In my last post I talked about “functional fixedness,” addressing the question, “What if your husband isn’t motivated by your pain? What if he’s only motivated by his?” We addressed the spiritual issues behind this attitude. You can read that post Why Men Don’t Change.
In this post, we’re going to address some of the practical things wives (or husbands—just reverse the gender) can do if they spot this in their marriage.
Remember that Dr. Melody Rhode helped us understand that men don’t normally change if what they’ve been doing appears to work for them. If you want things to change, your response has to change.
Even more, you have to change first. This is step one. When I wrote about functional fixedness in Sacred Influence, it followed a long discussion about women growing deeper in the Lord. Men respond to strength. Men listen best to the people they respect most. You need to feel and be strong in Christ. That’s the best, most secure platform out of which you can influence your husband. Don’t think of these strategies apart from that context. Sometimes you have to lay the groundwork for wise action.
Fear Keeps Failure Alive
Some women fall into the trap of failing to speak up for fear of losing their man; they don’t want to “rock the boat” even though it appears that the boat is headed toward an iceberg. Such passive acceptance makes it more likely that the husband will keep straying; he won’t respect his wife for putting up with his poor behavior, and this attitude will only reinforce his disrespectful behavior. I’ve seen it time and again, when a poorly behaving husband “gets away” with something and therefore acts even worse. Sadly, many women think their husband’s anger is the great enemy of their security, but in fact, weakness and accommodation can pose a far more potent threat to their marriage.
When a husband loses his respect for his wife, bad things usually follow. You can’t make your husband respect you, but you need to at least respect yourself. This is where your identity in Christ needs to rise to the forefront. You need to live from the foundation that your standing before God, not your marital status, defines who you are.
When a strong, godly woman remains true to herself and is clear about the bottom line, men are more likely to respond. If you fear most of all that your man will leave you—if your marital status rather than God defines your life—you’ve just given up one of the greatest tools God has given you to influence your husband. But if you can stand strong and secure in your identity and relationship with Christ, courageously making it clear about how you will and will not be treated, it may amaze you how the respect you show for yourself will rub off onto your husband.
I’m not suggesting you dangle the “d” word (divorce) as a threat. Some men will have an automatic, “Fine, let’s do it” response, either calling your bluff or leading to the destruction of your marriage. Be very careful about uttering that word, and never use it if you don’t think it’s a real possibility that you are being forced to consider.
What I’m talking about is more internal—how you view yourself. A drug and alcohol addict once told me that if he thought there had been a one percent chance that his wife was lying when she told him, “One more slip and you’ll lose me and your daughter forever,” he would have tested it. If there was just a one percent chance that he could have his family and his alcohol abuse, he’d have gone for it. But his wife made it abundantly clear that there was a zero percent chance—none—that she’d allow him to stay if he didn’t stop. She had reached her end. He respects his wife for taking that stance now, knowing that anything less wouldn’t have been sufficient to make him put in the work necessary to repent and recover.
The scary part, of course, is what if a wife has to follow through on her ultimatum? That’s why ultimatums shouldn’t ever be uttered lightly and never without counsel.
How Serious is It?
I hope it’s clear that what I’m talking about rises to the level of a serious threat to your family, your husband’s integrity, your marriage, and your home’s stability. It is evil and proud to demand that your husband change simply because he annoys you. It is holy and pure to demand that he change because what he is doing is destructive to himself, to your marriage, to your children, and possibly to his relationship with God.
Please don’t apply “functional fixedness” to a husband who eats with his mouth open, plays golf once a week when you think the money and time could be better spent, or even when he is earnestly struggling and occasionally failing. I’m talking about issues where he could be arrested; where you could biblically divorce him; where the situation is demonstrably unhealthy for you as a person and/or your children. This isn’t about manipulation or making you a little less annoyed. It’s about something that, if left unchecked, simply cannot and should not be tolerated.
As a wife, you probably have more power over your husband than you realize. When you are a woman of respect, the last thing your husband wants is to lose you. Your reactions and opinions matter greatly—far more than you probably realize. When a woman stands up and says, “This will affect our relationship and my view of you,” most men will at least start listening. Many of the wives whose stories I tell in Sacred Influence who managed to move their husbands toward holiness all came to a point in time when they decided that things could not and would not stay the same. They stopped “playing the game” and made it clear to their husbands that they were determined to stand strong—by themselves, if need be—in the Lord.
So, the next step in dealing with “functional fixedness” is no longer talking about your pain but rather your expectations. As we discussed earlier, too many women have given up this power to influence their husbands because they fear being left alone. “If I say ‘No more,’ what if he leaves me?”
