What do you do if you’ve tried confronting your spouse on bad habits that they have, but nothing is changing, and it’s damaging the marriage?

Let’s look today at how to draw boundaries and actually see progress in messy areas of marriage.

We’re in the middle of our iron sharpens iron series on the blog, where I’m talking all month about how marriage is supposed to make us better people. I’m afraid that, too often in marriage, we tolerate small things early in the relationship that then become engrained habits that get worse and worse and worse. By speaking up and doing something about behaviour that is damaging to your spouse, to you, and to the relationship you can help create the kind of marriage you actually want.

Again, this is assuming that there is some goodwill on the part of your spouse. If you are married to someone with genuinely bad character who honestly does not care about you, these things may not work. However, most people in difficult marriages are not married to genuinely bad people; it’s just that they’ve fostered a marriage dynamic which is toxic, and by changing that dynamic, hopefully we can change the marriage!

Last week we looked at how to confront your spouse about something that you’re not happy about.

But what if you’ve done that, and you’ve talked, and you’ve tried to find solutions, but your spouse isn’t buying in? Then what do you do? That’s what I want to continue today.

I am not talking in this post about affairs, or about abuse. Those are really separate issues, although a lot of the principles about what you’ll accept and what you won’t also apply. But today I want to talk about how to address bad and even destructive habits in your spouse.

Some principles for working towards real change in marriage:

People don’t change until the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing.

Until there is a repercussion for continuing to do what they are doing, they are likely to continue the behaviour. Not just that, but the behaviour is likely to accelerate and become worse, because we tend to travel in the direction of least resistance. If someone enjoys the habit, and if the habit becomes even more of a habit, and if there is nothing promoting change, then the habit will likely grow worse.

You cannot expect a person to change a huge habit in a vacuum.

Everything in your marriage and your family life right now is supporting their bad habit–or else they wouldn’t be doing it! If they’re going to change that habit, then the underlying things that are supporting that habit also have to change. If this is important to you, then don’t expect your spouse to make all the changes alone. Be part of the process.

You need to stop bearing the consequences of their bad behaviour

Often when a spouse does something that hurts the marriage, the other spouse ends up being the one to bear that bad behaviour. For instance, if one spouse makes a real mess, it’s often the other spouse who cleans everything up.

However, a principle that God put in place when He created us was quite simple: “A man reaps what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7). You’re supposed to bear the consequences of your actions. Part of drawing boundaries is simply transferring the repercussions of someone’s actions from yourself to the person causing the problem.

Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?

There’s a huge difference between the two. And if you don’t get it right–you’ll never be able to feel truly intimate in your marriage.

There’s a better way!

Okay, like last week’s post, I’m going to mention specific scenarios and see how they can be addressed.

Your spouse has become very obese and does nothing to improve his or her health

Talk to your spouse about this–in terms of, “I love you, and I don’t want to watch you do this to yourself. It’s not healthy for you. You’re likely to have a lot more health conditions that will severely restrict your quality of life, especially as you age. You could be taken from us earlier than we would want. You’re not setting a good example for our kids. I know that you don’t want this for yourself, either. And, quite frankly, it is impeding our sex life. So I want to help you get on a healthy course, and here’s what I’m going to do to change.”

And here are just a few suggestions of how you can follow that up:

  • Start doing the meal planning and grocery shopping for the family
  • Get rid of unhealthy/processed foods from your kitchen cupboards
  • Adopt the kind of diet that you want your spouse to follow–and have the kids follow it, too.
  • Stop going out to restaurants.
  • Go for a walk as a family every night after dinner
  • Start a more active hobby–even if it’s just ballroom dancing in your living room at night!

You may look at that list and think, “but that’s ME making all the changes!” And you’re right. It is. Is that fair? If your spouse has to lose weight, why should everyone else have to change their diet? But that’s just the way it is.

My husband Keith does a lot of work with pediatric diabetes, and the families where the kids’ blood sugars are controlled the best are the families where everybody follows a diabetic diet at home (which is basically just a healthy diet). You can’t expect someone to lose weight and stop eating chips if there are chips in the house for everyone else. And it will not kill your kids to not have chips in the house. You are actually doing your kids a favour by teaching them to eat healthy.

