When a wife has been shaped by her past to be insecure marries a husband who is prone to harshness, their marriage will be an endless loop of relational conflict. The first responsibility is for the husband to learn how to build up his wife with his words rather than tear her down.
Listen to the podcast
Reader Warning: This article is not about figuring out who is the most blame. It’s a treatment of a common marriage problem where both spouses bring bad patterns into their marriage and how their unique individual problems create relational conflict that needs biblical solutions.
Sally was born and reared in a verbally abusive home. Her dad was a strong-willed man who used his anger as a control mechanism. He doled out critique like candy, and Sally was the main recipient of his hate speech.
Each unkind word was like a paper cut on her heart, and by the time she became a teenager, the wounds were too deep to heal. She tried to circumvent his anger by being perfect, but the barrage was too much for her feeble self-reliant efforts. She wilted under the pressure.
Her husband married her because she was beautiful, but he did not perceive the depth of the hurt she carried. He was a Christian and had a passion for the LORD, but he was not perfect either. He struggled with anger.
Though her father and husband were different, they felt eerily similar to Sally. Manure can be shoveled from a barn or a perfume factory, but it’s still manure. Because of Sally’s shaping influences, she reverted to old patterns in her new marriage. Her soul began to diminish under the anger and critique of her husband.
- Sometimes she would lash out and fight fire with fire.
- Other times she silently internalized her fear of him.
She hoped she could leave her fear of others at the marriage altar, but like an omnipresent shadow it slavishly haunted her. She is now forty-three, married for the past 20 years, and the knot inside of her continues to twist her into deeper despair.
Fear of man
Sally’s core issue could be diagnosed as fear of man:
The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
Sally would have liked to be approved and accepted by her father, but that will not happen since he passed away three years ago. Even so, her desire to be treasured is painfully active in her soul.
Today, her approval desires (2 Timothy 2:15) are directed toward her husband. You could quibble over the merits of this desire: Is it an idol, a craving, a lust, a need, or all four? Is it a legitimate, God-given desire? You can read more about these arguments in Mark Grant’s treatment on how a desire for love and respect destroy your marriage.
The main point, for now, is she wants to be valued by her husband. Sally’s craving for his positive assessments coupled with his anger toward her has worked together to tie her soul in knots. Rather than perceiving and helping her with this problem, Bob has complicated her childhood struggles.
One of Sally’s responses to compensate for the hurt and fear she harbors is to be critical, particularly toward her husband. Being critical is easy for her because the LORD has given her a quick and sharp mind: Her tongue is like a hair-trigger.
Rather than knowing how to use her strengths to mature her marriage, Sally uses her tongue as a weapon to hurt her husband (Ephesians 4:29). It’s her revengeful way of doing to him what he does to her–make him feel small through critique. This gives Sally some relief as she feels better about herself by demeaning her husband.
One of the ways for a person who craves approval from others is to find affirmation through their strengths. Sally has a quick tongue, and she uses it like a competitive event as she outmaneuvers who slower-minded husband.
Sally does not practice put downs with clearheaded premeditation. It became a learned behavior that she perfected as a way to alleviate the pain of her past. This is her form of self-righteousness, which was born out of deep hurt, anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness toward her dad.
I will fight you
It is not typical to think of a person who struggles with fear of man to be a battler, but Sally is one.
- On one hand, she cares what you think about her, therefore she is guarded in what she says: She does not want to be rejected.
- On the other hand, she will bite your head off if you offend her: She does not care what you think of her.
For Sally, it works out this way: When she is right and knows she is right, she can go toe-to-toe with her husband. When Sally is working within her strengths (self-reliance) she can wear Bob down to the point where he gives up. Bob says it this way:
It’s Sally’s way or no way at all. She is relentless when it comes to what she wants. It’s easier for me to give in rather than fight her on everything that comes up in our marriage.
He is right. Sally is a fighter, but she only fights the fights she knows she can win. If fearful people are going to fight at all, they will only fight when there is a predetermined outcome–an outcome that has a win at the end of it.
Sally cannot lose because to lose is to fail. To fail opens the door to critique, being put down, or made to feel insignificant, unloved or rejected. When Sally goes to war with you, the outcome is already decided.
I will hide from you
But the complexity of her sin is not that compartmentalized. Sally is a hider as well. There are pockets of silence or secrets that she does not expose to her husband because she is afraid of him verbally jabbing her.
Like a little girl holding a delicate butterfly, Sally is a fragile soul (1 Thessalonians 5:14) that she protects from any hint of hurt (1 Peter 3:7). In this way, she is silently suffering in plain sight of her husband.
Bob only sees her argumentation.
