Gary Thomas is a bestselling author and international speaker whose ministry brings people closer to Christ and closer to others. He unites the study of Scripture, church history, and the Christian classics to foster spiritual growth and deeper relationships within the Christian community.
A divorce lawyer recently posted an article arguing that the vow “till death do us part” is passé, unrealistic, and needs to be discarded. There’s no shame, he said, in knowing that it’s unlikely and “even rare” for marriages to last for a lifetime, so let’s stop with the pretense. He admitted children face some pain during divorce, but hey, divorce is already so common our kids need to learn that a broken family is simply part of the price you pay for growing up. Please, he pled, let’s dispense with the guilt-casting and moralizing and just admit that a lifelong marriage of fifty years not only isn’t realistic, it’s not even all that desirable.
This divorce lawyer is a blogger and author and I’m not going to give him one extra click of free advertising by mentioning his name. While his words might keep his divorce practice prospering, they are exactly the opposite of what non-abusive marriages need today.
I’m writing from the perspective of a man who just celebrated his thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. Like most couples, Lisa and I have lived through some tough seasons in our marriage when we weren’t sure we would make it. I shudder when I think about one particular season that, had Lisa and I given up in, our second two children and our precious grandchild would never have been born. I’m so glad we didn’t read that divorce lawyer’s article back then. Instead, I would want to read the following.
There was a time when just about every citizen of Great Britain saw Nazi Germany as an unstoppable juggernaut. Even the most optimistic knew the outlook was bleak. France was falling far more quickly than anyone had anticipated. Britain’s once indomitable military looked vulnerable, and some even considered the horrendous possibility that if defeat was likely, perhaps it might be better to let the Nazi government in rather than suffer the consequences of opposition.
With a last gasp of determination, England elected Winston Churchill to be its new Prime Minister. Churchill all but put the country on his back and reset expectations with a famous inspirational speech: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat….What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be.”
One speech was enough to get Britain going and to instill hope, but one speech wouldn’t win a war. They still had to fight. As Britain prepared itself militarily and industrially world events grew even more grim. The horrendous but now certain reality of a homeland battle, unlike any Britain had fought for centuries, was upon them. Axis planes and soldiers would invade British airspace and land. Even London would see violence. In fact, Buckingham Palace and its grounds would be hit over a dozen times.
Most experts didn’t think Great Britain could survive. The Nazi military machine was undefeated. Joseph Kennedy, the United States Ambassador to London, was adamant in his belief that London would fall, urging the President to prepare accordingly.
Churchill got back on the wireless and delivered another astounding speech: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
And they didn’t.
Britain’s victory gave the entire world hope that Hitler could be defeated. It preserved a crucial and strategic European base to fight back against the Nazi forces. If Britain had fallen the way France did, historians shudder to think what could have happened next.
As a pastor, I see spouses and individuals take up the vision for their families that Churchill cast for Great Britain. These spouses see the enemies of their family: addiction, lust, financial malfeasance, mental illness, physical ailments, a society hostile to their faith and deliberately lecherous toward their marital vows, and yet these spouses, sometimes together, and sometimes alone, rise up from prayer to proclaim, “We shall defend our family, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight our addiction; we shall fight for our children’s minds and hearts; we shall pray, fast, learn, grow, deny ourselves and build our souls so that we love instead of hate; forgive instead of resent; serve instead of tear down, encourage instead of taunt. We won’t allow money or pleasure, or selfish ambition to burn this home down. Though a thousand demons assault us, though our entire culture conspire against us, we will stand strong in faith, belief, and the grace of Jesus Christ.”
I know a husband who had to sell his house and quit playing golf when he found out how much secret debt his wife had accumulated. It would take years, not months, to crawl out of that debt, but he wasn’t going to let that debt tear his family apart. He didn’t destroy his wife’s reputation by gossiping; some of his buddies just thought he had become too lazy to get up for those early Saturday morning rounds. He had made a vow to keep his marriage together and he was going to keep it. He hadn’t made a vow to sustain his golf handicap, so he put first things first.
A wife nobly helps her husband fight his depression. She knows he didn’t “choose” to be depressed, but when a husband is depressed, one of the things he often can’t care about is…you. It’s a lonely battle, and when your spouse doesn’t seem able to even appreciate you for fighting it; in fact, when he suggests you’d be better off without him so why don’t you just leave, it would be easy, so easy, to blame God for not healing him and go your way. But not this wife. She’s in it to win it and shows the Churchillian determination to depend on God and keep her family together.
Another wife would tell you she probably shouldn’t have married her husband. They got pregnant before they even talked about engagement, and she thought she was doing the right thing to go ahead and get married. Their baby daughter ended up having some special needs. Two more children followed. There was a brief separation, but when she saw how her already troubled daughter felt even more insecure as her parents drifted apart, this wife doubled down on her marriage and has lived the life of a modern-day saint. Does her husband cherish her? That’s not really his thing. Do their recreational interests match up? Not even close. Is he as into God as she is? He accommodates her belief without truly sharing it. So many reasons to leave, so many reasons to quit, but one reason to stay: she made a vow, and she is keeping it. The friends who know her better than I do call her one of the strongest believers they’ve ever met.
I salute these individuals and couples. Like Britain, their victory isn’t just for themselves; they inspire the rest of the world. Their example gives hope and courage to other families that sometimes, when things seem entirely hopeless, when it feels even foolish to believe you can win, victory at great cost is still an option:
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
To all those still fighting such a war in their kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms, I salute you and pray God will strengthen you in the midst of your battle.
Heather married a Christian man who seemed zealous to serve God. He gave generous amounts of money to God’s work and even dreamed of eventually doing a reverse tithe—giving away ninety percent of his income and keeping ten percent for himself.
Today he’s still involved in missions work, still gives away a lot of money, but he sins against God in a particularly painful way every single day of his life. I don’t think he realizes it, but he does.
You see, he had an affair fifteen years ago, divorced Heather, and married the woman with whom he had the affair. Over a decade later, he and his new wife look like a model Christian couple and command a lot of respect, at least from humans. No one wants to judge them because the divorce happened so long ago.
From God’s perspective, things might look a little different.
Heather lives in a modest apartment and now must keep working well into her sixties. Understandably wary because she thought she already had married a “solid Christian man,” she has lost confidence in dating guys that seem fine on the outside because who knows what’s within?
Every day that she is alone in that apartment the sin of divorce hits her afresh. Every day she has to keep working into her sixties, the sin of divorce is renewed. Every day she tries to navigate the pain of adult children who have to “split” time between their parents—meaning she sees them about half as much as she otherwise might—the sin of divorce keeps hurting.
Heather is God’s daughter. Do you think God looks at what has happened and keeps happening to his daughter on a daily basis without anger? This is not to suggest that divorced women are helpless, weak, or unable to fend for themselves. Many do quite well for themselvesand even thrive. In other instances, however, divorce can essentially create a “social widow” who becomes newly vulnerable. Her financial options are limited. Her ability to remarry may be compromised.
In the cases of these “social widows,” ex-husbands should take note: according to Scripture there are two demographic groups you don’t want to mess with or oppress, and one of those groups is widows. “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused…” (Ex. 22:22-24a)
When a divorced woman, a social widow, cries out to God, “He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice” (Deut. 10:18).
Society has changed quite a bit in the past four thousand years, often for the better, so not all women feel so vulnerable in the face of divorce. But God isn’t just about his daughters surviving; he wants them to thrive and anyone who stands in the way of his plans can expect appropriate discipline and opposition.
Men, when we marry a woman when she is at her youngest, strongest, and healthiest, and then pursue a divorce because we’ve gotten bored with her or think we’ve found someone more compatible, or younger, or any frivolous reason, it’s not one sin. It’s a daily ongoing sin. Every day you leave your ex-wife in less than cherishing circumstances is a day you have reneged on your vows and newly offend not just your Heavenly Father, but your Heavenly Father in Law.
Women, the same is true for you, as you’re married to one of God’s sons. The man may have disappointed you, but he’s still God’s son. He may have earned less than you thought he would or had more baggage than you realized, but there is no unbiblical divorce that’s a single sin; it’s a daily, on-going sin. While the Bible doesn’t have the same verses about widowers as it does about widows, it does paint Christian husbands as “dearly loved” by God and therefore under His watchful eye.
I mention “unbiblical divorce” because I’m not talking about those forced into divorce to flee abuse and behavior that was slowly destroying them. In those cases, divorce is a cure, not a weapon. In my upcoming book When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic Relationships my friend Megan Cox describes her divorce from an abusive and unfaithful husband as a “gift from God.” I don’t want this post to add to the hurt divorced women and men already feel when God has given them refuge. This post addresses a particular kind of divorce, when divorce is used as a weapon instead of a cure.
