[NOTE: to avoid having to fiddle with pronouns, I'll use the standard generic "he"/"his"/"him" throughout.]
Hearing a person in a troubled marriage say "I tried _____" raises a red flag of concern to me.
Why? Surely all the person is doing is sharing his frustration, his disappointment, his hurt. It isn't necessarily a claim of self-righteousness, or an attempt to build a case against his wife. He isn't necessarily trying to make me think he's the good guy, and she's the bad evil vixen. Oh, it can be any or all of those things; but not necessarily.
So I will of course start talking about ways to implement what Scripture says to do, and he will say, "I tried that."
And that's a problem.
How? How can "I tried X" a problem? If a doctor said "Take two ibuprofen" or "Have a hot bath," and the patient had already done so without any relief, wouldn't "I tried that" be the perfect answer? Isn't it both honest and diagnostically helpful?
In this case, no. It is helpful, but it is not a good sign. It is helpful, in that I've come to see it often as a clue to how the person approaches marriage, and his role in it.
Here's the reality: as I remarked more times than I can count when teaching on the Biblical doctrine of marriage,
— only more so."
In other words, everything I am called to be as a Christian, I am called to be in my marriage. I am called as a Christian to love, to be patient and longsuffering, to be gracious and kind, to be ready to forgive, to be devoted to serve the other for his good. I'm called to seek to embody these graces towards all.
But in just about every relationship I have, if tension arises, I can walk away. I can go home, I can go to bed, I can get distance from the locus of the tension. For that matter, I could move to the other side of the globe from it. And I'm not called by God to be everyone's close friend. It isn't a moral obligation.
None of which is true with marriage.
With marriage, I have all the same obligations, and more — and it's 24/7/365, it's right up there in my face, and I can't simply walk away if it gets rough.
But go back to other relationships. What is God's command to us, for those relationships? Are we called to "try" loving each other? Then, if it doesn't work, we stop, complain, do something else instead? Are we called to "try" being patient, kind, devoted to their good? How about our relationship with God? Are we to "try" holiness, see if it works for us or not? Righteousness? Faith?
You all know the answer: "Of course not." These aren't methods offered to us on a trial-basis, for us to test-drive and evaluate, then reject or embrace depending on outcome. It's not a negotiation. These attitudes and actions are our lives, as Christians. We're called to grow this fruit, period (Gal. 5:22-23). If Paul could say there is no law against such graces (Gal. 5:23b), he could not say there is no law calling for them. This is what we are called to be, not to "try."
So: God doesn't call me to "try" loving my wife as Christ loved the church as a tactic. He doesn't call me to run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes. He doesn't invite me to see how that whole love-my-wife-like-Christ business works out, then to keep it up or drop it, depending on whether it "works." He doesn't call spouses to try not gossiping and complaining about each other. He doesn't call wives to try being respectful and submissive, any more than He calls children to try honoring their parents — or believing in Christ.
And so I say it is a red flag, because I've found that it often is a symptom. It may indicate that the spouse holds as the paramount value — not glorifying God and enjoying Him forever, but — being treated as he believes he deserves. That is the first and great unwritten commandment. So when his wife doesn't treat him as he deserves, that's wrong. She needs to change. But she doesn't want to. How to get her to change?
Well, he could try various things. He might yell at her. Or he might freeze her out. Or he might ignore her. Or he might talk her down to others.
Or, if he's really pious, he might "try" loving her.
See what I did there? The objective is to get her to behave right. (And, for the record, she should: she should love him and honor him, and do her best to make him glad he's married to her.) In pursuit of that objective, he tries various things. This tactic, that tactic... God's commands might even be among those things he tries — in pursuit of his objective: getting her to treat him right.
So here comes the obvious rub. What if it "doesn't work"? What if she's still a merciless shrew? Well, he tried, you see? It didn't work. So he has to try something else. Like complaining about her to everyone who will listen. Like self-pity. Like growing increasingly bitter and resentful. Like wearing the martyr's robes for everyone to see. Like trying to get kids and friends to see her as he does, see how bad she is and how nobly he suffers.
Suppose, though, he realized that being a Christian who actually practices what he professes — which is, after all, what we're talking about, right? — isn't something you "try." It's something you do, come what may, and God helping you, you don't let all the powers of Hell stop you. Much less a grumpy, sharp-tongued, ungrateful spouse.
What then, when his wife responds to his love with contempt, scorn, or even abuse? What if his coming close to love and serve her just gives her a better and crueller shot at him? What then?
Let me ask you: Does the Bible say anything about how Christians should respond to verbal abuse? To ingratitude? To false accusations? Anything in there at all? Anything? Bueller?
I'll wait for the light-bulbs to finish flashing on.
See, marriage in that regard is not a different category of life, as if I need to treat other people by unchanging standards, but my wife is different. It isn't as if I have 66 books of direction for all my relationships, but only a few chapters that apply to relating to my wife. She's only different in that she will always be there for me to practice these graces, and I can't walk away if it gets rough.
Because being married is like being a Christian.
Only more so.
And in that life, what gets "tried" is us and our faith (1 Peter 1:7) — not God's commands.