September 5, 2018

Loving a Broken Man (or Woman)

Gary Thomas — 


This post continues an ongoing series, begun last week, featuring the message of Loving Him Well: Practical Advice on Influencing Your Husband. Since the book is written for wives, the advice will focus on wives, but for the purpose of this blog, I’m adding a new section to the book excerpt that addresses husbands.

In my boyhood days, our family had a dog that loved to chase cars. One fateful afternoon, she finally caught one and was seriously injured. My dad ran out to the road to retrieve her, and our family pet became a monster. Frenzied with fear and pain, that dog kept biting my dad as he gathered her into his arms. He had rushed to help her and bring her healing, but the pain so overwhelmed her that she could only bite the very hands trying to nurture her.

Your husband can be like that. Even if he had extraordinary parents, he most likely still brings some woundedness into your marriage. Maybe his siblings teased him. Maybe a former girlfriend broke his heart. Maybe he had a cold and calculating mother or father. The possibilities are endless, except that he comes to you as a hurting man. Maybe you even married a deeply wounded man.

Unfortunately, hurting men bite; sometimes, like our dog, they bite the very hands that try to bring healing.

As I have stated many times over in this blog and my books, I am not talking here about accepting or condoning abusive behavior or a pattern of him threatening you. This post is not meant for those who need to escape their marriages because their marriage has become unsafe; it is meant for those who want to help their wounded but safe husbands learn how to be more gentle and understanding and learn how to process their frustration, anger, and shame in more mature ways.

One of the ways to do this is to view your husband’s actions through this lens: “What if he is a deeply wounded man acting out of shame and pain?” Before a dating relationship morphs into a permanent commitment, many women see a hurting man and think, I want to help him. But something about marriage often turns that around and makes the same woman ask, Why does he have to be that way? The man’s needs once elicited feelings of nurture and compassion; now these same hurts tempt his wife toward bitterness and regret.

Can you go back to that dating mindset now that you’re married?

The time to make a character-based judgment (“Do I really want to live with this man’s wounds?”) is before you exchange vows. Once the ceremony is over, God challenges you to maintain an attitude of concern and nurture instead of one of resentment and frustration.

I realize marriage reveals more clearly a man’s heart. And men sometimes change after they get married. Having children, getting fired from a job, or losing a parent can all be triggers that release the negative, buried propensities in a man, so I am not chastising you for a choice you made in the past. But you did make a choice. In light of that choice, can you maintain a soft heart over his past hurts, patiently praying for long-term change? Or will you freeze him in his incapacities with judgment, resentment, condemnation, and criticism?

Which attitude do you honestly think is more likely to bring about healing and change?

I believe marital healing comes when one or both partners learn to maintain a nurturing attitude instead of a judgmental one. It really does help if you look at your husband’s faults through the prism of his hurt— not to excuse him, but to plot a strategy for healing and then positive change. It’s a legitimate question to question your husband over something he has done. But before you do that, reset your attitude by asking yourself, “Why do I think he might be inclined to act this way?” You’re not looking to excuse him, you’re looking to understand him. Hurt can lead us to make unwise choices and respond in unhealthy ways. Knowing that’s what we’re responding to can be part of the process to learn how to respond in better ways.

Look at it this way: How would you want your daughter- in- law to treat your wounded son? That’s likely how your husband’s heavenly Father wants you to treat his wounded son.

For Husbands:

My oldest daughter is dating a good guy, and they’ve been dating long enough for him to know some of her foibles. Ally has her mother’s forgetfulness. I couldn’t tell you how many times Lisa has lost her wedding ring, or credit cards, or wallet, or forgotten her purse. It is a miracle of God that Lisa still has a ring to wear.

On one relatively early date with her boyfriend, Ally left her purse in a restaurant. That meant her boyfriend had to drive an hour (round trip) to retrieve it.

What I wanted to tell him is that if he stays with Ally, things like this will become a normal part of his life. I look at all the positive qualities my daughter brings into a relationship and have a father’s natural “nurturing” attitude toward her weaknesses, and think the positives far outweigh any small foibles. In the moment of frustration, however, it’s more difficult for a boyfriend (or husband) to look at it that way.

Men, viewing Lisa as God’s daughter has revolutionized my marriage. She was so young when we got married (19), but nineteen years is long enough for any person to bring in plenty of family and social baggage. Rather than expecting her to “get over it” now that we’re married and begin performing with robotic like Christian perfection, I want to accept Lisa as a woman “in process.”

