September 12, 2018

Give Your Spouse the Benefit of the Doubt

Gary Thomas — 

This is the third post in an ongoing series featuring the message of Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband. Since the book is written for wives, the excerpt will focus on wives first, but I’m adding a new section to each book excerpt afterwards that applies the same teaching to husbands.



Some wives can literally stew in their disappointment about their husbands’ relational shortcomings:

“Why won’t he help me?”

“Why won’t he talk to me about this?”

“Why doesn’t he seem to care?”

They fail to realize that their husbands may not know what to do. Some women accuse their husbands of being uncaring or unloving when, in fact, the husbands may just be clueless. I don’t mean “clueless” in a ridiculing way; I mean it objectively. We may not have a clue what you’re asking us to do. It’s possible that we’re not trying to be stubborn, uncaring, or unfeeling; we may just honestly not know what you need or what we’re supposed to do in response to that need. And there are few things most guys hate more than not knowing what to do.

This is a key insight: it’s easier and less painful for us to ignore the problem than to admit incompetence.

One mature wife said to the younger wives in a small group for married couples, “Women often feel that if their husbands loved them, the men would know what they are thinking and what they need. This simply isn’t true. As wives, we need to learn to speak our husbands’ language; we need to be direct in our communication and tell them what we want them to do. When we want them to listen to us and not give advice, we need to tell them so. When we want their help on something, we need to ask them directly.”

My brother once frustrated his wife even while trying to please her. The kids had run out of toothpaste, so he went to the store and purchased something he thought his kids would love: Star Wars toothpaste gel. His daughters squealed with delight, but his wife hated it. “Have you ever tried to clean up that blue gunk?” she pointed out. “It sticks everywhere!” But she understood this as a case of good intentions gone bad.

Sadly, far too many wives assume the husband doesn’t care or worse, that he’s trying to make their lives more burdensome, when the reality may be that he just doesn’t have a clue. My sister- in- law could choose one of two ways to look at the toothpaste fiasco: either my brother cared enough to make the trip to buy toothpaste her daughters would delight in, or he intentionally made his wife’s life more difficult by purchasing a brand that creates a cleaning nightmare.

Another wife told me that when she and her husband first began traveling together, she would want to stop to eat but asked him indirectly, “Are you hungry yet?” He’d say no, and she’d sit and stew because obviously he didn’t care about her. When she learned to say “Hey, I’m hungry; let’s stop for lunch,” her husband was always accommodating. She eventually realized that her husband wasn’t trying to be thoughtless; he just wasn’t catching the hint. He would never intentionally want her to endure being hungry.

Her mental fight was about nothing. And it went on for years.

May I slay a very destructive myth? Perhaps you think the more your husband loves you, the better he’ll become at reading your mind. That’s a romantic but highly unrealistic and even destructive notion. It can create havoc in a marriage and hinder mature communication by keeping you from being direct, while at the same time tempting you toward resentment when your husband proves utterly incapable of telepathy.

Here’s a healthier strategy. Instead of resenting your husband’s occasional insensitivity, try to address him in a straightforward manner. Be direct instead of hoping he’ll guess what you need. His seeming reluctance to help may well result from his having no idea what you want. One wife I interviewed for this book told me that early on in her marriage, she said to her husband, “Honey, the lightbulb is out”—and her husband thought she was making an observation, while she thought she was asking him to change it.

Before you slam your husband with the serious charge of not caring or intentionally hurting you, make sure he’s not misunderstanding or misreading you. As a starting point, give him the benefit of the doubt.


For Husbands

I talked to a husband recently whose wife didn’t fit the stereotype that “men are microwaves and women are crockpots.” They work together and on work trips with an upcoming night at a hotel he’d start suggestive talk and touching, hoping to set the mood for a hotel romp later in the evening.

The problem is that his wife really is a microwave. She can isolate work and romance and prefers to do so. During the day as they were working, she found his advances annoying. She always knew what was coming up but didn’t want to be distracted while doing business.

Her husband thought he was being rebuffed and shut down. He didn’t want to get all “revved up” and have to deal with the frustration so he sat and stewed in disappointment. Later that evening, his wife came out of the hotel bathroom and essentially said, “Here I am!” and his response was an angry, “You’ve got to be kidding me! You’ve shut me down all day long and now I’m supposed to get revved up?”

