After twenty-seven years of marriage, “John” suddenly found himself the sole caretaker of a dying marriage, helplessly watching his wife move toward the door, first emotionally, then literally. Her wanting out might have made sense if he had done something wrong, but she offered no insight, other than, “she has been unhappy for 20 years and now isn’t sure that she is in love with him or wants to stay in the marriage.”
John explained his difficulty in a letter asking for suggestions on how to rescue his marriage.
She has told me that there isn’t another man and I believe that this is true. I am devastated and don’t know how to proceed. She is currently getting counseling, but doesn’t want to share information with me or to discuss details of her counseling or her feelings. I have suggested that we seek counseling together and she has told me that she doesn’t want to do that yet. She has asked me to give her time to sort things out, but has been very direct in telling me that divorce is a possible and maybe likely solution.”
Because men detest the feeling of helplessness, they typically spring into action with the best of intentions, only to reap disastrous consequences. First, they chase after the woman they fear losing, which only causes her to flee farther and faster. Then, they resort to begging, which women find even more repulsive. Finally, unable to bear uncertainty for very long, anxious husbands resolve the stalemate by pushing her out the door. Fortunately, John is wiser than most men. He recognized the futility of acting on his instincts.
I am willing to be patient while my wife works through her feelings with her counselor, but I am afraid that she will make a decision to proceed with a divorce without making an attempt to resolve things together. I don’t want to be passive and just have things happen, but I also don’t want to be demanding and drive my wife further away.”
In my book, Redemptive Divorce, I discourage passivity when one’s partner destroys the marriage by stubbornly pursuing sin, but John’s wife has not yet done anything to compromise their union. She is not involved in another relationship, she has not turned to drugs or alcohol, she has not filed for divorce, and she hasn’t moved out of their home. Instead, she has expressed deep dissatisfaction with the marriage and her husband, honestly communicated her emotions, and has even sought Christian counsel. These are positive—albeit painful—responses on her part. In John’s case, a “tough-love” confrontation is not appropriate. However, he doesn’t have to remain passive.
After explaining the crucial differences between responding and reacting, I offered several suggestions that have been remarkably effective in other cases like his. If you are a man struggling to keep your marriage intact and—this is a crucial factor—your wife is not in sin, stop chasing after her and set aside your ultimatums. Instead, consider the following actions.
- Choose a passage of Scripture that focuses on the sovereignty of God, such as Romans 8, and start each day by reading it. If possible, use several different translations. This daily exercise will prove helpful in resisting the urge to take control out of God’s hands and will gradually replace anxiety with peace. Circumstances may not unfold as we want, or even in accordance with God’s perfect will; nevertheless, He is in control and will use all circumstances for our good.
- Let your actions reflect who you are as a man of God. Continue to protect and provide for your family. Continue to love your children. Continue to cherish your wife with tiny kindnesses without drawing attention to them. Focus on doing what is good and right, regardless of the results.
- Avoid chasing after your wife. Instead, pursue your relationship with Jesus Christ and let her know the passenger seat is reserved for her, whether she joins you for the ride or not. Naturally, you do not say this, you demonstrate this by consistently carrying out #1 and #2.
- If—and hopefully when—your wife wants to talk to you, listen. Avoid the impulse to offer advice or provide answers. Instead, empathize with her pain and confusion without commentary. If she asks you questions, answer them truthfully. Otherwise, let this time be about her.
- Seek the help and friendship of mature, male, Christian friends, even if they live far away. Daily phone calls by one or more will help keep you veering out of control. If you can trust a male staff member of your church seek him out. Vent your frustrations on them instead of your wife.
- If your wife does something specific to compromise the marriage, such as filing divorce papers or engaging in an inappropriate relationship, respond kindly and firmly accordingly. Until then, allow threats, accusations, emotional outbursts, and hurtful talk to go unanswered. If you must respond, limit your words to, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Admittedly, this approach appears counter-intuitive. But, rest assured, this isn’t busy-work. These suggestions have helped other men for two reasons. First, this approach returns control to God, who is infinitely more capable of rescuing a marriage. Second, a man who pursues an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ is infinitely more attractive than one who places his wife at the center of his world.
At this point, John’s wife is looking for a way out, but desperately hoping for a reason to stay. Meanwhile, I remain optimistic about their chances. After a long discussion with a male friend and, undoubtedly a heartfelt prayer, John wrote back.
Your email came as a special delivery answer to prayer. Your most powerful suggestion was to let my actions reflect that I am a man of God and to continue to love and provide for my family. You hit the nail on the head when you reminded me to continue to cherish my wife and to do tiny kindnesses without drawing attention to them. I always hope for the big hug and kiss, but I typically get a polite “thank you” instead. Now I will continue to love and cherish [my wife] and will persist in finding ways to show my love without expecting a certain response.
I know that I can live day to day with the knowledge that God is in fact intimately involved in my circumstances. I have confidence that if I focus on my response rather than reacting, and follow your suggestions, I can wait on [my wife] and respond to her. I look forward to the day when her counselor recommends that we work together, but I am also preparing for my response to the possibility that she may want to go on without me.”
Like I said, I’m optimistic.