Q. My wife puts me down all the time, especially in front of our kids and extended family. I've asked her to stop because it hurts and feels disrespectful, but she won't. What should I do?
A. The Bible has a lot to say about love, honor, and respect, and there's no place in a marriage for your wife's behavior. It's not good for your wife or for you. And it's especially not good for your kids. Everyone is losing.
Obviously this is a problem that needs to be addressed, but the best starting place isn't with confronting your wife. You've already tried that and it didn't help. Sometimes just stepping back and asking God to help you better understand your spouse can lead to some next steps.
People who put down others through sarcasm or blatant criticism may be overcompensating for a deep sense of inadequacy. They protect themselves by attacking others, and may not be aware of how pervasive and destructive their behavior is.
Others use the behavior to reflect bitterness or resentment that's resulted from a spouse's inattention and insensitivity early in the relationship.
Because you can't change what your wife says or does, it may be best to deal with the issue through what you can change—you. Before you attempt another confrontation, try focusing on what you might be able to do differently. One of the main lessons God has taught us in our more than 25 years of marriage is the value of the Psalm 139:23-24 principle, which says: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
This means asking God what your part of the problem might be—especially if her comments are stemming from some bitterness in your relationship. Is there anything you could do more or less of that God might use to soften her heart and increase her receptivity? Are there wounds that came from past behaviors that you need to apologize for and seek forgiveness?
How much time do you spend praying for and thinking about ways you can encourage your wife? While we know that in your situation this might be difficult, that's one of the things God wants us to do. Do you ever just listen to her without trying to correct her opinions or solve the problem? When was the last time you complimented your wife?
Regardless of what she does, ask God to help you give your wife at least three specific compliments a day. Many men find it helpful to write them down to keep on track. Amazing things happen in our lives and in the lives of others when we intentionally encourage, honor, love, respect, nourish, and cherish (to name just a few) each other.
After some prayerful reflection and perhaps some increased "servant" behavior on your part, you'll need to re-address this issue with your wife, especially if there hasn't been any change in her behavior. The next time she puts you down, wait until you two are alone and then let her know what she said that was hurtful and the fact that, once again, she dishonored, disrespected, and embarrassed you by saying this in front of the family. Let her know that it had a negative impact on you, on your ability to feel safe and secure with her, and on those who heard it. Ask her what she thinks needs to happen for this behavior to change.
Tell her you're open to dealing with her concerns, and that you want to have a great marriage. However, the time and place to take out frustrations isn't in front of family and friends. If she still doesn't respond, talk with a pastor or marriage counselor.
Why "leave and cleave"?
Q. I've noticed how Christians emphasize "leaving and cleaving" to have a healthy marriage. How does dumping your parents and siblings result in a healthy marriage? I'm close to my twin brother and parents, and if my husband ever made me choose, I'd probably resent him.
A. You misunderstand one of the keys for a successful marriage. Healthy marriages are those in which two people allow God to help them become one (Genesis 2:24-25). God has designed leaving and cleaving as two keys in making this happen.
Leaving doesn't mean dumping your parents and siblings. You can still have rich relationships with them, spend time together, share your joys and concerns, pray with and for one another. Leaving does mean that your spouse now becomes your primary focus, commitment, and concern. It means that your primary dependence and loyalty are no longer to your family but to your spouse. Although your family is still an important part of your life, your spouse now becomes your chief source of support, encouragement, and approval—emotionally, physically, relationally, financially, and spiritually.
To cleave means to cling, stick fast, and be faithful. Marriage means that we've made a lifetime commitment. Cleave means when we have an argument or when problems arise, we don't run back to Mommy or Daddy. We may talk with them and ask them to pray for us, but we stick with our spouse, talk things out, pray, seek wise counsel from a variety of people (which may include family members), ask God for patience, forgive when appropriate, and trust God to use this problem to help knit our hearts even more tightly together.
We've seen too many examples when after an argument one spouse runs home to Mom or Dad rather than face the problem and deal with it. This behavior has a disastrous effect on the marriage. The spouse who does this never learns how to work out conflicts in ways that lead to deeper trust, bonding, healthy attachment, and an increased sense of safety and intimacy.
Leaving and cleaving isn't about forsaking your family. It's about following God's plan to put first things first. It's about embracing your spouse in ways that help you achieve a vital and vibrant marriage relationship that in turn will actually help you enjoy healthier and more mature adult relationships with your family.
Carrie Oliver is a marriage and family counselor. Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D., co-author of A Woman's Forbidden Emotion (Regal), is executive director of The Center for Relationship Enrichment at John Brown University. www.liferelationships.com.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.