The wife was frustrated because husbands are “supposed” to always be ready for sex, regardless of what has happened during the day. And the husband was frustrated because wives are supposed to respond to all-day “foreplay.”

This pattern went on for nearly a decade because neither spouse took the time to truly understand what each one was thinking. They made assumptions based on stereotypes. The wife wasn’t a crockpot. The husband wasn’t a “microwave.” If he felt rejected all day long, sudden opportunity wasn’t all that enticing to him.

Men, none of us marry a stereotype. We marry a real woman. Get to know her. When you’re confused about something, ask her what’s really going on before judging her or jumping to conclusions. Don’t fault her for being unique or original if she doesn’t fit the stereotype. Celebrate her one-of-a-kind nature by being curious and by giving her the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes, refusing sex can be about power plays. Just don’t assume that that’s always happening in your marriage simply because your wife isn’t playing the “role” others have said she should play.

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11 responses to Give Your Spouse the Benefit of the Doubt

  1. Gary, I tried those methods too many times and still 8 years later, I get nothing back in return. No effort. He’s always saying what he need me to do or change. I make the effort but the simple requests I’ve made in so many ways is unheard. I join marriage course at church alone and couldn’t stand to be the only one fighting. My husband asked for a divorce 3 times already within the last 3 years. The third time I agreed and he’s now refusing. He’s been cheating for quite some time now. He keeps saying he’s done but I know he’s not based on his behavior. He gave me An STD. That was the first time I’ve seen remorse but that was the finally straw for me. We are no longer intimate because of the betrayal I feel and I pretty much gave up and ready to walk away. I have no emotion left. Nothing he does bothers me anymore.

    Im a believer and I know faith got me this far. But I do tend to feel alone in this process. I feel like divorce is my only option. He doesn’t want to change and trust is lost. We have a 2 year old and he says he can’t see himself not living with his daughter. As much as I understand him, I don’t think I can go on like this.

    I tried confiding in both of our parents but I don’t think they get how serious this is to me. They don’t see this as a reason to divorce. As Christians, they just tell me to pray. But thank you for what you’re doing. These post gives me hop in myself and lately I’ve been able to not put fault on myself.

    • Dear Paula ,
      It is not an easy journey hanging there.
      We pray for a miracle to happen, we pray the key to unlock your Husband’s mind, that is christ love that is reveal through your you and your daughter.
      May the Lord grant your wisdom in every decision you have to make. Take care

  2. Dear Gary,
    My husband and I have been married 6 years. This is the second marriage for both of us. I was married 31 years and my spouse passed away. My spouse was married 6 years and had a bitter divorce. Communication seems to be the problem. At first I thought it was because I was indirect so I have asked him several times if he could be more affectionate. I seem to always be the one who initiates everything. I have waited and stepped back to give him a chance and it never happens. I try to be a good encourager for him and I certainty would never belittle him. I would never say this to him, but I never ever experienced this in my first marriage. I know everyone is different. After I told him about what I needed, he compared me to a TV show where the man kissed the wife to make her shut up. I was offended and he didn’t understand why. Should I just not say anything at all and live a marriage with very little affection. He is a great gift giver and helps me around the house a lot. I told him he didn’t need to do all that…I just need communication and affection. It fell on deaf ears.

    • Mary Lou, I’d never suggest just accepting a marriage with very little affection. You’ve got to keep trying. He might benefit from Gary Chapman’s 5 Love Languages. Gary does a lot of conferences if your husband isn’t a reader

  3. My husband is better at giving me the benefit of the doubt that I am of him, and on a few occasions I didn’t deserve it. Ha.

    I realized after our second was born that he doesn’t take hints and prefers me to flat out ask for what I want. I was massively pregnant with our third and thought it was obvious that I needed help getting the girls to bed but he was just watching tv while I struggled. I snapped at him and accused him of not caring. He immediately got up to help but stated that he felt like he was in a lose-lose situation so did not offer to help because he thought that would make me even madder for implying that I couldn’t handle it/wasn’t doing a good job. He asked me to just tell him what I want and he’ll do it, and by and large that’s been true overall ever since.

