First Things First—You Can’t Fix Your Marriage If You Don’t First Fix Yourself
As you can imagine, I receive a great deal of emails from concerned spouses describing their marital problems. Most times these stories are describing the ways the one writing me feels the other spouse is harming their relationship. Of course, such a viewpoint is only human nature. After all, while it can be difficult for all of us to evaluate our own shortcomings and sins, our spouse’s seem to be highlighted in big, bold letters for us, don’t they?
As a result, I often find that my emailer is surprised at my response to him or her—and not in a good way. Because even if everything they just shared with me is 100 percent true, and their spouse has truly failed them greatly in the ways they have described, the fact remains: their spouse is not the one who wrote to me. Their spouse is not the one who is currently reaching out for help. My concern in that moment is, how can we best help the situation being described to me? And unless the scenario includes adultery, abuse, addiction, these types of things, the answer almost always is to start with the one who is actively seeking help. Because they are the one who has shown the willingness to work on the relationship, not their spouse.
In John 8, when the scribes and Pharisees brought an adulteress to Jesus, you may recall Jesus’ response to them: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone” (John 8:7). Yes, the woman caught in adultery had sinned, but Jesus began by rebuking the Pharisees for being judge and jury. He rebuked them because they were fixated on this woman's sin and not their own. Then later, when the woman was ready to hear it, He then addressed her sin: “From now on sin no more” (v. 11).
Perhaps your spouse is the one with all the problems. I cannot know about your situation. I don't even know who you are. What I can say is that given we have areas in our lives that we know are not right before God, then we need to face these first and foremost. While it may be absolutely true that your husband has not been very loving and appreciative of you and all you do for the family, is it also true that there are times when you do not show respect for who he is as the provider and spiritual leader? Or, though you may be on point about how your wife is not respecting you when she shares your shortcomings with her girlfriends, that does not nullify the fact that your harsh tone and words to her do not show her that you honor and cherish her for who she is.
A husband wrote to me, "We drove over 500 miles to attend your conference. My wife and I personally have changed as a result of your material. After your closing prayer, my wife and I were both quick to say to each other how sorry we have been for our treatment of each other. We have been married for 36 years. I told some others in our church about your book. They immediately went out to buy the book. One lady said she has repented of 43 years of not respecting her husband."
Did you see what he said? “My wife and I were both quick to say to each other how sorry we have been for our treatment of each other”! To her husband’s own admission, he had come up short in loving her unconditionally for thirty-six years, yet his wife confessed her own failures in their marriage. As well, while she had spent three and a half decades not fully realizing her husband’s need for her respect, he was more concerned with his own shortcomings!
As this couple did, we must always look at ourselves first when addressing our marital conflicts. It may very well be that later, we need to share our concerns about our spouse's shortcomings. But we must always begin with ourselves first. Sadly, some of us can go thirty-six years judging our spouse for disobeying Ephesians 5:33 and never see our own disobedience. When this is the case, our spouse will find it challenging to deal with their issues when we stand there self-righteously with a stone in our hand, not seeing our own failures.
In my own many decades of marriage, I have learned that it just works better when I judge myself instead of Sarah. She, too, addresses her own shortcomings. When we both simultaneously confess, the real breakthroughs come.
Yes, I know there are those reading this who say, "Well, when I confess, my spouse rubs it in my face and never apologizes for what they did wrong." Perhaps. That is always a risk. But does your spouse’s unwelcomed response mean that you had nothing to confess to begin with? Usually not. If we came up short, we came up short. And Scripture tells us to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). But stay the course. If your spouse has basic goodwill, is a believer in Christ, and senses your confession is real, they will come around.
Having said that, never confess to solicit your spouse’s confession. That renders your confession insincere and your spouse will see right through that. Instead, genuinely confess your shortcomings in being unloving or disrespectful and reverse course not because of your spouse’s hopeful response but because you are committed to doing your part, independent of them.
However, this may require many months of staying the course, not many minutes. Sadly, some are way too impatient. Even so, when one continues to be the person God calls them to be, a spouse with goodwill commonly reciprocates.
In the end, though, this is about being the person God calls us to be, so our spouse's response is irrelevant in that regard. Jesus expected the Pharisees to give up their sole fixation on the woman, and first examine their own hearts, regardless of what the woman did. How much more for those of us who are not self-righteous, angry, judgmental people, but love the Lord and wish to follow what He tells us. You too can unconditionally love and respect your spouse no matter how he or she responds.
As I said already, I don’t know you or your situation. But I am confident I can already help you with the first steps toward marital reconciliation—start with you!
Questions to Consider
- Do you agree with the overall argument that fixing your marriage begins with fixing yourself? Why or why not? Do you believe you have seen exceptions to this, either in your marriage or elsewhere? Explain.
- Emerson’s idea of fixing yourself first is representative of what he calls the Energizing Cycle, which says, “His love motivates her respect. Her respect motivates his love.” Have you seen this to be the case in your own marriage? If not, have you continued to love or respect, independent of your spouse’s response?
- Why does Emerson say to never confess your shortcomings to your spouse with the purpose of soliciting your spouse’s confession? Even if he or she does end up confessing, what do your motivations say about your own confession?
- Will you take a moment now to ask God to reveal to you your shortcomings in showing unconditional love and respect toward your spouse? Will you commit to confessing what God reveals to both Him and your spouse, as well as to focusing on you and your role in healing your marriage?