3 Critical Heart Changes For Successful Reconciliation

Morning Friends,

Next week (April 12) I’m doing a free workshop on “How long do you keep waiting for change, and if changes are happening, how do you know they’re real?” I will be doing two live sessions, one at 12pm ET and one at 7:30pm ET. If you know someone who might benefit from this workshop or you’d like to attend, go to www.leslievernick.com/joinworkshop to register. You must register to attend.

In light of our upcoming workshop, I thought this person’s question would be helpful.

Question: My husband and I have been separated for a month now. He pushed me and I fell against the door jam and bruised my shoulder and arm. He’s been ugly before, but never physical. He says he’s changing, but what should I be looking for before he comes back home? We have children at home so it’s hard not having him here, but it’s easier in that we’re not fighting like we were before. My pastor thinks I shouldn’t wait too long or he may lose heart. My husband says forgiveness means believing him and trying again. What are your thoughts? I’m afraid to have the same cycle repeat and I’m not sure he gets the seriousness of his actions and attitudes.

Answer: First, give yourself some peace and accept that you are incapable of knowing the future. The best you can do today is make the wisest decision based on what you know right now. Two years from now you may have different facts, but today you don’t know those facts. All you know for sure is today and you know yesterday. Your marital history is important because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. When someone tells you to forget the past and start with a clean slate, that’s nonsense. [Tweet “You can forgive the past but you must not forget.”] Remembering your history helps you be wise in making your next right choice.

Second, sad emotions from your husband don’t necessarily indicate repentance. Instead, they usually represent pain. Either the pain he is in or the pain he fears because of the consequences he’s experiencing. Sorrow isn’t repentance although it does trigger your compassion. Therefore please be wise when your spouse is crying and pleading for a second (or tenth) chance. Ask yourself what specific changes has he made in his actions and attitudes and are these changes consistent over time? In other words, is he building a new history with you of kindness, respect for your no and your boundaries? Or are you seeing his charm kicking into high gear to win you back? The only way you’ll know that is with time and testing. 

Time means that you will give yourself enough time to watch what he does with his free time, his money, his children, his treatment of you, and his spiritual life. One month is not enough time to see a new pattern in these things. During this separation don’t ask him to go to counseling, don’t require him to listen or care or talk with or visit the kids. You want to see what is in his heart to do without your prodding or threatening. Is he seeking help? Is he making repairs and restitution for how he’s harmed you? Scared you? Hurt the children? Is he willing to be teachable and accountable? Is he developing different attitudes and actions or do you still see his underlying attitudes of entitlement and desire for control? 

When working with abusive and destructive individuals a change of heart must precede a change of habit. As my friend and colleague, Chris Moles writes, “If we just cut off all the apples on an apple tree and duct tape bananas on it instead, sooner or later, the apples will come back and the bananas will fall off. That’s why you need time in order to see if the rotten apples grow back. 

Testing means that you will set boundaries, say “no” to things you don’t want to do, stop over accommodating, or giving in to his requests, and see if he can respect you as a separate person who has different needs, desires, and feelings than he does. If not, then reconciliation is not appropriate. If so, continue to give it more time to see if he’s truly changing. Make sure you are saying no instead of giving in to accommodate. [Tweet “You can’t see if he respects your no if you never say no.”]

The following are three heart changes that you want to see evidence of because they form the foundation of the change of habit that must occur for reconciliation to be successful. You want to see: 

  • Humility rather than pride
  • Willingness rather than willfulness
  • Gratitude rather than entitlement

Finally, the Bible warns us: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”

Living in Pennsylvania I remember driving down my country road and seeing all the tares among the wheat field on my neighbor’s farm. It reminded me of the story Jesus told in Matthew 13: 24-30 about the tares growing right alongside the wheat. Evil isn’t only out there, but it is among us. It is in the church masquerading as the real thing, but it is not.  

Jesus warns us, “By their fruit, you shall know them.” (Matthew 7:15)

Don’t be fooled by duct-taped bananas. Wait and see what fruit is growing on your spouse’s tree before you reconcile. 

You will find my YouTube video on “How do You Know Someone is Truly Sorry” helpful. 

Friends: When you have reconciled or chosen not to reconcile, what specific “fruit” and/or heart attitudes have you seen that helped you make that decision?