    I’ve been so much better from that moment on to speak plainly. We joke about it now, where if I accidentally default to old habits and make a passive aggressive hint, whoever realizes it first says, “Why don’t you/I try to rephrase that.” But let’s be honest; it’s usually me making the joke. 😉

  4. Gary,
    We’ve been married 55 years (yes fifty-five!) and we still don’t always get it! She often speaks in generalities, or uses pronouns and expects me to understand the antecedent (an issue mentioned by both Mark Twain and C.S.Lewis, BTW). While I try to be precise, she’s often trying to dope out a meaning that I’ve neither said nor meant. OTOH, if I believe I’ve hurt her feelings, I sometimes have to ask her what the matter is.

    Some men have to deal with the loaded question, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” I think I’ve won that one by taking a hint from the Song of Solomon and making specific compliments re her figure, whether she’s dressed or undressed. But then comes a totally innocent comment: she notes that a figure skater (or ballerina) she sees on TV “has pretty legs.” I still am not sure how to answer that one.

  5. Re: The husband example work trip.

    So true! The assumption a woman is using sex as a power play is not truly our intention. Thank you for illustrating the assumption is not always true that men are always ready for sex and women need to a lot of prep time to be turned on.

    Knowing the sincere intentions of each partner would you suggest the woman to be flirty and playfully with direct directions to protect each others sensitivity and fragile ego?

    The wife may say, “Honey, I’m looking forward to tonight and we should totally make the most of it our trip and have a fun experience. Right now taking care of business is the security mindset I’m in and once its done the skys the limit. What do you say about saving some for play tonight?”

  6. Gary, what do you suggest a wife do after she has lovingly and clearly communicated needs/wants to her husband and they are still ignored? My husband recently had an affair during our first year of marriage. By the grace of God, we reconciled and have been in a lot of counseling together. I do believe that he has repented of that sin and has recommitted to our marriage covenant. Our counselor suggested I make my husband a list of the things that make me feel valued and cherished. I did that and still real no behavior change. The words are great but the actions don’t follow. He didn’t get me a birthday gift; lots of different excuses for that including “I didn’t know what to get you.” Again, I gave him a list with a variety of ideas. Still, no gift. I don’t want to lose heart and I do want to love my husband for who he is and not who I want him to be. Is this just part of “dying to self” for me and looking only to Jesus to meet my needs? Any suggestions of how to heal and rebuild trust when feeling as though my needs and wants don’t really matter to him?

    • Oh, Summer, I’m so sorry. Let me begin with the caveat that I’m not a counselor and I’m thankful you’re working with one. From the perspective of an “experienced brother in the Lord” (nothing more), let me say that I have grave concerns your husband has ever truly married you in his heart. Having an affair during the first year of marriage, and then not showing any true signs of repentance by positively cherishing you is more than just troubling. It’s a potential crisis.

      He needs some serious help if this marriage is to survive–where HE’S working on the marriage, not just you. Before you have children, he needs to put in a lot of work to learn how to be married. I admire it when a spouse demonstrates grace and doesn’t immediately take the “out clause” given by Jesus and Paul with adultery as an exception to the divorce prohibition. God can be greatly glorified when a couple walks toward each other with grace. The problem I see, as you describe it, is that you’re the only one walking forward. He seems to be walking away, absorbed in himself, and perhaps incapable (as he now stands) of true intimacy. I would work with your counselor to bring this to a “head.” He has got to decide that he’s going to be married, faithfully, and that he will work on the marriage, or you’re going to keep your options “open.” I hate saying that. But I’d hate even more you taking another five or ten years, with kids involved, to find that out….

      When a couple faces adultery and there’s true repentance, I believe it’s best for the spouse who decides to stay to take divorce off the table and make things work. You can’t rebuild a marriage by holding the affair over a spouse’s head. But there’s not true repentance here. True repentance would lead him to go out of his way to cherish and serve and honor you. And the fact that this has occurred in the very first year shows some serious maturity problems and likely ongoing integrity issues.

      I don’t think this is about you “dying to self” and looking “only to Jesus” to meet your needs. It’s about giving your husband the opportunity to grow up, be truly married, or have the courage to admit he either can’t be or doesn’t want to be.

      Let’s all pray that God will do a miracle in this husband’s heart while giving Summer great discernment and wisdom for the days ahead.

      • Thanks for your wisdom, Gary. What’s really sad is that we are both in our early 60’s. Both widowed after long term marriages. It’s definitely complicated. Being required to sign a pre-nuptial agreement was clearly a warning sign that I ignored. And I agree with you – I’m not sure he ever really has married me in his heart. Thank you for your prayers.