July 8, 2019

Learning to Love an Imperfect Man

Gary Thomas — 

[This is an excerpt adapted from my book Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband. Accordingly, it’s focused on wives, but most husbands could figure out the opposite application. Let me also state that this chapter was written for women in satisfying or perhaps disappointing but not abusive relationships.]

No woman gets to marry the fourth member of the Trinity, because that person doesn’t exist. If you are married, you have joined yourself with a fallible human being. In fact, James 3:2 promises you that your husband will find new and creative ways to disappoint you when he states, “We all stumble in many ways.”

Notice the words “all” and “many.” No spouse avoids this reality. We all — including your husband — stumble in many ways.

Since every wife is married to an imperfect man, every wife will have legitimate disappointments in her marriage. How can you learn to appreciate an imperfect man?  Acceptance and encouragement are actually biblical requirements:

•   “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).

•   “Encourage one another and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

For your own spiritual health, you need to learn how to love an imperfect man. When I urge you to affirm your husband’s strengths, I’m not minimizing his weaknesses; I’m just encouraging you to make the daily spiritual choice of focusing on qualities for which you feel thankful. The time will come when you can address the weaknesses — after you’ve established a firm foundation of love and encouragement. For now, you must make a conscious choice to give thanks for his strengths.

I have found Philippians 4:8 as relevant for marriage as it is for life: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

Guys rise to praise. When someone compliments us, we want to keep that person’s positive opinion intact. We get a rush like nothing else when we hear her praise or see that look of awe in her eyes — and we will all but travel the ends of the earth to keep it coming.

Isn’t this approach, based in God’s Word, at least worth a try?

I fully understand it can be a monumental spiritual challenge to appreciate a man who disappoints you in many ways. But here are a few tried and true spiritual practices to point you in the right direction.

  • 1. Give Your Husband the Benefit of the Doubt

Some wives can literally stew in their disappointment about their husbands’ relational shortcomings: “Why won’t he help me?” “Why doesn’t he seem to care?”  What they don’t understand is that it is very possible their husbands may not know what to do. Many women accuse their husbands of being uncaring or unloving when, in fact, they may just be clueless. It’s possible that he’s not trying to be callous or uncaring; he just honestly doesn’t know what you need or what he’s supposed to do. And there are few things most guys hate more than not knowing what to do.

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

One wife told me that when she and her husband began traveling together, she’d ask him, “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.

  • 2. Share a Slice of the Grace That God Gives You

Counselor Elyse Fitzpatrick once told her small group about how God had moved her from a legalistic, works-oriented faith to a “grace-filled, peaceful existence with my merciful heavenly Father.”

“The pressure is off me,” she told them. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I’m not pursuing holiness. It’s just that I know that my Father will get me where He wants me to be and that even my failures serve, in some way, to glorify Him. My relationship with God is growing to be all about His grace, His mercy, His power.”

Then Elyse’s friend “astounded” her by responding, “That must be such a blessing for your husband, Elyse. To be walking in that kind of grace must enable you to be so patient and so grace-filled with Phil. To know that God is working in him just as He’s working in you must make your marriage so sweet and your husband so pleased. It must be great for him to know that the pressure is off for him too.”

The reason this friend “astounded” Elyse is because Elyse didn’t initially make the connection her friend made. “I scarcely ever extended to Phil the grace I enjoyed with the Lord. Instead, I was frequently more like the man in Jesus’ parable, who, after he was forgiven a great debt, went out and beat his fellow slave because he owed him some paltry sum.”

There was a gap in Elyse’s mind about receiving grace and giving grace. To her credit, she responded to the truth as it was presented and her marriage was blessed accordingly. It takes great spiritual maturity to love mercy, to offer grace, and to give someone the same spiritual benefits we ourselves have received from our heavenly Father. Get in touch with how much God has done for you — how he has seen every wicked act you’ve ever committed; heard every syllable of gossip; noticed every malicious, ugly, and hateful thought — and still, he loves you. Even more, he adores you. And he’s forgiven you.

Now comes the hard part: will you give your husband at least a slice of what God has given you?

  • 3. Form Your Heart through Prayer

Practice praying positive prayers for your husband. Find the five or six things he does really well, or even just one or two, and try to tire God out by thanking him for giving you a husband with these qualities. Follow up your prayers with comments or even greeting cards that thank your husband personally for who he is.

Prayers of thankfulness form our soul and groom our affections. Counselor Leslie Vernick explains, “Cognitive therapists know that what we think about directly affects our emotions. If we think on negative things, nursing bad attitudes or critical spirits, our emotions take a downward spiral. Conversely, if we think on things that are good, true, right, things that we are thankful for, then our emotions can be uplifted.”

One session of thankfulness will not soften a rock-hard heart. But over time, thankfulness makes a steady and persistent friend of affection.

  • 4. Go to the Cross

Some desires are never going to be fulfilled and need to be “crucified.” In fact, I’ve seen various studies that suggest over fifty percent of marital “issues” will never be resolved. This requires the brilliant but severe remedy of the cross. We need to constantly remember that our life isn’t defined by our marital happiness, but by seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33). That pursuit will, in the end, produce happiness, but we have to keep first things first.

So here’s the spiritual “trick.” Transform the focus of your expectations from what you expect of your husband to what your God expects of you. We can’t make any one person do what we think they should do. But we can surrender to what God would have us do in light of that.

If you don’t die to unrealistic expectations and if you refuse the cross, you’ll find yourself at constant war with your husband instead of at peace. You’ll feel frustrated instead of contented, and disappointed instead of satisfied. Why? We often forget that both partners in a marriage have their expectations, and sometimes these expectations conflict.

Ruth Bell Graham offered these words:

“I pity the married couple who expect too much from one another. It is a foolish woman who expects her husband to be to her what only Jesus Christ can be: always ready to forgive, totally understanding, unendingly patient, invariably tender and loving, unfailing in every area, anticipating every need, and making more than adequate provision. Such expectations put a man under an impossible strain.”

  • 5. Ask God to Change You

As soon as you begin offering prayers of thankfulness for your husband, be sure of this: the enemy of your soul and the would-be destroyer of your marriage will remind you of where your husband falls short. You can count on it.

You’ll find yourself growing resentful: “Why should I thank God that my husband works hard during the day but when he comes home he won’t even talk to me?” “Why should I thank God that my husband has always been faithful to me — when he doesn’t earn enough money for us to buy a house and I have to work overtime?”

You need to respond to this temptation with a healthy spiritual exercise: as soon as you recall your husband’s weaknesses, start asking God to help you with specific weaknesses of your own. That’s right — as backward as it may sound, respond to temptations to judge your husband by praying for God to change you. Go into prayer armed with two lists: your husband’s strengths and your weaknesses.

Lest you think I’m blaming women for everything, let me say that I do the same thing: I go into prayer armed with my wife’s strengths and my weaknesses. I think both husbands and wives should do this.

A husband married to a disappointed wife loses most of his motivation to improve his bad habits. Why do you think your husband worked so hard before you got married? Because he loved the way you adored him. He wanted to catch your attention, to impress you. And when he saw that you did notice and did appreciate him, it made him want to please you even more. He felt motivated to move by the way you adored him.

The relational cancer of blatant disappointment will eat away motivation for further change. Before you try to influence your husband, sit back, enjoy him, appreciate him, and thank God for him. Before you begin to think about what he needs to change, make an exhaustive inventory about what you want to stay the same. Then thank God for that — and thank your husband too.

Let me end by telling you a marital secret that startled me: the more thankful I become about my wife, the happier I became in my everyday life. It makes sense, if you think about it. Regularly thinking positive thoughts about your spouse cultivates an overall sense of well-being.

Thankfulness is a learned skill, urged on us by Scripture, but like so much of the Christian life, we are radically blessed by obedience when we step out and do what Scripture calls us to do. If you can learn how to appreciate an imperfect man, your husband will feel blessed indeed—but you will feel blessed even more. 

For more like this, check out Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband

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22 responses to Learning to Love an Imperfect Man

  1. thanks Gary,this is so helpful.
    God bless and increase you

  2. Hello, Gary,
    I so needed this reminder. I’m thankful to the Lord for bringing you to write this. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    I was wondering if you could share the source from Elsye Fitzpatrick? Is there something more she wrote on receiving and giving grace?

    • Elyse Fitzpatrick “Helper by Design: God’s Perfect Plan for Women in Marriage” (Moody Press)

  3. Hi Gary. This article broke my heart. I believe every word you say here. I’ve discovered after almost 30 years of marriage that my husband has a personality disorder and I’ve had to separate from him because staying to love my imperfect man is not safe for my wellbeing. Do you have advice for me. I’m loving him from a distance and it’s heart wrenching.

    • This is so helpful. The very unfortunate truth is that I am not sure my marriage is repairable. We have been apart,with no contact,for 9 months. I too,have come to understand that my husband may have NPD. He has been charged with aggravated battery with a weapon,against me. In this time apart,I’ve asked the Lord to reveal where I fell short of being a godly,patient wife. I have grieved over what He revealed. Now I am almost blaming myself for his abuse. I cannot take back what I have said . It makes it hard to deal with knowing he ” regrets” what he did,but has no understanding of the literal life threatening danger he put me in. So,he may have some other form of disorder where he is detached from certain realities. All I know is that I needed to learn about men and it’s just over. Now I am grieving the death of a marriage. It is not safe to be with him. His most prominent emotion was always anger. I feel as if God has spoken to my heart and let me know that even if my behavior had been ” perfect” , Keith needs professional help. I do pray God will make sure that he will get good help . Who knows, people have divorced and remarried each other. I do miss his good qualities. Thank you for any imput.

  4. Gary you are “Right on.” This is my second marriage. I was married to my first wife for 58 years. Sad to say many of those years were spent enduring her complaining about my shortcomings. Consequently we endured many years of conflict. God has blessed me with a godly wife who compliments me and shows me respect. It’s a marriage made in heaven. Ephesians 5:33 in action. Thanks for your wise counsel.

  5. What if there is someone else who is a better fit for you and they find you and treat you like you should have been treated all along? Are you just “stuck’ with who you married 40 years ago and that’s just tough?

    • I realize I’m not Gary, but I can hear the hurt, and even anger, in your post. Understandably so ~ marriage is hard, hard work. If you are in an abusive marriage, then I would strongly encourage you to get help immediately. However, if you are not being abused, then I would encourage you to end the relationship with the person you are not married to. Your post doesn’t indicate what you’ve done, other than stay in your marriage for 40 years, but consider counseling or finding a marriage mentor. Leaving your spouse for someone else is wrong and will bring hurt into the lives of everyone effected by your divorce. I hope it’s ok, but I’m praying for you right now and will you continue to pray for you and your spouse.

    • This someone new could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Be careful not to let your emotions overpower your intelligence. Take care!🤗

    • A.R.

      If they “find you” and “treat you like you should have been treated all along” when you’re already married to someone else, they’re not treating you in a godly fashion. This sounds like an emotional affair. I think you need to seek some pastoral or counseling advice right away as it sounds like you’ve already crossed a line.

      And I don’t think it’s fair to say you’re just “stuck” with who you married 40 years ago; marriages can be rebuilt and renewed. I see it happen all the time. Yes, it takes two, and perhaps your spouse isn’t willing. But leaving the legacy of an affair and broken marriage for your children and grandchildren isn’t really an improvement in God’s eyes.

      Everything I’d want to say to you I’ve probably already said in both Sacred Marriage and A Lifelong Love. if finances are tight, you can email my assistant and we can get you those books for free.

  6. Alan Ericksen July 8, 2019 at 11:37 am

    So true. Such great advice. Still learning this after decades and I’m sure I’ll never stop.

  7. Diana Harrell July 8, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Gary, thank you for this Godly advice for all married people. I have been blessed with being married to my high school sweetheart for 51 years. I have experienced what you are saying about focusing on the things I love about him and pushing aside the hurtful things. To key in on your prior message about staying committed to the marriage, there were times I wanted to give up in my sadness but God was faithful as He reminded me of my commitment. Focusing on the positive has given me great comfort. God is so good. Thank you for your ministry to marriages.

  8. This is helpful and I especially agree with “Guys rise to praise. When someone compliments us, we want to keep that person’s positive opinion intact. We get a rush like nothing else when we hear her praise or see that look of awe in her eyes — and we will all but travel the ends of the earth to keep it coming.” A very helpful concept is the pink and glue / love and respect model explained by Eggerich in https://loveandrespect.com/ Women respond to love – men not so much. Men respond to respect.

    • Brian, while the concept in itself may be helpful, I recommend reading this blog post that details why the unconditional respect that Love and Respect teaches is directly harmful.

