Marital dysfunction and potential separation is a horrible experience that happens too often in Christian marriages. There is a way to separate well and a way to do it badly. I’m going to talk about how to do it well. Though the wife is leaving in this case study, you can flip it around to where the husband is leaving. This article applies to either spouse.
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You may want to read:
- Rick’s 31-Day Marriage Devotional
- The Reason We Blew Up Our Marriage
- Something Must Come Between Us or We’re Going to Hurt Each Other
Mable had enough. Their marriage stopped being fun many years ago. She appealed to Biff to change more times than she could remember. She hoped. She prayed. She appealed. Then she did it all over again. This cycle went on for years. Biff made promises to reform, but he never changed. He modified his behavior, but his heart was the same, and like a stain bleeding through a white fence, in time, the old ways came back.
Partial or inconsistent change was not good enough for Mable. She began to lose hope that he would ever change. Finally, she bit the bullet and left him after 23 years of marriage. Biff was devastated.
The irony of the separation is that Mable had always been willing to give in, acquiesce, talk about the problems, and even bend whichever way she needed to preserve the marriage.
Biff, on the other hand, was always strong, stubborn, determined, and resistant. At some level of his heart, he knew that he needed to change, but he was never motivated to do what it took to change.
Cold As Ice
The day Mable left things flipped completely. Biff became a pleading mess while Mable grew cold, focused, and unrelenting in her decision to leave.
I have seen this “personality switch” many times when a marriage goes past the breaking point. While in the marriage, one spouse is hopeful, prayerful, and willing to work things out with their mate. The other spouse is not interested in putting forth the effort needed to reform the marriage.
Biff was comfortable. He would not see past his self-centeredness to consider what his wife desired for their relationship. She stopped waiting for him to change. She turned off the switch. She stopped hoping and started planning her exit strategy.
Her emotional attitude turned cold. What used to be a willing, unassuming woman had transformed into a vicious, survival of the fittest competitor. She felt justifiably free to do what she wanted to do. Though still married, attitudinally and practically she had moved on with her life.
Biff, who used to be a self-controlled fortress of self-absorption, turned into a sad pile of mush. He was dumbfounded and confused. He said that he never saw it coming, which is probably true. He was so into himself that it never occurred to him that she would play the divorce card.
Biff is free falling. His life compass is spinning wildly. He has no mental or spiritual equilibrium. He feels hopeless and lost. He comes to you for help to figure out what to do next. He is anxious, “I must do something,” and in paralysis, “I don’t know what to do.”
Mable’s is not like this at all. She turned off the light switch several weeks ago and had indexed forward with her life. What Biff is going through now–hopelessness–is what she had been going through for years.
After she had given up on the marriage, she became a proactive planner. When a spouse’s heart turns as cold as ice, and the emotion and hope for the relationship have gone down the drain, the spouse can be shockingly clear-headed about what she wants, even to the point of being brutal.
The World’s Worst Breath
When things unravel, as I have outlined here, you can predict what will happen next: the husband will overreact. He will do this primarily by desperately trying to win her back. He may morph into an inauthentic Prince Charming.His desperate behaviors have only begun. At some point he will go into his groveling, pleading, and begging mode. It will be an all out, last-ditch effort to get her back into the fold.
The thing he does not understand is that he has the world’s worst breath to his wife. She can see right through him. His requests are repulsive to her. She is beyond convincing. That shipped sailed. If he could discern how she thinks now, he would realize how convinced she is that nothing has changed. She reasons like the following:
- He does not have my best interests at heart.
- He blindly talks about himself and how bad he is doing and how bad he needs me.
- He cannot hear himself. He does not know how awful his words sound to me.
- He is now doing the things I hoped he would do for years.
- Rather than doing them on his own, he does them because of what he is losing.
- He is not about me, but about himself, his losses, and his wants.
- I know he will revert to his old ways should I come back.
- What he does not understand is that he should be pursuing God, not me.
- The problems before I left and the problems after I left are because of his weak relationship with God.
- Ultimately, he is not at all about God, but about getting his life back in order.
Forget About Your Spouse
If Biff awakes from his relational stupor, he may see the light. Snapping out of it is the best thing that could happen to him now. Biff is called to do something that will be nearly impossible for him to do. He will need to do what he has not been doing all along. He needs to pursue God with all his heart, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30-31).
Before Mable left, Biff was a confident, “performing-in-his-own-strength” kind of guy. He was self-assured, even to the point of ignoring his wife. He could do whatever he wanted to do, and it never occurred to him how things could be different between them.
After Mable had left, Biff resorted to other self-reliant strategies: “I can get her back by using my wits and strengths.” Whether before or after, the common theme in Biff’s life was that he was not walking in humility, wisdom, or power–the things that come from the Lord.
