April 17, 2018

The Evil in Marriage We Rarely Mention

Gary Thomas — 

When we forget that evil exists within our own hearts; indeed, when we stop ordering our thinking and feeling around God and begin to live to please ourselves, we open the door to all kinds of evil in our marriage, especially the evil we are most likely to be unaware of or excuse: the evil of self-obsession.

We don’t like to talk about this evil as it pertains to us (though we’ll talk plenty about our spouse’s failures in this regard), but silence and ignorance is where evil grows. If we don’t recognize the existence of evil and guard against it we’ll never find a cure for it.

Instead, we’ll just explain it away or blame others for it.

Dallas Willard talks about how “We are like farmers who diligently plant crops but cannot admit the existence of weeds and insects and can only think to pour on more fertilizer. Similarly, the only solution we know to human problems today is ‘education.’”

Educating an evil person without regard to evil doesn’t remove the evil; it simply makes him or her cleverer in spreading their evil.

If I get all kinds of marital education and knowledge but never confront the evil self-obsession that lies within my heart, I’ll use that knowledge (my spouse’s love language, for instance) as a weapon rather than a blessing. I’ll employ her love language to get my way rather than to bless her.


The most popular path among Christians to deal with our evil self-obsession is to deny that it exists, or at least that it is motivating us. In his book Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard warns that “denial—usually in some form of rationalization—is the primary device that humans use to deal with their own wrongness.”

This is universal. Every married person reading this is in some way a bit in denial about the evil lingering in their heart that is negatively affecting their marriage.

Personal evil is so painful and difficult to admit that we are tempted to transfer the evil to others. We don’t think of ourselves as angry spouses; we think our spouse is wrong in lighting the spark that makes us angry.

A man doesn’t think of himself as lustful and unfaithful. He thinks of his wife as cold or preoccupied or neglectful.

A woman doesn’t think of herself as critical. She just thinks of her husband as a doofus.

The Cure

Evil is best confronted by ordering our minds and hearts around the presence and will of God. Evil is coddled when we forget God is God and try to set ourselves up as God.

This is where self-obsession assumes its throne. It is nothing less than evil for me to try to turn my wife into a “love Gary as he likes to be loved” machine. That’s narcissism. God calls her to seek His kingdom first (Matthew 6:33). Here’s the question to ask if you want to know how much you are directed by God and how much you are motivated by hidden selfish evil in your marriage: do you spend more time praying for your spouse’s relationship and service to God or more time praying about how they need to become a better spouse to you?

Edith Schaeffer wrote, “The philosophy of living with an underlying motive of doing everything for one’s own personal peace and comfort rapidly colors everything that might formerly have come under the heads of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’… If one’s peace, comfort, way of life, convenience, reputation, opportunities, job, happiness, or even ease is threatened, ‘just abort it.’”

When my life isn’t ordered around God, I fiercely resent being inconvenienced. I’m driven to do what I want to do, what I think is best for me, and my wife will pay the heaviest price for my evil self-obsession.

According to Dallas Willard, “Self-idolatry rearranges the entire spiritual and moral landscape. It sees the whole universe with different eyes…The fundamental pride of putting oneself at the center of the universe is the hinge upon which the entire world of the ruined self turns.” He quotes John Calvin, who said that “the surest source of destruction in men is to obey themselves.”

Husband and wife: will you realize that self-obsession may be the biggest threat to you and your marriage’s happiness? If we do not admit that this is evil, if we are not aware of and do not actively confront the evil of self-obsession, that evil will make us and our marriages miserable. It is so much easier and feels so much safer to talk about the evils of others rather than our own. Dallas Willard again: “It is common today to hear Christians talk of their ‘brokenness.’ But when you listen closely, you may discover that they are talking about their wounds, the things they have suffered, not about the evil that is in them.”

When I understand how evil I am and how evil I can yet be, and that evil begins with self-obsession, I am more determined to order my life around God’s word and will and, just as importantly, release my wife to do the same. I will seek out the Scriptures to understand his heart. I will submit my thinking and actions in a way that proclaims in fact, not just in word, “You are my Lord and my God” and “You are my wife’s Lord and God.”

One of the best gifts you can give your spouse is to be ruthless about admitting and discarding the evil in your own heart, beginning with the evil of self-obsession.


[Note: this post could be harmful to men and women married to abusive spouses who have given themselves over to evil. While all of us need to explore and discharge the evil in our hearts, some spouses need to be saved from an evil, oppressive situation. If you suspect that may be the case with you, please seek other counsel. This teaching is for those who want to save their marriage, not for those who need to be saved from their marriage.]

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15 responses to The Evil in Marriage We Rarely Mention

  1. this is so true. most of us will not agree with this, but is goes down to what we want out of the marriage. Calls for one to be real.

  2. Achieving wholeness is a process

    But the one lesson we learn from all available sources is there is no “quick fix” for the human condition. The approach to wholeness is for humankind a process of great length and difficulty that engages all our powers to their fullest extent over a long course of experience. But we don’t like to hear this. We are somewhat misled by the reports of experiences by many great spiritual leaders, and we assign their greatness to these great moments they were given, neglecting the years of slow progress they endured before them. Francis de Sales wisely counsels us not to expect transformation in a moment, though it is possible for God to give it.

