chains, Paul talks about his faith and trust in Christ and how it had changed his whole perspective on suffering.
God has given husbands clear-cut instructions in Ephesians 5:25–28: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it. . . . So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself.” To wives, God’s instruction is to submit to their husbands’ leadership (verse 22) and to respect their husbands (verse 33). In a Christ-like spirit, both are to submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21). If both spouses are living up to their biblical responsibilities, there will be joy and happiness in the marriage. What woman wouldn't respect and submit to a man who loves her the way Christ loves His church? And what man wouldn't love a woman who respects and submits to him? The unhappiness that is present in too many marriages is often a result of one or both parties refusing to submit to God and obey His revealed will for marriage. Sometimes the unhappiness is exacerbated by unresolved issues of one party that have leaked into the marriage. In those cases, individual counseling may be helpful in addition to marriage counseling.
Even if marital unhappiness results from a believer being married to an unbeliever, there is always the possibility the believing spouse can lead the unbelieving spouse to the Lord by his or her chaste conduct and kind demeanor. “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1). The Bible specifically addresses those who are married to unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7:12–14: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.”
In the end, we must remember that “the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil” (1 Peter 3:12). God knows the pain of an unhappy marriage, and He understands fleshly desires, but He has given His Word to us on this matter and He does ask for obedience. Obedience to God always brings joy (Romans 16:19).