Yes, your spouse may still buy terrible food when he or she is out, and there really is nothing you can do about that (save having a good budget that you all agree to). Yes, your spouse may still bring bad food into the home. But if you take on the main load of the food for the family, you can at least help point the way. And by you and your kids getting involved as well, and living the same lifestyle that all of you should live, you’re no longer hovering over your spouse saying, “we can do whatever we want, but you need to do X or you’re a bad person.” No, you’re all just doing the same thing, and you’re on the same team.

Your spouse spends too much time on video games/internet, ignoring other responsibilities, and ignoring the marriage

Does your husband game into all hours of the night? Have you left the kids with your husband on a Saturday, only to return home to find that they’ve run wild all day and the house is a mess because your husband has been gaming? Does your wife spend all of her time on her phone, and never comes to bed at a decent hour?

It’s okay to want couple time and family time, but that means that you have to create new expectations, and create new habits in the home so that gaming or internet use isn’t the go-to activity. If you want a spouse to quit gaming or being on the internet so much, you have to replace it with something. Go for walks. Volunteer. Head to a board game cafe once a week as a family (or as a couple). Assign certain chores to your spouse that they should take ownership of–like the kids’ bath time, or doing the dishes after dinner. Create that expectation that the chores have to be done first.

But what if that doesn’t work? Then here’s something big you can do: Turn off the WiFi every night at 10 pm (or 9 pm, or whenever). Charge all phones (including the kids’ devices) in the kitchen overnight, away from the bedrooms. If a day is supposed to be family time or chore day, just unplug the WiFi. If you want to watch a movie together after the kids go to bed, just download the movie earlier in the day.

If video games are a problem, then pack up the video game console and have your brother (or his brother or someone) store it for a while so that you can deal with this. If this is serious enough that your husband is not parenting the kids because of games, or is not working because of games, then it is not a safe situation for him to have games.

It’s like what Gary Thomas said in his book Cherished. He was talking specifically about porn, but the principle remains the same: If you love someone, you want the best for them. Watching porn (or spending your life gaming) is not the best for them, and is actually destructive. So throw out the porn (or the gaming!)

Your spouse’s lifestyle is putting you in debt

Maybe your spouse spends money and wracks up debt. Maybe your spouse refuses to get a job that will earn some money, meaning that you need to work to support the family. I’ve even known families where she works and then puts the kids in day care because he can’t be trusted to care for the kids all day. That’s not an acceptable situation.

I’m a firm believer that, in general, the couple should share finances. I believe that couples should have a budget, and then you should give each other money each month that you can spend however you want. And that amount of money should be equal, too. If your spouse is spending you into debt, going to a cash budget and cutting up the credit cards, or putting them in ice in the freezer (seriously, that works! they’re still there if you need them, but they’re hard to access) can help.

But what if that doesn’t solve the problem? Or what if the problem is more that your spouse won’t work (a stay at home parent is still working, by the way)? Then it may be time to separate your finances. I don’t recommend that lightly, but again, your spouse needs to bear the consequences of their actions. If they’re going into debt, then you can still control your income and save for the future. If they won’t work, and also don’t contribute to the family (if your spouse stays at home and cares for the kids and organizes the home, that is work), then they don’t get access to money. If your spouse is the one who earns the paycheque, but they also spend you into debt, then you may need a mentor couple to help step in and get you set up so that your spouse loses access to the bank accounts and has to live only with an allowance until he or she sorts out the spending problem.

But before you do take more drastic action, if you are frustrated because your spouse won’t work and your spouse says, “Well we can live on your paycheck and I want to stay home with the kids,” seriously ask yourself if you are simply chasing a higher standard of living than you need and you want your spouse to pay for it. If you’re not going into debt but are just frustrated that things are always on a strict budget and your spouse is choosing to stay home with the kids instead of working, they may not be in the wrong. If, however, this is an issue of irresponsibility, laziness, or entitlement that is harming the family then it may be time for the actions listed above.

