July 5, 2018

You Can’t have a Healthy Marriage with a Sick Soul

Gary Thomas — 

In a book on soul keeping, John Ortberg gets about as honest as any writer I’ve ever read in revealing the petty ways we allow “little” spiritual sins to spoil our marriage. His words are a great springboard for us to discuss how it’s impossible to have a healthy marriage while harboring a sick soul.

“I suppose that the person I have sinned against the most is my wife…I had asked that question many times: ‘How do you know when you’re in love?’ The answer I always got — the answer I wanted to believe — was ‘You just know…’ With Nancy I just knew. Except for when I didn’t. Except for when she did something that bothered me, something that didn’t fit perfectly with my idealized, romanticized notion of what it would mean to have the greatest relationship ever. When she would do something I didn’t like — when she disagreed too vehemently or I felt as if she was getting too directive — I would feel something turn cold inside of me. I would distance myself from her by making less eye contact and touching her less and speaking a little coldly.”

This is marvelous writing in a marvelous book (Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You), and I’m hoping John won’t mind the copious quotes since I’m also hoping this will help sell a ton of his books.

Unfortunately, I recognize way too much of myself in John’s account (maybe that’s why it resonated with me so much), particularly during the earlier years of my marriage. That coldness I felt, which led me to respond with “less eye contact and touching her less and speaking a little coldly” sends (sorry for the pun) chills up my spine because that was me. I wasn’t verbally or physically abusive. That would have been too obvious. I’ve never used a swear word talking to Lisa and I’ve never even said something intentionally to hurt her. But I was good at withholding warmth. I’m ashamed of that. I hate it, looking back, but that’s what an immature person in marriage does.

John Ortberg continues:

“On the night of our rehearsal dinner, which was supposed to be all music and magic, she did or said something that I did not like (and that I no longer have any memory of), but I remember with great clarity sitting in the car with her late into the night. In tears, Nancy said, ‘If you don’t want to marry me, say so.’ Love, anger, withdrawal, coldness, pain, guilt, melting. All this at a level too deep for my knowing. I had to keep two incompatible thoughts in my mind: ‘I am a good person’ and ‘I want to inflict pain.’ So I had to separate them from each other; I had to disintegrate my mind. This pattern became so embedded that my will couldn’t stop it. We honeymooned in Wisconsin. A few days into our marriage, she moved toward me romantically, but I withdrew behind a book. I would intimate to her that I did not want sex, even though really I always wanted sex. But I knew my coldness would hurt her a little. My sin crept into my sex life.”

The problem of marriage is the problem of unformed or ill souls relating through unhealthy responses. It’s not primarily about communication, finances, conflict resolution or in-laws. It’s about our sick souls. Even when we really desire something like sex, we’ll deny ourselves to make our spouse pay.

I counseled a couple where the husband also did this. Ironically, they had been fighting about him wanting sex more often! When his wife made herself more than available and even initiated in a provocative way, he remembered something she had done earlier in the day and thought he would make her pay by turning her down, even though he had wanted sex for a really long time.

He so wanted her to hurt that he was willing to hurt himself even more. There’s a little bit of the kamikaze pilot in all of us when it comes to marriage. Sick souls make sick decisions even when those decisions take a pound out of our own flesh.

Ortberg continues:

“Sometimes if we were with other people and she said something I didn’t like, I would get a little distant and polite with her and make a little more eye contact and grow a little warmer toward whomever we were with. My mind was conflicted with thoughts of love and thoughts of bitterness; my feelings were split between intimacy and coldness. My will would move away from her in anger until things got really bad and she cried and I would feel guilty and move back toward her. My face and the tone of my voice could create the effect on her that I wanted without ever being totally open about the deeper recesses of my mind and will. Sin was in my anger. Sin was in my deception. Sin was in my body — the way I would use my face to both conceal and to hurt.”

John correctly identifies that the key issue keeping him from loving his wife was sin. It wasn’t that he didn’t understand her as a woman. It wasn’t that he hadn’t learned her love language. It wasn’t that they were so different he didn’t know what to do. John knew exactly what to do, but a sick soul kept him from doing it.

