Can you respect your husband too much?

That “men need respect and women need love” thing has been popularized in Christian circles in the last decade, and women are often encouraged to respect their husbands at all costs. There’s even a book that says that men need unconditional respect and women need unconditional love. I know many have been helped by that book–but those people tend to be in marriages that are good, or at least marriages that may have grown distant but there’s a lot of goodwill there. The problem I have is that the advice really doesn’t always work. It can too easily be one of those “Christian pat answers” that may sound right, but which actually can do some damage in some relationships.

While you can unconditionally love someone but still offer “tough love”, there’s no equivalent for “tough respect”.

For instance, if your drug addicted sister comes to you and asks for $500, it’s showing her love to refuse. But how do you offer respect to someone addicted to porn, or with anger management issues? I’ve argued that respect cannot mean respecting what they do, but rather respecting their right to make their own choices, free of manipulation from you. However, that also means that you have a right to make your own choices in return. This week on To Love, Honor and Vacuum I want to look at how to rebuild trust after it’s been broken. And today, to start us off, I thought I’d try to offer a more balanced view of what healthy respect looks like in a relationship–and when we may be respecting too much. Here’s the key: God’s goal is always that we look more and more like Christ, not just that we’re “nice”.

Therefore, if the way that we are acting is enabling people to look less like Christ, then we are doing something wrong.

Unfortunately, with the way that we often talk about respect, oftentimes women are encouraged to act in such a way that moves a husband away from Christlike behaviour.
So let’s look at 10 signs that you may be showing respect in an unhealthy way: Can you respect your husband too much? 10 signs that respect isn't working in your marriage--and you need instead to have boundaries.

1. You don’t confront your husband when he’s doing something wrong.

The way respect is often explained, it sounds like we have to always respect his decisions and his actions, as if they are RIGHT. We’re told that men need women’s approval, and so if we disapprove, then we’re robbing him of a great need that he has. But no one is ever perfect, and God created you as a “help meet” to your husband. And that includes helping him look more like Christ! So if, for instance, you find your husband doing something wrong, like watching porn, you will confront him. Real respect is always a two-way street; a person can’t really feel respected by someone that they also can’t respect. And if you can’t confront him on things that are wrong, then you become a pushover. If you’re a doormat or a pushover, then your “respect” won’t register. You’ve become an object to use, not a person whose opinion matters.

2. You find yourself apologizing when you were originally sure it was him who started the problem.

Maybe you try to confront your husband when you feel hurt or when you feel he did something wrong, but he always turns it around and blames you for it. And you tend to end up apologizing. If his interpretation of events is the only one that matters, then you aren’t treating yourself as a helpmeet to your husband. You’re treating yourself as a doormat. Look, often when my husband and I are arguing, I’m sure I’m right, but as we talk, I realize I misunderstood something and I apologize. We SHOULD apologize when we’re wrong. But if you’re the one who is always apologizing, and your husband never admits any wrong, then it’s quite likely that you aren’t sticking up for truth. You’re allowing your husband to define it rather than listening to God.

God’s goal is always that we look more and more like Christ, not just that we’re “nice”.

3. When something is wrong with the way your husband is treating you, your first thought is to berate yourself for not being a good wife.

You’re quick to internalize problems in the marriage and blame yourself for them. Again, there is some truth: we are told to remove the plank from our own eye before we remove the speck from our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5). Sometimes, though, we’re quick to blame ourselves because we want to feel like we have some control. If we can just figure out the magic formula to make him act a certain way, then he’ll stop hurting us. But that assumes that the problem is ALWAYS with us. That’s not true. Let’s take responsibility for the things that we do wrong, but let’s make sure that we don’t take responsibility for things that are out of our control.

4. You study your husband so that you can avoid “setting him off”.

In a similar vein, if you spend your time studying your husband to see what “sets him off”, then that’s a sign that your husband isn’t respecting you and isn’t loving you. A big theme in Scripture is that people “reap what they sow”. As I explained at length in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, though, often a husband may sow discord by being angry and critical, but we’re the ones who reap it by taking the blame and by trying to appease him. Instead, we should set limits, lovingly, on what we will accept, because it is not respecting someone to allow them to yell at you or criticize you. Let’s instead “spur each other to love and good deeds”, not encourage someone to act wrongly.

Are you GOOD or are you NICE?