I’ve seen this apply when a woman comes into marriage having been sexually abused, betrayed, financially insecure, or fighting food addictions. All of these are likely to have long-term implications for your marriage. Accept the fact that you married an imperfect and wounded woman. Acceptance, love, and a nurturing attitude will bring her much further along much faster than continually reminding her of what she already knows is true: she has issues and problems and you resent her for it.

You married a wounded woman because every woman is wounded in her own way. You made a choice to accept those wounds when you accepted this woman. Rather than obsess over that choice, learn how to make the best of that choice by asking yourself, how would I want a son-in-law to treat one of my daughters who might have these same issues? That’s the same nurturing attitude you should adopt toward your wife.

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27 responses to Loving a Broken Man (or Woman)

  1. Thank you for this Spirit-inspired message. I too struggle with accepting my husband who most probably has a personality disorder caused by his wounds in the past, but won’t admit it and won’t seek therapy. For this reason, he hasn’t been able to stay at the job more than a few months, he also has authority issues and is unemployed for several years now. He believes in God but often acts as if he didn’t… In our 8 year marriage, there have been constant moments of intense anger (manifested with breaking objects, cursing, verbal attacks on me, distortion of words, etc.) followed by days, weeks or months of moderate anger, verbal and emotional violence. I stayed in the marriage because somehow I knew God entrusted me with him and his pain, so I did my best to protect my heart during the continuous attacks and humiliation, with His help, not losing hope someday all this would change. We have now a 7 months wonderful baby and after such moments of extreme tension I sometimes think it would be better for the baby not to live with such a father, I am really afraid he will remain scarred. Other times I think God is in control and He won’t allow this, given the miracle of offering me a happy baby despite the hard pregnancy I had from the same reason and after 8 years of trying. I badly need your prayers to know the will of God and follow it.

  2. I so needed to hear this. Lord help me understand my husband and never judge him.

  3. Thank you for the powerful reminder and God help me to put these things into practice

  4. That is great when you knowingly chose to marry someone even though they had issues. But this is much harder when the issues that arise were hidden from you while dating and early marriage only to show up much further into the marriage. Now there are kids and it makes getting out of the marriage much harder. Kinda like a sucker punch that you didn’t see coming. And if you had, would probably have rethought marriage to that person. Now it is like being trapped. There is no way out

    • Sandy, I want to say that I can relate. I hope that I can offer some comfort. I have recently come to realize (after quite some years of being a Christian) that I serve a powerful God. My God has reminded me that He alone is my sustainer. My husband can not be that for me. Now, I also know that it is easier said than done. Constant prayer. Even ask God to show you where you could change. He will give you answers. He will also give you peace.

  5. Nkazi
    Oh thanks Gary your wonderful wisdom
    I appreciate all your written blogs don’t stop sharing what God has placed in your Spirit
    God bless you n Lisa

  6. I’ve just added the following to my morning routine: “Today, I resolve to think and behave in such a way as to destroy [my wife’s] belief that I am acutely aware of her issues and problems and I resent her for them.” Thank you for the words to describe one of the areas where I want to grow in cherishing her.

  7. I cannot believe how hard this article was to read. I’m fighting tears and an urge in my chest to panic to the point of hyperventilating. My husband was a completely different man when we dated. He was slightly dominant, in a good way. He helped, he was open, he was fun, he chased after me, he made sure I felt wanted and loved. Literally, the day we got married, before the reception was even over, a switch went off. He no longer sought me out. He no longer wanted time with me, acted afraid of me, even though I had worked very hard at accepting him as he was, and all the sudden I could no longer ask questions. Any questions. Because I had a hidden agenda he thought. He would either dodge every question like he was guilty of something, or act in anger asking why I dared ask him anything. I mean, these questions were simple. How was his day? Could I do anything to help him that day? Were there ways I could help him feel more loved. I learned over time he is this way because his mom asks questions with manipulation, and he can never give a right answer. We are now 10 years into marriage, and I can’t ask him a question. I can’t ask him for help with anything, I can’t ask what he’s thinking, or anything. It hurts, to the core, especially because he expects me to answer him if he asks a question. In many other ways he’s the perfect husband, but this one thing, is killing me. I hurt so much. I still love him, I encourage him every single day, I do all I can to meet his needs, not really knowing what those needs are, so I over compensate. I’m married to a man who would talk to me about anything, for hours, when we dated, and now, is a closed book. I know he’s not having an affair. He literally goes straight to work and back again and is home with me every minute. He leaves his phone and computer open without concern. He only talks to his best friend from church, our pastor, my Dad and his Mom. No women. I just… still hurt. To my core. I just keep going to God, but still, it hurts. He knows this, I’ve told him a handful of times over our marriage. He then will tell me I can ask him anything, but the next time I do, again, I’m ignored, or he freaks. Some day, maybe, things will be different. I don’t hold out much hope for it anymore. I’m paying for his mother’s mistakes, and I fear I always will. In the mean time I just show him love, and try to accept that this is his flaw. I make sure not to bite back, to respond in love, though one day my responding was me in tears, I felt bad for that.

    • Marie,

      Everyone reading your words grieves with you. Your holy desire for intimacy is leading you to consistently run into a solid wall of protection, and that hurts. It’s been ten years, which means you likely won’t be the one who ushers in healing for this hurting man. The most positive sign I read in your comment is your husband’s friendship with his pastor. What if you encouraged your husband to read your comment and ask him, out of love for you and his family and his God, to go to his pastor and have his pastor read it as well so that he can get counseling? Before couples’ counseling would be effective, I think he has a lot of work to do on his own. Many, I’m sure, are praying that your husband will respond with appropriate conviction and humility.

    • Praying for you, Marie, as I am in a similar situation. Praying that our husbands and all men who have been hurt can find true freedom in Christ. In the mean time, that women like us can be confident in our calling as their wives and love the way God calls us to love and not the way our husbands command us to out of fear.

    • Marie, I’d love to invite you over for a cup of tea, a good chat and hopefully some encouragement. I could have written your post about my own marriage. I’m now married 25 years but all very tough, very confusing. I had a Christian counselor suggest I do some research into passive-aggressive behavior and I have found that a match. I’m still learning, but books like Living with a Passive-Aggresive Man and an online course called the Angry Smile have helped me learn how to step out of the pain and ask my questions differently, or respond to him differently than typical marriage books suggest. Understanding him through PA tendencies has given me a whole new sense of compassion for him that I had lost in the confusion of what seemed like a Dr Jekyll and mr Hyde pre/post marriager. Often the pain trigger for PA is so far back in childhood, so deep, and so hidden even to them, that they are genuinely just as confused as to why they treat you the way they do as you are but the wall is that they typically are also too afraid to face it or question it or deal with it. It may not be a match for you, but if I had known this even at 10 years, it might have caused some of my pain to at least be more understandable which then makes it more copeable, and also gives a framework for praying for compassion, healing and even change in the relationship dance, though don’t expect people outside the marriage to understand what it’s like inside a PA marriage. Another good book is No More Christian Nice Guy by Coughlin. I jokingly told my counselor that if anything my husband was passive-passive, but when I researched it, wow, it was about a 90% match! It does make for a lonely marriage, but now I know why and sometimes have those rare conversations that we had so many of before marriage that stopped at the wedding if I can approach it differently. It means much more effort, but God is my encourager. When I struggle and He promises me it’s worth it, both for my husband and for my own character development. My heart goes out to you, sister, may God bless you in your marriage in a way that others in an easier marriage will miss. May He say at the end of your life “well done, good and faithful servant, you loved my son despite his hidden hurts that came out sideways at you, or locked you out, or left you lonely when you so desperately wanted to connect and in your pain and confusion, you sought me out to keep you hoping, loving and caring.’

  8. Good words that I’ve put into practice in my life over the years. However, what makes this sooooo much easier is to take the shortcomings of the spouse (which are often brought on by their woundedness) and bring your personal desires and needs to Jesus. When our souls are satisfied with Him, we can much more easily let our spouses off the hook and forbear their brokeness.

    • Kinsey,

      You’re spot on. This has been SO true for me as well. “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

  9. Gary

    Thank you for this. It is a very good reminder to all of us, but maybe more so for those of us who tend to take things personally because of our own wounds. Being able to step back, look at things objectively, and come to the conclusion that “this isn’t about me” can go a long ways towards mending hearts and mending relationships.

    I have to admit that I spent most of my marriage trying to love my wife well, and to be honest, often failing, because of what I saw as shortcomings. If she could only change a little bit to meet my expectations…..

    When I went into recovery myself for anger, among other things, I began to see things much more clearly. Looking into myself at all those broken pieces helped me to see into her heart a lot better. We were both from broken homes, both children of alcoholics, and to one degree or another we both endured abuse growing up. To be fair, what she endured was worse.

