MARRIAGE MISDIAGNOSIS: Putting Reconciliation Before Rebuilding Trust

by | Sep 16, 2022 | Resolving Conflict | 23 comments

Stop Telling Couples to Reconcile Before Rebuilding Trust

What if too much marriage advice puts the cart before the horse, demanding reconciliation before trust has been rebuilt?

We’ve been looking this month at how so often evangelical marriage advice puts the emphasis in the wrong place, and thus misdiagnoses the problem and gives the wrong solution.

And the root of the reason is that much of the focus is on ensuring the marriage stays together. And since it’s often the desperate, betrayed spouse who wants to keep the marriage together, the advice focuses on how to get that spouse to just paper over and accept the bad behaviour of their spouse. It puts the emphasis on changing the spouse who was wronged against, rather than putting the emphasis on the spouse who has done the wrong.

We see it vividly in quotes like this one taken from Steve Arterburn and Fred Stoeker in their book for women–Every Heart Restored.

And why shouldn’t you expect to make sacrifices even in the marriage bed?…On the battlefield of broken sexual trust, your husband must become trustworthy and you must eventually choose to trust again, and that’ll mean sexual sacrifice. It’s self-defeating to worry about which should come first. (p. 211)

Fred & Brenda Stoeker and Steve Arterburn

Every Heart Restored

We talked about this in The Great Sex Rescue:

Emotional damage can be done if you constantly betrayed feel and used without any hope that it can be better. This makes passages like [the one we just quoted] from Every Heart Restored gut-wrenching…He has broken trust—but she is “self-defeating” if she requires him to be trustworthy before she actually trusts him again. She must have sex with him, even if he is making no move toward building a healthy sex life.

Just as you can’t cure an alcoholic by giving him so many sedatives that he won’t want to go to a bar, you can’t cure a porn ad- dict by giving him so much sex that he won’t want to log on to the computer. Even if it does lead to less porn use, the issue is not healed—it’s only been numbed.

God doesn’t want to numb us. God wants to free us.

The Great Sex Rescue

They’re telling people that you should trust him before he has rebuilt trust; that you should resume a sexual relationship before he has proven himself safe.

The onus is on the wronged partner to fix it.

We should be telling the wronged partner this isn’t acceptable, you should expect more, and things can’t continue like this.

"A groundbreaking look into what true, sacred biblical sexuality is intended to be. A must-read." - Rachael Denhollander

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.

Great Sex Rescue

But we see this on a smaller scale, too, and that’s what I want to talk about today.

Think about how often you read posts like “things your husband really needs to hear”–and the suggestions are “I respect you,” or “I trust you.”

Take this post from Fierce Marriage, for instance, where they were talking about how men really need to hear “I believe in you” or “I trust you.”

Here’s the problem: Telling a woman she must tell her husband that she trusts him and believes in him is essentially gaslighting women.

It’s saying–no matter what your spidey senses are telling you, and no matter how you actually feel, your husband needs to know that you trust him and believe in him. And in fact, you’re supposed to trust him and believe in him!

So now if you don’t trust him or believe in him you’re somehow at fault.

Instead of telling women that they should tell their husbands how much they trust them, respect them, believe in them, etc., we need to start telling people to act in trustworthy ways. We need to tell people to act in a way that is worthy of respect. We need to tell people to develop the kind of character that will make it easy to believe in them.

 

Let’s contrast this with Gottman’s advice to “scan for things to praise.”

Yet it is possible for your fondness and admiration to recede to barely detectable levels and still be revivable. In such a case, the key to reinvigorating fondness and admiration is to get in the habit of scanning for qualities and actions that you can appreciate. And then, let your partner know what you’ve observed and are grateful for. These everyday thank-yous don’t have to be about momentous acts on your spouse’s part. Search for the small, everyday moments. Catch your partner doing some little thing right and then offer a genuine appreciation like “I love the way you handled the teacher conference yesterday” or “Thanks for making my sister feel welcome here” or even “You look so hot in that outfit, I’m having all kinds of bad thoughts.”

John Gottman

7 Principles for Making Marriage Work

Yes, it’s important to notice the good that people do and call out those things. But Gottman does not say to praise even if there is nothing to praise. He does not say that it’s vitally important that you prop up your partner’s ego. He says to look for things that you genuinely can appreciate.

Why?

Because intimacy can only exist with honesty.

Without honesty and vulnerability, there can never be intimacy, and without intimacy, there can never be a good marriage.

Telling a person that the route to a good marriage is to feel that your spouse is a good person without an emphasis first on your spouse being a good person is a marriage misdiagnosis. It is not your job to prop up your spouse’s ego or to paper over a spouse’s bad behaviour.

