What to Do When She’s Ready to Walk Out

02 - Walkaway Spouse 1 Cropped (iStock_000007434507Small)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

21 thoughts on “What to Do When She’s Ready to Walk Out

  1. Hello,
    My wife recently asked me to leave our house and filed for divorce. I don’t want this. I am trying to not press her, however, this is a difficult task. She seems to be so angry and frustrated. How long to I leave her alone. While the divorce papers have been filed and custody issues are pending, the clock is ticking and I don’t want to run out of time. I LOVE may wife and children very much and am a fault over this for years of ignornace and disconnect do to work and just “being a man” (selfish, self-centered, egotistical). I don’t want to lose, but is time running out???

    1. I’m deeply sorry to say that your marriage may be too far gone at this point. Aside from divine intervention with some sort of miracle, there’s very little you can do except behave in a dignified manner, empathize with your wife and the pain you caused her–without excuse, without resentment, without entitlement, without expectations–and then devote yourself to becoming the kind of man you know you should. Recovering what you have lost is outside your capability. So, don’t go there. Face the future by setting your eyes on Christ and cultivating a relationship with Him. And leave your marriage in God’s hands.

      The Lord may choose to restore your marriage, but only if you get out of His way. The Lord may not choose to do this. Either way, as you pursue knowing Christ (Phil. 3:8-12, He has promised to prepare a completely different future that is filled with hope and newness and greatness beyond your imagination. But only as you pursue Him and place you marriage, your wife, and your future in His hands. That is the life of faith. Terribly difficult to surrender in this way, but absolutely vital. Otherwise, you are back in charge of your future–and look what that’s gotten you.

      How long do you wait. You don’t wait. You pursue Christ and He will lead you to your future.

      If there is ANY hope for your marriage, it is this. But you can’t fake it. This has to be genuine. Otherwise, you will destroy any vestige of hope that remains.

      Pursue Christ, and your wife might choose to follow with you.

      As I post this reply, I am praying that you follow this course, and that the Holy Spirit will heal your wife’s broken heart.

      1. Thank you for your response. we recently had to go to court for initial custody issues surrounding our boys. I get them Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I was driving to work and praying and thinking about this and it was revealed to me that, while I have the boys during that time, they should not be outside of their home and own beds on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I felt led, by God to let my wife know this. She wound up inviting me to bring the boys down and spend the night and have Christmas Eve and Christmas with them at the house. I was very joyful about this. I of course said “YES” I would like that very much. I thanked God for this and am prayerful that Christ can work in our marriage and restore it so that reconciliation is possible. Do you hav any thoughts??
        Thanks,
        Greg.

      2. Greg, this is wonderful! I’m so pleased and thankful for you.

        Everything I stated in the article and in the response still holds. Stay the course! Don’t pursue her. Resist the urge to convince her of anything. Instead, pursue Christ earnestly and honestly. Complete authenticity here. She’ll absolutely know if your secret motive is to win her back, and that’s the surest way to kill any future you may have with her.

        If she asks questions, answer honestly. Of course, you want her back. But you are committed to following Christ and to allowing Him to shape you into the man He desires. When you’re there for Christmas, focus on your children, express gratitude for her hospitality, avoid any self-defense, and steer clear of any sense of entitlement.

        I’m in your corner! I’m praying you won’t be distracted by the potential of reconciliation. I’m praying the space you give her as you make Jesus Christ the center of your world will make you irresistible. Because, whether you recover your marriage or not, this is for the rest of your life.

      3. I am confused. My wife, while I know this is difficult, told me when I was visiting my boys at the house to not get any hope that the Christmas Eve thing means anything. I told her I wasn’t, but I still believed that God’s will will be done in this circumstance. The conversation got heated where she said she didn’t love me and she was divorcing me. Later, when mentioned that I am responsible for this situation because of years of selfishness, that her actions and words are just mean. I told her that telling me mean things was just to hurt my feelings and that pursuing Christ in my life was my goal and that since this has started she has put me down for it. I asked her about the comments made and she back tracked and said she does love me and does miss me at times. However, I have not given her the space she needs. I am trying and believe I am doing it, however, I do want to see my children and visit with them. I am very confused about what she is saying. I know she is hurt and mad. My wife is a very good person and has a strong faith in Christ. However, this is confusing me (her staying mad, angry and agitated as well as her saying the things she says and does to what I think is to hurt me). She took down our family picture and when asked why, she said she got mad when she looked at it. My friend who is a therapist said that maybe that is good that when she looks at it that she is anger as anger is closer to love than other feelings/emotions. The other thing is my oldest son is beginning to act a bit like this towards me as well. Please help with some advice. Thanks.

