Aimee and John were arguing even as they entered my counseling office. Aimee announced, “I just found out John’s been smoking again. I can’t believe it. What’s wrong with him?”
It was John’s turn to blast Aimee. “She treats me like I’m 15 years old. I know smoking is not good for me. I don’t smoke in the house and I don’t smoke when I’m around her, but don’t I have any say? I am sick of feeling like a scolded child.”
Every married woman discovers qualities and habits in her husband that she would love to change. It might be smoking, overeating, chronic messiness, forgetting to put the ATM receipts in the checkbook, or leaving the toilet seat up when you’ve asked him a million times to put it down.
If you’ve felt frustrated trying to improve your spouse only to fail again and again, let me suggest another approach. Instead of trying to change him, change you. Let me explain. It’s easy to love someone when he does everything he’s supposed to do and everything we want him to do when we want him to do it. That kind of love is idealized love, not mature love. Having a successful long-term relationship requires that we learn how to love our spouse when he doesn’t do everything we want him to do or doesn’t change some of the things we think he should change. This kind of love is much harder. It’s not the “feel in love” kind of love. It’s the “hard work” kind of love. One of the most powerful gifts this kind of love offers is the gift of acceptance.
Learning to accept our spouse’s imperfections, weakness, and, yes sometimes even sins, doesn’t mean we like a fault we see nor does it mean that we simply resign ourselves to a hopeless situation. However, true acceptance understands reality–that we are all creatures in process and that God isn’t finished with any of us yet. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we simply acknowledge our spouse’s faults but rather, that we stop resenting them. We stop trying to change him into someone we think he should be. We learn, sometimes under great duress, to be emotionally at peace where he is right now, all the while asking God to mature him (and us).
Here are three (3) things that you can work to change that will empower you to give the gift of acceptance to your spouse:
1. Stop playing Holy Spirit. We can learn how to be a better wife but understand this: we will always make a lousy god. God himself teaches us acceptance and why it’s so important. He says, “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). The Lord is patient with our faults and he wants us to learn to be like him. Instead of playing god, pray that your husband would listen to and obey God in the areas God (not you) wants changed.
2. Remember you have faults too. It’s often our pride and perfectionist tendencies that make us so impatient with the flaws of other human beings. We say things like, “I can’t believe you did that” or “How could you be so stupid”. We seem surprised when our spouse acts imperfectly, stupidly, or differently, as if somehow he isn’t ever suppose to do such a thing. Humility helps us accept our spouses’ shortcomings because we’re well aware of our own. We know that sometimes we too can be difficult to love and live with graciously. The apostle Paul encourages us to “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).
3. Focus on your spouse’s good qualities. I often tell my clients who feel disgruntled in their marriage; no one gets all 52 cards in the deck. Every spouse has shortcomings, faults, and weaknesses. When we dwell on them continuously, we will feel angry, disappointed and gypped. If you don’t want to feel those negative emotions, then you will need to intentionally change your focus. Look for your spouse’s good qualities instead of always dwelling on his bad ones. When Aimee began to remember John’s generosity, his kindness, his handiness around the house, and his sense of humor, she began to appreciate him all over again and the tension between them lessened.
We’ve heard the saying God loves us just as we are, but it’s probably more accurate to say that God loves us in spite of who we are. God’s love is not a reward for good behavior and it is not deserved or earned. Rather, his love is an extravagant gift. Because God has so loved us, we too can learn to love others this way, even when it’s hard.
**Please note, there are times where our spouse’s sin is so destructive to the stability of our marriage or our own safety that the gift of acceptance is not appropriate and a different gift of love is called for. In these situations, we may need to love our husband enough to give him the gift of truth as well as the gift of consequences so that he understands that the relationship will not survive without serious change.
** The gifts of love are explained in greater detail in Chapter 9 of my book How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong.