I Followed Christian Marriage Advice–And Failed My Husband

by | Sep 26, 2022 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 17 comments

When marriage advice in our evangelical resources is based on OPINION rather than RESEARCH, we run the risk of making marriage worse for the people who follow our advice! Here's a look at how common marriage teachings backfire when things get tricky, and the story of how this couple found a healthier way forward!

When Christian marriage advice goes wrong, we can end up following it to the letter–and failing our spouses.

In the summer, when Rebecca and I were talking about this, one long-time reader sent me in her story, which illustrates this well, and I saved it to run during our marriage misdiagnosis series

This month, we’re looking at how marriage advice all too often goes awry in the church because we focus on the wrong goal–commitment over intimacy, or hierarchy over Jesus-centeredness–and in so doing we give the wrong advice. 

This story shows that. She did what she was supposed to do as a Christian wife, waiting for him to lead, changing her dynamic personality to one that was quiet and subservient.

And it was exactly the opposite of what her husband needed.

Listen to her story:

I heard the message of submit and follow so much before and after I was married that I didn’t know anything else.

My problem was unique though. My husband didn’t want to be the center, but because of these teachings he tried to be (tried to take charge and make decisions and such). We didn’t know how to make a decision together which caused problems especially when we were first married. Lots of financial choices that I followed along with and felt helpless to change.

If people knew how hungry I was back then, literally because we hardly had money for food and yet, why didn’t I just get a job? Well, because of what I believed at the time.

I was unconsciously keeping myself lower than him.

I did do odd jobs at home and earned bits here and there. What I earned went to food and presents and such, fun things for us. He was really resentful for being the one in “leadership” back then, but didn’t say, so I just felt the resentment and didn’t know what I had done, so then I tried harder to be a good submissive wife.

Our finances got worse.. we had kids.. when he broke down and couldn’t even open the mail anymore I stepped into the role of paying bills and such. That was 3 or 4 years into our marriage that I finally became aware of our finances and took some responsibility for that. I wasn’t working though since by then we had littles. Still, stepping into that helped.

Then a few years later we moved far away from my support system and it was all on him again. Until he cracked again.. at which point I found out that he had depression (with suicidal ideations) from trauma as a child and that he always had this, but never told me (partly because he thought it was normal since he had always been depressed).

I would see something was wrong over the years, and he would lie and say he was fine.. but I could still see something was wrong.

My pattern was to try and submit more and serve him more. Turns out, what he needed was for me to actually lead and take charge in certain things.

When I was realizing this, after he came out of a mental hospital a few years ago, I finally knew. And I knew that I needed to be fully an adult and lead when God wanted me to.

We had an issue with his car a few months later, and in his depressed state he really was not able to make good decisions about getting it fixed or getting another one. It was the most difficult week of my life when I helped him get another car after he took it to a mechanic that ruined his old one (and took it back again and cost us a bunch of money and me trying to get the refund, blah blah)

But each step of the way that week I had to follow God’s leading at each moment. And I knew that his leading was exactly opposite of what I had been taught and what I had practiced for almost 4 decades of my life by then

Taking charge even when my husband seemed to not want help, taking charge then even when my husband blamed me for causing problems with the bad mechanic (because I confronted him and wouldn’t let it go till we got our money back), and I wouldn’t let my husband just buy some crap car to have it over with. I wanted him to finally get a nice one that he LIKED that was all the things and affordable. And I wouldn’t let him go alone to the dealership (like he tried to) when we finally found the car. Like, I was just all in it!

And my usual mode, my submissive/obey habits were honestly screaming at me especially since he kept trying to push me away. But I knew that I couldn’t step back and be small again even though it felt like that is what my husband wanted me to do. To get out of the way so he could just make his own choice and be done with the process (part of depression is not feeling like you deserve or can accept good things, and a car he actually likes would be a good thing.)

All the way through the process of buying the car too was a whole internal and couple struggle.

If I hadn’t been so involved in the process and if I hadn’t known about his depression at that point I would have thought he didn’t want the car and that we shouldn’t get it. Because following a depressed person is NOT the way to go.. but this time I knew and I also knew that I was following Jesus, not the leading of my husband who’s decision making abilities were not functioning.

Anyway, long story longer, we got the car and he said that when he drove it back (as I drove our other one) tears were streaming down his face. He said he felt the goodness of God and the gift of me as God worked through me to bless him.

I had always been taught or heard that putting your husband first and following him was the way to go. That never helped my husband or me.

And maybe people think that by putting Jesus first we won’t be loving our husbands well and of course we want to love our husbands and children well! But the truth is that if we are following God’s leading we might be called to step into places we wouldn’t naturally step into, and by doing so might actually be loving our people in ways that we didn’t know they needed to be loved. 

I am still learning how to step into this new place of not just following men, but making my own choices and following God into who he has made me to be.

I now have a part time job even, that was a huge change for me! But it is nice to finally contribute financially since that has always been dicey for us. Depression makes it difficult for a person to feel confident enough to ask for a raise or look for a better paying job.. or to reign in spending sometimes too. I keep track of the finances as best as I can and we are still learning to make decisions together.

It isn’t easy to change after years of messages like the “Love/Respect” books and others!

But I am commited to dumping out all the dirty water and keeping the baby Jesus in this metaphorical bath. There is so much dirty water! It has been 4 years since I learned of my husbands depression and began adjusting my view of our entire marriage and my life. Been a difficult road honestly, but things are so much better for me (and him) now than it used to be. Following someone who is depressed (even if you don’t know it) isn’t healthy for my mental health either!

Even if someone else’s husband doesn’t have depression or another mental illness, our husbands could have ADHD or undiagnosed autism or possibly just bad habits, just being human! Seeking to follow Jesus first, and be a grown up adult mature christian is more valuable to everyone around us than the striving to be slightly lower in maturity than our husbands so that we can follow his “lead”

What if we become more mature or wise than our husbands?

If he is a good man than he will be challenged to be more mature in Christ as well! As iron sharpens iron!

If he turns out to be abusive or evil, then our maturity in Christ might be his excuse to act worse and break his marriage vows in some way. If so, that is on him.

We are all responsible for our own actions and our own emotions. I would want to call women into a mature grown up place in Christ. Not idolising our husbands and submitting to their whims, but submitting to Jesus and stepping into Christ’s leading for our lives. Even if that means stepping into a place at times where we are called to lead our own husbands for his good and God’s glory. ❤

I love her story, and I wanted to let us sit with it and think about it today.

Can you see how her understanding of how she had to cater to him as the leader actually made her husband weaker? And how when she stepped in as she felt God calling her, her husband grew in stature too? How he was able to function better now as well?

We are meant to help each other.

But how many women have held back, thinking that by taking initiative they are being ungodly and undermining their husbands?

How many families have been driven into debt because the wives knew something seemed off, but they didn’t say anything because they felt it wasn’t their place? How many families could have been so much healthier if the wives spoke up in the areas of their strengths?

We are all strong in different ways. But when strength in women is seen as a threat to men, then we’re turning off part of ourselves and we’ll all end up suffering.

It’s another case of Marriage Misdiagnosis, and it’s hurting real people. Let’s put the emphasis back where it belongs–on serving Jesus. And then we’ll end  up serving each other better too!

What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It’s time for a Great Sex Rescue.

When marriage advice in our evangelical resources is based on OPINION rather than RESEARCH, we run the risk of making marriage worse for the people who follow our advice! Here's a look at how common marriage teachings backfire when things get tricky, and the story of how this couple found a healthier way forward!

What do you think? Have you ever followed traditional advice, and seen it all backfire? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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17 Comments

  1. Jo R

    Let me prophesy:

    Some people, both men and women, will maintain that this wife simply didn’t try long enough and hard enough. That the husband sensed his wife’s underlying rebellion, frustration, and disagreement with the way he was leading his family. That she was too impatient for practical improvement rather than waiting on God to turn the situation around in His time. That she was not learning to be content in all things, that she was not thinking of only the good and true and right and praiseworthy, that she was not considering his needs above her own, that she just didn’t empty herself the way she ought to. That she didn’t pray enough or have enough faith. That she was double-minded.

    Too many wives have been there, done that, and got multiple T-shirts. 🙄🙄🙄

    Reply
    • Mara R

      It’s like the rules are:
      #1 The husband is always right and the leader
      #2 When the husband is wrong, refer to rule #1.

      Or maybe we can look at it as a similar list of rules as Toddler’s property rights for men to use against women.
      http://frombitterwaterstosweet.blogspot.com/2012/04/toddler-property-rights.html

      But instead of “It’s mine”, it’s “your fault.” It’s your fault the trouble-shooting sections on marriage in the Bible didn’t work for you. Don’t say you did it perfectly, because if you actually did it perfectly, it would have worked. It’s not broken. You are. It didn’t work so you are obviously lying about doing it perfectly.
      Even if you did do it right, you are still wrong.

      Yep, too many T-shirts owned by way too many women.
      The crazy making is so over-the-top it makes your brain hurt.

      Reply
      • Laura

        This makes husbands perpetual toddlers.

        Reply
        • Jo R

          Perpetual toddlers who are in unquestionable charge. And with God behind them, to boot! 😱

          Reply
      • Elizabeth

        I think the point of this was that she became empowered by her love for Jesus to do the right thing. Her husband appears to have been very relieved when she walked in her strength. And the truth of her story is beautifully told in love. I appreciate her compassion and her courage.

        Reply
        • Mara R

          Absolutely.

          The love of Jesus should lead us.
          Following the traditions of men that are set up to protect fragile egos and maintain a worldly hierarchy has no place in our relationships. However, many teach the the traditions of men as gospel truth. Disobedience to these traditions is disobedience to God, in these circles. Many of us have been burned and are in the process of healing and expelling the toxins of those who claim to speak for God but are only speaking from the darkness of their own hearts.

          Mark 7:6 But He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written:
          ‘This people honors Me with their lips,
          But their heart is far away from Me.
          7 And in vain do they worship Me,
          Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
          8 Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

          Reply
  2. Laura

    The belief that the husband has to be in charge of everything, even if he does it poorly, is just ludicrous. Debi Pearl said that it doesn’t matter how badly a husband does at leading, but he has to do it anyway because God says so (not her exact words but close enough). I have known women who have been in debt due to their husbands’ lack of financial wisdom. Their excuse for remaining in debt is that God ordained men to be in charge of everything including money management and because they are being faithful to God’s “Word,” He will bless them even if the husband handles the finances poorly. In one or two Christian books I have read, the female author talked about how letting her husband (who was poor at managing money) handle the checkbook was a test of faith. Even though he was doing a poor job of managing the money and they went without electricity and water because the bills hadn’t been paid, somehow God came through for them and provided.

    In my first marriage, I am so glad I handled the finances because my ex never learned how to keep a checkbook even though he was 24 when we married. When I told a friend about this, she told me that it was supposed to be his job to manage the money. This friend’s uncle was the pastor who would not let his wife wear jeans (I’ve mentioned this in other posts here). I told my friend, “If he managed the money, we would be on the streets.”

    Here’s a thought that’s been weighing on my mind and something I’ve heard Bible study leaders and pastors say, “Submission is so misunderstood.” Yeah, it is because of the harmful teachings in many of these Christian marriage books. Is it really misunderstood by the people who teach it and write about it? Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Lynne'

      Yes! Because there now needs to my exceptions in teaching submitting that it would be healthier to teach mutuality! When my husband and I were first married he thought he was supposed to do the financea (and all the things) because that is what the church was telling him to do. He resented being left to do it alone, and I even offered to do the checkbook stuff but he said he could do it. Because I was taught “love/respect” type things I didn’t insist (I was being respectful)… after some terrible finanancial decisions, I finally fully looked into what we had and took over balancing. My husband was so greatful! But we still weren’t hearing teachings about mutuality and so the pressure he felt to do it all still weighed in him and the pressure I felt from the submitting culture still weighed on me. This was even before we actually watched the “love/respect” video series… which of course made this dynamic even worse. It wasn’t teaching how to follow God and lean into our strengths and be there for each other.. it basically puts men in a position of being alone (at the top) and of course the only thing God said at the beginning that was NOT good was that the human should be alone. How many ways does headship/submission teaching put both humans alone in different ways? — emotionally, responsibility wise… just “this is your sphere and this is yours and stay in your place” no matter the gifting or inclination of either.

      Reply
  3. exwifeofasexaddict

    I was an Army wife for 24 years. My (then) husband realized far earlier than I did that a mousy, subservient, dependent wife is really a liability for a soldier. An Army wife HAS to be independent, knowledgeable, able to make decisions, lead the family in the soldier’s absence, for months, a year or more at a time. So what can Debi Pearl, or John Piper, or the rest say about this? That he shouldn’t join the army? That they will just have to find a way to make submission work, even when a wife can’t contact her husband to ask if it’s ok to put little Johnny in soccer this year? That the Christian wife who rises to this occasion is sinning? Well, more likely they will find a way to let her do what she has to do and still call it submission. But here’s the thing. If a teaching doesn’t work for people in situations like this…. or when a husband is disabled… or many other such situations…… it doesn’t work. It can’t be the “biblical” way if it doesn’t and can’t apply in some marriages.

    Reply
    • Lynne'

      I have thought similarly about homeschooling. While it is possible to homeschool all “submissive wife” where the husband is the decision maker.. if the guy is normal and not power hungry, it is really hard for him (if he is the main income earner outside the home) to know what books to choose or what decisions to make! And of course if you are like me and were taught to be submissive and not strong independent person it is even hard to have the appropriaye gumption and confidence to make home school type choices without trying ti defer to the husband. My husband never wanted (or could) make decisions about the kids so it was on me, but I lacked the teaching and support to fully lean into my own power till more recently. I just watched a teaching about men and women in ancient times (to understand the audience of Gen 3) and the saying then was “A man’s home is his wifes castle” !! They both had their spheres, but she was fully in charge of the home sphere. Just like what you described with needing to make choices while your husband is away.. and really like I needed to learn (sooner) about my own choices to homeschool.

      The guys who teach headship/submission seem to want women both ways, to be subservient to their lead (of course) but also to be able to trust her fully as well in her own sphere. (I saw this play out with my parents as my dad saying he gave my mom permission to do whatever with the home or kids.. she was fully responsible, but he would take credit for her work like a manager “delegating” and taking the credit for the underlings efforts.) BUT you can’t teach someone to disregard their own intelligence and choices and deffer and then also expect them to be confident enough to be able to take over if anything were to happen to the husband. I think my mom’s generation was taught more independence (with second wave feminism in the culture and going to college and working before she married) than I was in the 90s with purity culture as the back drop and the continual message to submit. The gumption I had kept gettinf snuffed out.. by others and even me! Because gumption in girls is “sinful” or “prideful” — not something to be cultivated and nurtured.

      Reply
  4. Mara R

    “Because following a depressed person is NOT the way to go.”

    “Even if someone else’s husband doesn’t have depression or another mental illness, our husbands could have ADHD or undiagnosed autism or possibly just bad habits, just being human!”

    Quotes above from reader’s testimony.

    When the ex and I were renegotiating our marriage because it wasn’t working and he suspected that he had ADHD and depression (there was a whole lot more than that going on but I digress), I told someone once that God never called me to submit to my husband’s ADHD.

    This really irked that someone and they thought I was looking for loopholes in the all-encompassing submission rules that she had going on in her brain. I dropped the subject because I knew there was no point in explaining the utter chaos and no-win situations that submitting so someone else’s brain disorders entailed.

    Sure people misunderstand submission as Laura mentions. Just as people don’t understand respect, humility, and love. When they use hierarchy colored glasses to look at everything rather than from an actual Jesus-is-the-Way-Truth-Light perspective, everything gets bad-news-wonky.

    Reply
    • Lynne'

      Oh, see this is why the headship/submission teachings are so harmful! We aren’t being taught to submit (defer) to the other person when they are wiser or more skilled in an area than us (which makes sense for mutual health and benefit) we are being told to submit to another person’s weakness or bad choices or faults and “trust God” with the out come — OF ANOTHER HUMAN’S MISTAKES! (or worse even, like legit bad choices or bad or selfish intentions) — But even in it’s “best” version of headship/submission the teaching falls apart and is so unhealthy.
      I always heard the excuses from complimentarians to keep teaching what they did when they would hear stories of abuse that “well, they didn’t do headship/submission right” so lets keep beating the dead horse of this teaching with aaaallll the exceptions so that we can still maintain at least a grain of male power over women. They make it look holy and even your friend thought it was holy, because trusting God with our suffering and being “humble” about our own abilities is good right? No, it is idolising the husband rather than following God.
      I truly believe that this is the spirit of the antichrist in this age. They have taken the teaching of “husbands love your wife like christ loved the church” and turned that into a way to elevate themselves to be followed (by women) rather than all of us learning how to follow Jesus first. And of course they conveniently leave out all the “first shall be last” and “if you want to be the head you should be servent of all” stuff. That is sometimes acknowleged in word but not realized in actuality.

      Reply
  5. Angharad

    Last week, I saw a dad running a ‘race’ with his toddler son. Dad was running deliberately slowly so that the little boy could ‘win’ – and the only person who didn’t realise that was the toddler.

    It just strikes me as so weird that many of these marriage books are basically telling wives to act like that dad because their husband is like the toddler. “You need to pretend to be really bad at doing things so that your husband will feel he is better than you.”

    Reply
    • Lynne'

      This is such a great analogy!
      And honestly, if we were trying to be “respectful”– how is that respecting our husband? I can’t think of a disrespect worse than treating a grown adult like they are a child who has to believe that they are the best in all the things when they actually aren’t. Not that we have to be mean or something about their failings, but why are we taught to hold ourselves back (as women) to protect a “fragile ego”– If you think about it, that is just sad. If I were a man I would be angry about this sort of teaching! It doesn’t help men at all. It only serves to empower the man-babies.

      Reply
  6. Sarah O

    How about this? Choose one.

    Leadership – the act of limiting others’ choices and actions to prevent them from making mistakes or encountering needless suffering.

    OR

    Leadership – setting out towards a positive/desireable destination and moving in such a way that others are inspired to imitate – and therefore become leaders themselves.

    Reply
  7. Jane Eyre

    A fair number of people, both men and women, are either never going to be good at some life skills or will expend an enormous amount of energy being good at them. Other people have an easier (or simply “less hard”) time with those skills. Ideally, married people bring two sets of skills to the marriage, such that the household will be run far better than it would be otherwise.

    Reply

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