It’s like chemotherapy: I hate that anyone has to undergo such drastic treatment, but I thank God for the lives chemotherapy has lengthened. It would be the height of cruelty, however, to give chemotherapy to someone who didn’t have cancer and who didn’t need it. Divorce is just like that: terrible, but sometimes necessary, and outright reprehensible if used when not needed.
We live in a culture of binary thinking—when I challenge divorce, I’m going to get pushback from those who feel I’m challenging them because of their own divorce. I’m not. I’ve spoken plenty about the church standing up for women in abusive marriages, in my books and several blog posts such as Enough is Enough. But sometimes, to be honest, anti-abuse advocates are so (understandably) sensitive about defending divorced women they become angry when I mention that most divorces are still a sin, as if I’m judging them. I’m not.
What I am saying here is that unbiblical divorce isn’t just a sin—it’s an ongoing sin. It’s the difference between an unmarried couple that gives into passion one night and has sex and the couple that decides to live together. Spiritually speaking, those are two different situations. Divorce is like the latter.
So, just as I advocated for those who have needed to find refuge in divorce, let’s remember that unbiblical divorce isn’t without consequences. I hate seeing women (and some men) left lonely and aching while some other spouse has “moved on” and finds full acceptance and respect without honestly considering not just the harm they’ve done, but the harm they keep on doing.
Ann Wilson, co-author with her husband of The Vertical Marriage, mentions several conversations with people who got divorced rather young, remarried, and now, looking back, realize they could have and should have made the first marriage work. They were just frustrated and disappointed, and the second marriage convinced them that no marriage is easy. We need to find a way to gently encourage such couples to hang in there and make it work. Without shaming abused women to stay in a destructive marriage, we also have to remind couples that the marriage covenant is a serious one that is designed by God to be broken only by death. We’re in a new phase of the church where, in order to avoid appearing judgmental, we may be becoming too lax and too “tolerant” of divorce for reasons that could and should be fixed. This grieves the heart of God and makes us weaker people while creating a weaker church and hurting children who grow up in broken homes.
So what if you’re that guy or that woman, who divorced your spouse when you know you shouldn’t have? If reconciliation is possible (i.e., if remarriage hasn’t occurred), you work your way back, as much as your ex is willing. If they’re not, you wait. How long? I can’t answer that in this blog, but any responsible answer is measured in years, not months (again, I’m not talking about those who escaped abusive marriage or sexually unfaithful marriages when it might be unwise and unsafe to ever return).
Men, if remarriage isn’t possible, I believe you owe it to your ex to make sure you’re not living better than she is. If someone has a bigger house (or a house instead of an apartment), it should be her. If someone drives a newer car, it should be her. If one of you has to keep working later in life, it should be you. You made a pledge that was between you, your wife, and God. The state’s legal dissolution doesn’t negate a covenant made in the sight of God. Repentance isn’t just about feeling sorry; it involves making things right, as much as it is in your power to do so.
I still stand by my blog post “Enough is Enough,” on not shaming women to stay in abusive marriages. In rare circumstances divorce can be a cure, but far more often it is used as a weapon without considering the ongoing sin that such a divorce represents. As people who made our pledge before a God whose memory is long and whose passion for his children is fierce, let’s live our lives accordingly.
A blockbuster quote from a blockbuster book (Unwanted) by Jay Stringer unmasks what I have seen but been unable to describe in marriage:
“Few of my male clients recognize any needs they have except for sex. This puts a tremendous strain on their partners to be sexual in order to experience intimacy. The pressure men put on their partners inevitably erodes desire. How can a partner desire the very thing she is pressured to offer? Attunement and containment allow sex to become something other than the release of tension or the solo symbol of commitment. Eroticism between a couple is strengthened through being woven together with holistic passion, pleasure, and care.”
If a man isn’t aware of his relational and spiritual needs, the dopamine hit he gets from sex becomes his only cure whenever he’s down about anything, which makes his wife his only “rescue” for everything. Sex then becomes inherently selfish and a crushing burden on the wife.
To be a healthy husband with a healthy sexual relationship with his wife, you have to look at your life far beyond your sexual desire. You have other needs—intimacy with God, fun and laughter, meaningful work, respect, recreation, adventure, beauty, and rest. Get in touch with those other needs. Recognize it’s not selfish to pursue and fulfill those needs.
