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Reader Warning: This article is not about figuring out who is the most blame. It’s a treatment of a common marriage problem where both spouses bring bad patterns into their marriage and how their unique individual issues create relational conflict that needs biblical solutions.
Mable was born and reared in a verbally abusive home. Her dad was a strong-willed man who used his anger as a control mechanism. He doled out critique like candy, and Mable was the primary recipient of his hate speech.
Each unkind word was like a paper cut on her heart, and by the time she became a teenager, the wounds were too deep to heal. She tried to circumvent his anger by being perfect, but the barrage was too much for her feeble self-reliant efforts. She wilted under pressure.
Her husband married her because she was beautiful, but he did not perceive the depth of the hurt she carried. He was a Christian and had a passion for the Lord, but he was not perfect either. He struggled with anger.
Though her father and husband were different, they felt eerily similar to Mable. You can shovel manure from a barn or a perfume factory, but it’s still manure. Because of Mable’s shaping influences, she reverted to old patterns in her new marriage. Her soul began to diminish under the anger and critique of her husband.
She hoped she could leave her fear of others at the marriage altar, but like an omnipresent shadow, it slavishly haunted her. She is now forty-three, married for the past 20 years, and the knot inside of her continues to twist her into more profound despair.
You could diagnose Mable’s core issue as fear of man:
The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.
Mable would have liked to be approved and accepted by her father, but that will not happen since he passed away three years ago. Even so, her desire to be treasured is painfully active in her soul.
Today, she directs her approval desires (2 Timothy 2:15) toward her husband. You could quibble over the merits of this hope: Is it an idol, a craving, lust, need, or all four? Is it a legitimate, God-given desire?
The main point, for now, is she wants to be valued by her husband. Mable’s craving for his positive assessments, coupled with his anger toward her, has worked together to tie her soul in knots. Rather than perceiving and helping her with this problem, Biff has complicated her childhood struggles.
One of Mable’s responses to compensate for the hurt and fear she harbors is to be critical, particularly toward her husband. Being critical is easy for her because the Lord has given her a quick and sharp mind: Her tongue is like a hair trigger.
Rather than knowing how to use her strengths to mature her marriage, Mable uses her tongue as a weapon to hurt her husband (Ephesians 4:29). It’s her revengeful way of doing to him what he does to her–make him feel small through critique. This tactic gives Mable some relief as she feels better about herself by demeaning her husband.
One of the ways for a person who craves approval from others is to find affirmation through their strengths. Mable has a quick tongue, and she uses it as a competitive event as she outmaneuvers her slower-minded husband.
Mable does not practice put-downs with clearheaded premeditation. It became a learned behavior that she perfected as a way to alleviate the pain of her past. This technique is her form of self-righteousness, which was born out of deep hurt, anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness toward her dad.
It is not typical to think of a person who struggles with the fear of man being a battler, but Mable is one.
For Mable, it works out this way: When she is right and knows she is right, she can go toe-to-toe with her husband. When Mable is working within her strengths (self-reliance), she can wear Biff down to the point where he gives up. Biff says it this way:
It’s Mable’s way or no way at all. She is relentless when it comes to what she wants. It’s easier for me to give in rather than fight her on everything that comes up in our marriage.
He is right. Mable is a fighter, but she only fights the fights she knows she can win. If fearful people are going to fight at all, they will only fight when there is a predetermined outcome—an outcome that has a win at the end of it.
Mable cannot lose because to lose is to fail. To fail opens the door to critique, being put down, or being made to feel insignificant, unloved, or rejected. When Mable goes to war with you, there is no question about the outcome.
But the complexity of her sin is not that compartmentalized. Mable is a hider as well. There are pockets of silence or secrets that she does not expose to her husband because she is afraid of him verbally jabbing her.
Like a little girl holding a delicate butterfly, Mable is a fragile soul (1 Thessalonians 5:14) that she protects from any hint of hurt (1 Peter 3:7). In this way, she is silently suffering in plain sight of her husband.
Biff only sees her argumentation.
He sees Mable as a battler on the outside, not as a broken little girl on the inside. Though he would say he knows she struggles with the fear of others, he does not connect the dots between a wife who wants to die on every hill and a wife who wants to hide behind every hill.
I’ve detailed here how the self-reliant person is standing on a platform of fear. What appears to be a strength is not as strong as you might think. Mable masks her fear with her brashness.
It is common for our sins to manifest in diverse ways (James 1:5-8). For Mable, she fights her battles that have predetermined outcomes while hiding her weaknesses when there is a possibility of being hurt.
Breaking down these sin dynamics of the heart is a challenge for Biff. He mostly sees the one side of Mable—the battling side. While he gives tacit acknowledgment to her insecurity, that awareness does not compel him to disciple her through these life-dominating sin patterns.
Because Mable is an arguer and Biff rules by harshness, he does not mind, at times, entering the fray with her. He likes winning too, which is more important to him than rescuing a soul caught in bondage (Galatians 6:1-2).
In either case, the effect is the same: Mable does not feel nourished or cherished (Ephesians 5:29). She feels defeated and hurt. The unrelenting bitterness she harbored toward her dad has metastasized to even more bitterness toward her husband.
There are three parts to this problem that Biff needs to understand to help disciple his wife through her forty-year battle with hurt, bitterness, unforgiveness, anger, and fear.
Biff has to conquer his anger (James 4:1-3). When he responds with impatience, hurtful words, or general frustration toward his wife, he is complicating a preexisting problem. She is already struggling, but when he piles his sin on top of her sin, there will be no marital solutions forthcoming.
If he begins to see his wife as his primary disciple to serve rather than an opponent to defeat, he will not only be able to help her, but he will begin to gain victory over his sin. His first call to action is to ask the Lord to give him affection for Mable. You cannot hate a person if you have affection for them. Right now, Biff does not have love for her.
He then needs to see her through a Galatians 6:1-2 grid. As the head of his wife, it is his job to lead by being the spiritual pacesetter who is called to bring redemptive care to her (1 Peter 3:7).
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
The word “restore” in this verse is the same Greek word used in Hebrews 11:3, where we learn God created the world by speaking His Words. The Lord brought order from chaos.
Biff must learn how to bring order into the chaos of Mable’s soul. He can do this when the words he chooses to speak into her life are redemptive rather than corrupting (Ephesians 4:29).
The next thing he needs to do is think more deeply and broadly about their marriage problem. What is going on with Mable is not precisely what meets the eye. Yes, she can fight fire with fire, but fearful people can use more than one unbiblical method to manage their fear. The two most common ways are fight or flight. Mable employs both at different times with Biff.
Both responses are born out of the same premise: She cannot be rejected, hurt, or unloved. The pragmatic way in which she keeps from being hurt depends on the person she is with and the situation at hand. Once she determines the method needed, she employs it, whether it is an eye for an eye or a flight response.
Biff must disciple his wife.
And, yes, disciple-making in all marriages should be reciprocal. Mable should partner with him by pulling the marriage wagon in the same direction. I suppose if we lived in a perfect world, that would be the case.
We don’t live in a perfect world where both spouses repent at the same time. Therefore, my appeal is for Biff to lead in repentance because he is the leader of the home (1 Corinthians 11:1). What better way for a husband to lead than to lead by repenting?
In a sense, Mable is like a forty-year-old struggling and caught addict. Biff should have a broken heart for her. Rather than tripping over what she is doing wrong, he should be in tears because of the bondage that has wrapped her soul for so long (Jonah 2:5).
It is much easier to defend our positions and make our points than live out the other-centered demands of the gospel. If Biff wants to help his wife, his starting place must be his heart as he relates to the gospel. A simple prayer like this would be a good place to begin:
Lord give me the grace to do for my wife what you have done and continue to do for me (Matthew 18:33; Romans 5:8).
If he submits himself to that one truth, he will begin to experience the favor of God in his life and marriage (James 4:6). He will also become a more useful part of the solution rather than a person who is tearing away at the fabric of the marriage.
If you are the leader of your home, will you (1) pray this prayer, (2) find someone to hold you accountable, and (3) begin the hard work of cooperating with the Lord in changing your marriage?
Give me the empowering grace to set aside what I want for the sake of your glory and your mission. Help me to be a better representative of the person of Jesus Christ to my wife.
Rather than highlighting what she has done wrong to me, teach me how to come alongside her the way you continue to come alongside me.
Our marriage should not be primarily about what I get out of it. Our trouble is my opportunity and context to bring the life of Jesus to bear on two broken people. Forgive me for my sins and teach me how to lead our marriage.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).