    It was that realization that helped me deal with a lot of really tough things where our relationship was concerned, and to start really loving the person she was instead of the person that I wanted her to be, that started transforming our marriage. The most miraculous transformation of all was in her own heart and her behavior towards me. The walls started coming down, and the most beautiful soul started showing itself. It manifest itself in almost every aspect of her. She let her hair grow out which might seem minor to a lot of people, but it was something I had encouraged for over 30 years and was met with a stern rebuttal every time. She started dressing to please me(modestly). Those were just the outward manifestations of what was taking place on the inside. She became more confident, but at the same time her soul became more tranquil and less troubled. It is hard to describe.

    I don’t get any credit for her healing. That is the Lords work. What I do know is that I got out of the way and let it start happening where before I only made things worse.

  10. Good teaching and sharing, I need it, America needs it.
    Thanks Gary,
    Adrian F

  11. This advice is imperative for those contemplating a relationship, in a relationship or married. I know because I married a scarred young man though i didnt know it at that time. There was so much hurt, anger & depression that started to happen. One night as I came to my bedroom angry and hurt, I saw my husband blissfully sleeping. As i looked at him I realized by the Holy Spirit’s help- God dearly loves that man. And so should I. Did it mean i should excuse him for the wrongs done to me? NO. I received counseling (still do cause the journey’s not over). At times I would be SO discouraged about our marriage and ask God to encourage me; to show he’s still working and eventually my husband would show signs of growth. That kept me in the marriage.
    His father died recently and his mother,who has always been problematic , has started being very demanding with her son. We’ve both lost sleep over her because of her manipulative ways. It’s given me more compassion for my husband and helped me realize the effect she’s had on him. He needs my support and I’m bound and determined to stick by him and support him as he sets boundaries with her.
    We will celebrate 33 yrs of marriage this Friday so it’s been a long road but God is growing us both and that truly is the best thing.
    As a side note, when the situation was particularly bad, I solicited the prayers of a small group of trusted, wise women. That was also key in helping me stay the course.
    Don’t give up. GOD is our redeemer & reconciler. Give him a chance to show His glory – in His time table, not yours.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Gary Thomas!

    • I also married a deeply wounded man, unbeknownst to either of us when we married. I have also turned to God and fasted and prayed for my husband daily in our 33 years of marriage. My husband has acted especially badly at the times when his adopted mother, brother and adopted father died. Those losses deeply threatened his sense of belonging. Those losses triggered changes in his personality and his wounds brought to the surface, deep pain and depression that had been buried.

      He behaved badly as he tried to escape from the pain and his pain often caused him to “bite” me. I can so relate to the analogy of helping the wounded dog and the hurt and confusion of being bitten! I have suffered and grieved the loss of the loving man I married and prayed for the Lord to heal the wounds from my husband’s bites. I also plead for help and I have prayed for charity and compassion when I’ve recoiled from being bitten.

      The Lord did soften my heart and helped me to see my husband as the Lord sees him and understand his pain. I’ve been so grateful when He helped me feel my husband’s pain so my compassion was even greater. I’ve received the Lord’s grace through His Atonement to be able to overcome my deep and repeated wounds and confusion. I have felt the Lord carry my pain! I too celebrate each sign of growth, progress and healing. I rely on the Lord every day in this journey. I loved this blog post! Thank you for this beautiful analogy!

    • What a beautiful response. God bless you for sharing it!!

  12. It makes sense. Articulated so well – thank you. Lord, may we strive to not lose the nurturing heart posture.

  13. Gary, great post! Seeing my woundedness as what is reacting to his woundedness has helped me so much. We both brought in a lot of stuff and it makes getting along difficult at times. I try to be gentle to my own psyche as i chafe under something he he’s done.God is perfecting us slowly, painfully, through these things…

  14. What a good reminder that love, acceptance and understanding (not judgement)- along with a big dose of patience- can go a long way on both sides of the (non-abusive) marital aisle~ And a great reminder (and wake-up call!) that not one of us is ‘unwounded’… hence, all the more we need Jesus.

  15. Excellent blog. I cannot find last weeks Loving Him Well Blog (the 1st in the series). I know I received. My husband and I are involved in a marriage ministry at our church and I wanted to forward it and this latest one to a couple and suggest that they sign up for your blocks. Would you resend me that email thank you.

    Over the last 15 years we have facilitated many small groups using your books. Have a blessed day

  16. This was extremely helpful to view marriage (with hurts and baggage through a different lens. I’ve asked myself through the years “am I the kind of woman that I’d be ok with, if my son married someone just like me”? Ugh! The answer was always no! Thank you for this helpful perspective and a way to approach these hurts and wounds.