This is part three of a three-part series from my upcoming release, "Finding the Hero in Your Husband, Revisted.” *
As recently as a few decades ago, many Christian women believed that in order to be loving wives they had to limit their own personal potential. Loving and respecting a husband meant being essentially mute and supportive. In order to allow a man to assume the role of protector and leader, women were encouraged to hold back their opinions and strength.
Today, women have realized the freedom in thinking for themselves and using their gifts, talents, and strengths. Now the problem isn’t a woman finding her voice in marriage, but the tension of using her power in a manner that builds intimacy with her husband rather than destroying it.
In the previous posts in our series (part one and part two), we talked about how and why women tend to take charge. The tactics I’ve described (bossing, manipulating, backseat driving…) may work in managing the chaos of your marriage, but they also undermine the chance for intimacy. Are you ready to consider a different approach? Anna was.
As a registered nurse, Anna is the sole wage earner in her marriage. Her husband, Caleb, has been working toward a counseling degree for the past few years but spends much of his “study time” playing games on his phone, working out, and relaxing with friends. When Anna gets home from a 10-hour shift, she inevitably finds dirty laundry scattered on the floor and dishes in the sink. Sometimes she fumes silently. Other days she explodes in anger. When they argue, Caleb points to the fact Anna has an unreasonable expectation of tidiness. He explains how stressed he feels by school and how unnatural it is for him to think of housework: “My mom always took care of that stuff.”
From this description, Caleb seems like a lazy, immature husband who needs to grow up. But here’s the kicker. A counselor could have explained Caleb’s frustration with Anna just as effectively. Caleb could justifiably share stories of Anna encouraging him (maybe even pushing him) to get a master’s degree. He would remind Anna that she’s the one who wanted to work full time so he could go to school. This was all her idea, not his. Caleb might tell the story of what happened last week when he cooked dinner and cleaned the apartment. As soon as Anna walked through the door, she complained about the smell of burnt toast and ended up redoing most of the work Caleb had done.
Here’s the point: Anna and Caleb have created a “dance” that prevents both of them from growing in maturity and intimacy. If Anna can lovingly and wisely change her contribution to their dance, this couple has a great chance of thriving together.
If I were having coffee with a friend like Anna who was asking me how to change this dance, here are five practical suggestions I would give:
1. Humble yourself.
About three years into my marriage, God began to show me something really ugly… my pride. I genuinely believed that I knew how to do pretty much everything better than my husband did. Even when I yielded to his opinions and ideas, I often did so with a patronizing attitude. Although I know I’m right, I’ll encourage your leadership. Do you know what I realized? I’m not always right. In fact, I’m wrong a lot. And many times, the issues Mike and I disagree on are not even a matter of right or wrong. Our approaches are just different. It has taken me a long, long time to let God chip away my pride. He’s still working on me. Not long ago, I had this thought: I think I’m more spiritually mature than my husband. The Lord quickly revealed to me that the very fact that I had that thought revealed my immaturity!
Spiritual maturity means growing in grace, love, gratitude, humility, patience, and self-control. Genuine growth means that my husband looks better to me every day, not worse, because God is giving me eyes to see Mike through His love.
In Philippians 2, Paul tells Christians, “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
What if you applied this lens of humility to how you see your husband? What would happen if you truly accepted him and stopped trying to change him? As I asked the Lord to teach me to do this, I began seeing strengths in my husband that my pride kept me from appreciating.
2. Start with what you have.
As personality tests like the Enneagram, StrengthsFinder, and Myers-Briggs point out, every strength has a corresponding weakness. Your husband’s personality is like two sides of a coin. This means the weaknesses that drive you crazy also have corresponding strengths.
- A charming, outgoing husband is the life of the party, but may be demanding or manipulative in relationships.
- A reliable, detailed husband brings stability, but may be emotionally dull.
- A passionate man who wants to change the world may make you proud, but may also never sit still enough for you to share life with him.
Here’s the point: Your husband has inborn strengths that are probably part of the reason you married him. But those strengths also come with weaknesses. If you want to change the dynamics of your marriage, you have to build on the strengths he has rather than make him into a different man.
Let’s go back to Caleb. While this young husband has given Anna ample reason to complain, he’s also a genuinely caring guy. He may not wash the dishes in the sink, but he spent several hours last week helping an elderly neighbor with her new computer. He has great gifts of mercy and compassion and would be the first to sacrifice for a friend in need. If Anna would like to see her husband mature, her best bet is to build on what he naturally does well. She did this by encouraging him to get his counseling degree. This doesn’t feel like it’s paying off right now, but someday it will.
Your husband is a leader, but he may not be wired to lead the way you want him to. You have to look for the inborn paths of leadership that God has given him.
3. Invite his strength by revealing your weakness.
When our three boys were very little, I was overwhelmed and exhausted much of the time. There were days when I wanted to meet my husband at the door and demand, “Why are you late? I’ve taken care of them all day. It’s your turn. I need a break!” If I had that tone, Mike would have shut down or spent ten minutes telling me how much more stressful his day was than mine. I have a very caring husband who is eager to help me, but he will never respond well to being told what to do. As a young, independent woman, I had to learn to invite Mike’s help by showing him my weakness. This was not easy for me. I liked to convince myself and everyone else around that I could handle anything. This strategy left me with handling everything — and resenting it. I had to learn to say, “I’m overwhelmed. I need you. Can you please help me?”
I used to think that being a great wife meant never showing him my weaknesses. Actually, the opposite is true. If I’m never weak, there’s no need for a hero. There is no room for your husband’s strength if you refuse to acknowledge your limitations.
Instead of feeling angry and disappointed in Caleb, Anna may have gotten much further by showing him her legitimate weakness and appealing to his sensitivity. “Caleb, I understand that housework isn’t your thing and I know that school is stressful. But I’m about to fall apart. I’m so tired when I get home at the end of a shift. I really need you. Can we figure out a way to tackle this as a team?”
4. Stop rescuing him.
At the root of many immature husbands is silence… his refusal to assume responsibility, to step into leadership, and to become the servant leader he was created to emulate. Within the silence is a void that begs to be filled. You may not fill it with words, but you take over when your husband hesitates. He forgot to pay the cable bill, so you take care of it. He doesn’t make enough money, so you increase your hours at work to fill in the shortfall. The kids are screaming while he scrolls through videos on his phone, so you jump in and parent. Before you know it, you have assumed the vast majority of responsibilities.
Think of it like a conversation. If one person does all the talking, the other person never has to say anything. Whenever there is silence, don’t fill it. Give him room to feel the tension of that silence. This might mean short-term inconvenience and stress, but it is a small price if it can help you establish a healthier dance.
You may not like this suggestion, but it’s an important part of helping your husband grow. Resist the urge to step in when he doesn’t step up. If something is clearly his responsibility, don’t nag. Don’t complain. Don’t do anything. If the power gets shut off, so be it. If the lawn hasn’t been mowed all summer, let it go. Have honest, constructive conversations about the issue (maybe with a counselor), but don’t take up the slack. This may be extremely difficult for you because you’re afraid of what might happen if you (fill in the blank). There may be some situations where you have to step in because of safety, but in most cases, the consequences of stepping back are worth the reward of watching your husband learn to step forward.
5. Let him grow into manhood, not womanhood.
While we would never say it so openly, we often define maturity by what we value as women. Sensitivity, communication, spiritual devotion, and appropriately responding to every imaginable interpersonal situation.
Mature masculinity looks different from mature femininity. Sometimes we give our guys grief for being men. Why is reading to your child more valuable than roughhousing? And why is it less mature to play video games than to spend three hours on Pinterest? I’ve caught myself with these unconscious expectations. And even within the culture of “manhood,” healthy masculinity can look very different from one guy to another. Be careful not to define maturity by a narrow set of standards.
While you can encourage your husband to be a hero, you can’t teach him how to be a man. Men have to be validated by other men. They may need to be taught things they never learned from their fathers.
Male friends and mentors are an invaluable piece of maturity. Many guys won’t respond well to the suggestion to get a mentor. You might start by asking questions like, “Who do you admire (at work, church, in your family)? You can also encourage mentoring by spending time with older couples who can pass on wisdom. Whatever the cost, invest in relationships that help you both grow. If your husband interacts with mature, godly men while hunting deer, clear the calendar during hunting season!
My friend, I know that you are frustrated by your husband’s lack of maturity and willingness to take responsibility. I understand that you really believe you do things better than your husband does them. You fear that if you don’t step in, things will fall apart. But it is key for you to understand that you are the one person who can ultimately invite your husband into the challenges of authentic relationship and adult life. Even more than you fear “dropping the ball,” your husband fears failing you.
As his wife, you have the delicate role of protecting your husband’s vulnerabilities while also calling forth his strengths. It sounds complicated, but it is accomplished day-by-day, moment-by-moment, by how you choose to think about him, pray for him, and respond to him. The wonderful news is that you aren’t the first woman to walk through the challenges of how to bring out the “man” in your husband. I’ve seen it done by wise women, and I’m learning the art of doing so in my own marriage. I’ve learned when to step back, when to encourage, and when to confront.
When I’ve shared this perspective before, some women have responded with anger. “Why is it my fault that my husband won’t grow up?” and “Stop blaming females for men’s sin!” Let me be very clear. Some men come into marriage with insecurity, addictions, or a hard heart that is unwilling to change. God doesn’t hold us responsible for our husband’s weaknesses or sin. However, we are responsible for how we respond to our circumstances. If God has truly given you more maturity, wisdom, and strength than your husband, this means that you have much more power in your relationship than he does. How are you using that power?
Every woman will, at some point, experience the fear of trusting a husband who is capable of making drastic mistakes. No one can promise you that your husband won’t lose his job, squander your savings, or cheat on you. There are times when you need to be very assertive in setting boundaries and protecting both yourself and your husband from his weaknesses. But most often, women take over because we don’t know how to trust. Trusting is incredibly difficult, especially when you intimately know your husband’s weakness and immaturity.
Investing in your husband is not ultimately about trusting him, but trusting God. You may feel like you are walking a tightrope, but you have a safety net.
I remember one particularly miserable time in my marriage. Mike and I had a major fight about a serious issue. I was hurt and angry. As he drove off, I yelled something like, “Sure. Leave! Don’t bother coming back!” I ran into the house where my three small boys were waiting. I remember closing myself in the pantry and sobbing. I felt hopeless. If you had given me the book Finding the Hero in Your Husband, I might have thrown it at you. My comfort in moments like this one did not come from imagining how wonderful our marriage could be, but from running to the God who sees me, who loves me, and who has promised to be with me.
The bigger battle of your marriage is not learning to trust your husband, but choosing to trust your Lord.
What do you think?
Here are a few way you can engage with us and learn more about embracing your power as a woman:
This excerpt is from Dr. Juli Slattery’s book, "Finding the Hero in Your Husband, Revisited.” Reprinted with permission from Health Communications, Inc.
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Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash