How Do You Honor a Spouse Who Behaves Dishonorably?

Morning friends, Thank you for your prayers and concerns about my spider bite. I did get some medication and the wound is better but I think the strong antibiotics are now troubling my stomach. Hopefully, that is what it is, and as I finish up the meds, that will go away. 

Thanksgiving is this week, but I always start anticipating the New Year right about now. I don’t wait until New Year’s Eve to think, plan, and pray about how I want to create my 2024 story. So many years I used to default my life story to what was “happening to me” never realizing that I had a choice on how the main character (me) in my story was going to handle “what was happening to me” and that how I handled it made a huge difference on the outcome. 

If this resonates with you and you’d like to be empowered to write a new story in your life for 2024, I invite you to a free webinar I am doing on December 5, Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Moving from Breakdown to Breakthrough. The workshop will be given live at noon ET and 7:30 pm ET and you must register to attend as the workshop is done on a private webinar server. You can register here.

Hope to see you there.

Question: How do you honor and deal with a husband who has no self-control when he drinks and becomes emotionally abusive? I feel alone and have no friends who try to support me – since they think drinking is not a big deal for their husbands.

Answer: You ask a good question that is relevant for most of our readers. The first part of your question is how do you honor and deal with a spouse (or anyone) when he’s doing dishonorable things? The second part of your question is how do you honor and take care of you when he does those dishonoring things? Especially when you have no support.  

Let’s tackle the first part of your question, how do you honor and deal with someone who has no self-control? Your issue is around your spouse’s alcohol and emotional abuse, but for others, it could be a husband who cannot control his temper, sexual appetites, drug use, spending, or a multitude of other things resulting in additional unhealthy and/or abusive actions and attitudes.

Learning self-control is an important part of personal growth and maturity (2 Peter 1:5-8). Even very young children learn to exercise self-control over their bodily functions by the time they enter school. No healthy child attends school wearing diapers unless they have another problem. Personal self-control continues to be learned by controlling one’s impulses (no hitting, even if you feel like it), managing one’s emotions, thoughts, time, homework, chores, responsibilities, money, temptations, etc. (See 1 Timothy 1:7; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; Titus 2:11-12).

The Bible also tells us that self-control is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). When a person regularly demonstrates a lack of self-control or self-discipline, the Bible says that they are foolish and despise their own self (Proverbs 15:32). 

No one can do this maturing work for another person. We can receive guidance but each of us must do the hard work. That said, what do you do when the person you live with, work with, or love, consistently lacks self-control? And, as in your case, those actions cause harm to you?

Let’s look at an example in the Bible where Paul faced this very dilemma. Paul began to speak up for himself before the Jewish High Counsel and before he could say what he wanted to say, Ananias, the high priest, commanded those standing close to Paul to slap his mouth (highly insulting and disrespectful to Paul). Furious, Paul lost control of his temper. He told the high priest off and those standing near to Paul were shocked and said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” 

Paul quickly apologized for his disrespect, even though Paul was the one who was disrespected first. (Acts 23:1-11). 

What does that teach us about how we are to “honor” others even when they behave dishonorably?

First, it requires that we have some measure of self-control. The most tempting thing when we’re dishonored by someone is to repay evil with evil of our own. That’s what Paul’s mistake initially had been. He insulted the insulter. In Romans, Paul cautions us not to let that happen to us (Romans 12:21). Jesus also reminds us not to retaliate to the evil done to us with evil of our own. That dishonors yourself, God, and the other. 

So how do we honor the dishonorable? Let me be clear. We never honor their sin or evil, ever!  However, we can honor a dishonorable person in two ways. First, we can choose to honor their inherent dignity as God’s image bearer even when they dishonor themselves through their wickedness. We don’t treat them as they deserve nor as they have treated us. Instead, we treat them as Jesus teaches, with love (Matthew 5:43-48). We don’t love our enemy because we hope it will cause him/her to change, we love our enemy because we don't want to allow their hurtful actions to change us. Honoring them reminds us that they are more than their corrupt behavior and potentially it might remind them who they truly are. 

Second, we honor them by respecting their God-given freedom to choose. God gave human beings a wonderful and dangerous gift. Agency. Decision-making power. He lets us choose to love him or not. To obey him or not obey him (Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Joshua 24:15). 