“Nancy wanted us to see a counselor. We did for a few times that first summer, but I did so quite grudgingly. And then no more after that, not for many years. I had a doctorate in clinical psychology because I believed other people needed help, but not me. Sin was in my pride. Sin was in my stubbornness. Marriage is revealing. If only I had eyes to see the sin in just about every area of my life. . . . This dance of withdrawal and approach continued on-and-off for fifteen years. It was not the only dynamic in our marriage; we genuinely loved and enjoyed each other. But withdrawal was always at least beneath the surface, hibernating until the next painful episode. And then it got much worse. I had been colder longer and meaner than maybe ever before. Nancy got back from a two-week trip, but I still did not thaw. I remember picking her up at the airport and still being politely distant; I can remember our eight-year-old daughter at the airport trying to push the two of us together for a hug. She knew that we were pushing apart. Children always know more than we think. That night Nancy told me that she could not do the dance anymore. She wasn’t going anywhere. But this dynamic was not about her. It was trouble inside of me, and I would have to work it out somehow.”

John didn’t “fix” his marriage by going to a marriage conference or reading a marriage book. He decided to tend to his soul:

“This began a year of anxiety and depression, of counseling and journaling, of little steps and painful talks and looking at the ugliness inside myself that I had never known was there. The lost soul that I had gone into ministry to save was my own. I called Dallas [Willard] and flew back to Box Canyon. We went for a long walk and a long drive. I tried to describe what was happening with Nancy and what I was learning about my own need to be seen — and to see myself — as someone other than who I really was. Dallas’s wife, Jane, joined us for a while; she works as a counselor and a spiritual director. She drew a little diagram that I have to this day, illustrating how certain people view themselves as either the inflated superior being or the worthless empty person no one could love. I began to feel my deep lostness. As I unburdened myself to Dallas, I began to understand another soul truth: Confession really is good for the soul. The soul is healed by confession. Sin splits the self. It split me. It meant I tried to pretend in front of Nancy; I tried to pretend before the church that I was a better husband than I was. Sin divided my will; I wanted closeness, yet I wanted to inflict pain when I felt hurt. As long as I keep pretending, my soul keeps dying.”

If the marriage books and conferences aren’t working for you, take a step back, follow John’s example, and tend to your soul (of course, in the case of abuse, the problem isn’t your sick soul—it’s the sick abuse coming from your spouse). It is only out of a healthy soul that we can build a healthy marriage.

 I’m not suggesting you put the problems in your marriage on a shelf and forget about them. Instead, you’re simply becoming stronger spiritually so that when you take up the problems again, you’ll have new power, new insight, and renewed motivation. Working on your soul is like cross-training for your marriage—it may not seem specific to the sport, but it increases fitness all around.

How do you become more spiritually fit? John’s book out of which these quotes were taken (Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You) would be an excellent place to start. He mentions Dallas Willard, whose books Renovating the Heart or The Spirit of the Disciplines would be fine follow-ups. Some of my own books related to soul building would include Thirsting for God, The Glorious Pursuit, and Holy Available.

Trying to build a healthy marriage with a sick soul is like trying to build a fire without any oxygen. It’s just not going to take. A healthy marriage begins with healthy souls.

Thank you, John, for your honesty, your vulnerability, your wisdom, and your faithfulness to keep pursuing God and your wife so that we could benefit from your story decades later.

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26 responses to You Can’t have a Healthy Marriage with a Sick Soul

  1. I’m married to someone like this. It’s been 3 years on the rollercoaster. I’m not sure how much more of it I can take. It feels like being in prison with no way out. Even when things are going well, I know it’s just a matter of time before we are back here again.

  2. Thank you so much. I definitely feel this is me. It’s so hard to feel like the minority as the wife. It seems more husbands are in this position. I’m trying not to feel ashamed, but see it for what it is and allow God to work in me. Thank you again.

  3. This sounds very much like my wife and I and our marriage and I have been doing extensive work on my soul and my behaviors over the last 7 years. I’m in a much better place. Yep these things are still going on. we are completely stuck and have no idea where to start again. I’ve asked her to go to marriage counseling again, I have been bringing it up on and off for a year. I honestly do not know what to do and where to start. I’ve done so much already and I can’t figure out how to get any further along without her cooperation. Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for me?