If you neglect yourself entirely to serve your wife and family, you can “give” your way into becoming selfish. So that you don’t miss that last sentence, let me restate it another way: if you try to keep giving without regard to your own basic needs, you can turn yourself into a selfish person because, for starters, you’re not God and can’t give infinitely, and secondly, eventually you’ll become desperate and demanding of at least one need (often sex, but also perhaps food or gambling or an out-of-control hobby). If that need isn’t met, your spouse will live with either a bully or a sulking adult who more accurately resembles a toddler.
All of us are “needy men” because God made us that way. We’re not miniature gods. We need food or we’ll starve. We need water. No one shames a person for these needs. Nor should we be shamed for wanting meaning, recreation, relationship, respect, occasional fun and sexual pleasure.
One of the greatest weaknesses of my life so far (there have been too many to count, so this is saying something) has been the neglect of self-nurture. I’ve felt guilty my entire life asking for anything. But that stupid philosophy taken to an extreme doesn’t make me less needy—everyone is needy—it just makes my demands passive (which makes them sound and feel even more pathetic). It asks others to step up as I think I’m stepping up. And when they don’t? Bitterness, resentment, and withdrawal (sorry, Lisa).
Men, recognize your needs. Name your needs. Don’t apologize for having needs. Of course, all this has to be done while recognizing that our wives have similar needs and we need to make sure theirs are met as well. Our needs aren’t more important than our wives’ needs, but they also aren’t non-existent, selfish or shameful.
Seek a “full” life. For me, a good day means my mind has to be stimulated, usually with thought-provoking reading about God early in the morning (the Bible, a Christian classic, and a chapter from a contemporary book) and an interesting history, biography or novel in the evening. I like to connect “significantly” with at least one friend every day. Exercise is pretty essential to my sense of well-being. Meaningful work matters to me, as well as the occasional risk-taking vocationally (being an introvert, that happens every time I speak publicly). I don’t care that much about food, but I do need a down day now and then and could do a much better job of planning (or taking) vacations.
Most men need adventure. I like the fear at the beginning of a marathon. Some men prefer their “fear” at the tee box, needing to score a strike for their bowling team, or playing a round of darts with their buddies after work. A man without some challenge is a man who is setting himself up for an addiction (so wives, encourage your men to seek their own adventure).
Here’s the point: a “full” man who manages his own needs is able to give to his wife and family more than a man who ignores his needs and becomes passively demanding.
All this is true for women as well, of course, but I’ve never heard a counselor tell me that “Few of my female clients recognize any needs they have except for sex,” so forgive me for playing to stereotypes for one blog post here. Women can be just as prone, however, to giving and giving and giving, neglecting their own needs in a martyr-like spirit that ultimately doesn’t serve the family long-term.
The Bible talks plenty about enjoying life. The Feast of Tabernacles in 1 Kings 8 was a fourteen day celebration in which Israel was basically commanded to party.
The psalmist praises God’s nurturing gifts:
He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts (104:14-15).
The writer of Ecclesiastes affirms a life of enjoyment: “Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God” (5:19).
If it’s good, it’s from God: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).
If you’re dealing with unwanted sexual behavior, Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals our Way to Healing could be a game changer. If you need help learning how to pursue a bit more self-nurture, I’d point you toward my own book Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?
For the purpose of this post, let me ask you, what are your needs? Give yourself permission to think about them. Talk about them with friends and your spouse. Name them. Be more intentional about mapping out a strategy to meet them. Sex is a very legitimate need, but it’s not your only need, and in a full life, it may not even feel like your most important need.
For instance, when a man needs respect but isn’t getting any, whether his wife says “no” or “yes” to any sexual encounter may not have as much to do with the sexual act as it does about whether she is going to “respect” him by her answer. There are other ways to get respect than through a spouse’s sexual willingness. Don’t just “take it” when your wife talks down to you; explain to her in a quiet but clear way how it feels to be so disrespected in front of others or even in private. Become a respectable person at work and with your friends and kids. If I’m respected by everyone around me and disrespected by one, I’m going to question the judgment of that one instead of myself, even if that “one” is my spouse.
Here’s what I’ve tried to say in the past that Jay Stringer’s quote uncovers: when a marriage is doing well, sex isn’t that big of a deal in marriage. It’s pleasurable, it renews affection, both spouses look forward to it and enjoy it, but it’s not a central focus. It feeds the marriage, certainly, but it’s not what the marriage is primarily based on. When the sexual relationship is broken, however, the marriage seems to become primarily about sex, at least in the mind of the disaffected spouse.
In a healthy marriage, sex is seasoning, not the main course. Life would be much blander and much less enjoyable without it, but it’s not the primary nutrient feeding the relationship.