      • Thank you for the link to this blog, Luke.
        I kept crying while reading because it mentioned everything I suffered/am suffering in my marriage; always thinking it is up to me and I am doing everything wrong (that was how I got manipulated) because our relationship got worse each day of our 20 years of marriage and still isn’t really increasing.

        Loving and respecting each other are two sides of the same medal. A loving husband will always ask for the will, the needs and the opinion of his wife and listen to it/to her. A respectful woman will always respect the needs, the will and the opinion of her husband and stand behind the decisions of her husband after they talked things through (or put their decision before their own opinion, if they disagree – voluntarily! – and maybe spread the load when it was a false decision their husband made. But this is nothing that is allowed to be forced!). That is like left hand and right hand working together or putting one foot in front of the other to make their way. And the guide of this way can always just be one, and this one is only Jesus – and not ‘him’ (or ‘her’)! And this way can just be God’s way – not our own ways! That is how I understand marriage and think this is what Jesus wants us to live and what Gary is talking all about. (Thank you so much Gary!) We are all imperfect. So we can’t demand perfection from our spouses, no matter if it is a ‘he’ or a ‘she’! Love and respect though would quite be enough.

        Too sad many, maybe most men just misunderstand respect as duty to obey or to force somebody into submission. But respect is something completely different. These men seem to want or need someone beneath them (and serve their own issues) and fear someone on the same level and dislike serving others (not considering that Jesus did nothing else but just this!) But there should be no fear in love – neither on the womens side nor on the mens side!! When there is fear, then there is no love/selfish love but even more sin and guilt. That is my experience. Are we just as concerned to serving and obeying God as we expect others to serve and obey us?

        Many men (and women) forget that they are in care of each other instead of expecting the care of their spouses for their own issues. That is our demanding ego – and that is nothing else but narcissism (and in my opinion narcissism is nothing else as the sinful wish to be our own gods – violating the first commandment in this way). And what we also forget is, that we are responsible for each other and answerable to God in everything we think, say or do to each other in final. If we would be more aware about that, love and respect shouldn’t be such a big thing anymore. Our marriages (relationships in common) kind of reflect the respect and love we have for our Lord. Maybe it was good we first work on that instead on each other so much, shouldn’t we?

        Kind regards from Germany

      • Thank you, Luke, for adding this much needed balance concerning the “Love and Respect” book suggestion above. Much appreciated.
        I love Gary’s approach to marriage, that it is a constant work in progress and requires that we take the whole counsel of God’s Word as we learn to really love and serve each other. I will read Loving Him Well.

  9. Reason my wife had her affair happened when I no longer measured up to her expectations as I was going through the roughest patch of my life battling unemployment, loss of self confidence and I looked to her for comfort and encouragement. My higgest mistake was thinking the woman God put into my life as my helpmate would actually rise to the occasion, but I guess that was my wrong expectation of her that caused her to crumble.
    All I know is that our marriage has never been the same since I discovered the 2-year emotional affair. That was four years ago and we are just two ships passing in the night, alone and adrift.

    • Jack,

      It takes time to heal from a season like that. But those seasons don’t have to become permanent. Your wife let you down, but you’ve decided to hang in there. Why not get back up and try to resurrect your marriage? Undergo an intensive. Take in a marriage conference. Read a couple books. They may not help, but just accepting this drift clearly is depressing you (understandably so). I admire your willingness to forgive, but I urge you to do more than just forgive–try to take the lead to rebuild.

    • Men are accused of turning women into sex objects. But it sounds like your wife turned you into a success object. Once you lost your capacity to pay the bills, your usefulness ended and it was time to find another more suitable provider, preferably one with a salary and benefits.

      I know the feeling. After I lost my business due to my partner embezzling from me, my wife started threatening divorce. I got a good job after several months and suddenly the divorce threats stopped. Funny how that happened.

  10. Hi Gary I was on the winshape cruise with you a year ago with Chick fil a
    I read your blog all the time and this one today is so perfect
    We have been married 30 years and I needed this reminder to pray for my husbands strengths and my weaknesses. Instead of always being disappointed by what my husband doesn’t do in fact I started doing this very thing last week after a disagreement with my husband. After praying I had a change of heart and your blog today was the exact thing I needed. Thank you so much I have even shared your blog with my newly married daughter. Thank you

  11. From someone that has been married to my “ONE & ONLY FOR 65 YEARS”, you nailed it.

    THANKS : Mr. R.N. PRY