Unconditional Love and Respect Do Not Operate on a Scale of 1–10
Wives, what would you think if your husband said something like the following? “On a scale of 1–10, you have to be at least a 7 according to my standards before I will speak to you with a loving tone of voice. If you are a 6 or below, I will talk to you any way I like. If I sound a little rough or crude, get used to it.” Husbands, what would you think if your wife said something like the following? “On a scale of 1–10, you have to be at least a 7 according to my standards before I will speak to you respectfully. If you are a 6 or below, I will say what I like, usually with some contempt.”
Judging each other on a scale of 1–10 is no way to have a good marriage, but I have counseled many couples who appeared to approach each other from just this perspective. The mentality seems to be: “You have to earn my loving or respectful speech because I am placing conditions on just how much I will love or respect you.”
But if you want to try to live out the unconditional love and respect we teach in our conferences, there is no place for demanding—either openly or subtly—that your spouse perform at a certain level. Using words of unconditional love and respect simply means:
- You determine beforehand that you will speak lovingly or respectfully regardless of how your spouse acts or speaks.
- You commit yourself to never using words of hostility or contempt, even though in certain situations your spouse’s words or actions may come up a zero on a ten-point scale.
- You determine to speak lovingly or respectfully because you want to reverence and obey God.
- As a follower of Christ, you govern your speech and actions by what you believe He wants from you. Your spouse’s speech or actions are irrelevant.
- You always remember that your speech or actions are your choice and your responsibility. Your spouse cannot make you say or do anything unloving or disrespectful.
- When you fail to speak words of unconditional love or respect perfectly, you ask for forgiveness—first from God and then from your spouse—and you keep trying.
I am often asked if committing to unconditionally love or respect means that you must turn a blind eye to definite wrongdoing on your spouse’s part. This is a point that trips up a lot of people, especially wives who learn that God calls them to speak to their husband with unconditional respect (see Ephesians 5:33). These wives conclude that if she must speak with unconditional respect, she must agree with, and acquiesce to, everything her husband is doing or saying. If not, she would be disrespectful.
I comment that, according to that kind of reasoning, a wife should be quite willing to tell her husband, “I say this respectfully. I love the fact that you are into pornography on the Internet.” That would be comparable to a husband telling his wife, “I say this lovingly. I think it is wonderful that you are emotionally out of control a great deal of the time and that you are terrorizing the children.”
Such absurd comments serve to make my point. Words that approve viewing pornography or abusing the children are not words of unconditional love or respect; they are simply pathetic endorsements of corrupt behavior. To use words of unconditional love or respect means you lovingly or respectfully confront your spouse’s wrongdoing.
When your spouse is doing or saying something that is obviously wrong, immoral, or dangerous, you must confront that behavior. As you challenge your spouse, however, you are never justified in speaking words that are hostile or contemptuous. Common sense tells us that no one is persuaded by hateful or despising speech. Before the Lord, you are responsible to confront your spouse with words that come across as loving or respectful. The unconditional way of speaking is the only approach that motivates a spouse to deal long-term with the hurtful behavior. There is no guarantee a spouse will respond, but this manner is more likely to work than any other attitude.
If your spouse’s words or behavior are in the gray zone—what your spouse is doing or saying does not suit your personal taste—you are to remain loving or respectful. Always do or say what you do or say knowing your speech or actions reflect who you are, not who your spouse is.
Wives also often tell me, “My husband doesn’t receive my words of respect because he doesn’t respect himself. So what’s the point of being respectful of him?”
I reply, “Are you saying that if you are struggling with loving yourself, your husband should stop speaking lovingly to you because you might reject his words?” These wives see the point.
You speak lovingly or respectfully no matter how your spouse may speak to you in return. Your spouse is not the reason—good or bad—why you speak unconditional words of love or respect. God is the reason, and as you depend on Him, you will become increasingly able to speak lovingly and respectfully to your spouse.
Questions to Consider
- In what ways have you been guilty of placing conditions on how much you love and respect your spouse? How did your spouse respond? Would you say that it was an effective method long-term?
- What did Emerson mean when he said that “your spouse’s speech or actions are irrelevant” as it pertains to how you govern your own speech and actions? Do you agree or disagree? Explain.
- How does one unconditionally love and respect his or her spouse while at the same time not turn a blind eye to any definite wrongdoing?
- Emerson wrote, “Your spouse is not the reason—good or bad—why you speak unconditional words of love or respect. God is the reason.” What does this mean? Why is God the reason you speak unconditional words of love or respect to your unloving or disrespectful spouse?