If your efforts to talk to your husband about his drinking and abusive behavior have fallen on deaf ears, it’s time to believe him. He does not want to change. When you continue to beg or push your husband to stop drinking you dishonor his agency. Stop. Instead, allow him to fully experience the consequences of his choices, including waking up in his own vomit, losing a job, and your presence and support (for other Biblical examples of honoring another’s agency, see Luke 15:11-32). The father allowed the prodigal son to make very poor choices, and let him go. Jesus let Judas make bad choices (John 13:17-30). God does not nag or force someone into change.

Next, let’s look at what it might look like for you to honor yourself when your spouse dishonors you. Honoring yourself means you affirm your God-given dignity and welfare. It means you exercise your own agency by making choices that protect you from further harm. Therefore, what might be different if going forward, you begin to define what access and/or limitations you allow your spouse to have to your heart, mind, body, emotions, and finances? If you began to honor yourself in this way, how might that change things?

You are ultimately responsible to honor (steward, protect, keep safe, nourish, and nurture) the life God has given you and the person God has created you to be. You don’t need to lean on the energy of hate and resentment to protect yourself from his verbal assaults when he is drinking. What might be possible for you if you calmly told yourself (and if it was safe, said also to him) the following? “You are a grown-up man. I want to honor your right to make choices you think are best for you. When you choose to drink to excess that is your choice. I too must make choices that honor me. When you choose to drink to excess, I don’t like the way you treat me. From now on I will stay in a hotel (or permanently move out) because of the way you treat me when you’re drunk.”  

Friend, you do not have to continue to live like this even if he chooses to.  

Last, you mentioned a lack of support. Getting healthy is always easier done in the company of other healthy individuals. It sounds like your friends may not be the best people to get support from during this time in your life. I’d highly encourage you to attend a few meetings at Al-Anon, which is a support group for those who live with problem drinkers. They understand how to support you as you get healthier and honor yourself and stop focusing on what he does or doesn’t do going forward. 

Friend, how have you learned to better honor and care for yourself even while honoring the other? How has that helped you become stronger and healthier?

16 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on November 22, 2023 at 10:11 am

    Yes. We often try to change a person who acts badly. This doesn’t work. We need to honor ourselves by deciding what we will live with and what we won’t. We can honor the other person by allowing them to fully feel the consequences of their actions. When we enable the behavior, it only makes it worse.

    I struggled with honoring my abusive husband in front of my kids. I think I did it too much, and they were able to ignore or accept all his bad behavior. When I eventually divorced, they thought I was the one in the wrong. I wish I had been more honest with them about what was really happening.

  2. JoAnn on November 23, 2023 at 1:08 pm

    Leslie, your insight and advice in this response is so helpful and wise. I especially appreciate this: “we can choose to honor their inherent dignity as God’s image bearer even when they dishonor themselves through their wickedness.” Thank you and may God continue to bless you as you minister His truth to women and men who need help.

    • Leslie Vernick on November 24, 2023 at 2:10 pm

      Thanks JoAnn. I’ve had to learn this the hard way by trying to get them to change their wickedness and even allowing their wickedness to expose some of my own wickedness. Let them be who they choose to be and don’t let them change who you chose to be.

  3. Maria on November 23, 2023 at 2:16 pm

    Yes, when I finally set boundaries with my ex husband due to his excessive drinking ( I will not attend family events with you if you will be drinking, which included the holidays), it didn’t take long for my marriage to completely fall apart. ( Though I didn’t know at the time that the marriage was already broken as he was unfaithful in part due to impaired judgement/alcoholism). I can see now that the ensuing divorce was the best ‘gift’ delivered in a very ugly package.

    • Leslie Vernick on November 24, 2023 at 2:09 pm

      You’re so right Maria, sometimes divorce is a gift to us, even though it would not have been something we wanted or asked for.

      • Ana Edwards on December 26, 2023 at 11:00 am

        I resonate and appreciate your advice and this very comment as I was feeling guilty that my upcoming divorce IS going to be my gift. I had the right perspective all along but just needed to hear, in this case read it, to realized I should stop feeling guilty! I filed for divorce for catching my husband at a hotel with another woman, then his refusal to attend a marriage retreat at New Life Ministries, attend Every Mans Battle, schedule a meeting with my local counselor, stonewall, blame shift, hand me separation papers, and on and on. He was caught up in evil and didn’t want to change and learn to do better. No more guilty feelings for filing! Thank you for the work and hope you provide to the world. God uses you and this ministry. And, we are blessed!

