February 9, 2017

Forsaking All Others

Gary Thomas — 

Being closer to anyone other than your spouse is a betrayal of your wedding vows.

When we think of betraying our wedding vows, we usually think of something sexual or romantic. But there’s a far more common betrayal that isn’t about romance or sex; it’s about emotional connection or relational dependence. The reality is that if you are closer to anyone other than your spouse, you are maintaining an immature marriage and are at least in danger of betraying your vows. The object of your affection might be a child, a parent, or a best friend for whom there is no romantic connection at all—but if there is more intentional and invested intimacy in that relationship above your relationship with your spouse, that crosses the line into betrayal.

One of the big challenges with driverless cars is determining what the car will decide if, for instance, it has the option of driving into a wall, perhaps killing the passenger, or driving into a group of people. That’s a value decision that’s horrendous to contemplate, much less program. When it comes to an intimate and cherishing marriage the “auto default” always has to be in favor of our spouse over everyone else. On the day we got married, we already decided and declared to everyone, including our God, that our spouse comes first.

Remember, we promised to “forsake all others and keep myself only unto you.”  If we fail at “forsaking” we’ll necessarily fail at “keeping.”

There is one exception: if you are in an abusive relationship you need to realize that abuse thrives in secrecy. Isolation becomes a weapon. You, above all people, need wise counsel and support, and should feel no guilt in pursuing both. What we’re talking about here is dealing with apathy, not an enemy.

Having said that, every marriage that wants to mature must move toward holding each other dearer than all others. That means occasionally risking and even enduring a short season of loneliness until the relationship is restored. If I experience a painful distance from my spouse and immediately jump ship to find intimacy with a friend, child, or hobby, that substitute takes away my need to do the work to become closer to my spouse—cementing me in a sub-par marriage. After a while, the “temporary crutch” becomes my permanent reality and the marriage never gets fixed.

If you’re still in the marriage, you’re still under your vows, so your call is to fight to be closer to your spouse than anyone else in the world.

Being married to a relationally immature husband or wife isn’t biblical grounds for a divorce, so you’ll have to endure being a little “relationally hungry” for a while so that you will stay motivated to help your spouse grow. Don’t just say, “Fine; he has his hobbies and I have my mine. He can go out drinking and golfing with his friends, I’ll go exercise with my friends, and we’ll make sure the bills get paid.” Accepting such a low status quo is a betrayal of your vows.

This may sound stark, but I believe it’s the pathway to marital healing: “I will be a little lonely or in an intimate marriage. For the foreseeable future, I’m going to accept only one or the other.”

As a pastor who works with premarital couples, part of my job is to protect both the future husband and wife. If I see something that could be disastrous to intimacy in a marriage, I’m going to point it out. I may (and have) even suggest that they postpone the wedding or call it off entirely, because entering marriage is to enter extreme vulnerability. Younger couples don’t always get how vulnerable they become to each other. There’s no getting around this vulnerability, any more than you can jump into a pool without getting wet. So you make sure it’s a clean pool before you jump.

Which is why, singles, you need to ask yourselves: Will this person keep working on the marriage? Will they pull back into an addiction or hobby or other friendship when things get difficult (things always get difficult)? Do they have the spiritual, relational, and emotional maturity to the extent that making myself vulnerable to them above all others is a wise decision?

If you want your marriage to work, you necessarily have to forsake all others in order to “keep” yourself only unto your spouse. This is not a quick fix, but the Bible speaks highly of perseverance: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

This blog is not written for women in abusive marriages. The advice offered in these posts will challenge both husbands and wives, but the advice could be counter-productive if it is applied in an abusive relationship.

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31 responses to Forsaking All Others

  1. Hmm … What the 21st century US calls a “relationally immature marriage” is what the 1950s called a normal marriage and most of the world in most of history calls a good marriage. We put too much weight on the marital relationship. That’s why they shatter — at least as often as because we fail to tend them.

  2. We have been married for 17 years. I am a recovering alcoholic and she had an affair. We are still together working on our marriage. I attend AA and she attends al anon. I sent this to my wife to read and she strongly disagrees with you. She said she would never put any man above her children or God! She said her children will always come first. She says she loves me but not in love with me because of the bad feelings she still has about my past drinking. I love my wife and trying to do everything I can to save this marriage but I also want to be with someone that loves me the same. She said it will take time, more than the 4 months of soberity that I have. Is she right that our kids should come first and do we have a chance to save our marriage?

    • W.P.,

      I hope I made it clear that NO ONE should put their spouse above God. After God, however, I believe we’re called to be spouses first and parents second. In the cases of abuse or addiction, there may be times when a spouse has to protect the children and it will feel like they are parents first–but this results from the errant spouse’s potential danger, not a lack of heart on the part of the protecting spouse. If I make it necessary for my wife to protect my kids from me, that’s on me, not her.

      I can’t diagnose a particular marriage through this blog, but that’s the general principle I live by and teach.

  3. I have been married for 14 years this year. My husband was a new Christian when we were married and had been married previously on two occasions, both marriages ending in divorce. I went into the marriage with my eyes wide open at the reality of the remnants of hurt that would be left behind from two failed marriages. My dear husband is so scared of heart connection and intimacy in relating heart to heart. This coming weekend we are about to do a marriage course at our Church. I am praying for a ground shift. Thanks for this post, I need to guard my heart from allowing other things and people become a crutch. I am in this for the long haul. I love him dearly and just wish he realised how much.

  4. My husband and I have been married for 14 years. We read your book Sacred Marriage late last year and it helped us tremendously. It is only in recent months that we have grown more intimate because my husband was convinced he needed to address his habit of lust after other women. My question is, what if he has lingering attraction for a lady in our church? He isn’t himself whenever she talks to him. I know he tried his best to avoid conversation and averting his eyes but I know the attraction is still there and it pains me to notice it. He wants to cherish me and forsake all others but doesn’t know how to. I have just ordered your book Cherish and wondered if there is hope for us.

    • Clara,

      If you and your husband will go through Cherish together, I believe your husband can grow out of this. Since you’ve already ordered the book, you know I’m not trying to sell you anything. But you’ll see, when the book arrives, that there are practical ways we can train our hearts and minds to cherish our spouse. I pray the day will come very soon when you are your husband’s “Eve,” the only woman in the world.

  5. Awesome post Gary. You’re always on point with your guide to the single and married.
    I am in a relationship with a girl who has had her fair share of disappointments and a broken home.
    However, she doesn’t relate well with me. She says she has learned to not lean on anyone emotionally (which has some truths) but that leaves me talking more to my friends than with her (as we live far apart, 2500km).
    After reading your post, I am thinking if this isn’t resolved, its best to call it off as it doesn’t feel good repeating myself on her calling me back or spending time with me. Also, she can spend so much time alone that my biggest concern prior to reading your post is living with someone who makes our home lonely.
    As a guy, its daunting to explain bbecause most friends appreciate my effort in wanting to always check up on them even though I get so busy with work in the mines.
    I have some growing to do myself, and I am open to that.
    What do you think? I know its not a simple answer, but just wondering.

    • Tony, this is somewhat a matter of preference. If you want to be married to a woman who leans on you emotionally and likes to talk things through and who seems more invested in the relationship, then you should wait for such a woman. Some people don’t mind being married to retiring introverts–they enjoy the space that that creates. Others would prefer a more connected marriage. Again, this can be a matter of choice, and it sounds to me like you already know that this current relationship isn’t your ideal. It’s not even close to your ideal. If you’re the kind of guy who likes to check up on a close friend, and certainly a wife, then you should wait for a woman who welcomes that and who would cherish that (plenty of women would)

  6. Gary, I’ve been struggling with what that last advice you gave to singles. I’m currently engaged, and we postponed the wedding because of some concerns (primarily coming from me). It has been several months since we started talking about postponing, and I’ve tried to explain what my concerns are and what I feel I need from him, but he doesn’t address these issues without me bringing them up. It discourages me that he doesn’t seem to want to work on our relationship and is happy continuing as we are without these issues being addressed – should i be concerned that this pattern will continue after we are married? Would you have any advice for how to communicate these concerns to him?

