The domineering husband and doormat wife is a call from God to the Christian community to come alongside them to help restore what is broken. Here are nine things to consider when helping a couple in this kind of desperate marriage.
Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. – Hebrews 13:3 (ESV)
Some marriage and family situations are like prisons to the people involved. In these relationships, it is frequently the case that the husband or father is exercising domineering control over his family, rather than the servant-leadership modeled by Christ (Mark 10:42-45). These families desperately need the help of the body of Christ, but caring for them well is challenging for a variety of reasons.
The greatest obstacle to overcome is the unwillingness of Christians to enter into the messiness of others’ lives. As we count the cost of getting involved, we may determine that the emotional investment at stake is far too great. Or we can be tempted to think we aren’t qualified to help them, so we offer to pray and nothing more.
Another difficulty that arises is that the man who is overbearing toward his family can be quite charming toward the people outside his home. If a wife is seeking help, sometimes the would-be helper has a hard time reconciling the wife’s claims with the character of the man he thinks he knows.
Other times, the husband is belligerent in other settings, and confronting him seems like a daunting task. The wife may become emotional easily, which can make her seem like she is unstable, contentious, and the primary problem in the marriage.
Helping people like this is not an easy task. May I plead with you to help them anyway? We would love to serve you as you do.
How to help a doormat wife
Assume she’s telling the truth. She is taking a huge risk by talking to you, and if she gets the feeling you don’t believe her, she will retreat to her prison, likely not to risk seeking help again, or for a long time. She will feel alone, hopeless and confused.
Listen well. Try to understand her world the way she does. Read Rick’s article on the discernment found by walking in the Spirit. Ask good questions. Keep in mind that she likely is not interpreting her world entirely correctly, but also be willing to hold your own presuppositions about what is going on in her life loosely (Proverbs 18:13, James 1:19).
Note: A PDI form will not give you as reliable information as a conversation will. Read this article about listening at two levels.
Understand she is afraid and confused. She likely has been conditioned to think that any mention of her husband’s faults is tantamount to gossip. Also, she may have been told and may believe that every problem in her marriage is primarily her fault.
Every time she disagrees with her husband she is made to feel rebellious or unsubmissive. This kind of person has a weak conscience (Romans 14:23) in many ways, and she will need gentle, loving care to help her recalibrate it.
Avoid over-correcting her. This is NOT to say she doesn’t need correction or doesn’t need to change, but she lives in an environment where no amount of change is enough to satisfy her husband, even though she has run herself ragged trying to please him.
You don’t want to give the impression to either spouse that the problem only lies with one person, but it’s imperative you understand the burden of change has likely always been solely on her.
It will be easy to crush her by placing further expectations on her. Her husband may use your critiques of his wife as weapons to control her when they are back home, so it will be best for you to counsel her separately from her husband when you must bring correction to her. Be sure you clearly understand the situation as best you can before you give her advice.
Be willing to serve her for the long haul. These folks have likely been in this pattern for a long time (Galatians 6:1-2) and they need long term care if there is any hope for change in their lives (1 Thessalonians 5:14). They probably don’t even understand the extent of their caughtness, and even if they know they need to change, they have no idea how to accomplish it.
How to serve a domineering husband
Love him. Being for the wife (Romans 8:31) does not mean you should be against the husband. He is caught in sin (Galatians 6:1-2) and he needs your compassionate help. You will need to guard your heart against sinning against him in anger (James 1:20, James 3:9). He is probably terrified of his world being torn apart and he needs a friend to support him through what is coming.
Understand that he may not think he needs to change. He has a biblical hermeneutic that interprets all of marriage through the “wives, submit to your husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:24) lens. He sees her failure to give him everything he wants (James 4:1-6) as the only thing that really needs to change for them to have a great marriage.
Don’t let him fool you. He may be willing to say and do all the right things to get his kingdom back under his control. Definitely praise any evidences of grace you see in his life (Romans 2:4), but be aware he could be using self-reliant, manipulative tactics to convince you he has changed when he hasn’t.
He may seem emotional and repentant at times (2 Corinthians 7:10) and could even believe what he’s saying. The test is whether he follows through with practical and measurable change.
There’s a good chance he will be like Adam on steroids: justifying, blame shifting, and playing the victim card (Genesis 3:10-12) can be excellent tools to deflect the heat of correction. He may demand full reconciliation without any consequences whatsoever in exchange for his professed repentance, but be quite unwilling to extend grace to anyone else.
Be willing to protect his family when he is not. Please do this in a spirit of gentleness and humility, but please do it. Your actions will be a kindness toward him, even if he doesn’t see them that way. And his family needs you (James 1:27).
One more thing: In the event that you see improvement for an extended period of time, don’t assume everything has changed. You might consider setting a reminder on your phone to prompt you to ask monthly how they are. Don’t accept “fine” as an answer. Be willing to ask probing questions of each of them separately.
You won’t be able to bring this level of care alone; this kind of one another responsibility is best accomplished by a vibrant local church body.
Don’t lose hope
The spouses in a marriage like I’ve described have something important in common: they both are living their lives in self-reliance to some extent instead of living in complete dependence upon the risen Savior.
If they are believers, the same power that raised Christ from the dead indwells them (Romans 8:11); if they can learn to trust the LORD and walk in the strength He provides (Ephesians 6:10), both of them can change.
If either of them is not saved, there is still hope through the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17).
Your job, dear Christian, is to serve them as best you can as an act of worship to your LORD. The people in your care may never change; you’re not in control of that (1 Corinthians 3:6). But perhaps God may use you to bring change in His children’s lives.
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. – James 5:19-20 (ESV)
This article is a collaboration between Brandi Huerta and Julie Hansen, both students in our distance learning program. Brandi graduated in 2015 and Julie is currently enrolled.