Consider this: if you have to compromise your morals, your faith in God, and your self-respect to “keep the peace,” does the threat of being left alone really sound so bad? Remember, your God will supply all your needs. If you follow his plan and still your husband becomes one of the few who rebels, God’s provision and strength will help you face the consequences. God won’t leave you alone, regardless of what happens. God, not your marital status, defines your life.
Embrace this freedom and the glory of being a strong woman alive to God. God has given you the power to influence your man. But even if your man should leave, God will give you the grace and power to cope. Once you fully understand your status before God, you need never live at the mercy of a man’s approval. Understand the power you have, and utilize that famous “mystery of a man with a woman.”
In fact, Dr. Rhode sees the threat of losing his wife as perhaps the greatest possible motivator for a husband. Of course, we have to put this within the context of a covenant committed marriage. The Bible is very specific and very limiting regarding what constitutes an acceptable divorce. Discontentment, seeming incompatibility, or mere displeasure don’t qualify. Dr. Rhode points out, “a woman’s power needs to be surrendered to God and used for his purposes, not our own.”
Increasing His Pain
If a husband is motivated by his pain and not yours, then you’ve got to think through how to help him experience that pain—pain not caused by you, but as a consequence of his actions. This is such a crucial distinction: you are not to intentionally cause him pain; rather, you’re stopping your previous practice of rescuing him from the painful consequences of the foolish choices he is making.
If your husband is unrepentantly engaging in porn use, you don’t have to “share” him with a website. If he’s returning from a bachelor party that stopped off at a strip club, you needn’t feel like it’s your “wifely” duty to be an “outlet” for lust that was generated miles away. You can say, “I want to have a fantastic sexual relationship with you, even one that will wear you out, but I won’t share you. Once it’s clear that you’re dealing with this other issue, we can begin rebuilding our sexual relationship. But I will never share you. You’ve broken our trust, you’ve dishonored our marriage, and now we have to put the relationship back together before we can be sexually intimate.”
The way Jesus talked about adultery makes it clear he doesn’t expect wives to just “stay put” in the face of sexual betrayal. If a husband is fighting occasional porn use, that’s one thing (as long as he doesn’t let “I’m fighting it” become a half-hearted excuse to occasionally indulge—this is a matter of the heart that may require pastoral attention). But when he’s not dealing with it except when he’s caught, you have standing to say, “You can have me or you can have porn (or strip clubs, etc.), but you can’t have both. You decide.”
Don’t let him quote 1 Corinthians 7 to you, as if you’re sinning against him by not making yourself available. You are making yourself “available.” You’re also saying that this is how he makes himself available to you—by keeping a pure heart and true eyes. It’s his actions, not yours, bringing sexual intimacy to a stop. Don’t let him turn the table on you.
If the issue is anger or verbal abuse, remove yourself from the situation: “I can’t talk to you or listen to you when I’m being yelled at. If you want to communicate with me, then you have to do it in a way that doesn’t feel verbally violent.” (The chapter on Jo in Sacred Influence tells the entire story of how she worked with her husband on his anger issues over a long period of time.)
If he’s spending money on selfish things, you can fix Top Ramen for his next couple of meals: “I’m just trying to help us meet the budget.” You can cancel cable or satellite television. “Honey, we agreed to live debt free. When you drop $300 on a new golf club, I’ve got to do whatever I can to make it up so we can pay our bills and not fall farther behind.”
You will have to guard yourself prayerfully to make sure you are not acting out of spite or enjoying his pain as a pay-back. You’re simply letting your husband feel the pain of his choices, and that’s the principle behind properly addressing functional fixedness, since his pain is the only thing that will motivate him. If he can’t have sex with you; if he can’t voice his frustration because he’s doing it inappropriately; if he can’t watch what he wants because he’s spent too much money somewhere else, he’s going to wake up to the reality of what he’s putting you through. His pain will wake him up.
Some husbands may give up and even walk out. I’m not pretending this is a cure-all or a guaranteed strategy. But when the issue is something you can’t or shouldn’t live with, it may be your only resort.
Here’s my final word: It would be beyond foolish to do something drastic because you read a 2000 word blog post that speaks generally. Please talk this over with a trusted, mature friend—the kind who won’t simply “take your side” because they’re your friend, but rather the kind that is willing to be truthful and honest before God. Even better, I’d recommend a trained counselor, as you may need someone to help you with the aftermath.
Remember: this is a slightly dangerous strategy and it needs to be treated as such. It should never be done to get your way or to pay your spouse back, but rather to protect your family and help your spouse grow.
And then, don’t forget the main point of the first post: this is a spiritual issue of the heart. Don’t apply this post without first praying through that perspective. You want to cooperate with God to bring your husband to repentance and spiritual maturity. Any other motivation is selfish and manipulative.