    • Yes, you should be concerned. Very concerned. I have struggled tremendously with this with my husband over our 40 years together. It is a very rare day when now, after all this time, he might bring up something that concerns him but he still avoids bringing up any issue I have brought up and asked for us to address. I am weary beyond imagination with hoping, praying, and waiting for him to be not only less passive but more passionate about creating a better relationship. My desires and needs take a back seat to his (still) emotional immaturity. You cannot change him. He will not change until the pain of not changing is greater than settling and staying the same. Obviously that can be a LONG time for some people and may never happen. From my perspective you should not wait any longer for him to bring up something you are not happy with. Marriage is supposed to be forever and that is a long time to be frustrated in a relationship. Move on. It is not worth the heartache it will bring. If you were married already I would say don’t give up, keep trying but, as you are still single break the ties and give yourself permission to move on. I didn’t see the warning signs but, thankfully you do. Heed them.

    • Concerned, read my comments to Tony, right above yours. My response would be the same. I said in another blog post for singles, “if he won’t change to get you, he won’t change to keep you.” The fact that postponing the wedding hasn’t changed anything should convince you this won’t likely ever change. Your choice is either to accept this and live with it for the rest of your life, or break off the relationship and find someone who will take your concerns more seriously.

  7. Thank you.

  8. Hi Gary. You mentioned bringing things to a “relational crisis point” in one of your previous replies. Can you explain what this means/looks like in a marriage once one spouse gets to the breaking point. Thank you.

  9. This is very wise counsel and flies in the face of common understandings of marriage, that it’s basically a contract of mutual benefit and convenience. People (and Christian people nonetheless) take marriage so lightly, despite whatever vows are spoken at the ceremony. The opposite is true, that marriage is so exclusive as to be an “inconvenience”, albeit an inconvenience that gives life and love when embraced wholeheartedly. As a culture we have yet to understand at all the supreme value Jesus gives to servitude and self-giving.

  10. Thanks Gary Thomas for your inspiring post. Kindly help a family that is almost breaking up because of the ever growing gap between the husband and wife.

  11. First, thank you Gary for the paragraph/clause about abusive marriages. I see and rejoice in this awakening since your November blog post. (I responded there at more length.) I’m praying and hoping that this will grow into a key area of marriage ministry for you and even be one of your next books. You are uniquely poised to do this I believe. And to the ladies who just responded, I feel that pain with you and encourage you to get help for yourself from a Christian therapist who understands deep dysfunction and emotional abuse. He or she can help you discern what is truly occurring behind closed doors. Also, run don’t walk to get a copy of Leslie Vernick’s book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. The first section of the book contains a thorough evaluative survey to help you begin to discern whether you are dealing with disappointment or abuse. Trust me it’s a life-altering distinction. Love and grace to you!

  12. So, if this is where a person finds themselves after lots of years.. and has just come to realization of some of what is involved (previously thinking that perhaps they were the crazy one because of what is like Intimacy Anorexia) and the other party is totally unwilling to change (or see a need for change) or get help.. what next?

    • I can’t answer this in a paragraph. I wrote a book, however, for wives to help them deal with this on a more comprehensive basis: Sacred Influence. If money is an issue, you can email alli@garythomas.com, mention this response, and we’ll send you a complimentary copy.

  13. Gary, I have such respect for you because every time you talk about fully committing & giving ourselves to each other in marriage you also make it abundantly clear that if someone is in an abusive marriage, it is not the same situation. I was tossed out of a church where my husband was the pastor and he was very abusive. They chose to put all the blame on me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for saying this is not a “blanket approach” for every marriage. You wouldn’t believe how rare it is for a Christian man to say those words!

  14. What do you do when your spouse has forsaken the marriage?

    Not just years or even months into the marriage, but right from the start.

    I have always put my husband first. Above our children, above my family of origin, above my friends, while he has openly said he considers children to be a higher priority than a spouse and while he hasn’t actively said so, his actions show that he always puts his parents and siblings above me and our marriage. Our families live on the other side of the country (when we got married, I gave up all my family and friends and my career etc to move for his work) . Our families visit us once or twice a year for a week, and we visit them once or twice a year for a week, and yet my husband genuinely spends more time with his family than he does with me.