He forgot God during his marriage. Now he forgets God in his pursuit to win his wife back. Biff needs to do something that is “biblically foolish.” He needs to pursue God rather than his wife.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. – 1 Corinthians 1:18, 25
Biff is going to have to do something that is counter-intuitive to his native thinking and behaving. That is the beauty and the power of the gospel. Though it does not make sense to the natural mind, it is wisdom and power to those submitted to it.
- How can a dying man (Christ) be power and wisdom?
- How can walking in weakness be God’s will?
- How can dying to myself give me the desires of my heart?
Walk Toward God
When a person like Biff comes to me for help, I usually share the content of this chapter with him. My goals for him are threefold:
- I want him to see how he has been living his life.
- I want him to see how he is still living his life.
- I want him to see how living a gospel-centered life is a better way to go.
This perspective is hard to grasp for a self-reliant person like Biff. Though my request is simple–trust the Lord–it is nearly impossible for someone as desperate as an individual who is losing his spouse. To help him see what I’m saying I begin to sketch a visual, plus a practical plan for him to consider.
How to Separate Well
According to the Infograhpic – Initially, Biff and Mable were moving in the same direction in their marriage. They were side-by-side in their mutual pursuit of the Lord (green arrows).
Then adverse things began to happen in their marriage, and they did not biblically repent, which would remove the negative stuff. Mable starts to perceive something is wrong, and her soul becomes troubled. Her first response is to make requests, appeals, and pleas for Biff to lead differently.
After a few years of asking for change, she begins to grow distant in the marriage (red arrow #1). Biff perceives this relational distance, but instead of pursuing the Lord, he reacts out of fear or anger. He wants to close the gap that came between them (red arrow #2).
At that point, both of them are off-center. Their marriage is out of sorts. Biff and Mable compromise their mutual pursuit of God. One of them may have even become satisfied with this new “realignment” of the marriage. As long as the relational distance is the same, why does it matter that they have not centered the marriage on Christ?
Mable knew things were not right. Her response to this new realignment was to react by creating more space (red arrow #3). Upon noticing this, Biff moved toward her to close the gap (red arrow #4). Again, it was the same problem–they were moving further away from the main purpose of marriage, which is to pursue the Lord together (the black and white line).
Mable is now out of the marriage and Biff is helping by pushing her further. If he does not realign his heart to God, rather than his desperate attempts to stop his wife from leaving, he will make a bad problem worse.
The point here is that he needs to let her make her choices, regardless of what they are, while he chooses to follow the Lord, irrespective of the consequences to the marriage. Pursuing God, rather than his wife, is his best shot at restoring the marriage.
Biff needs to go back to where God wants him to be. He needs to focus on pursuing the Lord with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength regardless of whether his wife comes back to him. He needs God more than he needs his wife.
R – E – S – P – E – C – T
A woman is called to submit and to follow her husband. It is important for the man to give her something to submit to, respect, and follow. This something is a “God-impassioned man.” (This 89-second video conveys this idea.)
I have often said that a Christian woman would have to be out of her mind to not want a man who loved the Lord more than anything else. A man who is authentically pursuing God can be trusted because he is not relying on himself, but he is fully trusting in the Lord (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).
Biff will have to decide what he is going to do. If he loves God rightly, he will be able to love his wife properly. If he is going to pursue his wife while giving God a courtesy nod, he will lose the possibility of restoring either relationship (Matthew 6:24).
Should Mable Leave?
There is an unstated and obvious question that I am sure many of you have thought about as you read this chapter. Should Mable quit her marriage? The obvious answer to this issue is, I do not know. This chapter is not about divorce; it’s about separation. If I were talking to this couple about divorce, there would be much more data collecting and in-depth discussions about divorce.
(Again, her leaving is not the point of this chapter. This piece is about a separation that, hopefully, does not lead to divorce. Now, perchance, these ideas don’t work, for whatever reason, we would have an another discussion about divorce. Too often when some hurting spouses read an article like this, they map their experience over the article rather than reading the piece from a more objective perspective.)
Just as Biff has many issues he needs to address, rest assured that Mable also needs to mature in Christ. No couple who separate has a guiltless partner. It always takes two people to destroy the covenant they made. In this chapter, I have addressed what Biff should do to separate, with the hope of reconciling properly.
If Mable were willing to come to counseling, I would want to help her see how she could redemptively participate in restoring the marriage, with the hope of reconciling it to the Lord.
Call to Action
- Is your marriage growing in disunity?
- Are you more interested in pursuing the Lord or fixing your broken marriage (Matthew 6:33)? Though both these things need to happen, the first priority is pursuing God.
- What is one specific and practical way that you could change so your relationship with God is better? Perhaps your spouse has mentioned one of these things to you. If so, what did your spouse say? Are you willing to change that thing for God’s fame?
Also published on Medium.