Acting When Your Spouse Acts Wrong

God can use the annoyances of marriage to school you inis love. Borrowed and adapted from Leslie Vernick

It was one of those crazy weeks: deadlines looming, clients in crisis, dirty dishes scattered throughout the house. In a moment of frustration, I yelled at my husband, “You never help me around the house!”    That was not accurate. Although Howard doesn’t always notice the things I do, he is always willing to help. I’m sure he was tempted to defend himself: “What do you mean I never help you around the house? Just last week, I …”    But that’s not what he did. Instead, he asked, “What can I do?”

Still frazzled, I snapped back, “Plan next week’s menu, shop for all the groceries, and cook all the dinners.” And he did. The meals were simple (frozen pizza, hot dogs, chicken nuggets), but the love behind them was extravagant. It is an incredible gift to our husbands or wives when you respond in a godly way to their wrong actions. This gift comes through hard work—and the grace of God. God uses your relationships to school us in how to love when you don’t feel like it, how to forgive when you’ve been sinned against, and how to overcome evil with good. God can use the imperfections, weaknesses, differences—and, yes, even the sins—of your spouse to help you become more like Christ. Marriage provides the perfect backdrop for continual lessons in applied theology.

It’s My Problem?

Someone once said, “Adversity introduces a person to himself.” When your spouse isn’t behaving as you’d like, God often wants to show you a few things about yourself.

Before marriage, I pictured myself as a kind and easygoing person. Once married, however, I began to glimpse another side of me. I saw how much I liked my own way and how angry I became when I didn’t get it. I noticed a tendency to hang on to my hurts. I got a peek at my pride when I believed I was right, and my husband was equally convinced I was wrong. These negative aspects of my personality were exposed when Howard wasn’t doing what I thought he should. When things were pleasant between us, these sins remained hidden.

I see the same pattern as I coach married couples. When I ask, “When did your problems start?” I often hear, “I didn’t realize I had problems until I got married.”

Rather than focus on what your spouse is doing to you that is annoying or hurtful, yoy must redirect your attention to what your spouse’s wrongs reveal in you.

You generally blame your spouse for your reactions: “You make me so mad.” “If you didn’t do that, I wouldn’t act this way.” But your spouse’s actions don’t cause your responses. For example, I feel impatient and irritated when I am waiting in line for a slow clerk who is chatting with another clerk. The clerk is not making me feel these things. She is simply the trigger that exposes the impatience and anger already in my heart.

Jesus explained it this way. “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. “  Lk. 6:45   What overflows from your heart and comes out of your mouth when your spouse behaves badly? God uses those moments to expose tour heart so you can see yourself more clearly, change, and grow. Part of that change is learning to step back and take in the larger picture.

The Real Battle

When I’m fighting with my husband, I usually lose sight of whom I should be fighting and what I should be fighting for. I fight to get my way, to be right, or to prove my point. But the real struggle couples face is not for such temporal victories. As much as you might feel it in the moment, your spouse are not the enemy. Rather than engage in combat with each other, you need to ward off Satan’s tactics. Rather than seeking to vindicate yourself, you need to fight for the glory of God, the preservation of our marriages, your spiritual health, and your children’s future.

Satan is our real enemy. He is out to destroy us ( 1 Pet. 5:8 ). Satan tries to convince us that God’s ways don’t satisfy and that following Him will rob us of something enjoyable. During marital troubles, he whispers, “Why should you work on your marriage? After all, look what your spouse has done. Why should you forgive? You have needs too.”

When Susan discovered that her husband, John, was heavily involved in internet pornography, she felt deep hurt and anger. Her first impulse was to shame him publicly, exposing him to his family, church, and employer. But if Susan is going to win her battle, she needs a clear understanding of Satan’s strategies and the weapons available to her.

The only weapons that have real power are spiritual (2 Cor. 10:3-5). God gives us a powerful alternative to reacting recklessly to your spouse’s sin: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” ( Ro. 12:21 ). The Apostle Peter reminds us, “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men” ( 1 Pet. 2:15 ). You overcome evil with good when you stop battling your spouse and respond to wrongdoing in ways that are godly, righteous, and loving.

From Reacting to Responding

Jennifer came to counseling grinning from ear to ear. “I finally get it,” she said. “When I don’t react to Paul’s stupid remarks with a sarcastic dig, God actually works in his heart.” Jennifer had learned an important lesson. Though you don’t intentionally set out to ruin your marriage\ or hurt your mate, your reactions to your spouse’s wrongs can be like tossing a lit match into gasoline. A relationship deteriorates rapidly when two sinners sin against each other at the same time.

To reverse this pattern, you need to stop reacting out of your fleshly natures and start responding as God calls you to do. Most often, this process starts by harnessing our tongues. Proverbs tells us, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Prov. 12:18 ). The psalmist knew about struggling with the tongue. “I said, ‘I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence’” (Ps. 39:1 ). Yet he also knew that keeping quiet can be tough. “But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased” (v. 2). Something in you feels good when you open our mouth and let someone have it.

In our culture, you are encouraged to express your negative feelings so you don’t become unhealthy. But negative feelings are a lot like vomit. It feels better to get it out, but vomit belongs in the toilet—not on your spouse.  Writing letters to my husband—the kind I rip up rather than send—helps rid me of destructive emotions. Ask God for His perspective. He will teach you what to do with your negative reactions so you can address why you’re upset in a constructive manner. Inevitably, God-directed responses will demonstrate His love.

Costly Choices

Many couples are committed to staying married “no matter what,” but they do so with hard hearts. God doesn’t command us simply to stay married, however. He commands us to love, no matter how another person is behaving. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk. 6:27-28).

Love, from God’s perspective, is much more than an emotional feeling for another person. And it is bigger than a commitment to stay together no matter what. To love my husband as God calls me to means that I must consciously choose to act in his best interests, even when it costs me. This type of love is demonstrated when a tired husband stays up late talking with a wife who needs a listening ear, or when a wife who hates to cook gladly makes her husband’s favorite meal. But what does godly love look like when your spouse hurts you, disappoints you, or sins against you?

For example: David knew his wife, Lisa, wasn’t honest with him about their finances. But he never confronted her about it. He said he loved her and didn’t want to upset her or make her mad.

However, genuine love is defined by actions that focus on another person’s good, not actions that simply make another person feel good. “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Prov. 27:5-6 ).

What was in Lisa’s best interests? She didn’t need David to overlook her spending and deceit; she desperately needed him to confront her. Lisa’s “wrong” became part of God’s plan to mature David. God wanted him to become a God-centered husband, not a Lisa-centered husband. David learned to wrap himself in God’s all-sufficient love and received strength to move beyond his fear of rejection. Then he could boldly love Lisa by confronting the spending problem—for her good and for the welfare of their marriage and family.

The Gifts of Love

Loving your spouse when you are angry or hurt is difficult. It may even feel impossible. But the love that gives good gifts to undeserving people does not originate in a human heart; it is God’s love displayed through you. When your spouse acts wrong, you may not readily be able to give them your affection, warmth, or companionship. However, there are gifts of love you can give, regardless of the current climate of your marriage.

The gift of acceptance. Sometimes you refuse to accept your spouse as they are and where they are. You seem surprised when your spouse acts imperfectly or differently, as if somehow he or she isn’t ever supposed to do such things. “I can’t believe you did that,” you say. “How could you think like that?”

I’ve heard people say again and again in counseling, “You’re not the person I married!” One time, a husband replied, “Oh, yes, I am. But the person you dated? He was a fake.

Learning to accept your spouse doesn’t mean you like the faults you see, neither does it imply that you resign yourself to a hopeless situation. True acceptance begins with understanding reality: You—and your spouse—are creatures in process.  Acceptance is more than a grudging acknowledgement of reality. Acceptance is a true gift when you stop resenting having to give it, when you learn to be emotionally content with your spouse as is, all the while asking God to mature them.

The gift of truth. You do not always face the truth in your marriage. You imagine the best in spite of evidence to the contrary. You close your eyes to information which would make you make better decisions. However, there are times when you must tell the truth about reality, though always with love (1 Cor. 13:1 ,Eph. 4:15).

No one likes when your spouse tells you something about your behaviors or attitudes you don’t want to face. Yet it is loving and good when they do so. Why? So, you do not continue to deceive yourself into thinking that all is well when you are about to fall off a cliff (Jas. 5:19-20).

At times, your efforts to give the gift of truth will have wonderful results. Other times, you may see no change or repentance; you may even be mocked. Remember, God has called you to love our spouse as no one else in this world will. That may mean suffering under mockery and still speaking truth (Ezekiel 2).

The gift of kindness. Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), and being kind is one of the definitions of love (1 Cor. 13:4). Yet, as with the other gifts, you struggle to give the gift of kindness when you don’t feel like it or when your mate has hurt you.

Joan’s husband, Adam, was an alcoholic and a drug abuser. His drug use was so out of control that Joan finally asked him to move out until he got help. When, through friends, she heard he had a bad case of the flu, she cooked a pot of soup and delivered it to his apartment. Joan gave the gift of kindness to her selfish and irresponsible husband.

Being kind and gracious doesn’t mean you ignore wrongdoing or pretend it didn’t happen. Being kind means that what happens to you doesn’t define you. It doesn’t shape you or turn you into something evil. Extending kindness and mercy doesn’t depend upon whether the other person has been good or bad, wrong, or right. Kindness is a gift of love, not a reward for good behavior.

In every marriage there are moments, even seasons, when you have the opportunity to choose to act right when your spouse acts wrong. It might be in small, everyday ways (cooking hot dogs for dinner) or in big ways (extending forgiveness in the face of deep betrayal). God will use even the pain of a difficult marriage to help you become more like Christ—which He promises is very, very good.

About the Author

Leslie Vernick is a counselor and author of How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong and How to Find Selfless Joy in a Me-First World (both WaterBrook).

I see so many Christians who fail to comprehend that God’s work of sanctification often comes through our relationships,” she says. “They need a bigger picture that sustains them when times are rough and they’re tempted to give up.”