Because the difference matters!

God calls us to be GOOD, yet too often we’re busy being nice. And sometimes, in marriage, that can actually cause problems to be even more entrenched.

What if there’s a better way?

5. You study at length what you can do to turn the marriage around–which almost inevitably means being “nicer”.

Every woman I have ever known in a bad marriage has studied book after book to learn how she can be “nicer” and “more loving” so that her husband will love her in return. And it has always backfired. If you want real change in your marriage, often the answer is to stop being so nice and start enforcing some boundaries. Boundaries are loving because they point people to their responsibility in Christ. Having no boundaries pushes people away from Christ.

6. You run interference between your husband and your children.

If your husband and your kids aren’t getting along, you often try to make peace between them. You tell the kids they need to be nicer to dad or “respect” dad. You tell your kids “that’s just the way Dad is.” But if we’re going to allow people to reap what they sow, and we’re going to teach our kids conflict resolution skills, it would be better to teach them, “you may not talk back to your father, and you shouldn’t nurture anger. If you’re upset, you should go and tell him.” Don’t try to fix it; stand back and let the kids work it out with him (if that’s safe for them to do).

7. You make excuses for your husband to others.

If your husband is consistently not following through on what he’s promised to do, and you find yourself making excuses to family, friends, work, or church colleagues, again, you may be allowing him to act in an unChristlike manner. If your husband doesn’t show up for a family function, for instance, it’s perfectly fine to go yourself and then tell his sister, “For some reason Bob decided not to come today.” You don’t need to badmouth Bob, but you also don’t need to make excuses for him, either.

8. Your husband keeps secrets and blames you for it.

In Thought #6 of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, I gave examples of people insisting that you meet illegitimate needs. Let me give you an example. A legitimate need is to feel as if you have some autonomy and privacy in your life. An illegitimate need is to insist that you have the right to keep major secrets from a spouse (like porn use). A legitimate need is for sex. An illegitimate need is to get sexual release where you want (including porn or watching other women). If you feel deeply disrespected because he is violating one of your needs (such as the need to be his sole object of affection), then it’s okay to speak up. “I’m a guy, and this is what guys do” is not an excuse.

9. You invest so much time in learning your husband’s love language and in loving your husband, but he doesn’t do that in return.

The last two signs really sum everything up. If you are turning yourself inside out trying to love and respect him, but he isn’t doing any of that in return, then you’re likely doing it in the wrong way. You’re not respecting him; you’re enabling him to make bad decisions, and that in turn causes you to seem like a doormat. It’s very hard to love a doormat and it’s very easy to dismiss a doormat. If he isn’t putting any effort in the relationship, the problem is likely not that you’re not respecting him enough, but rather that you’re bending over backwards too much without expecting him to treat you well.

10. You force yourself to share your body without any reciprocal need to share his heart.

This plays out in the bedroom, too. All of you at this blog know that I’m a big advocate for healthy sex in marriage! I love sex, I’ve written books on sex, and I think it should be frequent and fun. But if you’re forcing yourself to have sex with him on a consistent basis, without a reciprocal need for him to emotionally connect with you, then you’re allowing yourself to be treated like an object, not a person. And that’s very unhealthy. Treat her well--don't just use her body. Make her feel great, too! Of course, sex is often the gateway to a healthier relationship. When we withhold sex, he often emotionally withdraws, and deciding to have sex more often is frequently the way to get better emotional connection. However, this is not always the case. If you are consistently feeling used, that’s likely a sign that he isn’t sharing his heart.

In short, a good marriage relationship means that both spouses with love and respect each other.

As a woman, I wouldn’t say that I need love more than respect because I can’t distinguish between the two of them. If Keith claimed he loved me but then treated me like a doormat, I would not feel loved at all. Instead of talking about “love” and “respect” we should talk about “spurring each other on to love and good deeds.” Let’s help each other be more Christlike, which will involve loving and respecting and forgiving and being kind and generous and overlooking numerous faults, but will also involve helping our spouses to treat us well by being the kind of person who must be respected. You really can’t have one without the other, and if you’re trying to get love by respecting him with no obligation in return, then it’s likely you’re setting yourself up for a very empty marriage.

Want some more perspective on this? Check out 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, which shows what we can do to properly love our husbands and treat them well, but also what we can do to create a healthier dynamic between the two of us. 

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