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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  1. Renee in Oklahoma says

    What if the spouse has a bad habit of abusing verbally and isolating himself from his wife? He has been told countless times by more than one counselor how to Biblically love his wife, but he continues to fall into verbal abuse and isolation. I forgive, but I don’t enable him to continue. He is angry at me for taking a stand. What now?

    • momC says

      pray for him, continue to love.
      along side of using healthy boundaries, show grace and mercy.
      i know it hurts. i will pray with you and for you.
      keep the faith. be strong in Spirit.

      • Marie says

        Actually you may need to separate for a short time until he can show change! It is not a good environment for you to live in so explain why its not good when he is doing that, then remove yourslef from the situation. Why sit through his tantrum? Otherwise you are allowing him to continue.

    • Me says

      Ask The Holy Spirit to guide you Renee.
      He goes before you, He comes behind you, He is to your left and your right, He is above you and beneath you. Best of all, He flows out of His abundance from within your heart as you allow Him to. Seek Him! Embrace Him!

  2. anyonomous says

    This is wonderful advice but what would you say to someone who has been in an emotionally abusive/manipulative relationship for 30 years. Should they still try to love them out of it?

    • momC says

      me, too. i think of it as loving them through it. God may or may not change my situation, He may or may not change my spouse, but i know He’s changed me. we have an awesome opportunity to experience the sufficiency of Christ.

    • Mari says

      I would start saying “you know what? enough is enough. Not until you show some willingness to change I’m out of this house. It is not until you show that actions carry consequences, change will not arrive.

  3. DENNIS GREEN says

    Because of the very terrible cost of divorce, I encourage all to put on the bowel of mercy and tender heartedness towards his/her spouse.

  4. Tiffany says

    Well I am married but separated from my husband. He has countlessly over crossed my boundaries, disrespected them, our marriage an me. The verbal/mental and emotional abuse i endured was toi much foe me. I did not frow upin that kind of environment. Plus when we got married, he turned intoa comoletely different person. A person i have never known or saw throughout our courtship/dating. So the final straw was when he changed the house locks on me. He blantly put me out!

    So I have found a safe place and notified our marriage Counselor. She told me that the only person that could change is me. She said that we never had a marriage, there was never a four fatuous and she apologize for all of the things I had endure. She also mentioned to me that she had spoken to my husband individually and he just doesn’t get it! She said that heven should be mentally evaluated that he is never going to change. That he has a learned behavior. That is true!

    So I have purchased all of the boundaries books along with my own individual counseling seeing to help me cope through this and to learn the best way to set healthy boundsries. Especially since my spirit had been broken due to the abuse I endured in my marriage. I have filed for a divorce but now he is pleading for me not ro. I have ro. It’s the best for me and my worth. I am a believer I. God. I prayed prayed fasted and still nothing. Until he put me out. There is no return after that. Then to top it off he tried to put me to shame at my church by dropping off things I hado left since I had to abruptly move. How childless is that. He is a 45 year old man that will eat alone!

    • Jasmin Finke says

      Well done Tiffany.

      God loves you and don’t ever beat yourself up for it. Eventually only you can decide if you want to try again or not. Just make sure either way you have forgiven your spouse for your healing’s sake.

    • Eric says

      We never have to tolerate abuse. Never. I would ask you to trust that God is sovereign and He loves you. We cannot comprehend why God does what He does. His ways are above our ways and His thoughts are above our thoughts. We made a vow to our spouses on our wedding day, before God, to love, honor and cherish our spouses until death.

      Their decision to be unfaithful to their vows doesn’t excuse us from ours. We will all be held accountable before God for our decisions on the day of judgement. I want to be called HIS good and faithful servant.

      My wife’s behavior doesn’t dictate my obedience. Jesus is my heart’s desire before my wife. She abandoned a twenty year marriage. Our children now suffer from a broken home. Our families have been torn apart. Why? Because she wasn’t happy anymore. I wasn’t happy either, but she wasn’t willing to work on it.

      That was almost 3 years ago. I haven’t given up on my progidal, because to do so would be to say that God can’t fix this. You need to make sure that you are safe and separating is perfectly justified and righteous. But divorce is not necessary. God has reason for allowing this to happen to you and your husband. I know for us, that it was because He was no longer first in either of our lives. Both of us were selfish. We both put our wants and needs first. God wasn’t first. She wasn’t first. I was. The same is true for her.

      Don’t quit. Honor God. Glorify God. Praise Him for the rain as well as the sunshine. Give Him the opportunity to glorify Himself in your marriage. Let Jesus be your husband while you wait and pray and obey.

      We are more than conquerors. We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength!

      • Beth says

        I happened upon this thread when searching for answers to my dilemma. I was in an abusive marriage and gave up, my husband being put out after an abusive altercation. I started divorce proceedings 2 months after that and had a restraining order as well. Needless to say, I hardened my heart more than I have ever thought possible. Now, after 4 months, my husband contacted me and we both wish to work on our marriage, have dismissed the restraining order and the divorce. We are both God’s children and like you, Eric, had quit putting God first and each focused on our own wants. Thank you so much for your words of encouragement, you don’t know how much they have helped me today. We face many obstacles in getting back together as our families are not happy about it, please keep us in your prayers as you & your wife will be in mine. God bless you both.

        • K Parker says

          Do realize: You correctly applied tough love. You established strong boundaries, with appropriate help, which caused open, and not hidden, discomfort for him.
          He either was in a temporary bargaining mode, or he actually moved his character into a better alignment to enable a healthier relationship with himself and with you.
          I hope this situation has improved for both of you at this point in time.
          Love is a choice most of the time.

      • Laura Smith says

        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!!!”

      • Laura Smith says

        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!

  5. Deidre says

    This is where we need access to good quality reputable information so we know what is and isn’t abusive. Most of us turn to family and friends for advice and even though they do their best they can provide wrong advice.

    • Laura Smith says

      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.

  6. says

    I have found that when you take all the info you’ve learned and hoped would help your husband to “get it”, and apply it to yourself, that they sense you have quit trying to “tell them what to do” or”lecturing them”. As a result, mine got the point that I am going to do what God wants me to. I will continue to be patient, pleasant, and positive, but I will not tolerate his negativy and impatience, because that will lead to my ill health, and now that we’re retired we can live apart and visit, if necessary. That is not possible for everyone, but when you depend on God to guide and fulfil you, and know that “the difference between expectations and reality is misery” (Steve Arterburn, I think), the husband intuits that you have made a firm boundary, and it is not all about him. Took me a while, 46 years of
    marriage and a year separation 20 years ago, but I’m a healthy, happy 65 year old, and
    plan on being around as long as the Lord plans. God bless you!
    making life a little more about me and a lot more about God. My husband senses that, and he needs me more than I need him, emotionally, I think. I hope he is capable of the compromise it will take for both of to be happy, we do love each other and God!

  7. John says

    Marriage is the worst investment a person can be involved in. The transactional value is starkly disproportionate; you will never recover your initial principal, let alone dividends. Think about all the years you’ve invested, decades even. There is no other institution in the world you can squander that much time and be so mediocre at. Though my comments may sound negative, I believe it’s a realistic expression of biblical thematics. Jesus, a being of infinite worth, died for Christians “while we were yet sinners” clearly suggests that he gave more than he received. Since marriage is to mirror the relationship of Jesus and his church that he”gave himself for” I think it’s insane to not expect a raw deal from marriage. In fact, this theme, transcends the Bible cover to cover. God invested himself in creating a world and everything in it for the sake of relationship and his return on investment was distrust, dispassion, and disassociation. Sounds like marriage to me. This in no uncertain terms implies that marriage is not a worthwhile endeavor! Because, God, acting from a position of morale authority could not have justified doing so if it were not true.

  8. SEA says

    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.

    • Anonymous says

      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.

  9. Kim says

    I truly believe that in order to get a stubborn person to change(yes even the change to leave) god makes you uncomfortable. My husband has never been faithful to me in our 18 yr relationship. I deserve better, even if its alone. God has a plan for me, part of his plan is for me to rise up and start by saying no more disrespect and abuse. I’m sorry no amount of love and forgiveness can change my husband, when he can’t even love himself. I have surrendered my husband and my marriage to god. Its to heavy for me to carry anymore.

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