When Trying Harder Becomes Destructive

Good morning friends,

I am flying out very early today (Monday) to Colorado Springs to tape three different interviews tomorrow (Tuesday) with Focus on the Family. I’ll let you know when they will air but please pray for me. Pray that I am clear minded, am able to communicate wisely and that God will be glorified.

Then Wednesday I fly to Oregon, to speak at Solid Rock Westside church in Portland on Saturday. This is open to the public so if you are near Portland, please come and join us. The event starts at 9am and ends at 11 am and the cost is $5 to attend, but you receive a $3 voucher to purchase any of my books or CD’s if you’d like. I would love to see you. I will be speaking on Lord, I Just Want to be Happy. Here is the contact info: Jodi Hughes, Solid Rock, 10500 SW Nimbus Ave BLdg T, Portland, OR 503.620.1120 ex 127 or Jodi@ajesuschurch.org.

This week’s question: I’ve read your book, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong. I’ve tried so hard to be everything my husband wanted me to be. Everything I thought God wanted me to be. I desperately tried to be a good wife, to get it right and it’s backfired. Our marriage isn’t better, it’s worse. My husband's selfishness has become oppressive and unbearable. I exist to serve him. What is wrong here?

Answer: You are asking a very important question which will actually be covered in much more detail in a chapter from my new book on destructive marriages. The chapter is tentatively titled, “When Trying Harder Becomes Destructive”.

For a long time Christian wives have been counseled to do exactly what you’ve been trying in order to fix their marriages or make them better. They’ve been told to try harder, to be more submissive, more caring, more attentive to their husband’s needs, more positive and encouraging and less demanding. In a relatively healthy marriage, this is good counsel. Usually when one person begins to try harder, it often motivates the other partner to do likewise. However, in certain kinds of marriages, it is not a good idea and can actually make the marriage worse.

When I wrote my book How to Act Right When your Spouse Acts Wrong, I was careful to be clear that there is no cookie cutter approach to being a godly wife, and what might be the right thing to do in one marriage might be the absolutely wrong thing to do in another.

Let me briefly explain why in some marriages trying harder to accommodate your husband, do what he wants and needs, and be more compliant and submissive to what he says becomes destructive not only to you, but also to him and to your marriage.

God knows that because of our fallen human condition, we are inherently self-centered. Self-indulgence, self-absorption, and self-deception are just part of our “fallenness”. We are born believing the lie, “It’s all about me.” Part of a Christian parent’s task in raising healthy children is to challenge this lie with the truth, “You are not the main character in your story, God is.”

As parents, we try to help our child grow so that he or she will want to serve God and His kingdom and not stay consumed with building his or her own kingdom. Ideally, God becomes the center of our child’s life, not self.

Many individuals do not receive this kind of parenting, but even when parenting has been exceptional, the sins of the self are like deep weeds. They always pop up because no matter how much we pull them out, they have deep roots.

In addition, we have 20/20 vision to see these sins in other people, but are blind to them in our own lives. We’re experts at self-deception. We are masters at rationalizing, minimizing, and justifying our own selfishness and lack of love. Therefore God has determined that we need community, we need one another to help us “see” ourselves more truthfully.

Recognizing our own self sins without the help of others would be like trying to put cosmetics on your face without a mirror. You wouldn’t do a good job because the mirror provides the reflection so that you can make the necessary corrections and adjustments. In the same way, other people with whom we are in close relationship act as mirrors to us, reflecting back to us how they “see” us and how we impact their lives. The bible warns us that without the mirror of community life, we all have the potential to be blind and deceived toward our own sin (Hebrews ).

With those thoughts as a backdrop, let me answer your question with what’s wrong with trying harder to be the kind of wife your husband wants. The problem is that the kind of wife your husband wants is not the kind of wife your husband needs.

Your husband doesn’t want a real wife that will reflect to him her pain when he hurts her or God’s wisdom when she sees him making a foolish decision. Instead, he wants a blow up doll wife that continues to bounce back with a smile even when he knocks her down. He wants a wife who always agrees, always acts nice, always smiles and thinks he’s wonderful all of the time no matter what he does or how he behaves. He wants a wife who wants to have sex with him whenever he’s in the mood, regardless of how he treats her. He wants a wife that will never upset him, never disagree, or never challenge him. He wants a wife that grants him amnesty whenever he messes up and never mentions it again.