      4. Hi, Greg

        I can understand why you’re confused, but everything you’re seeing is not only to be expected, there’s a good reason.

        First, let me encourage you to stay the course, do less talking, more listening, and allow your actions to speak for you. At this point, your words mean little to her. You’re doing great, so stay at it.

        Obviously, men and women are different. Drives us crazy, but that’s why we like them. One major difference is how we use words. Men use words to exchange information. We attach meaning to the words and take them at face value. A woman’s words sometimes carry face-value meaning, but they always reflect her emotional state. To understand her in a way she’ll appreciate, think of her verbal expression as an aroma or an odor reflecting what’s inside. (Bear with me here.)

        Here’s a way to illustrate what I mean. We frequently use our sense of smell to determine whether something is good and safe, or bad and dangerous. We’ll take something out of the fridge, pull the top off, and sniff. A bad odor gives us concern; a good aroma let’s us know everything is as it should be. Furthermore, when you’re taking the lid off a container, the odor isn’t directed at you necessarily. It was simply trapped inside and needed release. The odor or aroma simply reflects what’s going on inside. If the food is rotten, look out. If the food is good, breathe deep and enjoy the aroma.

        Let me carry it a bit further. Sometimes you are responsible for what’s going on inside the Tupperware. Sometimes you are not. We’ll discuss how to respond in a moment.

        Now, let me apply the illustration. Your wife’s words are angry, erratic, confusing, and conflicted. Guess what she’s feeling. Yep. All those things. Instead of responding to the words at face value, instead of interpreting the words based on their dictionary meanings, smell them. When she talks, ask yourself, “How do these words reflect her emotions?” And rather than see these words directed at you specifically, see them as a release of emotions in the form of speech.

        You might be responsible for the state of her insides, or you may not. Either way, your response must be empathy (too big a subject for here.) Listen, affirm the emotions that you “smell,” recognize that they are her internal experience of what’s going on outside.

        If you are responsible–and you have admitted that you are–respond with empathy, take responsibility by admitting your wrongdoing, and express your sorrow. As you express sorrow, it must match the intensity of the hurt or anger you see. But you can’t fake this. It must be real empathy–feeling her emotions with her.

        On the positive side, listen for happy chatter. When a woman feels happy, safe, contented, and connected to her man, her words will pop like popcorn and flow like water. Lots of words about nothing and everything. And that, my friend, should be music to your ears. If you hear them as the sweet aroma of a happy woman, you’ll never resent listening to her chatter again.

        Your job as her man, whether the words smell sweet or rotten, is to be the safe place where she can express them without fear of judgment or criticism or ridicule. Be the one place in the world where she can be completely unreasonable and still receive your affirmation of her as a good person.

        Listen and affirm. Resist the urge to react. Respond with empathy. When she’s able to release those words, her insides become less toxic–for her and for you. And many times, that’s all she needs.

        Your friend is right in one respect. Anger is not good, but it at least indicates some level of emotional investment on her part. We want to help her get past her hurt.

        In other instances, wives have reacted poorly to their husbands’ repentance and genuine reform because it added confusion to their already-confused state of mind. You see, she has felt out of control when you behaved poorly. Then, when she finally made up her mind to give up on you, she felt some level of peace because order had been restored to her world. She felt safe and less confused in her new direction. Hope for the restored relationship has disrupted that feeling of safety and order. One wife expressed it this way to her husband, “I hate you because it took THIS for you to become the man I have always wanted you to be and have desired to love.”

        His consistency eventually allowed her to feel safe in loving him again.

        Stay the course! Be the safe place for her to dump her words without reprisal. Love her by doing what is best for her. And continue to give her space.

        You’re moving in the right direction. Well done!

      5. My friend who I do bibile study with and who is married to one of my wife’s best friends indicated that his wife is asking if we are still meeting and doing bible study and fellowship and when, where. I think and he may think my wife is asking his wife what is happening. Is this good or bad??? My wife did have him call me last week when we had our “blow-up”.
        From what I have told you do you think my wife is starting to look to see if my walk is becoming more authentic???? It is authentic and genuine. I wouldn’t be dealing with it if it wasn’t for Jesus Christ leading me.

      6. I think you might be missing the true emphasis of “authentic” here. No doubt, you are earnest in doing what’s right and you genuinely see that only Christ can restore what is in jeopardy. But your focus continues to be your wife and what’s on her mind. That’s a problem.

        The “authenticity” I’m talking about is the pursuit of Christ regardless of your wife’s response or the future of your marriage.

        Examine your motives. If you’re pursuit is authentic, your wife’s state of mind becomes a distant secondary issue. Moreover, her response, whether positive or negative, will have NO bearing on your decisions. None whatsoever.

        Put her out of your mind. Do what is right, just as though she doesn’t exist. Become the man Christ desires. Leave the issues of your wife and your marriage in His hands (Mat. 6:33). Expect nothing and gratefully receive whatever good comes to you, even if your wife eventually files for divorce. Trust that the Lord has a different future that’s far better than you imagine now. After all, regardless of the outcome, that’s His promise (Jer. 29:11; Rom. 8:28-39).

        Each time your wife, your marriage, or your worries come to mind, take that as an opportunity to give the matter to God and to leave it with Him. Every time it comes back, give it back to Him.

        When I struggle to surrender a matter, when I find myself obsessing over something that I must leave with God, I look at what’s in front of me that needs to be done (such as work, or the bills, or a household chore, or errands) and I repeat the same phrase: “Your will, Your way; give me the grace to obey.” That’s my way of telling myself, “Hands off, Mark.” And it’s my way of refusing to solve a problem that is God’s to solve.

      7. I’m very sorry to hear that, Greg. I know you’re disappointed, especially after seeing glimmers of hope from your wife.

        Let me encourage you to avoid reacting. Keep steady and keep doing the good things you have been doing. If anything, this only proves that her reactions have more to do with what’s going on inside her than anything you’re currently doing. It’s also further proof that you have little or no control over this situation.

        Leave it with the Lord and keep following Him. Regardless of how things turn out with your wife, He has a great future waiting for you, if you don’t take that opportunity away from Him.

        In the meantime, I am praying for you and your family.

      8. Hello,
        Holidays were difficult, but God is GOOD!!!

        As you know my wife got a court order to say I can no longer go into my house since I had left when she asked for “space”. However, since that order and the Holiday’s I have left her alone and have done what you have said about focusing on me and building my relationship with Christ. I have left her alone. However, Monday when I called my boys she answered the phone and said she needed to talk with me about something. We spoke and the conversation was fine. Then yesterday she called and was yelling at me and called me a loser. Then today, she told me that she ordered tickets to an event which I told my boys I would take them to because it was “her weekend to have the boys”. While I have left her alone, she has picked up the communication with me, albeit for the most part in a hurtful manner. I don’t understand. She didn’t talk for 2 months to me or even wanted to, now she has initiated communication with me 3 days in a row, although two of the days were more hurtful type of communication. I don’t get it nor understand this divorce stuff????

        Thoughts???
        Greg.

      9. You’re right about divorce stuff being confusing. The same can be said for a spouse dealing with lots of anger. Sometimes people filled with anger and hurt don’t know what to do with it, and they struggle to contain their feelings. It’s like their carrying a bucket, filled to the very brim with boiling water, struggling to keep it all contained and still get where they’re going. It’s heavy. They’re exhausted. And the boiling water is sloshing everywhere–on them, on you, on anyone standing nearby.

        All I can say is: Regardless of what happens with her, hold your end steady. Remain calm and kind in all of your communications. Keep your eyes on Christ, unlike Peter on the turbulent chop of the raging storm, who sank because he shifted his focus.

        Learn to get good at this, for what I have described is the manly kind of leadership missing in marriages and in churches. Like anything, it becomes more natural with practice–not necessarily easier, but more natural. Let this attitude become more and more a part of you as you continue to draw strength and wisdom from the Lord.

        To help keep you in the right frame of mind, perhaps a daily reading of 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and/or Titus 1:6-9 would help.

        Keep your end steady.

        Mark

      10. I understand. I am really trying. I just want to be with my wife and children again. I want my wife to at least look at how I have chosen to focus on on Christ to become a better person.

        I just want my family back and to be the leader of my household as we can all focus and walk in a Christlike manner. I really do feel like my heart, soul, and mind have been changing as I have done this.

        I miss being present in my boys life daily and also in my wife’s life.

        I miss them.
        Greg.

  2. Ok. This is very hard. I have seen my wife on two occassions since last Thursday. Both surrounding my son’s Birthday. I focused on my son as I should have as did she. However, it is extremely difficult to feel so rejected. I am still pursuing Christ and to be the man I should be. However, our dog got hit and killed last night. I was on my way home and said I wanted to see the boy’s. As I was driving up she called and said that they boys were tired to not come. I wanted so much to be there for my boy’s and her. But my response was, ok, if you think that is what is best and needs to happen. I told her I would call later and did call just to see if everything was still alright.

    This is hard, hard, hard!!!!

    Her heart doesn’t appear that it is softening at all as I am going down this path and working towards being more like Christ.

    1. You’re right, Greg. It’s very hard. But this is the leadership she needs, yet doesn’t feel she can trust. That will come in time as she sees your consistency.

      Keep in mind two important factors:

      First, this is not about her anymore. This is about you and the Lord. Like Peter walking on the waves, take your eyes off the turbulence and focus on walking toward Him… or you’ll sink. You’re not pursuing her, so stop looking at her.

      Second, this is about your wife’s relationship with the Lord, not with you. As you focus on your pursuit of Christ, she will begin to look where you are looking. At Him.

      While your wife has apparently been a faithful follower in the past, you have both focused too much on your dysfunctional relationship such that it has become a distraction. Time now for each of you to pursue Christ individually. As you do, you’ll soon find yourselves traveling together… as it was supposed to be from the beginning.

      You aren’t in a position to tell your wife this. If you try, you’ll interfere with the Lord’s work in her heart. Let her arrive at this herself. If you have anything negative to say, let it be about you ONLY.

      To pursue Christ means to learn about Him and get to know who He is. One of the first books I edited with Chuck would be an excellent resource for you if you don’t already have something you’re using now: So, You Want to Be Like Christ?

      Get the workbook as well: So, You Want to Be Like Christ? Workbook

      Your marriage didn’t get to this place overnight. It will take at least a full year of solid progress before you’re really on-track again.

      Stay the course! You’re doing great.

      She

  3. Mark, I contacted you last July with a similar story. My wife of 27 years told me that she was no longer in love with me and was seriously contemplating divorce. I was devastated. Your advice to me was the same as what you have given Greg–to pursue Christ and my relationship with Him and to respond (but not react) to my wife. I have relentlessly pursued my relationship with God and have gradually been able to give my relationship with my wife to Him.

    It is a human response, especially by us guys, to want to “fix” the problem and do whatever we can NOW to make it right. God has focused my attention on the characteristics of love (I Cor 13) and the need to be patient and kind, to persevere, to be slow to anger, and to hope and trust. I memorized this passage and repeat it daily as a reminder of what love looks like. I have acknowledged to myself and to God that there is nothing I can do to change my wife, to make her love me or even like me, or to make her want to reconcile with me. The only thing I have control over is my relationship with Christ. And that is an eternal relationship. I am becoming the man God wants me to be. My HOPE is that I am also becoming the man my wife wants me to be, but that is her decision. Our circumstance has not changed significantly, but I am more at peace than I have been in years. I daily pray for my wife and pray that God will heal our marriage. I also pray that God continues to make me into the man He wants me to be. And I am confident that no matter how our marriage is resolved, my relationship with Christ will not change.

    I pray that Greg will pursue his relationship with Christ first and allow God to work in his relationship with his wife.

    Jim

    1. Thank you, Jim. I am so deeply gratified that you found the counsel helpful and especially delighted to hear about your spiritual walk. And thanks for encouraging Greg. It is a terribly difficult and lonely journey you have undertaken, yet so rewarding. God is so faithful to surround and uphold us with grace when we choose to make Him #1 and to trust Him completely. The rewards are far greater than the mere fulfillment of our selfish prayers.

      I, too, had to let go of my desires. When I did, and made Christ the center of my world, I received blessings far greater than I could have imagined. While difficulties come and go–as they always will–marriage difficulties are not among my woes. On the contrary, I now have a faithful partner to share the joys and burdens of life.

      The Lord didn’t see fit to restore my first marriage. He had far greater blessings in mind along a different path.

      So glad I surrendered my will and rested in His sovereign leading.

      Many blessings to you, Jim. Enjoy His goodness. It only gets better! (Jer. 29:11)

      Mark

  4. I’ve been going through a similar process as Greg and hope I can be led by the Lord in my situation. I appreciate Mark’s caoching, especially the tips on what to do while my wife is divorcing me. #2 is a little difficult to resist because we have two precious girls ages 9 and 4, and I am afraid of not seeing them even for one whole day. I don’t want them to forget me and think I am not interested in them. This is a great pain.

    1. Thanks for your honesty and transparency, ac. While I stand by everything in this post, I need to clarify some points raised by your comment.

      First, as I said, pursuing your wife romantically will only make things worse. However, that does not mean you should disappear from your daughters’ lives. More than ever, they need to see you pursuing them. That’s what I mean by “continue to protect and provide for your family; continue to love your children.”

      Second, resisting the urge to pursue your wife romantically does not mean you become her doormat. I do not recommend remaining passive in the legal sense. Admitting any wrongdoing and accepting responsibility for your part in the disintegrating marriage does not mean you should allow her to run roughshod over you in court or infringe upon your relationship with your girls.

      While she may put an end to your role as her husband, you must remain steadfast in your role as father. If she has retained an attorney or has begun legal proceedings, you must be ready to fight hard to prevent loosing access to your children. The article, “Abandoned… Bewildered… and Searching for Answers” will explain why.

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