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When Bad Habits Happen to a Good Husband

Should you butt in or bug off?
When Bad Habits Happen to a Good Husband

Read this." I thrust the newspaper at my husband, Fritz, so he can't avoid it. "It's an interesting interview with the president."

Fritz puts on his Ace Hardware reading glasses and squints at the paper with a hint of suspicion. "Hmm. What does it say?"

"It says … Wait a minute, you should read it," I reply. "You should read more, Fritz. Studies show the mind is like a muscle; you need to exercise it. You know, use it or lose it."

"I read Jaws," he protests. "I always read the ads in the Sunday paper. I read the Bible."

I sigh. I can tell I'm not going to win this one—who can argue with God's Word? I feel something tighten inside and know that if I say much more, I'll start nagging. And the last thing I want to be is Mrs. Fix-it who knows what's best for her husband. "Fine," I say with resignation. "I'll leave it here on your chair."

"Don't feel too bad," Fritz says. "I'll read it eventually." Then he's off to the basement while I'm left feeling as if I've had a typical issues-left-hanging discussion. While I know that in the grand scheme of things, Fritz's lack of reading doesn't rank high on the list of marital woes, it bothers me because I know he would benefit from the intellectual stimulation it provides.

We've been married 23 years and have mostly resolved The Big Stuff. What we're still working our way through are the habits, good and bad, every couple accumulates over time. Some marital habits are positive: morning coffee together; good-night kisses; praying together. Some are neutral: Thursday-night grocery shopping; watching Peter Jennings instead of Dan Rather. But some are irritating at best and downright unhealthy at worst.

My friend Michelle, who's been married eight years and has a toddler and a preschooler, knows about annoying habits. "Dan has a way of becoming obsessively focused on certain tasks," she says of her husband. "Whether it's getting a new tire for the truck or selling items on eBay, he can talk of nothing else and basically abandons the family ship. Meanwhile, I'm stuck with the kids and everything else. I've seen him on eBay for ten hours at a time! Sometimes I get so frustrated, I work myself into a good cry."

Other women I talk to mention poor eating habits, excessive television watching, spiritual laziness (such as not reading the Bible), or refusing to see a doctor when there's a problem. Several echo Michelle's complaint about how her husband focuses on a project to the exclusion of all else—a husbandly attitude seen as uncooperative and oblivious to the wife's needs. One wife said, "Steve comes home from work, and after a few words, goes straight to the computer and stays there for hours."

Personalities and Preferences

So what should Michelle—or any other wife struggling with these issues—do?

The better question is, "Should she do anything?"

Someone once observed that every long-term marriage has certain unresolved "agree-to-disagree" differences. Many of these are a result of personality or preference. For example, I know wives who are more extroverted than their husband. Most of these couples have reached an accommodation where the wife is free to pursue, say, church and school activities, but doesn't insist her spouse show up for everything—as long as he's on hand for important events such as a child's concert or an extended-family gathering.

Then there are matters of preference. Not only do Fritz and I disagree about reading, we disagree about what to listen to. I like talk radio; he likes to play CDs. Not long after we married, these differences came as quite a shock: Oh, no, he's not exactly like me! But we've learned over the years to avoid elevating matters of taste to the status of moral imperative.

It's exhausting and destructive to go to the mat about every difference in a marriage. On the other hand, some habits should be changed. A guy who insists on driving too fast and who doesn't wear his seatbelt endangers himself and anyone else who happens to be in the car. A mate who's chronically negligent about paying the bills risks his family's financial security. Those are obvious. More subtle are issues such as those Michelle and other women face with a spouse who isn't being a "team player."

Whatever the problem, though, each of us, wives and husbands both, needs to begin where God's Word tells us to: by loving and desiring the best for each other.

The Positive Approach

While Scripture doesn't specifically address vexing marital habits, several passages have lots to say about spouses treating each other with love, respect, and unselfishness. The Bible also includes numerous general verses on believers encouraging each other in wisdom and godly living. Most importantly, it repeatedly calls for positive acceptance.

Psychologist Gary Oliver and his wife, Carrie, a clinical therapist, say that when something needs to be changed, the challenge for Christian couples is "to handle [the] difference in a way that honors each other's uniqueness in the context of serving each other."

Notice that last phrase: "serving each other." The crux of the matter is cooperation. One husband I talked to said, "I can do anything if I feel as though my wife and I are on the same team. I don't want to feel as though I'm a project." There's an old joke that goes something like, "How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? One—but the light bulb has to want to change." The "light bulb" will be more motivated if he feels he's not alone in the effort.

The Log in Your Own Eye

Part of the solution may involve changing yourself. My neighbors Peter and Virginia have been married 27 years, and Virginia admits broaching potentially threatening topics with her husband is a challenge. "Who welcomes probing comments such as 'I'm concerned about your weight,' or 'When can we talk about your job situation?'"