  4. Julie on November 24, 2023 at 6:50 am

    Thank you, Leslie. I am divorced and have not been in contact with my ex- husband for over a year now, but continue to use your teachings in dealing with others. This article I am using to deal with my managers, as I react to their mismanagement of me and the workload. I wrote down some pertinent bullet points and will review when I get triggered by my managers. When I react, I do dishonor myself, but worse is that I dishonor God. Then I feel angry and distant from Him. I don’t want to feel like that anymore.

    • Leslie Vernick on November 24, 2023 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks Julie, yes I’ve been there and dishonored myself in the way I behaved too. The only side of the street we are responsible for is our side in our interactions with others. We can’t MAKE someone treat us the way we would like them to. All we can do is speak up for ourselves, set boundaries when they behave dishonorably towards ourselves and decide the person we choose to be, not necessarily how we feel in the moment.

  5. Gigi on November 24, 2023 at 8:55 am

    I appreciate most of what you are saying. But I have some serious questions and doubts that this could actually be of benefit to the alcoholic. I have lived with an alcoholic for about 25 years of my 46 year marriage. I have tried Al-Anon and most women there are no longer living with an alcoholic, divorced or their spouses have died. It is not easy to leave at night and go to a hotel when the alcoholic continues to drink all night. Sometimes I go to my bedroom to get away from his anger and criticism. Also I’m tired….why should I be the one who goes to sleep in an unfamiliar bed and lose sleep over this? I have tried leaving this man 6 times. Every time eventually I have to go back and either forgive and move on or face an ugly heart wrenching,nasty 2-3 year divorce. And it will break up my family of 3 great children and 12 grandchildren. . I have chosen to stay and live with the lonely consequences of a man who pretty much leads his own life and I try to make my own best life for me. Trusting God that He will convict my husband to get clean. By the way he claims to be a believer. I have dishonored him many times which I know is a sin. I’m not sure how else to live this life with his sickness. His open heart surgery and his falls have not changed him for good…he always goes back to drunkenness. Any advice from others is greatly appreciated.

    • Leslie Vernick on November 24, 2023 at 2:06 pm

      Gigi, you’re right the answer I gave does not promise to benefit the alcoholic in any way except through possibly experiencing the painful consequences of his choices which then may wake him up, but no guarantee. The benefit was for the one who was feeling trapped in her situation which kept her stuck in misery and angry. The only person you can change in yourself and that’s what the answer was directed to help with.

    • Jo Gravis on November 25, 2023 at 11:26 am

      Gigi, I am so sorry you are going through such a difficult situation. You remind me of my Mom. Too often her focus was on my Dad’s behavior and issues instead of her own. Of course he helped with this because he expected everything to be about him. Whether you stay or leave, choose strength…don’t let his choices weaken you or beat you down. Are your children aware of this problem? Do they support you? Do you try to shield them from the reality of his addiction and the negative effects it has on you? My Mom felt responsible for my Dad’s behavior & desperately tried to protect us from the truth. She didn’t want us to not have a “good” relationship with our Dad. But that wasn’t her responsibility. It was my Dad’s responsibility….his choices affected my relationship with him. She also wanted to keep the family in tact, but the reality was it was broken because their marriage was broken. Divorce doesn’t break a marriage. It acknowledges the truth of the marriage.
      I read that you left 6 times, yet came back. What brought you back? Why are you choosing to suffer consequences for choices that he is making? You have choices, and yes they will come with consequences or results. Step into the strength of CHOOSING! Own your choice to either stay well or leave well. Why would the divorce be, “ an ugly heart wrenching,nasty 2-3 year divorce”? My Mom many times assumes the worst, which I completely understand after over 50yrs of living in a toxic, destructive marriage. When we would talk thru her choices it would help her see the possibilities of how God could work the tough situations for good. It will definitely cost you to make decisions. What are you willing to “pay or not pay” with each choice. Is there a better choice than an unfamiliar bed? Is there a friend or adult child you could stay the night with when he’s drunk? Reaching out to others is essential. My Mom was so isolated & carried this burden all alone until I moved in with them to help as their caregiver. I was stunned with how much she hid from us, just how bad it really was for her there. It’s been almost 5 years since I moved in & what a journey! But I am so grateful that God placed me here to give Mom the time, space, & safety to begin to heal & get stronger. We reached the end of our marathon in September when Dad went home to be with the Lord. Yes, my parents are believers and had a walk with God, but unfortunately were not given good discipleship in marriage. My Dad struggled with controlling, angry, destructive tendencies & my Mom enabled & hid the reality & truth of it. From the perspective of a daughter, I would encourage you to not let his choices define your life. You are not responsible. He needs to face consequences on his own for his actions and choices. What are some options for you? What are some small steps in moving forward to strength and healing for you only? It isn’t your responsibility to hold a marriage or “family” in tact all by yourself! It’s a joint effort! If he is unwilling than you have information you need to make a choice. If your children are aware of this situation, then y’all have some choices to discuss together. Are they supportive of your healing? Or are they more concerned with the “family” not being broken by divorce? Do you have outside, wise-others that can walk with you thru these tough circumstances & decisions? Just a few questions to consider as you look to moving forward in strength and health. Praying for you ❣️

      • Gigi on December 1, 2023 at 11:40 am

        Thank you so much for the response you gave me. Very helpful!

        Yes my children are very aware of his drunkenness..They have witnessed it and seen him fall and other things. So I have not protected them from his alcoholism. They do not want to get involved in saying anything to him. Everyone is scared of him. I came back home because I did not have anywhere else to go–all my things were at my house…computer, clothing, furniture.. I could not then afford to purchase my own home, even though now I could. I just know since my husband is impossible to live with, he would be even harder to divorce. He will deny everything and fight against giving up his 1/2 estate. He is not someone to mess with. He becomes very vindictive. I do not want to go through an angry, depressing divorce for 2-3 years. I do not try to protect him from his consequences, He has never been caught with a DUI even though he drives like this all the time. He was arrested one time 20 years ago and was “repentant “for 2 weeks, then started again with his drinking and said he did not have a problem. The only option I see I have now is to make my own life for myself. I am blessed with many friends and family that cares about me being safe. I need to work on not being bitter and angry with his attitudes towards me. Last night he went out and got drunk. I decided to do something to overcome evil and babysat for my son. When I came home, the doors were all locked and he was passed out in his recliner. He never heard me knocking to come in. I finally found a key and came in and went to bed. The next day he had no idea I was not home when he got home. So you can see I do not have a husband that protects me. I have God to protect me. He is alot more powerful than my husband. God has blessed me in so many ways that I need to keep my focus on those blessings and not the every day rejection I receive at home.

  6. Sarie on November 24, 2023 at 11:29 am

    This is great advice. Thank you. My issue is my
    Husband smokes marijuana and it makes him fun and nicer.. He smokes on the sly so nobody sees him. He seems to get away with everything and the kids think he’s great. This drug has ruined our marriage but he doesn’t want to change. I guess what I’m saying is that the drug really doesn’t have side effects except forgetting to pay bills and forgetting what he said. But that doesn’t matter to my kids bc they are older and they know he’s not really vested in their well being. Sorry- that was such a vent.

  7. Roberta on November 28, 2023 at 10:45 pm

    I suggest you read Dr. James Dobson’s book: Love must be tough. He says some things about alcoholism that I think you are not aware of.

    • Leslie Vernick on November 28, 2023 at 11:22 pm

      Robertq, perhaps you can enlighten us on what Dr.Dobson’s book said. I read it years ago and I believe love must be tough but that does not mean love dishonors the other. It means love speaks the truth with love and firm boundaries and consequences, which is what I think I recommended in the blog response. IF Dr. Dobson recommended something more please let us all know.

  8. Jeff I on June 6, 2024 at 3:26 am

    I would recommend PRAYER as the way out of this. If you look at the bible in Luke 18: 1-2 its say Men ought always to pray and not to faint. The institution called marriage was instituted by God and its also important that when our marriage is fainting that we call on him to fix it. The God of the bible is the ultimate FIXER and i implore you to take this route.. I passed through a dishonor wife but with prayer everything came back to normal. I am here to say PRAYER works and we should never let the devil destroy the institution called MARRIAGE.

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