  1. Mary on April 7, 2022 at 9:41 am

    Even after calling the police because my ex-husband ripped me up out of bed, grabbed me by the arm, bruisung and injuring it, then shoved me backwards, in front of my oldest child, all the while yelling, cussing and pacing…. I was willing to allow space for reconciliation. I waited… My child who witnessed the event told me that “dad says you grabbed him” which is also what I learned he told the police. I confronted my ex on this and his response was, “Let’s just say the devil was at work in both of us that night.” This response, totally lacking in ownership of his actions, all the while trying to assign sin to me when I was literally just sleeping in bed when it happened, opened my eyes to true hardness of heart within him. I still left space if he would repent. Then, he created a witness list of all of his immediate family and closest friends to testify against my character in court. This solidified for me that he sits so firmly in his arrogance, masquerading it as righteousness, that I needed to release my marriage to God as over. Turns out no one on the witness list consented to be on there…..it was a bullying tactic. I still grieve the loss of my marriage, but resting in the peace of being out from under his destructive ways.

    • Gretchen on May 3, 2022 at 5:40 pm

      Wow, Mary! Your husband fits the NPD/sociopathy profile to a “T”!! I have a similar story. So scary when a person has NO moral compass. I’m ready to move away from everyone as I’ve lost trust in most people and cannot fathom EVER getting married again. Boy, they can put on the fake act before marriage but the devil in them runs rampant after you’ve said “I do.” A person without empathy is not human but merely a predator. I’m so much happier alone.

  2. Marie on April 7, 2022 at 9:43 am

    Thank you Leslie for this incredibly important and concise explanation of legitimate repentance. Sincerity is not just in word, but in deed. Actions always speak 1,000 times louder than words. Over time I learned to watch what people do more than listening to what they say. If their words matched their actions, then you know for sure this is a sincere person.
    My ex was ALL talk and no action when it came to working on our marriage relationship. I suffered through financial abuse, emotional abuse and gas lighting, manipulations, and much more. Suffice it to say, there was very little equity and mutuality, much less geuine love and consideration, in our marriage. He poured on the charm and had his family and our church friends all wrapped around his self serving little finger. Charm is very deceitful, but actions with the right attitude, which includes respect and consideration, love and kindness, is the real deal. For you own sanity and well being, I encourage everyone, accept no substitutes.

  3. Caroline Abbott on April 7, 2022 at 10:06 am

    I love this Leslie. When we say no and set boundaries, does our spouse try to talk us out of it? Blame us for their pain? Or, do they handle it and deal with their own pain? This is what I learned from my own hard experience: https://carolineabbott.com/2013/09/how-can-an-abuse-victim-know-ifwhen-to-reconcile/

  4. Connie on April 7, 2022 at 10:56 am

    Oh dear, I saw red flags all over this one. Happened to me, too, where the pastor said I’d better take him back or he will give up, Big mistake BIG mistake.
    Forgiveness does not mean walking back into stupid. If the waiter spit in your food, you might forgive, but you wouldn’t go back to eat there.
    You might look for a pastor that understands these dynamics, or you’ll end up going in circles for years. Find community (like here, but also friends who get it who you can go out with – hard to find, I know).
    When I left, I had 5 children at home. I was puzzled about people saying I had it so hard as a single mom. It was so much easier without the emotional turmoil. I had made the huge mistake of focusing so much on ‘the marriage’ (even though I now know it wasn’t a marriage problem, it was a character problem), that I had neglected the children. I wish I could do it over. Please, focus on the children, and let God take care of him. Detach emotionally and listen to your gut.

  5. Tim on April 7, 2022 at 11:33 am

    In my abusive marriage, my then-wife had been going to therapy for almost 2 years, but her behavior was getting worse, not better. After a particularly bad episode where I left the house for a few days, she asked me to come back and was willing to listen to me explain to her what I had actually done / said / thought that she had overreacted to – but when I suggested that we talk about her reaction, she refused and tried to blame me for her actions. I could have made my decision to divorce her then, but I didn’t trust my emotions and the history of our relationship. After two more counseling sessions where our counselor spent 3 hours (each time) trying to teach her how to make an empathetic statement, I finally decided to divorce her for the overwhelming emotional abuse. It took that for me to see that she wasn’t going to change.