    • I would like to start by reminding you that much of God’s greatest work–baby-building, for example–is done in secret, out of the sight and interference of prying eyes. I hope this may give you hope for the hope you do not now see.

      Second, and this is not something I am yet good at, even after starting for see this Truth for fifteen years: OUR WORDS HAVE POWER. Ask God to reveal to you if your words are taking you places where you don’t want to go. In my own life, one way I have undermined my own happiness is to say about me untrained cleaners at home, “These people will never help me!” when I might have said instead (and need to be saying now), “Someday my family will catch a vision for how peaceful our home can be after we learn to work further cleaning and organizing our home.”

      There is a lovely website called “The Father’s Blessing” that trains people to leave old habits of cursing and move into new habits of blessing instead. I think these are things that the church used to know but had somehow lost in modern culture.

      Anyway, keep your eyes on Jesus, knowing that both He and people who love Him will be interceding on your behalf. And add you do, ask God to help you see and experience your wife through God’s eyes and His heart.

      I have been listening to John Ortberg’s book “SOUL TENDING” through a library app on my cell phone, and already much healing has come to me through this alone.

      Please, do not give up. Look for the joys that God has for you, and remember you are not alone.

  4. “Working on your soul is like cross-training for your marriage—it may not seem specific to the sport, but it increases fitness all around.” Exactly! Sometimes when our marriages are in such a mess, it’s hard to step back and see the big picture because we are so hyper-focused on the immediate problems. The cool thing is that spiritual health will overflow into all aspects of your life, not just your marriage! God’s word, His design and the Holy Spirit are truly amazing healers.

  5. For me, working on my soul and the marriage came hand-in-hand. I knew my marriage was a mess, in part because I was a mess. Once I fessed up and started letting God work on my heart, I also found myself more able to recognize and process good marriage marriage and change my behavior toward my husband.

  6. This article is exactly what I’ve been looking for, for a long time. I’ve needed the clarity to explain to others the idea that a healthy relationship begins with healthy individuals. Too many people seem fixated on fixing the marriage, when I beg them to understand we must address spiritual issues within the soul first.
    I thank you so much – this article explains so well what I have not been able to put into words! And then you go the next step and explain how to make a plan of action – these other resources. Thank you so much!

  7. This was so powerful – his confession and openness was powerful. What if I’m married to someone like this – he cannot see it in himself. No amount of my tears will help. What can I do??

    • Such a great question. I have the same one.

    • C,

      We can’t let our spouse’s inaction or immaturity hold us back from being loving ourselves. In cases outside of abuse (where you need to protect yourself), the stronger Christian is urged to double down and set an example rather than pull back in frustration. That’s the message of Sacred Marriage–allowing even (at times) a difficult marriage to refine our own character and response. Leslie Vernick also tackles this very practically in her book “How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong”

      • My question kind of piggybacks onto this one, I’m actually in Leslie Vernick’s Conquer group. My husband and I are separated after long-term physical and emotional abuse. Our pastor asked me to come up with some books I’d like him to read during our separation. I’m going to read through Soul Keepers and potentially ask him to read it (from the excerpts you have shared it sounds like a lot of what I have seen him, although there is the question of whether he is actually a believer at all). In addition to Soul Keepers, what other books you might recommend for a man who has struggled with anger and addiction?
        Thank you for your books and your blog! They are such a blessing to me.

  8. Rebecca Reinhardt July 5, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Wow! Thank you for this post, Gary – this is exactly the encouragement I needed today! And I bought John’s book, so your tactic worked – LOL! …I already have all yours and recommend them regularly 🙂

  9. Another great blog post! Makes me so appreciate being a Catholic & the availability of the Sacrament of Confession. Makes it much harder to hide 🙂 Highly recommend to anyone doing a daily examination of conscience. Here’s a great one for married people -http://www.thelightisonforyou.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/TheLightIsOnForYou_ExaminationForMarriedCouples.pdf

  10. Bill Tuininga July 5, 2018 at 10:10 am

    Gary, once again, a great post! Some days I don’t want to admit even to God, where my soul has gone or been. Such writing draws me out – back into the light – and encourages me to work (and play) at what I know deep inside to be the most important relationship of all, with Christ Jesus. I’m a rather slow learner when it comes to truly believing (accepting at a deep level) that not just my life but also my marriage is saved by grace. This blog is like a Fitbit on the wrist reminding me to keep walking in step with the Spirit – another post that will get forwarded to our five married children to encourage them as well.

  11. This post moved me. I have been on the receiving end of a “sick soul” throughout my 14 year marriage. I grew up in a Godly home, filled with abundant love, kindness and generosity. My husband did not. By nature I am a giver. I made it my mission in marriage to love freely, give generously, and to serve selflessly. These traits have never been reciprocated from my husband. Instead he has come to expect them, and sees himself as entitled to my service, as he is the head of the home, and women were created to be a husband’s “helpmeet” When that is compounded with the cold withdrawing Ortberg refers to, it has made for a sick marriage indeed. I am now a shriveled up vestige of the cheerful, alive person I once was. Perhaps Ortberg’s withdrawal did not hit the same level as my husband’s, but nonetheless it is sin. I see no difference between this and what the Bible speaks of as abandonment in marriage. After years of praying, counseling, begging for change, and working “harder” to love and serve my husband, I am now out. This is a form of abuse, and I will stay in it no longer.

  12. I wrote of this dance in a song Love Unreturned. It was given to me by God at a particularly painful part of our marriage, just after an intense number of days of counseling, realizing the patterns in our marriage that were destroying us. I hadn’t been able to get through to my husband about the reactive /attachment behavior that caused so much pain. And somehow he heard it loud and clear in the song… he decided at that time to choose to move toward each time he wanted to distance. Our marriage looks nothing like the 26 year pattern, this year and 1/2 later.Because of this one principal. I’m going to order the book.

    I see you there
    I stir inside
    I reach… and cold, and cold you turn your gaze
    I must be wrong
    I try again
    Its no use
    My love is unreturned.

    Now warm your face
    When my hearts stone
    You try so hard to win me back
    I’m safe with you
    It’s trust again
    I reach … and cold you turn your face

    I must be wrong
    I try again
    It’s no use
    My love is unreturned

    We must be wrong
    We try
    ……and try
    ………….and try again
    To slow this dance
    ….. stopping this dance
    ………..of no return

    By Lisa Boyl-Davis

  13. This is so true that spiritual immaturity is often at the core of self centeredness in marriage. Certainly true for me. So what do we do? As a man, what percentage of men have any idea how to ‘end to their soul’? I had someone mentor me and help me become established as a passionate Christ follower. He taught me to feed myself from the scriptures and yield to the Lordship of Christ. This may not sound like ‘marriage ministry’ – but your short article proves that it is. If you build strong godly men who are following Jesus, marriages and families will grow and become healthy and fruitful and be salt to a world desperate to see what God had in mind for marriage.

  14. So true these words…, see myself in them as well… beginning the soul search today and passing this on! Thanks

  15. This is awesome! Sounds a lot like Paul’s message on doing the things I do not want to do. God is the answer to making us healthier for sure. Kinda like taking medication (Holy Spirit in our life) so you can actually attempt to do the work ahead (your marriage). We will never change our spouses but God can change us in ways that we never dreamed were possible. I know this personally! Thanks for sharing the message!

  16. That was excellent~ thank you for sharing the resources, as well!

  17. This was a moving post. I have spent 31 years watching my husband struggle. I am living this roller coaster of withdrawal and distant. No connection. I have been fighting for my marriage for years now but I don’t have any fight left. I am pressing in and working on my own soul health. Trusting God…

  18. Gary Thomas I love you! God bless you and your family. I have advised friends who are serious with marriage to read your books.
    You opened my eyes when you made me understand that maybe I got married to be Holy. I started seeing God as my father in law and everything changed for the better.
    And now “the sick soul” – I have had to share this with my circles and asked them to read your books and those you recommend.
    Thank You! Thank You!!

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