Other posts that may interest you:


People don’t change until the pain of staying the same is worse than the pain of changing.

Your spouse is making a mess and you can’t live with it

Maybe your spouse makes such a mess, leaving dirty dishes everywhere, laundry everywhere, and a mess in their wake, and you just can’t live with it anymore.

Now, I do believe this must be within reason. It can’t be that one spouse has too high a standard for cleanliness. If you’re upset that there are toys out, that’s different from not being able to sit down on a couch because there’s stuff everywhere. And there’s a difference between (1) a woman who is at home all day with four kids under 5, one of whom in special needs, and the husband doesn’t help with the kids when he’s home, (b) a situation where the kids are mostly at school, and her primary job is cleaning, and food is left out on the counter and the home is not healthy for anyone, or (c) where you both work, and only one of you does the cleaning at night.

What do you do? Create an expectation that certain things need to be done every night before you go to bed–and take the lead on this. If you want the dishes done, say to your spouse, “Come on, we’re going to clean up the kitchen before we turn in.” Or, “I’ll fold the laundry while you do the dishes.” Create a chore system for the kids and for both of you, and set the expectation that certain things can’t happen until those chores are done by everyone (including you). Organize a cleaning hour where EVERYBODY works after dinner to get their chores done before having fun in the evening. If it matters to you, you’ll likely have to take the lead.

If your spouse still creates a huge mess of their own stuff, consider creating an area of the house where they can be as messy as they want–but everything else has to be tidy. So if she has 14 craft projects on the go, they have to be kept in this one room. If he has laundry everywhere, and stuff everywhere, it can all be dumped in his man cave until he sorts it out.

Finally, consider getting help. Hire a cleaner if you can. If it fixes the problem and ends the conflict, it’s more than worth it!

Your spouse is sleeping with the kids instead of with you

A common scenario many men write in to me about (and it is primarily men) is that the wife is choosing to sleep with the toddler, or even sleep with an older child or children, instead of the husband. Often the husband ends up turning to the couch or guest room because he’s squeezed out of his own bed.

Now, I don’t believe sleeping with the kids instead of your spouse is healthy for a marriage, and I also don’t believe that sleeping as a family in a bed is healthy for your marriage (I understand it may be different with breastfeeding infants, although the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends that infants be placed in bassinets in the same room, not in the bed).

But developing a sleep routine where children go to sleep on their own can take a lot of work, and many parents find it a daunting task, and so they just settle for what’s easy. If you want to reclaim your bed, you’ll have to take the lead on this one and create the bedtime routine.

Do research on how to help kids sleep. Be responsible for the bath/bedtime routine, and put the kids to sleep. Even send your wife away for a week on vacation and do it while she’s not there, if she can’t stand to see the kids upset. It will take some work, but it can be done. It’s not all about letting kids cry it out, either. It’s about helping your children develop new sleep associations; helping them calm down and quieten down over the course of the day; and helping relieve anxiety.

If your spouse won’t agree, or undermines you, then you can still reclaim your bedroom and insist that your spouse sleep somewhere else, and you can still do the bedtime routine with your children. You do not have to be the one to leave the bedroom, but you also can move your children out of your bed. Then, if your spouse wants to sleep with the kids, it will have to be done elsewhere.

I can think of all kinds of different marriage scenarios that need to be addressed, but that’s a start.

On the Start Your Engines podcast this week, Keith and I will talk about what to do if your spouse refuses to have sex for prolonged periods of time, too.

But you get the point, I hope. If it’s a big issue:

  1. Make the changes to your own behaviour that are required to make it easier for your spouse to change the habit
  2. Stop being the one to reap the consequences for your spouse’s bad behaviour (ie going into debt because of their spending; sleeping on the couch because your spouse brings the child into your bed). Allow them to reap the consequences of their own actions.
  3. Take drastic action to stop very destructive behaviour. (For the sake of your marriage, though, make sure this is motivated by love, and not just anger.)

What do you think? Do you have any other examples of big changes that had to be made? Let’s talk in the comments!

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