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Enduring a difficult marriage: 4 lessons from Lincoln

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“Can’t you do anything right?”

“You’re worthless.”

“I don’t know why I married you.”

Have you ever heard those scathing words before in your marriage? If so, how did it make you feel? Maybe you felt devalued or disrespected. Perhaps you got angry. Maybe fear struck your heart. Maybe you were overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness.

If you’ve felt any of those things in your marriage, you’re not alone. Many others have traveled the same rocky road. In fact, one of the greatest men in American history experienced some of the same things. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

difficult marriageMost of us know Lincoln as the incredible President and leader of our country during the Civil War. But what many of us don’t know is that at the same time Lincoln was working to promote peace in America, he was struggling to keep peace within his own marriage. We see how clearly he identified with hardships in marriage when he said, “To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.”

Of course, Abraham Lincoln was human and probably contributed to some of the unrest in his marriage. But history tells us that his wife, Mary Todd, made married life extremely difficult for Lincoln. Here are some of the costs that Abraham Lincoln experienced by sticking it out with his wife, Mary Todd:

  • It’s been reported that Mary threw things like firewood and potatoes at her husband on different occasions.
  • It’s been said that she chased him around their backyard with a knife at one point after a dispute.
  • She didn’t care about spending more than her budget allowed and was quoted as saying, “To keep up appearances, I must have money—more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is too honest to make a penny outside of his salary; consequently I had, and still have, no alternative but to run in debt.”
  • She was constantly jealous and rude to the women Lincoln interacted with.
  • Someone who would often visit the White House recalled that Mary Todd “was vain, passionately fond of dress, and wore her dresses shorter at the top and longer at the train than even fashions demanded. She had great pride in her elegant neck and bust, and grieved the President greatly by her constant display of her person and her fine clothes.”
  • Lincoln was rewarded in several ways from his marriage with Mary.
  • Lincoln learned to be a man of peace. Not only did he seek peace for our country, but also learned to hold onto peace in his marriage when the waves of unrest were crashing around him.
  • Lincoln developed the virtue of perseverance in his marriage and in life. He gained a deeper understanding of focusing on the long run, rather than the current moment.
  • Lincoln developed a forgiving heart towards his wife — a value all of America would need to embrace following the Civil War.

Fortunately for us, Lincoln was perhaps more greatly prepared for the awful state of the nation after his experiences in marriage. As author John Piper puts it, “A whole nation benefited from his embracing the pain.”

So how did Lincoln do it, and how can you stick it out as well?

1. He recognized his own flaws.

Lincoln was a man of great faith, but also a man of great flaws. Often being away on business trips and occupied with political ventures, we can assume that his time with family was more limited than most. So the first step to sticking it out in marriage is to avoid putting all the blame on your spouse. Recognize your flaws, take responsibility, and find ways to improve your side of the relationship with your spouse. And take Lincoln’s own advice: “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.”

2. He stayed positive.

Despite the constant nagging, complaining, and insults from his wife, Lincoln maintained a strong positive attitude that he shared with the country he led. He came to discover with time that, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

3. He had an eternal understanding.

Lincoln once shared, “Surely God would not have created such a being as man to exist only for a day! Man was made for immortality!” He understood this life was not the only thing we have; we also get to look forward to an eternal life with God. Keeping your mindset on the big picture can help small struggles within your marriage lose some of their significance and lead you to forgive more quickly. Giving forgiveness is so important. Corrie ten Boom: The Ultimate Forgiveness Story is an amazing story of forgiveness.

4. He understood marriage is a covenant.

As a man of faith, Lincoln was able to look at God’s relationship with us as an example for his relationship with his wife. God will never leave us and Lincoln chose to never leave his wife. To understand more about how marriage is a covenant and not a contract, you may want to consider 3 Things to Remember Before You Call It Quits in Marriage.

What are some other words of encouragement you could share with people in a difficult marriage? I’d appreciate it if you’d share in a comment below.

MarkMerrillMark Merrill is the president of the national non-profit organization, Family First , and the voice of a daily radio program called The Family Minute. He recently authored the book, All Pro Dad: 7 Essentials to Be a Hero to Your Kids. “I’m so grateful for my wife, Susan, and our five children. I’ve learned how to be a better husband and dad because of them.”

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  1. Dave's Gravatar Dave
    April 24, 2014    

    Hey Mark
    When I realized how Jesus loves me I was able to start loving my wife like I should. Remember Jesus said a mans enemys will be the members of his own household. Some days it becomes hard to be the man God wants me to be but doing the right thing I know glorifies God. It is gold in heaven for me.

  2. April 25, 2014    

    I haven’t found pleasure in marital pains as such that were described above, and I know these pains intimately. I am thankful for my marital pains; it has taken me years to say that. Why am I thankful? Growth, that is why. I have grown and l learned more about who I am and who I am not while in the midst of this type of pain. Going on when it seems I cannot, by no means compares to my savior’s journey to Golgotha. So, I love daily and I forgive daily based on the fact that; “He first loved, and forgave me!”

    • Scott Williams's Gravatar Scott Williams
      April 25, 2014    

      What a powerful testimony, James. Thanks for being real, and being a real man. I think you’ve encouraged a lot of other guys out there that it’s not just historical legends who can grow from pain, but regular men like you and me.

    • peter's Gravatar peter
      March 19, 2015    

      Thank you James! I am taking pleasure in finding out who I am and who I am not. God is in charge!

  3. Jeff Taylor's Gravatar Jeff Taylor
    July 5, 2014    

    Any of you reading this i would appreciate any prayer for my marriage.My wife and i are current separated and she continues to have an affair.She has also walked away from claiming any relationship with Jesus. A few days ago i saw a lot if hope that things were turning around but i blew it last night by getting angry. Ultimately,hoping for real repentance from her toward God.

    • Scott Williams's Gravatar Scott Williams
      July 10, 2014    

      We’re praying for your relationship and for your wife, Jeff. I’d love to followup with you offline if you’d like. Just email me at

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