When a spouse is trustworthy; when a spouse does have good character, then having that called out helps tremendously and builds intimacy. But sometimes we look at what good marriages do, and we think–the reason they’re good is because they’re doing X and Y! So if we do X and Y we’ll have a good marriage too!

But the only reason they do X and Y is because they already did A and B–and it’s A and B that really matters.

Let’s stop putting the cart before the horse. Honesty matters in marriage, and you can’t manufacture trust, respect, or admiration without a strong foundation. So, yes, scan for things to praise. That’s great advice. But don’t pretend your marriage is something it’s not, because that will only ever lead away from intimacy, not towards it.

Stop Telling People to Reconcile Before Rebuilding Trust

What do you think? Have you heard that advice to trust your husband and boost his ego even if he doesn’t do anything to warrant that? Does the advice go the other way for wives too? Why or why not? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Marriage Misdiagnosis Series

 

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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23 Comments

  1. Lady Lavender

    I see reconciliation as a result rather than as an element. i.e. an apology; true repentance; actions demonstrating honour, thoughtfulness, love, etc contribute to building trust; desire, for a relationship & physically for the other partner, these are elements (or building blocks, if you prefer) that help to build a pathway towards reconciliation. Reconciliation reminds me of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. When we are wounded & broken, we are that City.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Perfectly said!

      Reply
    • exwifeofasexaddict

      Yeah, that EHR quote is just stupid. The cheater MUST establish trustworthiness first. It’s so obvious. We don’t just decide to trust people. We trust people because they are trustworthy.

      Reply
  2. EOF

    I’m so grateful for this series! And I’m glad people are listening. I hope more big names start featuring your advice and findings.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, EOF!

      Reply
  3. Jane Eyre

    This is another variant of “praise your husband in bed even when he isn’t satisfying you.” What is this, the participation trophy of marriage?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I know! It’s everywhere, isn’t it?

      Reply
    • Laura

      Love this, “The participation trophy of marriage”

      Reply
  4. Joy

    Related thoughts and a question: Been reading that passage in Malachi 2 that says, “God hates divorce,” and it’s wild how that little soundbite 1) gets the spirit of the passage wrong and 2) has taken people off the rails! If you want to take a phrase right out of that passage it’s very much saying “God hates treachery against your wife.” Divorce is merely the example of treachery that is being pointed out in that passage. Both sides of the soundbite describe God hating treachery against wives.

    You’ve been bringing to light the many examples of modern day treachery against wives. I’m kind of nervous because we are new to town, and I’m trying a women’s group out for the first time in three years in an attempt to make friends. I’m worried about encountering these unhealthy messages and how to speak up. Any advice?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think more and more people are recognizing how toxic a lot of this is, so if you speak up you may give courage to others to do so too! I would say that if it’s important to you, you’re unlikely to find happiness in a group that is toxic. I think sometimes we need to think outside the box–try a denomination you haven’t before maybe; try volunteering at a multi-denominational thing instead?

      Reply
  5. CMT

    “ Have you heard that advice to trust your husband and boost his ego even if he doesn’t do anything to warrant that?” Yep. Some variation of that seems to crop up in a lot of books.

    What I don’t get is why do the people saying these things not realize how patronizing it is to treat someone this way? My ten year old can tell when people are giving him insincere praise and he HATES it! Do we think grown men won’t notice if their wives are basically lying to them? And how is that supposed to be productive?

    It reminds me of “The Secret.” Does anybody else remember when that was popular? This is like that-just trying to manifest what you want, except it’s supposed to be God delivering instead of “the universe” or whatever.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, it’s very much about manifesting! “Is he playing video games all the time? Treat him like a leader and he’ll step up!” What if he plays video games because he wants to play video games, and is quite happy having no responsibility?

      The whole mindset is both enabling and infantilizing towards men, and honestly–men are better than that.

      Reply
  6. Jen

    Oh, I heard this many times. It reminds me of what grade school teachers do: “caught ya being good!” I felt like I was treating my husband just like the kids. What’s worse – my husband, in his own trauma, was a HUGE people pleaser, workaholic, and secret sex addict. So when I thanked him for being a “good” husband, he thought he was meeting the standard and continued to be a people pleasing workaholic who put his marriage last. I didn’t know about the sex addiction, so any praise I gave him actually helped him continue to lie to himself about his addiction and the damage it was causing.

    The only way to do this properly is to call out very specific behaviors. Otherwise abusers and the self deceived will just keep on doing what they are doing, or worse, go further into destructive behaviors because the praise fuels their poor coping skills or because they think they can get away with more sin.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true, Jen! I’m glad that you’ve seen through this advice now.

      Reply
  7. Laura

    Praising your husband hoping that his behavior will change is like praising your rebellious child hoping they’ll behave. Doesn’t make much sense. Instead, it sounds new age-y and like someone here referred to that New Age book The Secret.

    The advice I’ve heard in women’s Bible studies is this, “Just keep thanking God for your husband and speak those good qualities you want him to have in existence.” I’ve also heard, “You cannot change your husband’s behavior, but you can change yours.” This sounds like gaslighting to me. Put the responsibility on the wife to change. It’s up to her to think positively and say positive things to an abusive and/or selfish husband. Yes, we all have flaws and the only people we can change are ourselves. But when there is abusive and selfish behavior, the person who is doing the abusing or being plain selfish is the one who needs to work on changing. Also, the victim who is being victimized needs to learn how to set boundaries and try to escape and go to a domestic violence shelter if in a dangerous situation.

    I’m just so grateful I did not hear this advice until after I left my abusive marriage, but being told that if I marry someday, I may have to learn how to put up with a jerk and just take it. After all, quite a few Christian women I have known throughout the years have focused on changing themselves to fit into the mold of what their abusive spouses want.

    Two healthy people will have learned that praise is earned. You don’t praise a puppy who poops on the carpet. You praise them when they poop on the training pad or when they go outside.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Exactly, Laura!

      Reply
    • CB

      YES! It’s the law of attraction repackaged, essentially. Or Christian paganism. But it certainly isn’t Biblical.

      Reply
  8. Theresa

    Hi Sheila, I apologize that this comment/question doesn’t necessarily go with this blog post topic, but I’m not sure where to post my question so that I’m likely to get a response. I, like, Natalie Hoffman believed and was taught a lot of the same things. I am now challenging my previous understandings of a lot of Scripture. I love God’s Word and want to be faithful to it and handle it correctly.

    I would love it if you could do a blog/podcast on ‘headship’. If you already have, please send me a link. I’ve heard Rebekah say headship does not mean authority. That’s where I’m confused. She spoke as if the word authority was a nasty word; a husband having authority over his wife. She used it as a synonym for power. Which of course stated that way sounds awful: a husband having power over his wife. Yeah, nobody wants that. But could you help me understand why the word authority is a bad word? I see it as neutral, but something that can be abused for sure. God gave us power (authority) over our children. Just because my 10 year old son is a Christian and now my brother in Christ, I’m still his parent and can exercise my God-given authority (power) over my child, not abusive authority, but loving, benevolent servant-like authority over him. I’ve also been told the Greek work Paul used there was a military term implying an order or hierarchy. Hierarchy doesn’t have to be a bad thing does it? Who wants a military run by all generals? One blogger I read said that to define ‘Headship’ as ‘servant-leader’ is a complimentarian trap. It gives men all the responsibility without the authority, essentially neutering them. Jesus had both they argue. Is this true?

    Please hear my heart, I’m trying to understand. When you’ve believed Scripture to mean one thing for a long time, it’s not easy to just flip a switch. I want to be faithful to God’s word, and not biased by my own human desires. I love everything you write and the heart of Jesus comes through in your words.

    Reply
    • Maria B.

      Do you want an answer specifically and only from Sheila? Or would you be fine with hearing the thoughts of some random internet person (read: me) who thinks she can address some of your concerns?

      Reply
  9. CB

    Thank you for this article Sheila. I am in a painful season of separation from my husband who is addicted to porn. I am hoping he will choose to get fully honest with me and do the work he needs to do to root it out of his life forever. Some people in my life have given me the unhelpful “encouragement” that they are praying for a “quick reconciliation.” It makes me nauseated to talk to people with this naive, pie in the sky perspective. Needless to say I’ve had to set some serious boundaries.

    Reply
  10. Tim

    I think the problem with that Fierce Marriage post (and lots of similar things I’ve read elsewhere) is that it assumes without stating it that the advice applies only to essentially healthy marriages. I’m almost certain from context (and from listening to their podcast occasionally) that the author isn’t suggesting wives should lie to their husbands and say they’re trustworthy etc when it isn’t true. But he never says that and I can definitely see how women in unhealthy marriages could misinterpret the post in the way you’ve highlighted and end up in a worse situation.

    I was going to leave a friendly message there suggesting they clarify that but couldn’t figure out how to comment over there. Maybe you have to be a member.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      I think that’s exactly it. But we also know that the people listening to general advice marriage podcasts or sex podcasts actually tend to be more likely to have UNHEALTHY marriages which makes it so much more problematic! It’s understandable and all to just be writing to a specific audience, but when the audience you want to write for isn’t the same one as who’s listening, you run into big trouble.

      Great point, Tim.

      Reply

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