This description is not a real wife, she is a fantasy wife, and the more you collude with his idea that he’s entitled to a fantasy wife, the more firmly entrenched this lie becomes. You will never measure up to his fantasy wife because you too are a sinner. You will fail him (as every partner does in a marriage) and won’t always meet his every need. You also are created by God as your own unique separate person. Therefore you will have feelings of your own and won’t always agree with everything he says or wants.

In a healthy marriage where both individuals are allowed to be themselves, couples must learn to handle disagreements, differences, and conflicts through compromise, mutual caring, and mutual submission. Sacrifice and service are mutually practiced in order to love one another in godly ways. When we fail (as we will), we see the hurt or pain in our partner’s face and, with God’s help, make the corrections so that damages are repaired and love grows. In an unhealthy marriage when real wife and fantasy wife collide, it’s never pretty.

Therefore, what can you do? God calls you to be your husband’s helpmate, but you must search God’s word to define what that looks like. Do you think God is asking you to try harder to become his fantasy wife (which you will never succeed at) or does God have you in his life for a far more radical and redemptive purpose?

According to the Bible, a helpmate isn’t an enabler, but a strong warrior. It means you are going to fight (in God’s way) to bring about your husband’s good. You are going to allow God to use you to meet your husband’s deepest needs, not just his felt needs.

So to act right when your spouse acts wrong, you need to ask God what your husband NEEDS from you the most right now. Does he need me to continue to prop him up, indulge his self-centeredness and self-deception, or does he need something far more risky?

Your husband doesn’t need you to indulge his fantasy or collude with his internal lie that believes he is entitled to the perks of a good marriage while sowing selfishness and an attitude of “it’s all about me.” What he needs most is a real wife, a godly wife, a wife that will speak the truth to him and respectfully challenge his selfishness, his self-absorption and his self-deception. That is risky love, redemptive love, and sacrificial love as you do not know what his response will be to this kind of love.

Prayerfully and humbly ask God to show you how to best biblically love your husband. It may be to stop indulging his selfish behavior and speak the truth in love. It may be to reflect back to him the impact his behaviors have on you and your children. It may be to set boundaries against his misuse of power under the guise of headship so that he doesn’t remain self-deceived. It may mean exposing some of his sins to the leadership of the church so that they too can act as a reflective mirror so that he has the best opportunity to look at himself from God’s perspective and repent.

If he wakes up to his internal lie of the fantasy wife and repents, that would be a good change for you, for him, and for your marriage. That is why trying harder to be the “perfect fantasy wife” is destructive. It only feeds the selfish monster (which we all have) and allows it to grow unchallenged. That approach does not love your husband well, nor is it good for him, your children to witness, or for your marriage.


  1. Maureen on June 18, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    WOW! Thank you for this article! Talk about clarifying a murky issue for me! Thank you! You are brilliant and your words are anointed.

  2. Anonymous on June 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Excellent article! Thank you so much. How I wish this had been the counsel given to me 25 years ago, but the church encouraged me to feed the selfishness of my husband. I wanted so much to please God with the way I lived, no matter what it cost me – and trusted that the pastors and Bible study leaders would not give me foolish counsel. I think your book will meet a great need. Thank you Leslie.

  3. Anonymous on June 18, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Same issue out of the many he have. No matter I tell him what I see in him and his behavior, it only makes him angry, and more verbally abusive towards me and my kids. What a shame!!!!

  4. Anonymous on June 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    I am sooooooo looking forward to your new book, Leslie. This post should be read from every church pulpit in America – there is such a distorted view of what "loving well" looks like in practice when it comes to marriage.

    This paragraph in particular, " Your husband doesn’t want a real wife that will reflect to him her pain when he hurts her or God’s wisdom when she sees him making a foolish decision. Instead, he wants a blow up doll wife that continues to bounce back with a smile even when he knocks her down…" is a home-run … the experience of so many of us.

    Thanks again for being such a strong advocate for those who are hurting and for standing firmly on solid Biblical truth when so many others who have the leadership positions to do so are turning a blind eye and remaining silent…

  5. Anonymous on June 20, 2012 at 1:17 pm

    Blessings, Leslie. I am grateful for your ministry, it really speaks to my heart. I look forward to your new book. Your answer to this question is something I wish would be preached from every pulpit.

