As a women’s leader, if your groups are like the one I lead in my church, you have women who attend a women’s class because they are married to an unsaved man or a man who won’t attend church with them. Perhaps you’ve experienced that yourself and you may be better prepared to help than others who haven’t. Today you will hear from Karla Downing, a marriage and family therapist, who often teaches on this topic and helps women know how to safely and effectively navigate this difficult experience.
By Karla Downing
Rita looked at me intensely with a confused look on her face, “How can I respect my husband when I don’t respect anything he does and he doesn’t love me? In fact, he is actually mean to me.” The new emphasis on love and respect in a marriage has resulted in this question being asked frequently.
Ephesians 5:33 says, “Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (NIV). This perfect prescription for a happy marriage that fulfills both the man and woman’s needs isn’t a problem in a healthy marriage, but it is tricky in a difficult marriage.
Love means to care for someone in a way that nourishes them and takes their needs into consideration. When a man doesn’t treat his wife as an equal partner and show that he cares for her needs and wants as well as his own, he is mistreating her; he isn’t loving her. When he makes choices that hurt the family, his wife, and himself, he isn’t loving his wife.
Respect means to honor or value. When you honor and value your husband, your words and actions build him up rather than tear him down as a man and you show him how much he means to you. The problem in a difficult marriage is that it’s incredibly difficult to respect a man who is acting in a way that leads a wife to disrespect him.
After validating the difficult situation she is in and hearing her pain, here are some suggestions you can offer a woman in your ministry struggling with these issues:
- She can respect her husband’s position. This means that she can approach him in a way that respects him as a man without contempt, disdain, nagging, or undermining.
- She can still speak her truth and set boundaries, even if she feels disrespect for him because she is actually showing how much she values his well-being by caring about what is healthy for him and the marriage.
- She can be encouraged to find something good about him and be willing to compliment him to show appreciation for whatever is good. This goes a long way with a man.
- She can allow him to lead in the areas that he is capable. She does not have to allow him to lead in areas where he is destructive to the family or marriage. This must be done delicately.
- She should be encouraged to be faithful in doing her part in the marriage, regardless if he does his. However, if sex is emotionally painful, she should set necessary boundaries in this area as well as others.
A woman in a difficult marriage has to learn to respect her husband in a way that values him, her, and the marriage. It’s important that in talking with her that you recognize the delicate task she has in figuring out how to do this while you also take care of her and address the real issues in the marriage.
How else do you help women respect a disrespectful husband?
Karla Downing is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the author of 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages, and the founder of Change My Relationship. Karla offers practical tools based on biblical truths to Christians in difficult relationships. She also authored the chapter on domestic violence and spousal abuse in Women Reaching Women in Crisis. She also has a passion to teach ministry leaders how to reach out in more effective ways.