Part 2 – Continued discussion about how to respond in marital distress

In this week’s blog I’m not going to answer a new question, but rather I want to continue the discussion Amy and Anonymous have generated from last week’s question. So if you haven’t read last week’s question and answer, scroll down to read it because the way we think about these things is critical.

Anonymous felt angry after reading the blog question and I think, my response. Her heart hurt to hear of this woman’s dilemma and pain and advised her not to allow herself to be “used”.

Amy questioned whether or not this woman was really still married since her husband had emotionally walked away from the relationship. Amy felt that it was absolutely wrong for this woman to feel any obligation to meet her husband’s sexual desires or needs while he was planning to divorce her.

Before I talk more about the deeper issues that these kinds of marital situations present please allow me pose this same dilemma in a different way. Suppose a husband wrote me and said:

My wife and I have been married for 20 years. We are both Christians. We attend church and she reads her bible regularly and tells me she has a great relationship with God. But last week she informed me that she’s planning to divorce me. We’ve always had struggles in our marriage and we’ve tried numerous counselors but she says that she’s done with that and she’s planning to move out as soon as our daughter, who is a sophomore, graduates from high school. I don’t want our marriage to end. I’ve tried talking with her but she refuses to have any more discussion about it. Although she’s college educated, she’s never had to work and I financially support the household fully.

My question is this: does God still want me to pay her bills even though she’s no longer invested in our marriage? Am I obligated for the next three years to pay for her car payments, her haircuts, her insurance, her IRA, her clothes, her health club membership, her lunches with her girlfriends and other spending she does? I feel like I’m just a paycheck and that she’s using me until she’s ready to leave. What do you think I should do?

If I received this question, I would respond in the exact same way I did last week where the woman asked about what she should do about meeting the needs (desires) of a spouse who has checked out of the marriage although not formally divorced yet. There are not always clear cut Biblical answers for every situation. However, there are some Biblical principles we must keep in mind when trying to discern what God is trying to teach of us in our own particular situation.

Marriage involves a commitment. We promise to love, cherish, and meet our spouses’ needs over the long haul, for better or worse. Ideally, our promise to love ought not to be conditioned on how well our partner loves us back. To love Biblically means that I will act in my spouses long term best interests, even when it costs me. In our own humanness, this kind of love is impossible. But as Christians, God equips us and teaches us how to love in this way. The apostle Paul says, “Be imitators of God and live a life of love” (Ephesians 5:1).

Biblical love is tough and may sometimes look like being “used”, if that’s how you want to think about it. For example, when Jesus healed the 10 lepers, only one of them returned to thank him. Were the other 9 lepers using him merely to get healed? Probably. Jesus still gave them what they needed – they needed healing and Jesus didn’t dwell about what he was not getting in return (gratitude).

In my book, How to Act Right When Our Spouse Acts Wrong I write about this in detail and talk about the Gifts of Love that we can give an undeserving spouse.

They are: The gift of acceptance – not trying to change the person in to who you think he or she should be but accepting, without resentment where he or she is.

The gift of truth: Saying hard things, not necessarily harshly.

The gift of kindness: Not allowing another person’s evil doing or sinful behaviors change you into a different person.

The gift of prayer: Not just praying about your spouse, but praying for your spouse.

The gift of forgiveness: Letting go of offenses done to you. We are to learn to be forgiving and forbearing people, bearing up under one another’s weaknesses.

The gift of consequences: Allowing our partner to experience the consequences of his or her sin in order to help them come to their senses and repent.

Each of these gifts of love are given to meet a spouse’s specific need, not as a punishment but as a way to communicate “I care about your long term well being and I have promised to love you, even if it costs me.”

For example, two weeks ago a woman wrote and asked when enough is enough? Her husband had been repeatedly unfaithful and although he claimed to be repentant once again, could she separate or did she need to forgive and reconcile? I talked about various options but in the end I encouraged her to move forward in separating (giving the gift of consequences) until her husband demonstrated the fruits of repentance over a significant period of time. Most of you agreed.

But would that choice cost her? Indeed it will. It will change her household and not all for the best. Financially it will create new hardships. She will feel lonely. At times, she will miss her husband’s companionship. She will now be more responsible for the load of parenting without her husband in the home. Yet it was not only good for her to set a boundary in her marriage, her choice to separate was in her husband’s long term best interests. Without experiencing the consequences of his sinful behavior, he had already shown that he was unlikely to to do the work he needed to do. Separating was Biblical love, not simply self protection.

So let’s look at what that might look like in these recent two examples. The husband in today’s blog, may choose to give his wife the gift of kindness and in doing so, continue to pay her bills without resentment, hoping and praying to see a change of heart in her that their marriage may be restored. Will it cost him? Yes. Is she using him? Yes unless her heart would change.

The wife from last week may decide after weighing their history that she can love her husband best by being available sexually without resentment, giving him the gift of acceptance of where he is right now and that there are perhaps things in his life that he’s struggling with that he can’t talk about right now. She can also pray for him, that God will him show him his bitterness, or whatever else has caused him to turn away from the marriage so that he’s willing to rebuild their relationship. Remember, at one point he was invested in their relationship and willing to go to counseling. She must ask herself what happened to change that?

Or, on the other hand, equally as biblical in each of the above situations, knowing what they have already tried and done, they may choose a different form of sacrificial love just as I suggested in last week’s blog.

So the discernment comes when each person in his or her particular difficult marital situation asks themselves at least three important questions.

First, what is God is trying to show me through this marital suffering? When we only have eyes for our spouses’ wrongdoing, we are seeing the speck in his or her eye, but ignoring the plank in our own. Jesus says, look at yourself first and get the plank out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see more clearly to help the one with the speck in his/her eye.

Take responsibility for where you have failed in the marriage before confronting, blaming or judging your spouse’s wrongdoing. Last week I challenged the woman to ask herself what has been her history in the marital conflict that has led her husband to give up. I would ask the man in the today’s question the same thing. In marriage, we always have two sinners who often sin against each other at the same time. Our brokenness hurts our spouse and our marriage but it is usually our blindness to our own brokenness that will destroy it. If you can learn to act right even when your spouse acts wrong, it doesn’t guarantee a better marriage, but it’s much more likely.

The second question to ask yourself and pray about is this. How can I best love my spouse right now? Remember, you vowed to love, not to simply stay married. That is much harder work. In today’s example, is it best to continue to support her needs (desires) financially? Or is it best to have a honest discussion with and tell her that if she doesn’t want to be married, then the consequences of her choice is that she will need to get a job so that she will learn how to support herself financially?

The third question to ask and pray about is, what is my spouse’s greatest need right now? Our felt needs can be very different from our real needs. Each day I feel a need for chocolate, but my real need is to eat more broccoli and take calcium supplements, which I never feel the need for. Oswald Chambers asks us, “If we could look at ourselves from God’s perspective, what would he say are our true needs?” Our spouse may say their needs are for money, sex or to be let back into the house after numerous affairs, but the truth is that his or her real needs might be very different. It is only through prayer and asking God to use you to meet your spouse’s true needs can you best love your mate, even when he or she is unlovable and causing you great distress.

I think we need to be careful in these kinds of dilemmas because one answer does not fit all situations. Amy is right when she says, “We as Christian women need to start thinking for ourselves and asking ourselves, is this truly right?” But we cannot think rightly without the Holy Spirit and God’s Word as our anchors for discernment. Jesus tells us that nothing is more important in our life and maturity then to learn to love well. However, we must also recognize as C.S. Lewis so wisely writes, “Real love is more severe and stern than mere kindness.”


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