  6. 50something on June 21, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Thanks for this wise post Leslie. I have been attending Celebrate Recovery for the past 3 years for my codependency so I can learn how to live with my narcisstic husband. Your post hit the nail on the head and resonated deep within my soul, especially the warrior part, not that I am looking to pick a fight, but I want to overcome the evil in a Godly way. I look forward to reading your book. Have a wonderful time in Portand, I have some special memories there.

  7. Anonymous on June 21, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Hi Leslie. I love this post. I need to be reminded that I am called to meet true needs, but not necessarily meet my husband's expectations.

    I have a related question…if your spouse has a desire to control you, how do you discern an appropriate response? I fully believe that setting boundaries is necessary, but I also believe there are times when we can choose to yield rather than resist. Here's a quote from Dietrich Bonhoffer:

    "The only way to overcome evil is to let it run itself to a standstill because it does not find the resistance it is looking for. Resistance merely creates further evil and adds fuel to the flames. But when evil meets no opposition and encounters no obstacle but only patient endurance, its string is drawn, and at last it meets an opponent which is more than its match. Of course this can only happen when the last once of resistance is abandoned, and the renunciation of revenge is complete. Then evil cannot find its mark, it can breed no further evil, and is left barren." Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, chapter on Revenge.

    When faced with an angry and controlling husband, how do you know when to set boundaries, and when to potentially help diffuse a situation by yielding?

  8. Leslie on June 22, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    I love your quote from Deitrich Bonehoeffer, and your emphasis that you can CHOOSE to submit or CHOOSE not to. Then you are not being controlled at all, you are deciding how you will respond.

    However, Deitrich Bonhoffer did in some ways resisit the evil of his day (WW2) and was even part of a plot to have Hitler killed because of the horrible destruction he was causing. So I don't want you to take his quote out of context and think it's never appropriate to resist. In fact, Bonhoffer also says, 'Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dietrich Bonhoffer in Eric Metaxis book, Bonhoffer.


  9. Anonymous on June 23, 2012 at 6:11 am

    I needed to hear this today. Thank you. I am in the midst of loving my husband well. It is the right thing to do but it has been very difficult. He is very vocal about his dislike of this ‘new me’. Also, I am constantly fighting the feeling that I am being an unloving wife as I go against all that I have done for the past 25 years. I am clinging to God and to His truth. What does God say? What am I called to do? Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Speak the truth in love.

  10. Geri Dietz on August 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Dear Leslie,

    You are such a God-send. This is my life right now, and I’ve been in counseling for 8 months with my pastor. We have tried marriage counseling with him also,but my husband will argue with the pastor and then stop going. I have been seeing our pastor without my husband on a regular basis. Our pastor has told me that my husband is emotionaly,mentally and spiritually abusive. But then recently my pastor gave me a booklet on being “Submissive” which totally confused me. Right now since my pastor had a vacation and tood a few weeks off, I’m getting a break from counseling and praying what to do next.I’m not sure that he can be a help to me with counseling anymore? I have no family and friends, I’ve let this situation that has been going on for about 10 years isolate me. I have no confidence or self esteem any more. I feel totally defeated. Recently I’ve been diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and I’m trying to work through that. Again my husband does not give me any support or encouragement.

    If you should read this, what would be the first book of yours I should buy. Personal coaching is not possible, we have gone through 4 job losses in 15 years, and our finances are poor.

    You are such a blessing to me and I know many others.
    God Bless
    Geri Dietz

    • Leslie Vernick on August 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm

      Geri, Submit to abuse? Not a good idea. That only reinforces his delusion that you are to become his ideal woman and he has a right to abuse you when you’re not. I’d encourage you to read my book, The EMotionally Destructive Relationship. I’m currently writing a new one specific to marriage which will address your concerns more but stay tuned to this blog as I will be giving you pieces of that book in the next few months in the blog. Warmly, Leslie

    • Kim on August 21, 2012 at 1:23 am

      Geri I am struggling with a controlling, selfish, angry husband too. I was recently diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and am convinced it is because of my 22 years of being abused by my husband. I just recently realized it is abuse and am working through how to change myself and how I respond to my husband.

      I have noticed my fibro gets worse when my husband is around. I think that God and my body just said stop enough is enough you are neglecting yourself. So now I am forced to try to take better care of myself because of the fibro. My three sons and husband don’t like it because they are used to me being co-dependent and serving them. God bless you.

  11. Kelle on April 7, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Thank you, I have recently been searching for info about this topic for a while and yours is the best I have found out till now.

    • Leslie Vernick on April 7, 2013 at 6:35 pm

      Thanks Kelle.

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