    Almost 2 years after the separation and divorce, I met with her again, as I had started questioning whether I was too hasty to have ended the relationship. At that time, she claimed to have continued seeing a counselor about her abusive tendencies (good!), claimed that it had been enough to ‘cure’ her diagnosed personality disorder (questionable, sounded like some things she had mis-heard previous counselors say, if not an outright lie), and I saw an entitledness in her responses (she was ‘sad’ that I didn’t have a foundation of trust for her in our first interaction after the divorce). I also saw other signs that she was still living out of the same patterns of thoughts that had hurt me so badly during our marriage (she knows better than me and has the right to order me on what to do). I didn’t express it in terms of pride / willfulness / entitlement at the time, but that is exactly what I saw, and it reassured me that I had made the correct call in divorcing her.

    If I had seen a change in her heart, if I had seen humility, willingness, gratitude, and empathy, I would have been willing to enter into the long road of reconciliation – rebuilding of all the trust that had been broken (because that doesn’t come back automatically just because the other person changed). It would have been hard and terrifying for me at many points, I know, but it would have had a chance of being safe.

    Lezlie, thank you for writing this, and giving me specific attitudes and heart orientations to look for! Occasionally, I still look back and feel guilt for having divorced her, but things like this remind me that God gave man the institution of divorce because of the heard-heartedness of mankind – in this case, because of the heard heart of my abuser.

  6. Danni on April 7, 2022 at 1:04 pm

    I would be concerned about the counsel received by your pastor. The suggests to me that he is saying you/your timing are responsible for his “not losing heart”. He is responsible for tending to his heart and that is not your burden.

    Also, forgiveness has nothing to do with believing someone. Forgiveness is letting go of your right to recompense and leaving that to God. Believing someone when trust has been repeatedly broken has to do with their acting in a trustworthy manner over time to earn back trust and belief.

  7. Janice D on April 8, 2022 at 6:07 am

    The thing about bad fruit is that it only gets more rotten with time…and it stinks! Reminds me of the childrens song “Good Fruit( apples don’t grow on pear trees)” by Rain for Roots.The chorus states” your heart is where the words of your mouth grow,your mouth is where the thoughts of your heart go Jesus,change our hearts to bear,To bear good fruit.As always,a great post,Leslie.Thanks so much for shining the Light of Truth(Jesus) into such darkness,which sadly exists in so much of “Christian Counseling” Praying for those brave pastors with ears to hear and eyes to see to rise up and declare” No More!”

  8. Nancy on April 9, 2022 at 9:15 am

    The best test of true repentance is to begin saying no in areas where you need to. Then carefully observe your spouse’s response.

    I found the hardest part was battling the false guilt that came as a result of saying no. And so was far too willing to relax the boundary in order to escape the feeling.

    That’s why this is impossible without God. But with God, anything is possible.

    During the darkest time God gave me Hosea 2:14-17.

    I had to be willing to allow the Lord to remove the idol of marriage from my heart.


  9. Ruth on April 9, 2022 at 7:29 pm

    I am baffled by the Pastor’s reasoning. Pastor: abused wife, please let your husband back in the house soon bc he might not be discouraged and lose heart.
    Is this a grown man or a preschooler?

    Is this pastor saying the victim is responsible to placate the one who did the damage in the first place?

    Where’s all hoopla about men being leaders in the homes?

    Why are women told to submit to strong male leadership until her husband goes off the rails? Then she’s told to coddle his fragile ego?!? Why not confront the abuser and tell HIM TO GROW UP! Good grief.

    • Nancy on April 11, 2022 at 9:32 am

      Yes Ruth! For too many years I defined love as ‘coddling fragile egos’ be it my mother’s or my husband’s. This is the opposite of love!
      Again though none of this can be done without The Lord because the lies only GROW as the boundary is held.

  10. Free on April 11, 2022 at 6:49 am

    Transparency, confession, accountibilty. Then training in humility, empathy and equality.

    The transformation is nearly impossible, whether driven my psychological or neurobiological factors, there is no pill or treatment to fix abusers. If they take responsibility for all their past, present and future manipulative schemes, that would be the first sign of transformation.

    In the company of my narcissistic abusive mother this weekend. She showed me how she sets up people to manipulate them. She had a worker at her home and she wanted him to do something he wasn’t contacted to do. She used various manipulative techniques from charm, neediness, bribes, bullying and lying. After the man left, she told me see, that is how you get someone to do what you want. It is this kind of thinking that motivates an abuser. They lie, plot and scheme deception. It is transparency of this deception that needs to come to light.

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