He sees Sally as a battler on the outside, not as a broken little girl on the inside. Though he would say he knows she struggles with fear of others, he does not connect the dots between a wife who wants to die on every hill and a wife who wants to hide behind every hill.
I’ve detailed here how the self-reliant person is standing on a platform of fear. What appears to be a strength is not as strong as you might think. Sally’s fear is masked by her brashness.
It is common for our sins to manifest in diverse ways (James 1:5-8). For Sally, she fights her battles that have predetermined outcomes, while hiding her weaknesses when there is a possibility of being hurt.
Fighting the wrong fight
Breaking down these sin dynamics of the heart is a challenge for Bob. He mostly sees the one side of Sally–the battling side. While he gives tacit acknowledgment to her insecurity, that awareness does not compel him to disciple her through these life-dominating sin patterns.
Because Sally is an arguer and Bob rules by harshness, he does not mind, at times, entering into the fray with her. He likes winning too, which is more important to him than rescuing a soul that is caught in bondage (Galatians 6:1-2).
- Sometimes Bob will acquiesce by giving Sally her way.
- Other times he will run her down a rabbit hole by either out-arguing her or blowing up. (The latter move is a manipulative tactic to shut her down.)
In either case, the effect is the same: Sally does not feel nourished or cherished (Ephesians 5:29). She feels defeated and hurt. The unrelenting bitterness she harbored toward her dad has metastasized to even more bitterness toward her husband.
There are three parts to this problem that Bob needs understand in order to help disciple his wife through her forty-year battle with hurt, bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, and fear.
1. Defeat his sin
Bob has to conquer his anger (James 4:1-3). When he responds with impatience, hurtful words, or general frustration toward his wife, he is complicating a preexisting problem. She is already struggling, but when he piles his sin on top of her sin, there will be no marital solutions forthcoming.
If he begins to see his wife as his primary disciple to serve rather than an opponent to defeat, he will not only be able to help her, but he will begin to gain victory over his own sin. His first call to action is to ask the LORD to give him affection for Sally. You cannot hate the person you have affection for. Right now Bob does not have affection for her.
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Galatians 6:1-2 (ESV)
The word restore in this verse is the same Greek word used in Hebrews 11:3 where we learn God created the world by speaking His Words. The LORD brought order from chaos.
Bob must learn how to bring order into the chaos of Sally’s soul. He can do this when the words he chooses to speak into her life are redemptive rather than corrupting (Ephesians 4:29).
2. Discern his wife
The next thing he needs to do is think more deeply and broadly about their marriage problem. What is going on with Sally is not exactly what meets the eye. Yes, she can fight fire with fire, but fearful people can use more than one unbiblical method to manage their fear. The two most common methods are fight or flight. Sally employs both at different times with Bob.
- If she can match him punch for punch, she will give it a go.
- If she is not confident she can win, she will not take the risk.
Both responses are born out of the same premise: She cannot be rejected, hurt, or unloved. The pragmatic way in which she keeps from being hurt depends on the person she is with and the situation at hand. Once she determines the method needed, she employs it, whether it is an eye for an eye or a flight response.
3. Disciple his wife
Bob must disciple his wife.
And, yes, disciple-making in all marriages should be reciprocal. Sally should partner with him by pulling the marriage wagon in the same direction. I suppose if we lived in a perfect world, that would be the case.
We don’t live in a perfect world where both spouses repent at the same time. Therefore, my appeal is for Bob to lead in repentance because he is the leader of the home (1 Corinthians 11:1). What better way for a husband to lead than to lead by repenting?
In a sense, Sally is like an addict who has been caught in sin for forty years. Bob’s heart should be broken for her. Rather than tripping over what she is doing wrong, he should be in tears because of the bondage that has wrapped her soul for so long (Jonah 2:5).
It is much easier to defend our positions and make our points than live out the other-centered demands of the Gospel. If Bob wants to help his wife, his starting place must be his heart as he relates to the Gospel. A simple prayer like this would be a good place to begin:
If he will submit himself to that one truth, then he will begin to experience the favor of God on his life and marriage (James 4:6). He will also become a more effective part of the solution rather than a person who is tearing away at the fabric of the marriage.
A call to action
If you are the leader of your home will you (1) pray this prayer, (2) find someone to hold you accountable, and then (3) begin the hard work of cooperating with the LORD in changing your marriage.
Give me the empowering grace to set aside what I want for the sake of your glory and your mission. Help me to be a better representative of the person of Jesus Christ to my wife.
Rather than highlighting what she has done wrong to me, teach me how to come alongside her the way you continue to come alongside me.
Our marriage should not be primarily about what I get out of it. This is my opportunity and context to bring the life of Jesus to bear on two broken people. Forgive me of my sins and teach me how to lead our marriage.