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How to Unconditionally Love An Imperfect Spouse

The call to cherish your wife or husband is a call to respond in an understanding way to a sometimes imperfect and even unhealthy spouse.

Chet was being a jerk at a family gathering and a relative called him out on it. On the way home, he asked Bonnie what she thought.

“You weren’t being a jerk,” Bonnie said. “You were just being honest.”

That was a lie. Bonnie believed Chet was being a jerk. She thought being a supportive wife meant making Chet feel better about himself.  That’s not, unfortunately, what cherishing is all about. Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” He called Satan the “father” of lies. Biblical cherishing, by definition, must be based on what is true.

Counselors used to talk about three responses to conflict: Fight, Flight, and Freeze. More recently, they have added a fourth: the “fallen” response, and the addition is quite enlightening.

Fight means when an issue comes up between you and your imperfect spouse, you get at it. You are like a tenacious bulldog and will wrestle this issue to the ground until it is resolved. That can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on the way you engage in conflict.

Flight means you put on your Nikes and head in the other direction. You may even put physical distance between you and your spouse. Or maybe you mentally zone out and fain deaf ears. You get as far away from conflict as you can, as fast as you can. That’s never healthy, as unaddressed conflict isn’t ever resolved.

Freeze means you seize up. You literally hate conflict and basically shut down. You cease to become a contributing member of the marriage (at least, in that instance).

The fourth response is particularly insightful for codependents who compliment themselves on being nice and supportive. The “fallen” response means you do everything you can to soothe and assure your spouse regardless of the truth. You don’t address the issue; your main concern is that your spouse feel comforted and praised and that you come off as the “nice” wife or the “supportive” husband. Abusive spouses get coddled instead of confronted.

It doesn’t have to rise to the level of abuse or toxicity, however. For example, Roger’s wife Julia is just plain lazy. She laughs about being “high maintenance and worth it” but her friends feel sorry for Roger. He thinks he’s supposed to just suck it up so that’s what he does at home, but the problem is, if you’re lazy at home, you’re lazy at other people’s houses, family events, and even at work. Julia checked all four boxes, and Roger couldn’t do Julia’s work for her at the office, which is why she got fired. “My boss is such a ……..” Julia told Roger. “She said I have a poor work ethic! Imagine!”

Roger didn’t have to imagine. He had witnessed it for fifteen years.

Did Roger cherish Julia by enabling her laziness, even denying it to her face when others dared to bring it up? Wouldn’t he have cherished her more by graciously addressing a serious character flaw?

Do you see how the “fallen” response isn’t loving or cherishing? If your spouse has weaknesses when relating with you, those weaknesses will bleed into all their relationships.

We need grace and truth. Here’s the grace part: just because I call something out doesn’t mean I don’t cherish you, adore you, love you or that I’m not committed to you. You don’t have to be perfect for me to cherish you. I believe every word in Scripture, even the six words in James 3:2: “We all stumble in many ways.” By “all,” I assume that means you. By “many” I assume that means you will have more than a few flaws.

The call to cherish your wife or husband is a call to learn how to respond in a patient and understanding way to a sometimes imperfect and even unhealthy spouse.

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Some of us lack grace and need to get over the fact that our imperfect spouse stumbles in many ways. These are the ones who exhaust their friends by recounting the same thing over and over, “Why must my spouse stumble like this?” And your friends would do well to say, and God would likely say, if you would listen, “If he/she didn’t stumble like this, then they would be stumbling like that.

For marriage to survive, for us to keep honoring and cherishing and respecting each other, to stay tender toward each other, we must be bathed in grace—receiving God’s mercy and acceptance—so that we are liberal with mercy and acceptance toward others, beginning with our imperfect spouse. If it is true that we all stumble in many ways, it follows that we cannot keep cherishing each other without becoming good forgivers and people who are eager to show mercy.

On the other hand, others of us fail to love biblically by avoiding truth. We refuse to address issues that need to be addressed. We are more concerned about what our spouse thinks of us than what others accurately think of our spouse. We want our imperfect spouse to think we’re a “good” spouse more than we want them to be a more mature believer. That’s selfish.

This is where the commitment of Sacred Marriage—persevering in a difficult marriage—and the strategy of When to Walk Away—not putting up with toxic or abusive people—appear as parallel tracks. A healthy marriage is one in which each partner—both wife and husband—learn how to most effectively encourage each other to grow and mature in an attitude of grace, acceptance and cherishing. We live by two biblical stalwarts: grace and truth. Not one or the other, but both.

Years ago, when Lisa reviewed one of my early manuscripts, she offered a very clever critique: “The word profound is profoundly overused in this book.” For some stupid reason, I became infatuated with the word “profound.” I didn’t take her critique as her thinking the entire book was awful, just that she saw one particular writing flaw I needed to address. For the past fifteen years, every time I have typed out the word “profound” I have paused over the keys, wondering if there’s a better word I could use.

Can you allow your imperfect spouse to point out one weakness without taking it as an attack on your entire person? Or would you rather your spouse just keep lying to you?

The goal of a sacred marriage is to know each other so well that we know the dark corners and the weak links of personality, yet still cherish, respect, adore and move toward each other. Some of us can receive truth, but have a hard time giving it. Some of us can give truth but hate to receive it. The mature spouse learns to do both. And when a couple learns to live by both God’s grace and truth? That’s heaven on earth.

Cherish Challenge Week 8

  • Read chapter 10 of Cherish, “This is How Your Spouse Stumbles.”
  • Ask yourself, “Which response do I most naturally gravitate toward when it comes to conflict: fight, flight, freeze, or fallen?
  • Write out three of your spouse’s character strengths. Next, consider one character weakness he/she may still struggle with. Thank God for the strengths—the evidences of His grace in your spouse’s life—and then prayerfully consider whether you’ve shown more grace than truth, or more truth than grace with the one weakness.
  • Spend a date night talking about how you want to hear words of “truth” from each other. Would you rather be on a walk? Alone at home? Do you think your spouse is too critical already? Discuss the “mechanics” of how, in a spiritually healthy way, the two of you can embrace both grace and truth.  
  • Please share your story with how this is helping your marriage on our webpage Cherish Challenge 2020.