    To spend less physical and emotional time with my friends and family than with my husband would mean I would never leave the house and never talk to anyone. My husband basically doesn’t interact with me at all. I did and have forsaken all others, I put my marriage first above all, but how long will this loneliness last? It’s been five years now. I am beyond lonely. I am literally weary in my soul.

    I have shared a house with other people years ago before I was married, and even amongst the worst anti social housemates I ever shared with, there was more interaction from them, than there has ever been from my husband. And it’s not from lack of me trying.

    I do not plan to give up, but how long must I be lonely?

    • This may sound trite, but it really is true. Speaking from personal experience, it’s futile to expect your husband (or anyone else) to fill an emptiness in your life. ” But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33, NIV). As you seek Christ and allow Him to fill you with the “peace that passes understanding,” you will be blessed.

      It took me a long time to realize that I couldn’t fix my husband; but when I learned real dependence upon the Lord, He began to fix me!

      Admittedly, it sounds easier than it is…I’ll be praying for you!

      1 Peter 5:10 (NIV): “And the God of all grace, Who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”

    • Hurting, while I’m not qualified to offer counseling through this blog, I would urge you to print out the blog post, print out your response, ask your husband to read both, and make one last plea for your husband to deal with this. You write so clearly and so passionately, I would hope he would be moved. If not, urge him to pursue, with you, some counseling to address this issue. Accepting loneliness is a short-term strategy, not a lifetime plan. You sound like you’re understandably at a breaking point, which means you may need to be more aggressive to get him to face this issue, even if that means bringing things to a relational crisis point.

  15. Thank you for this blog. I love reading your words of wisdom.

    My husband an I had a very rocky beginning. We almost ended up in divorce until I decided to put away all others and make him my priority. Our marriage hasn’t been the same since.

    Now we are the BEST of friends. He’s my favorite person in the whole world and I make sure I tell him this. Our 12 year old daughter snarls her nose and hates it when we show each other affection. I tell her that the only reason she’s even here is because of how much I love her daddy. She makes gagging noises…

    I want to encourage women today to really sit and read Proverbs 31. Become the woman that the writer calls “the excellent wife.” You will see a dramatic change in yourself and your husband.

    May God bless you all!

  16. Once again nice post, Gary.
    My doubt is what if the person whom i am closer than a husband, is Lord?
    I am not a in cherished marriage phase and also not in an abusive marriage. I am trying to work on our marriage without any support from my husband. But most of the times,when i am lonely and fighting lots of troubles on my own, i feel as if the lord is my divine husband and i feel very secured. I am little confused here.

    • M.Y.,

      I’m SO sorry I didn’t make this clearer. I aim to be closer to God than anyone, including my spouse. I want my spouse to be closer to God than me, and depend on Him more than on me. I guess I assumed that would be understood from other things I’ve written.

      The best marriages “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” not each other (Matt. 6:33). 1 John 4:19 says, “We love because He first loved us.” God’s love fuels the marriage, so He always is and always will be the primary source of our love. That is not a betrayal of your vows–it’s receiving the source to fulfill your vows.

  17. A short period of loneliness? Does the entire 34 year marriage count? He has never engaged. And why should he? Divorce isn’t an option.

    • I hear you Loretta 😢 38 years for me …38 years of trying to be loved back in return. 38 years of thinking God would bless me for submitting and trying. 38 years of giving up my whole life for my husband and children…putting my own needs and dreams on hold to be that good wife and mum – but you know what Loretta? I think we have had some toxic teachings through our churches that have kept us in a state of abuse and denial. I’m in the process of leaving my husband after years of hurt, neglect and so, so much grief and pain. I am looking at this as a separation ..and praying the Lord will help us. I can’t decide that for my husband but I know what I pray for.
      I am so terribly sad and broken at leaving my husband after all these years. But at the same time I am feeling so very happy to be breaking way from the years of neglect and abuse. I truly believe God is with me on this decision .. I I’ll keep praying really hard for the man I love regardless what happens.

    • Loretta, no. This is a short-term strategy, not a life-time plan. Please see my comment to Hurting. The same would apply to you.