Virginia recommends both spouses work on a bad habit. "The primary goal in our marriage is to become closer. Personal improvement is secondary. So we work on problems (messiness, excess weight) together. We each tackle a problem and ask for the other's help. This diffuses the focus—it's not as if one partner is under intense scrutiny."

One of my worst habits is staying up too late on weeknights. It's something I've struggled with for years, with mixed results. But I've noticed that when Fritz and I strategize ways to help each other, we feel as if we're on the same team. He still may not read enough and I may fall into bed a half-hour past my target, but our marriage hasn't been harmed and may well be stronger for helping each other through a personal challenge.

Bad Habits and Good Examples

Kim, who recently celebrated her tenth anniversary with Ben, has an interesting take on why some habits (such as my night-owl tendencies) are so hard to break. "Some of these things are guilty pleasures," she observes. "It's fun to eat rich food, to sleep late, to spend too much money."

What's worked for her, she says, is "setting a positive example. If I'm not exercising enough, you can bet Ben isn't either. If Ben is overeating, so am I. But if I start exercising, he'll be right there with me, and vice versa."

The Olivers, when discussing the problem of a husband's tardiness, advise "[being] on time yourself. One woman we know told her husband in a kind and positive way that because she valued being on time and didn't want to coerce him, she'd be leaving for church at a certain time. She told him she'd love to go together, but that if he wasn't ready, she'd save him a seat." It took some time, but this wise wife "made an extra effort to show him love," rather than become angry or impatient. After a few weeks, they were driving to church together again.

A radio sermon helped Denise figure out how to deal with some issues with her husband, Greg, that troubled her. "I heard Dr. Tony Evans speak on how when the wife gets out of the way, God can deal with the husband's faults," she said. "I've tried to follow this, because otherwise, when I try to fix my husband, he resents it, and his energy goes toward dealing with me rather than solving the problem. The whole process is self-defeating.

"At the same time, it probably isn't wise for me to be totally hands-off. The key seems to be for me to make myself available as a resource: 'I can see you're struggling with this; let me know how you want me to help you.'"

Not long ago, Denise brainstormed with her husband, Greg, who was concerned about ways he could become more organized. "Some ideas he thought might work, others he didn't. But I had to work to keep the discussion in brainstorming mode, rather than saying, 'Why can't you do it this way (which really means my way)?'"

One idea that works for just about anybody trying to change anything is what authors and speakers Dave and Claudia Arp call the "inch by inch" approach. They advise couples to set an "inch goal" for dealing with a situation that needs addressing—including changing a bad habit. So, disorganized Greg could start by putting all the bills that need to be paid in the same box: one small step. Kim and Ben could go out to the store and pick up some fruit to snack on. Fritz could resolve to read one article a day. And I could try to back up my bedtime by 15 minutes. Or 10. The point is to take one small step … which often leads to another.

Swift to Listen

When asked what his wife could do to encourage him, Christian counselor Norm Wright quotes one husband as saying, "Listen. Listen without being judgmental or biased. Listen and accept. Listen just to understand me. Listen instead of criticize." Denise recommends listening for the "underlying reasons" why a husband acts the way he does. "By listening and asking good questions, you can help him become aware of the real issues, and you're enabled to pray more specifically and effectively." So she might ask Greg something such as, "Do you remember how your mom and dad handled household organization?" From that she might discover Greg's mom took care of everything on the home front because his dad worked long hours, and Greg always assumed he and Denise would follow the same pattern.

The apostle James reminds us to be "swift to listen." When we do, we might just learn something.

Where It All Ends (and Begins)

There may be times when a spouse's behavior is rooted in deep-seated issues that need the guidance of a Christian therapist to sort out. There may be times when we're so weary and frustrated that the best thing we can do is get out of God's way and release our mate to him in prayer. Recently I've sensed God wants consistency in my prayers, so I've been trying to pray about certain concerns over and over and over. Has it "worked"? Sure. We've had all sorts of answers to prayer. Most important, though, I'm in fellowship with my Lord—which helps me, which helps our marriage.

Husbands are human. Wives are human. Therefore, we'll fall into bad habits, and dealing with some of them may require ongoing effort, mutual encouragement, and the occasional strategically placed newspaper article. I may never fall into bed at 10 P.M.; Fritz may never lose himself in a book as I love to do. But if we "put on tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind—forgiving one another—[and putting on] love," we can, in my friend Virginia's words, turn our struggles from "marriage destroyers to marriage builders."

Elizabeth Cody Newenhuyse is managing editor of Moody magazine and the author of several books.

6 Tough Questions

Is it time to help your husband deal with a negative habit—or time to just let it go? Here are six questions to ask yourself first.

  1. Is this habit hurting my husband physically, emotionally, or spiritually?
  2. Is this habit adversely affecting our marriage in some way?
  3. If not, is it something I can accept and live with?
  4. What's my motivation for wanting him to change?
  5. Is there some habit of mine with which he could help me?
  6. Can we approach this in the spirit of serving each other?


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