    “The ordinary purification and healing, whether of the body or of the mind takes place only little by little, by passing from one degree to another with labor and patience. The angels upon Jacob’s ladder had wings; yet they flew not, but ascended and descended in order from one step to another. The soul that rises from sin to devotion may be compared to the dawning of the day, which at its approach does not expel the darkness instantaneously but only little by little.”

    From The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Copyright © 1988 by Dallas Willard

  3. I shared this with my husband and this is his response.

    Thank you for sharing this. I find it very insightful. I agree that it was the evil self-obsession in my own heart that led to my on-line affairs and to all the hurt I have caused to you, to our marriage, and to the breakdown in the relationship between you and Mom. I am so glad you led me to counseling.

  4. Thank you for writing about this and exposing this issue. When you wrote about how education for someone that did not address the evil only fueled the evil with knowledge of the evil, it reminded me of something I reflected on in a devotional on Colossians 2:2. In the NAS version, the term “true knowledge” is used, implying that there was the existence of both true knowledge and false knowledge. Been praying for God’s wisdom and discernment for all to know the true knowledge amidst whatever was out there when we awoke this morning. As Colossians 2:2 states, true knowledge comes through Jesus Christ Himself. Believing that for the couples overcoming the evil of self-obsession and those of us in the Sacred Search. Thank you!

  5. Not just a current cultural problem…although very prevalent. This is the enemy’s greatest deception from the beginning and used over and over again with all of us as this article has pointed out…”you will be like god(s).” Genesis 3:5

  6. Thank Gary, your article addressed a destructive force in our current secular society. So much is directed to “if my spouse does not make me happy, then I need to leave them and find someone else who does what I need them to be happy!” The world’s obsession with trying to find perfection in life is not self centered, yet so many women are now falling for it. We have seen an increase in women go after married men for this reason, most married as well. Our culture does not deter this selfish destruction of a family by men or women any longer. Parents who do this wonder why their children are insecure and looking for appreciation/love/acceptance from peers, drugs or social media. Additionally, as a woman I’m not against equality for women, however why have married women taken this to heart to out do their husband? For women to be strong, that does not mean men must be weaker so women rise above. Married couples can rise above the evil in themselves and this world together. Blaming others through judgement is constant in social media, news, celebrity reality shows, etc.

  7. Sandra Tarr LMFT April 17, 2018 at 2:57 pm

    Thank you for writing such an insightful article. I work with couples and when they come in for counseling I always clarify and question what kind of marriage they want – a Contractual Marriage or a Covenant Marriage? Once I explain the difference we spend most of our time working on the subject of your article. Highest Regards Gary.

  8. Ahhh… truth. Thanks Gary!
    I’ve already forwarded this to a few friends with the warning, ‘this might sting a bit’. 😄

    My slogan for the past year was “embrace the ugly”.
    Fleshing it out is more like ‘stare at that black, selfish heart of yours in the mirror of God’s word, see the warts, the necrosis, the decay… then – as you begin to despair – turn to see the loving gaze of the Savior who reminds with a gentle embrace – “this too, I paid for.”’
    Bringing that awareness to our marriage has not only deepened intimacy (no more hiding!), but caused us both to spend less time diagnosing each other, and simply encouraging each other gently “I think maybe you should go look in the mirror.”

  9. Thank you for recognizing this as evil. Overcoming the trauma is very difficult. It destroyed our marriage and my narcissistic husband refuses responsibility on his part. It’s sad and contrary to God’s design, but real.

  10. “Self-obsession”. Wow, talk about not seeing the evil in me, but can clearly see someone else’s evil, especially my spouse. Mr Thomas this article is an eye opener. I see self-obsession in areas of my life where I thought it was the other person. Thank you. It is so scary to look within myself and see this evil that is self-obsession, but I see it. Thank you Sir, May God abundantly bless you.

  11. This wisdom is strong addressed to marriage but transfer over to every human relationship. I’ve learned the slogan , “if there is a problem in my household it’s me until further notice!” However , I have also learned that narcissist know exactly how to posture in a way that never allows for any accountability on their part. At the end of the day even if you need to escape an abusive marriage this advice is still sound. The constant act of renewing your mind around your identity and purpose in Christ so that his will be done always brings out the best positioning for you in relationships with others. It guards against co dependency as well self obsession two sides of the same coin because Jesus is not lord in either. Thanks Gary!

  12. Thank you for the very last comment -“ the understanding about needing to be saved from the marriage. I appreciate the understanding.

  13. This is very helpful in self reflecting and focusing on the need for the HolySpirit’s help for hidden sins that one may justify.
    Sometimes there’s a need to be saved from the marriage to save the marriage and all those who may be affected from the venom that threatens the marriage ship’s wreckage. Thanks for defining the boundaries to protect those in abusive relationships.

  14. A very good word, Gary!