So, guys, become more aware of your overall needs as you keep on respecting your wife’s needs. Figure out a way to get those needs met. You’re responsible for your own needs. You may need to learn how to say no to other demands in order to meet your own needs, maybe for the first time in your entire life. That’s okay. In fact, that’s healthy.
Your goal is to create a “full” life out of which you can give to your wife, sexually and otherwise. The more your wife feels pleasured and fulfilled in your sexual relationship, the more likely she is to want to experience it, so your own sexual need gets met even more—not because it’s demanded, but because it’s desired, which, to a healthy man, is even more fulfilling than a coerced “mercy” encounter.
Your needs aren’t the problem. Demanding that those needs be met by one person in one way—that’s the problem.
Frederick Buechner is a brilliant writer who can jump between fiction and nonfiction like a champion American Ninja Warrior skips over a water obstacle. In his novel Godric (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Buechner brilliantly makes us feel sorry for Richard the baker, who is married to a noxious woman:
“There was Richard the baker and Peg his wife. Peg was a sparrow with a peck so sharp there was no proof against it. All was amiss, to hear her chirp, and she was ever chirping. If the sun was warm, she said it stewed her brains. If a cool breeze blew, she squawked of chilblains. The Holy Ghost himself she would have found too holy had he come and perched by her, I think, and Richard was her favorite prey. Whatever roughness of the road or turn of weather vexed her, Richard was the one she blamed…
“It’s true Richard laughed too much, but Peg had pecked and pecked till he was silly in the head. He laughed the way geese gaggle, less from mirth than brainless barnyard rote. Wedded to Peg myself, I would have wept. I think his laughter was but Richard’s way of tears.”
We’ve all seen spouses like Peg. They want people to feel sorry for them so they make sure everyone knows how awful their spouse is. What they don’t realize is that people usually recognize what’s going on. They don’t feel sorry for Peg; they feel sorry for Richard.
This isn’t a gender thing, by any means. Men can also be “Pegs.” We’ll call these men “Regs.” One wife told me that the biggest deterrent from her having enthusiastic sex with her husband was his constant criticism. In her husband’s opinion, she didn’t cook correctly; she didn’t clean correctly; she didn’t drive the right way, raise the kids with enough discernment or even chew her food in the correct manner.
Living in an avalanche of criticism, she knew she also must be (at least in her husband’s perception) missing the mark when it came to sex. While she eagerly desired fantastic sex, and even thought she had an above average sex drive for a woman, she couldn’t bear to do one more thing with a man who was constantly criticizing her. Her exhaustion with being criticized trumped her desire for great sex. Which meant her husband constantly criticized her for not wanting more frequent sex.
In my book Cherish I stress how it’s never our job to judge our spouse. Our job is to cherish our spouse and to encourage our spouse. Constant disappointment, whether it’s expressed through verbal jabs or a nonverbal rolling of the eyes, or worse, expressed contempt in front of others (“Let me tell you what I have to live with…”), rarely achieves the desired aim. Far more likely than getting people to feel sorry for you, it’s probably going to make them feel sorry for your spouse. It’s a losing strategy, but some spouses keep trying it for years.
Everyone knows a spouse’s “job description” is to honor, love, respect and cherish. It’s what we promised to do and what God calls us to do. Even more, our job as Christians is to encourage: “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Learning how to be encouraging in the face of a spouse’s weakness not only inspires others, but it slowly builds up our spouse so there’s eventually less to complain about. I especially admire those spouses who find a way to honor their loved one when the flaws are so obvious to everyone around them. When a man finds a way to cherish a wife few could cherish, or a woman finds a way to cherish a husband most would call “average,” at best, I see supernatural saints at work. And usually (not always, but many times), a cherished spouse becomes a more excellent spouse. Never perfect, but better than they would have been otherwise. Cherishing each other isn’t just a promise; it’s an effective strategy based on what God did with Jerusalem (see chapter 6 of Cherish).
Don’t be a Peg or a Reg. If your spouse hears more negative criticism from you than positive encouragement, you’re at least in the ballpark of making it into Frederick Buechner’s next novel. In all of Scripture you’ll never find a single passage that suggests constant criticism is God’s preferred method for us to get others to measure up. God’s way is the encouraging way: “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
This is the fifth post in an ongoing series featuring the message of Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband. Since the book is written for wives, the excerpt will focus on wives, but it’s just as applicable for men. The chapter in the book contains much more information, but this blog post captures the essence of what one wife found to be an amazing tool to transform a marriage headed in the wrong direction.
Although Rich and Pat have three children together, for some time they led mostly separate lives. According to Pat, “We did little together except argue about the kids.”
Rich concurs: “Home life was pretty combative.”
Pat once complainingly described Rich as an overinvolved worker during the week and an avid hunter and fisherman on the weekends. What little time remained he spent watching TV or using the computer, making him a relatively uninvolved husband and father. When Pat brought up Rich’s frequent absences on weekends, Rich would say, “Don’t worry, honey. Hunting season is almost over.” But Pat soon learned that fishing season was waiting just around the corner.
From Rich’s perspective, life seemed much easier outside the home — a view shared by many men. “I probably was overinvolved in work, and when I wasn’t working, I wanted to hunt and fish. Outside of home, there were all sorts of things to succeed at: birds to shoot or issues to solve at work. There’s great satisfaction in getting my limit of trout or ducks, or resolving issues at work. Also, these were solvable problems that I could tackle with a certain degree of success; the problems at home didn’t seem all that solvable.”
We men have a tendency to avoid battles that we know we can’t win or that make us feel incompetent. The thinking is, “If there’s no chance of winning, there’s no chance of me even competing.” Unfortunately, this means that when we start to feel like we’re in over our heads in our family life, home may become the last place we want to be—if we can’t succeed, we don’t even want to try. The sad result is that we may slowly increase our hours at work and then extend our involvement in recreational hobbies, perhaps not even realizing that we are virtually hiding from our families.
Shortly after their oldest child turned fifteen, “things began to fall apart. Our house was characterized by arguing, yelling, and business. Rich was usually gone and didn’t really want to be home — and I had given him every reason not to! I greeted him with a list when he came home, was in a chronically bad mood, and was usually either depressed or angry.”
Pat tried to talk to Rich about becoming interested in family activities, but Rich responded, “Look, I work hard, I don’t drink, I don’t gamble, and I don’t chase other women. All in all, I’d say I’m a pretty good husband.”
“He did provide well for us,” Pat admits. “In his eyes, that made him a good husband and father. He also went to lots of the kids’ games. He just couldn’t see that he was very cold and distant and that he avoided problems.”
The Magic Question
In her early forties, Pat didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a man who always had his mind somewhere else.
“To be honest,” Pat admits, “I wanted a divorce, but I knew the only biblical grounds for one were if he died or committed adultery or left me. So I prayed that he would die or find someone else.”
Instead, Pat found someone else — the Lord, whom she credits with saving her life. Pat thought she had always been a Christian, but she visited a new church where she encountered a rich, deep, personal and authentic faith. Out of a new spiritual renewal, she began the journey of reorienting her marriage by asking Rich what she now calls the “magic question.” Asking this question went against every fiber of her being. It was actually the opposite of what she thought would best serve her marriage, but she decided to give it a try anyway.
“Rich,” she asked, “what things would you like me to do that I’m not doing?”
Rich’s answer caught Pat completely off guard. (You’ll have to read the book to hear his answer, as this post is already getting much too long.) What shocked her as much as anything was how much his suggestion also transformed her relationship with one of her daughters.
Pat’s “magic question” (“what things would you like me to do that I’m not doing?”) can transform a marriage. It takes a lot of spiritual fortitude to put aside your own frustration and disappointment long enough to ask your husband, “What would you like me to do that I’m not doing?”
Pat went through this exercise twice (being equally caught off guard by Rich’s second request) and much to her surprise, when she started focusing on helping Rich instead of fighting and resenting him, he became more involved at home. “Home became a lot more pleasant place to be, so I’m sure that had something to do with it.”
Pat decided to focus on helping Rich. She cleared her calendar, cutting out a lot of her outside activities, so that “instead of trying to find fulfillment in other things, I could focus my energies on my home and my family.” It’s a bit ironic that in her efforts to get her husband to be more involved at home, Pat began by making sure she was more involved at home—not just present, but emotionally, spiritually, and relationally engaged.
Pat doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of any of this. “It’s impossibly hard to put so much energy into a home and marriage when you don’t enjoy your home or family. At first, you literally feel like you’re dying. We all crave recognition, power, and honor. Sacrificing and serving seem to move you away from those desires.”
But Pat fought off the resentment. “I felt that, in one sense, what I was doing was contrary to everything I am. I felt like I was dying, but the paradox is that I am more me now than I ever was. I am kinder, gentler, and more submissive, but I am also more strong-willed and opinionated than I ever was. I used to think those were contradictions, but now I see how they work together. Although at the time, I thought I was giving things up, I can see now I was gaining. I wouldn’t go back to the way I was for anything. I have more joy, forgiveness, and grace, and more friends — a lot more friends! My family has changed dramatically.”
Pat went on. “The way I moved my husband was by changing myself. I honestly believe that when you do what your partner wants you to do, you heal yourself in the process. God gives you your spouse as the person who can fix those things in you that you really don’t want to fix.”
“You can’t do this without faith in the Lord,” Pat adds. “And though you probably will, like me, feel like you’re dying, all I can say is that it’s so worth it. I became the person I wanted to be: a more loving wife, a better friend, a better mother. And then I found that those things bring me a lot of joy. The benefits to myself have been overwhelming.”
The Big Adventure
To wives whose husbands play darts on the weekend or who constantly haunt the golf course or who accompany their buddies to the local bar, Pat advises, “Consider how you might be driving your husband out of the house and into the basement, the golf course, or the computer.”
Think very honestly about this past week. Put yourself in your husband’s shoes. What did it feel like to be greeted by you? What kind of mood do you set in the home? Are you pleasant? Confrontational? Apathetic? Would you like to be welcomed home in the way you welcome home your husband?
Maybe you get home from work after your husband does. You can ask yourself some other questions. Do you regularly complain about your day instead of listening to him about his? Do you pour out your resentment that other women have it easier than you do? Do you make him feel as though he doesn’t measure up? Are you preoccupied with unanswered email? Are you a pleasure to be around?
Since Pat has undergone these changes, she says that “Rich now wants to come home. He wants to be with me; he wants to support me if I’m going through a bad time. When he does go away on trips, he’s careful to organize them in such a way that he can see the family as much as possible before and afterwards.”
We don’t have space in this blog post to recount all of Rich’s perspective on the dramatic change in his wife and marriage (he offers many helpful comments covered in the book), but one thing in particular that drew him back was Pat’s renewed relationship with God, which to Rich became contagious. Like Pat, Rich exchanged a “cultural Christianity” for a real faith. If you ask him why he’s more involved at home now, Rich says, “There’s no treasure in the other activities, no inheritance; it all gets burned away! I still put in a good day at work, and I still love to hunt and fish, but I realize that, from the standpoint of eternity, they’ll all pass away.”
How interesting; the man who once threw himself into work and outdoor sports because of their solvable nature and tangible rewards now recognizes that their rewards pale in comparison to God’s promised rewards in eternity.
In my view, that’s why Pat’s mission “worked.” Instead of trying to change Rich for her own sake, she drew closer to the Lord, captivated Rich with her own example, and in a godly way encouraged Rich to reevaluate his priorities according to God’s standards. Rich needed another measuring stick. Marriage, faith, and family life take more effort than work and fishing — but they offer much greater rewards.
Your first movement toward your husband should be, as it was for Pat, a movement toward God. When you give yourself first to God, you open yourself up to his correction, affirmation, and redemption.
Following that, the magic question will work well for both husbands and wives. In the face of your disappointment, be bold to ask,“What would you like me to do for you that I’m not doing?” If you heed your spouse’s words instead of taking offense, you can slowly transform your home into a more pleasant place for her or him to be — and therefore make your spouse want to come home.
Some desires in marriage are never going to be fulfilled and need to be “crucified.” In fact, various studies have suggested that more than fifty percent of marital issues will never be resolved. You can fight against this all you want. You can resent it. You can say it’s not fair. But it won’t change what is. If you want your marriage to move forward, you have to live with what is.
Fortunately, life in Jesus provides a brilliant but severe remedy for living with unfulfilled desires and unmet expectations: the cross. We need to constantly remember that our lives shouldn’t be defined first and foremost by our marital happiness, but by seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness. That pursuit will, in the end, produce happiness, but we have to keep first things first.
So here’s the spiritual trick. Transform the focus of your expectations from what you expect of your spouse to what your God expects of you. We can’t make any one person do what we think they should do (that just leads to futility and frustration), but we can surrender to what God would have us do in light of that (which leads to peace with God and divine affirmation).
Patricia Palau discovered that accepting the role of the cross in her life helps her check her own desires.
“Perhaps some things are improved by a lack of inward focus. Instead of focusing on our marriage or our desires, Luis and I have focused on the call of God on our lives. We have lived for a cause that’s bigger than both of us. And after forty years, we like each other, get along well, and have fulfilled one another as much as is possible.
