When your marriage is in crisis: how to move forward by setting boundaries

It’s Wednesday, the day when we always talk marriage! I introduce a topic, and then you all can link up your own posts below. Today I want to tackle a really hard question–one that is left often in the comments. What do I do if my marriage is in crisis, but he doesn’t think it’s a big deal and refuses to change?

Here’s a comment, for instance, that was left yesterday when we were talking about the trauma of a husband’s porn use:

If he is unrepentant how do I set boundaries? I have read your article on 4 things a wife needs to do if her husband is looking at Porn… but if he isn’t to the place of wanting to be done how are boundaries set? Technology free hours would never fly with him. His phone took a dive into the fish tank last week and I was praising God. But he mailed it in and got it fixed, and nearly every night he would take his laptop and dissappear. And now the smart phone is back and it travels with him every where he goes. Even to the bathroom! He also deletes history.

I want to say first and foremost that I weep for women in this situation. A man who is throwing away a marriage to indulge in pornography is acting so selfishly and immaturely. Even though it is likely an addiction, it still makes me almost physically ill to think about this.

And I know there are men doing other things which are toxic to a marriage–gambling, overspending, refusing to work. I received an email last week from a woman whose husband, as soon as they were married, announced, “I believe that God will provide work”, and so he refuses to look for work. They now live in his parents’ cramped basement while she tries to hobble together what money she can while caring for the children, while the husband plays video games all day. And then there are the men who write in whose wives have refused to have sex for years.

These are horrible, horrible situations. And if you confront your husband (or your wife), and he does nothing to change or says he won’t change, what do you do?

I recognize that the vast majority of those reading this blog do not have marriages in crisis, and don’t worry–some “regular” marriage thoughts will be coming again soon on this blog! But I do receive so many notes from women in crisis situations that I thought it warranted a post. And because I rank so high on Google for certain search terms for people in crisis in their marriages, I get a lot of people in that situation here. So this post is for those who are in crisis!

Whatever you tolerate will continue.

I wish people could understand this earlier–even when they’re dating. If you tolerate a little bit of porn, it will continue until it’s a lot. Obviously we should never go ballistic over each and every sin, but there are some things which need to be non-negotiables, and I think being sexually pure and being responsible with money are two things that are essential in any marriage. I would not marry someone who did not have a proven track record on these two things.

But what do you do if you marry someone and then these things pop up? Or if you married someone assuming the problems would get better, and then they didn’t (hint: that’s a really bad idea).

You still don’t enable sin–you be a spouse, not an enabler. If you follow that link, I have an in-depth post on when it’s necessary to get some help in your marriage and to stop tolerating certain things, and I’d encourage you to read that first. Then come back here and we’ll call this a part 2.

Read: Are You a Spouse or an Enabler?

Get yourself some support

Something has to change. A man can’t be retreating into the bathroom to look at porn on his computer, all the while his wife knowing what he is doing. A woman can’t keep living in her parent’s basement while her husband refuses to work. These things must stop.

But likely if you’re in this position you’ve talked and talked to your husband, and nothing has changed. So what do you do?

First, get some support around you. That doesn’t mean that you confide in everybody under the sun, but find a few people who can pray for you and who can give you some wise advice and counsel. I’ve shared the story before of one older friend of mine whose husband had used porn for several decades in their marriage. They had gone to counselors, and he had promised to quit, but he never did. So one day she confided in their small group and in her pastor, and the small group came and helped her move out while the pastor had a meeting with the husband saying, “you need to get your life back on track, and if you don’t, we will support your wife.”

You need a church community that takes confronting sin seriously. Unfortunately, not enough do. To many Christians, the highest ideal is a couple that stays married–no matter what. Yet this is a misreading of what God wants. God doesn’t want marriage to be a cover for people having to work on their issues. God’s purpose is that we each look more and more like Christ. Yes, God hates divorce, but you know what He hates more? His children falling farther and farther away from Him and getting more and more sucked into sin. And when we tolerate horrible behaviour, it gets worse. I am not advocating divorce. I know the vow is crucial. But it should never be a cover for people to sin.

So find yourself a Christian community that understands the necessity of wholeness. That may take some time. It may mean switching churches. It may mean that you have to get involved in that church so that you have a natural group of people around you. It takes investment on your part to be part of community. But you need that community! This is a spiritual battle. You need prayer. You need people pointing you in the right direction so you don’t get bitter and vindictive. Search those people out!

And sometimes your spouse could need extra help too, like a counselor or even a rehab center. Get him the help he needs.

Get yourself a counselor

Likely you will need a trained person to walk through this with you, too. Most churches have a list of counselors they can give you. Some churches even have them on staff so that people in crisis don’t have to pay.

Own your boundary

Now that you have support and you know that something must be done, the question remains: what should you do to make him stop?

Right?

Wrong. That’s not the question. You can’t make him stop. You can’t pressure him to do anything. The only thing you can do is enforce your own boundaries, not his. And that means that you have to come to terms with the fact that he may not choose to change. Things may stay exactly the same, no matter what you do. Grieve that. Feel that. That is really hard to live with. This is why you need people around you, so that you know that you are never alone, and so that they can point you to Jesus.

So what is the real question? It’s this:

What is the limit to what I will tolerate? And what should be my response if that limit is crossed?

For instance, you may say, “If he is not actively looking for work, providing an income, or caring for our children so I can work, then I will not work to support him. I will work to support our children and myself, but not him.” Or you may say, “I will not be intimate with someone who is turning to porn for release. I will be the sole object of sexual attention, or I will not be the object of sexual attention at all.”

Let the law of sowing and reaping play itself out

The best vehicle that God gave us to learn to listen to him was the law of sowing and reaping–we reap what we sow. You see this throughout the Old Testament, when Moses, for instance, warns the Israelites: if you follow what God says, you will be blessed. If you don’t, you will be cursed. And this cycle continues throughout the prophets.

Boundaries in MarriageWe see it in Galatians 6:7:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

We should reap what we sow. Too often in marriage, though, we disrupt the law of sowing and reaping, as Cloud and Townsend explain in their book Boundaries in Marriage. A man sows destruction by using porn, and the wife reaps the rejection and sorrow.

If he is doing something to jeopardize the marriage, then he must feel the full weight of that. That is God’s tool to move him towards repentance.

Please note, I am not talking about everyday sins, like being short with you, or not always helping clean up the house, or buying too many gadgets. I’m talking about fundamental things that are toxic to a marriage. (If you’re not sure that your issue is that fundamental, then talk to someone else and get their perspective!)

My friend Anna caught her husband Paul with porn, and her response was to gather her brothers and her father to confront her husband. They disconnected the internet, carted off all the equipment, and told him in no uncertain terms that he was getting help or else. They even made sure he went and saw the pastor and got in an accountability group.

Having an intervention from people close to you is a great first step, and for many people, this works.

But what if it doesn’t work? This may mean that you have to separate for a time. That’s a scary, scary thing. But not all separations lead to divorce, and I have seen many people reconcile after a separation. This does not necessarily mean that the marriage is over. But you have to be prepared for the marriage to be over. You’re not doing this to manipulate him; you’re doing this to preserve truth. There was no truth in a marriage where you tolerate the intolerable; you’re running back to God and relying on Him, and you’re putting your relationships right.

Please: do not separate unless you have first talked to some Christian mentors or a Christian counselor and pursued other options. Don’t take this option on your own, as the first step. This is HUGE. You owe it to yourself, your husband, and your kids to consult with others and get their support. If you do something without getting help, you’re likely to let emotions take over and do something really drastic from the start. And then you won’t have help! Let people offer you advice, prayer support, and emotional support. And then they can be there for your husband, too.

If I separate, can I move on with my life?

Quite frankly, no. You are still married. If those around you agreed that separation was the best option after other things had been tried, and you have separated, I hope you have done so not with the intention of leaving him permanently. I hope that this is to provide breathing space. Space for him to be confronted by God, and space for you to find healing. Rushing into another relationship cuts off the chance of healing of your marriage, and especially if you have children, you owe your marriage some time.

Again, this is where wise counselors around you can help you navigate.

(Note: There are exceptions–I talked to a woman recently who finally left her abusive husband after finding out he had sexually abused their teenage daughter. He went to jail. She remarried. He ended their marriage by abusing their daughter. Some things should signal the end, I believe.)

Be gracious–It’s the direction that matters

If someone has been addicted to gambling, they won’t lose that pull overnight. If someone has used porn habitually for years, successfully giving it up cold turkey is really hard. Focus on the direction: is he getting better and trying to get better with occasional lapses? Then take those lapses for what they are. They are temporary failings, but they do not mean that he is not committed to the relationship and that he’ll never get better. For most people it takes years for the lapses to stop entirely and for the pull to go away, but they can start going in the right direction almost immediately.

If the issue has been sexual refusal, and she (or he) is starting to try to have sex again, if they don’t seem into it, that’s not a reason to give up or get mad. Look at the direction. If they are trying and if they are humble, then give grace.

Final thoughts

I wish I had some magic answer: If you do this, he will change (or she will change). But life isn’t like that. I don’t know why some spouses get to the point that they don’t care what the other thinks.

But, please, no matter what you are going through, know that God sees and God knows. Know that God wants to help you through this. Know that you are not alone. And know that God’s desire is for two people who love and follow Him, not people who cover up sin and hide it.

WifeyWednesday175Now it’s your turn! Have any marriage thoughts for us today? Link up the URL of a post in today’s Wifey Wednesday link up party!



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