Every Monday I like to put up a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Today a reader asks how she can respect a husband she still doesn’t trust:
I found out about my husband of 5 years had been addicted to porn and caught him by innocently searching through his photos on his phone while nursing my son in bed one morning. I regularly asked to use his phone so my looking through it was nothing unusual at all. The difference this time is he forgot to hide his stuff apparently this time.
We have had MANY hard conversations since then. He’s been getting help, hasn’t looked at it since July (when I caught him) and has been genuinely turning his life around and back to the Lord.
Here’s my issue: I still don’t trust him yet. I’ve forgiven him but trusting him again is something that takes a lot of work and time. We aren’t at that point yet. Is it possible to respect him without trust?
I do try but he doesn’t feel it anymore. I know it’s incredibly important to show respect and even biblical. I guess maybe I don’t know what respect truly is?
I’m being the best I know how to be while feeling so broken but it doesn’t seem enough. Please help, I’m so confused. 🙁
Great question–and one that there’s a lot of confusion about. I want to leave the question of how you rebuild trust someone after porn use, because that’s a separate question that other posts do address.
Today I want to tackle respect, because it’s something we hear a lot: women need unconditional love, and men need unconditional respect, and we wives ARE to respect our husbands.
I’ve heard this love and respect dichotomy frequently, and many books explain this perspective well–like Love and Respect. The problem is that while love can be freely given, respect as a whole is something that is earned. It isn’t something which is just automatically bestowed. Loving an unlovable person is something many of us do all the time. But loving an unlovable person doesn’t involve declaring that this unlovable person is somehow lovable; it involves loving them regardless and choosing to treat them well.
To respect someone who is not worthy of respect is much trickier, because we think of respect not primarily as an action as much as it is a feeling.
How can you respect someone who hasn’t done anything to earn it–but has instead squandered it?
And so today I’d like to take a broader look at what it means to respect someone, and what it is that we do owe our husbands.
Dictionary.com defines respect in these two primary ways:
esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability:
I have great respect for her judgment.
deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment:
respect for a suspect’s right to counsel; to show respect for the flag; respect for the elderly.
The first definition is the one we usually think of, and it is dependent upon the actions of the person. You earn respect.
The second definition is slightly different. It says that we are to respect their position as husband, regardless of how he’s acting.
And that is certainly something that you can do. So God is not asking you to actually approve of anyone’s behaviour or “esteem” anyone. He is asking you to show deference.
But what does respecting your husband mean practically?
I actually think respect is part of healthy boundaries, as Henry Cloud and John Townsend talk about in their book Boundaries in Marriage, and I’m personally more comfortable with their way of framing the issue. They ask us to do this: imagine everybody as a farmer’s field, with fences around what is their responsibility and under their ownership. In your field are your own actions; your own feelings; your own opinions. You have control over these things. You should not let others trespass. So no one, for instance, can “make you angry”. Anger is a choice that you make.
At the same time, other people have their own feelings and opinions and actions, and you need to not trespass on their field. So your husband is allowed to act his own way. Your children are allowed their feelings (even if you don’t like them). Your mother is allowed to rant at you if she wants. But you are then free to respond to that rant as you want. You can’t control the rant; you can control your response.
So to respect someone is to say: I recognize where the fences are. I recognize and honour your fence, and I will not trespass it.
In the case of marriage this is super important, because, as I’ve said before, most women do have control freak tendencies simply because we feel responsible for everyone, so we want to make sure they act the right way.
We need to not try to control our husbands, but let them be free to act. And to defer and respect also means that we acknowledge that their dreams and ideas for the family matter, and that we will get behind those dreams and pursue them with our husband, even if they aren’t always our dreams.
To respect your husband, then, does not mean that you approve of what he does. To respect him means that you acknowledge and support his right to choose what he does.
That’s a big difference. You aren’t trying to control him.
In the same way, to love your wife does not mean that you feel that she is lovable. It means you choose to treat her well and cherish her, no matter what she does.
To get back to our letter writer, she is largely equating respect with trust. Trust absolutely is something which is earned; we should never trust someone who is untrustworthy. And often we think that the respect that is asked of us is in the same category. But it is not.
So if you have a husband who isn’t trustworthy, what does respect look like?
I think it’s like this:
I will not try to control you or prevent you from using porn. I acknowledge that you have the right to freely choose whether to seek accountability or not; whether to watch porn or not; whether to rebuild the marriage or not. I am not free to try to manipulate you, guilt you, or cajole you in any way.
However, just as you are free to choose, I am also free to choose. And if you do choose to continue to watch porn, know that I will be taking these actions (and you can figure out what those are). I am not trying to control you by doing this; I am simply doing what I believe is best for me and our children based on prayer and on the godly counsel that I have received.
I hope and pray that our marriage can be restored, and I will do everything I can to build that marriage. I want to find things to do to build our friendship. I want to spend time laughing together. I want to enjoy meals together. And I know that you are free to make that choice as well, or to not make that choice. Regardless of what you choose, I will treat you with love, and I will treat you with grace.
What I really want, however, is for both of us to look more and more like Christ, and going down a really bad path isn’t going to help that. So if you do go there, I will have to take action. But in the meantime, I will not nag you. I will not manipulate. I will not look over your shoulder. I will not blame you or yell at you for my own feelings. I will take my sadness and process it with friends and with a counselor. I will work towards building up our marriage. And I will pray that you will do the same.
When someone has broken our trust our impulse is to stick to them like glue and check their phone and computer constantly and nag and cry and rage. And that isn’t respect, because it is “violating their fence”. But setting up an accountability partner for your husband so that you know he is getting help, as well as setting up conditions for what you will do if things do not change, IS part of respect, because just as he is free to choose, so are you. It’s honouring your own spheres of influence and control that God has given you, so that we don’t unwittingly become a sin enabler.
Some may say, “but that’s manipulation!” No, it’s not. To manipulate is to underhandedly use emotional, social, and sexual tools to try to pressure someone to do it our way–it is to take away their agency, their right to make a decision. Unfairness is a large part of manipulation. We’re not doing that–we’re acknowledging their right to make a decision, but we’re also acknowledging our own right to make a decision. And it isn’t underhanded. It’s right above board, and in line with God’s thinking on sin.
I know it’s hard to stop nagging and yelling and crying when trust has been broken, but I think that’s what respect means in this case. But I’d love to hear from you: how have you respected your husband when he’s acted inappropriately? How do you draw healthy boundaries? Let us know in the comments!
UPDATE: And if you’re still having trouble with figuring out how to respect someone that you can’t trust without making his behaviour worse, I’ve written more about this. Here are 10 signs you may be respecting your husband too much–or at least that you’re operating under the WRONG definition of respect. It may help clear things up even more.