“Our fulfillment is doing the will of God. Our heart prayer is, Not my will, Lord, but Yours. This focus kept me from saying ‘I deserve more help than this’ when Luis has been gone for two weeks, leaving me with four little boys. I didn’t think, I can’t believe Luis has to leave again so soon, two or three weeks after his last trip. For me, the Lord’s command to ‘take up your cross and follow Me’ has meant letting Luis go while I take care of things at home. No, it isn’t ‘fair,’ but it brings life— eternal life— to others. And I gain peace, contentment, and satisfaction.
Patricia’s attitude works just as well for wives married to construction workers as it does for wives married to famous evangelists. Patricia surrendered to God’s will, whatever it was. Raising children, supporting a husband, running a small business, staying involved in one’s church— all of these activities can constitute a call “bigger than both of us,” even if such a call will never get celebrated in a history book.
Feel free to say, “This stinks!” but then add, “And Lord, how would you like me to respond in the face of its stench?”
Regardless of your situation, the Christian life does require a cross. Your cross may look different from Patricia’s, but you will have a cross to bear. Resentment and bitterness will make each splinter of that cross feel like a sharp, ragged nail. A yielding, surrendered attitude may not make the cross soft, but it will make it sweeter, and at the end of your life, it may even seem precious.
When Patricia as a mature woman married for more than four decades testifies that she has gained “peace, contentment, and satisfaction,” she means she has found what virtually every woman wants and yet very few find. Why? Because so many women look at the cross as their enemy instead of as their truest friend.
In a woman who raised four boys with an often absent husband and who endured two years of chemotherapy? How can this be? Patricia understands something the world mocks: “In the end, nothing makes us feel as good as does obedience to Him.”
If you don’t die to unrealistic expectations and if you refuse the cross, you’ll find yourself at constant war with your husband instead of at peace. You’ll feel frustrated instead of contented, and disappointed instead of satisfied. Why? We often forget that both partners in a marriage have their expectations, and sometimes these expectations conflict.
Martie found this to be true in her own marriage:
“When Joe and I became engaged, I had a set of assumptions about how our married life would be. One of those was that Joe would be home most evenings and we’d spend hours together talking, sharing activities, and dreaming together, just like we did when we were dating. But those expectations didn’t materialize. After we were married, Joe juggled school and a full-time job in addition to his commitment to me as his wife. He often came home late and I would be upset about having to spend the evening without him after working hard all day at my frustrating job. I felt Joe was breaking some unspoken promise about spending time with me. But you see, that was the problem: I never spoke with him about my expectations. In my mind he was breaking a promise, but in his mind he was simply fulfilling his responsibilities.”
Eventually, Martie talked to Joe about her desires, and the two of them worked out an arrangement to spend some evenings together. Because of his vocation, Joe is not home every night, as Martie once dreamed he’d be. But he is home more evenings than he probably envisioned as a single man. Neither received all they wanted, but both bowed to something bigger than themselves. That’s why I say that harmony, joy, and peace will never grace a home ruled by expectations instead of by the cross.
In her book It’s My Turn, Ruth Bell Graham got pretty blunt in this regard: “I pity the married couple who expect too much from one another. It is a foolish woman who expects her husband to be to her what only Jesus Christ can be: always ready to forgive, totally understanding, unendingly patient, invariably tender and loving, unfailing in every area, anticipating every need, and making more than adequate provision. Such expectations put a man under an impossible strain.”
And men, we can do the same thing with our wives, can’t we? We take little parts of every “all-star” wife we know, then cut and paste them into some Frankenstein fantasy, and expect our wives to be all of them in one person. This wife earns more than her husband, why can’t you? That wife wants sex even more than her husband does. What’s your problem? That wife has Bible study and prayer every morning before her family wakes up. How come you’re always the last out of bed? That wife works out six days a week. When’s the last time you’ve even broken a sweat?
The foolishness of these expectations is that they always make us feel worse about our marriage and never encourage our spouse to “improve.” We feel worse and worse, and a “picked on” spouse tends to become more and more stubborn. That’s a losing game, far more foolish than the victory of the cross. Marital hope is found in a glorious but bloody solution: crucifying our expectations. Sometimes, the choice comes down to this: crucify our desires or “crucify” our spouse for not meeting those desires.
If you choose the latter, ask yourself in advance how well a pilloried spouse will be able to suddenly start meeting those desires, or even want to?
If you want your marriage to survive, crucify the desire and resurrect your marriage.
This is the fourth post in an ongoing series featuring the message of Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband.