Tough Love Must Stand Firm

The primary purpose for confronting a wayward spouse with his or her sin is to bring about genuine repentance (Matthew 18:15). Only then can a couple can begin the process of rebuilding trust and restoring intimacy. Unfortunately, the forgiving spouse may actually discourage repentance by becoming too eager for reconciliation. At the first sign of regret or remorse, he or she leaps to the rescue with forgiveness, only to suffer the pain of a repeat offense.

Feelings of regret and remorse are good and necessary; they often prompt genuine repentance. But feelings without actions do not produce the kind of change necessary for restoring broken relationships. While a sinning spouse wrestles with his or her conscience, the upright spouse must neither press harder for a decision nor relieve any tension created by the confrontation. Watching a loved one struggle with emotional pain can be heartrending; however, that is the time to remain steadfast, even if it feels like pouring sand into an open wound.

On the other hand, many wayward spouses respond to confrontation with hostility and then pursue their sinful paths with even greater determination. This, too, might weaken an upright spouse’s resolve, causing him or her to wonder, What’s the point of godly confrontation if nothing I do will change anything? A letter[1] from “Stephen” gave me an opportunity to clarify the purpose of godly confrontation and the need to stand fast, regardless of the sinning partner’s emotional response.

Dear Mark,

I just read your book in a day! Thank you so much for the wonderful insight and direction. After reading your book and Love Must Be Tough, I had a new game plan. 

I found out several months ago that my wife was involved in an adulterous relationship. We have been separated for a few months now. She has continued to follow her path of unrepentant sin. I was planning on talking to a lawyer today. Last night she wanted to meet up and she has decided that she wants a divorce. She wants to do a mutual divorce and start splitting things up. She wants to do it as easy as possible. I spoke the truth of the consequences and how God is offering her an option of redemption. By the Lord’s grace and mercy, I have been able to be full of love, mercy and grace toward her. His amazing love, comfort and strength is so awesome!

My question is, should I proceed with filing for a faulted divorce and bring more accountability for her actions, even though she already wants a divorce. I feel like I would be countering her desires with a stronger fight. I didn’t feel like conceding to her selfish desires of “both of us moving forward” would be helpful.

If you have any advice, I would appreciate it. Thank you for your commitment to helping brothers and sisters in Christ in this awful situation.

In Christ,

Stephen

The purpose for godly confrontation is neither to control nor coerce someone. Therefore, nothing should change just because the sinning partner experiences negative emotions. Godly confrontation merely establishes boundaries, declaring sinful behavior unacceptable and then declaring how we will behave in response to sin. At that point, we grant others the freedom to choose right or wrong for themselves.

Dear Stephen,

I am gratified to hear the book is helpful. And I’m especially glad you have a clear vision of what should be done. Let me encourage you to stay the course. Here are a few reasons.

First, while the desired outcome of redemptive divorce is complete restoration of the marriage, our primary purpose is to stand on principle, even if what we hope to achieve proves unlikely. Our choosing to do what is right gives the Lord greater opportunity to do good on our behalf, which He wants to do. But we must leave “success” in the Lord’s hands.

Second, the reason for insisting upon a fault divorce is not to be unkind, but to keep the focus on the primary issue at hand: her sin. People who are struggling with unrepentant sin will do almost anything do divert attention away from their wrongdoing. Despite what you see on the outside, she is wrestling with her conscience. Continue to love her truly by keeping her sin from being covered over by other issues. Remain calm, steadfast, and gentle in your demeanor, but continue to call her behavior what it is.

This is genuine love. Her sin will haunt her for the rest of her life. And if she ever does repent, she will have years of regret to overcome. Only she can choose her path, but your continuing to state the obvious truth will give her every opportunity to act in her own best interest.

Third, don’t forget the other document, the separation agreement. Very often, someone chooses adultery because he or she feels there is no other means of addressing legitimate complaints about the marriage. In the separation agreement, you are saying, in effect, “I realize that I have failed in some way; however, your present response is unacceptable. If you choose to repent and commit to the marriage, we can address my issues in a more constructive manner, such as individual counseling.”

I do not recommend going on record, in a sworn statement before the court, declaring that you mutually agreed to the divorce when, in fact, the divorce was a result of her unwillingness to repent of her adulterous relationship and her failure commit to the marriage. You would be, in effect, stating something false.

Instead, I recommend explaining your reasoning to your wayward wife simply and kindly. You might also point out that if she doesn’t see anything wrong with what she is doing, then she should have no problem signing a legal document stating the actual reason for the divorce: adultery and abandonment. In “no-fault” states, the existence of fault doesn’t affect the division of property, so there should be no reason for her to object on financial grounds. Her sole reason for objecting to the fault language must be her reluctance to call her actions what they are: sin.

At the confrontation, her response will be neither amicable nor cooperative. She will undoubtedly distract you with accusations; however, I have found that silence is the best response. Keep the focus on the reasonableness of your request; you simply want the divorce document to reflect the truth instead of a falsehood. But more than that, you want her to do what her conscience has already told her to do. She must drop the adulterous affair and commit to starting over with you.

Stephen, I can tell you are a man who wants to do what is right and that your marriage is your first priority after pleasing the Lord. The principles of godly confrontation are still your best course of action. Therefore, I recommend following the process all the way to the end, along with the help of a counselor, an attorney, and a trusted accountability partner. In the end, the marriage may indeed be “over.” But having done everything humanly possible, steadfastly following the principles of Scripture, you will be able to face the future with a completely clear conscience. And there’s no better gift you can give yourself, or your wayward wife.

I will pray for you both.

Mark

By the way, Stephen already knew this from the book. He simply needed encouragement to remain steadfast, which he did to the very end.


[1] All letters are shared with the senders’ permission and have been altered to remove identifying details in order to respect everyone’s privacy.

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