Why Your Spouse Will Fail You and What to Do About It

Boundaries in MarriageI (Dr. Cloud) was leading a seminar, and I asked the audience of married couples to stop for a moment and think of their spouse. I told them to think of all of the wonderful things that they love about their spouse and to concentrate on how awesome that person is and how much they love him or her. “Think of the wonderful qualities that you admire and that attracted you to that person. Let those feelings fill you,” I told them.

Then, after they were feeling all giddy and in love again, I asked each person to turn to their spouse who was idealizing them at that moment and to repeat after me, “Honey, I am a sinner. I will fail you, and I will hurt you.”

You could feel the sense of discombobulation in the room. In one moment, they were shaken from the ideal to the real. Some began to laugh as they got it. Some felt even closer to each other. Some looked up confused as if they did not know what to do with my invitation.

But that is reality. The person you love the most and have committed your life to is an imperfect being. This person is guaranteed to hurt you and fail you in many ways, some serious and some not. You can expect the failures to come. As the Bible says in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." We can expect failure from even the best people in our lives.

So the question becomes, “What then?” What do you do when your spouse fails you in some way or is less than you wish for him to be? What happens when she has a weakness or a failure? How about an inability to do something? What about an unresolved childhood hurt that he brings to the relationship?

Other than denial, there are only a couple of options. You can beat him up for his imperfections, or you can love him out of them. The Bible says, “Love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Nothing in a relationship has to permanently destroy that relationship if forgiveness is in the picture. No failure is larger than grace. No hurt exists that love cannot heal. But, for all of these miracles to take place, there must be compassion and tenderheartedness.

What does that mean? I like how the Bible describes God’s compassion: “to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior” (Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary). For God to have compassion on our brokenness or sin is certainly to stoop to an inferior. But we need the same attitude toward an equal spouse for two reasons:

First, you forgive what is inferior to the ideal standard. You humble yourself to identify with your loved one, who is experiencing life in a way that is less than you or even he would want. You give up all demands for your spouse to be something he isn’t at that moment.

Second, if your spouse is hurting or failing, you are not morally superior, but you are in the stronger position at that moment to be able to help. God never uses the stronger position to hurt, but always to help. As Paul puts it in Colossians 3:12-14, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."

What a picture that is! “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” What if you “wore” these qualities every time your spouse failed or was hurting? I think we would see a lot more healed marriages.

But that is not the human way. The human way is to harden our hearts when we are hurt or offended.

I was talking to a friend the other day who had offended his wife in a relatively minor way. But to her it was not minor at all. As a result, she did not speak to him for several days. Finally he asked her when she might forgive him. “Will it be before next month? Before Christmas? Just let me know so I can get ready.” She finally broke and started laughing, and things were fine again. She saw how unnecessary her “hardness of heart” was to the offense.

Hardness of heart, much more than failure, is the true relationship killer. Jesus said in Matthew 19:8 that failure is not the cause of divorce, but hardness of heart is. This is why the Bible places such a high value on tenderheartedness.


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  • Anonymous on

    I am married to a man that had a impeccable reputation. He was selected by the congregation as a deacon in our church. Pressured by the pastor to serve. Actually we were told we had no choice but to accept and serve. My husband was the model deacon. Godly man, family man, great husband, responsible man. Being forced to do something set I. Resentment Not to make excuses but I can see now how a man like that falls from Grace. We have been married for 39 yrs. 4 yrs ago he was caught sexting a woman in our church. Thank God! I am very grateful at this point in our journey. This exposed a double life he had been living because of a porn addiction. He was relieved to get caught. He came clean on a 5 yr. affair with another woman in our church. A Friend of the family. I found myself married to a husband I did not know! Trust was severely damaged. The pastor and our best friend knew about the porn addiction because the mistress threw him under the bus so to speak. He resigned as deacon he was told not to tell me the truth. I was living a lie. I went seeking for truth. What I found was spiritual warfare. Satan set out to steal, kill and destroy my husband, my family and my marriage. We lost our church of 30 yrs. All friendships related to our church and he lost respect of himself and his family. But, praise God! God loved us too much to keep us in an unhealthy church and unhealthy relationships. We were lead to a Christ centered recovery group where we also found a new church with a humble pastor that held him accountable. I realized Ephesians 6:12-13. It was the only thing that kept me sane! I found Jesus. I told my husband if he wanted my heart he would have to go to him to get it. He had trampled my heart and my Heavenly Father would not give it to him until it was safe to do so. He didn’t want to lose me so he found his way back to God and we now have a Christ centered marriage. It was not easy! It was a roller coaster of highs and lows but we persevered! God took 2 willing hearts and restored them to health. We found selfless love, respect and forgiveness for each other. It’s not perfect but it’s better than I could have ever imagined. God would not allow me to leave and give up. He required I love him so he could set us free.

  • Laura Smith on

    Let Jesus be your boundary! A very trusted mentor and friend told me this during counseling and I have never forgotten it. Go to your Father and ask HIM for his leadership and guidance. He has a plan for you and He gives wisdom liberally when you ask in faith and in sincerity, wanting to do His will, not your own. Remember, wrestle BEFORE Him NOT with Him.

  • Laura Smith on

    Yes, don’t quit. Honor God and believe that He is able to do the impossible. Even If He doesn’t may your hope be in Him alone!
    Preaching to the choir today!

  • Laura Smith on

    Oh how I love that Isaiah 54 speaks of this very thing! Jesus is my Husbandman. I have been walking this tough love road for over 6 years now and still don’t know if God is going to fix my marriage or has just been teaching me to lean into Him and change my perspective. It has been the toughest road I’ve ever traveled but if dying to myself brings the opportunity to glorify my heavenly Father, then it will all be worth it. Maybe not in this life but most assuredly in the one to come! Just like the song Chris Tomlin sings, “I’m going Home…I’m on my way HOME!!!”

  • SEA on

    You can overcome what Satan wants to destroy in your marriages but both people have to want to overcome. Everyone here who says you have to hold abusive people accountable is right. That is the loving Godly thing to do. My husband revealed 3.5 years ago he was having affairs with two women we knew well for the last 20 of our 38 years of a horrible emotionally abusive marriage. The abuse is harder to overcome than the damage of the affairs. We are still in separate therapy and he has much to work through that was hidden in his childhood but the Holy Spirit has led us all the way and will lead you. At least 5-6 times in these last 3.5 years I was seriously planning divorce. Divorce threat still is the only thing that will get him to stop when he is in a ‘mood’. And it was in my divorce planning that I discovered things about his “perfect” childhood that he needed to know. My counselor says narcissists only change bc something forces them to or they might lose something they really care about. His mother (who is still alive and causing him unresolved grief at age 90) is the source of his issues and I believe the final root to dig through. For you who are in emotionally abusive relationships “Boundaries” books are helpful but books by Leslie Vernick and Lundy Bancroft are essential for what to do. To recover from verbal abuse read Patricia Evans (even though she’s not biblically based she’s good and you an add biblical values). We’re headed to anniversary 42 happy and like I always imagined we’d be. He gets better every day. We did not run away and we stayed in our small town where every day is a challenge to not have a bad memory triggered, but God heals all.

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