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Withering Wives

There is a deeply concerning epidemic among Christian marriages. I wrote about this once before, but it’s come to my attention again, a devastating trend among friends and acquaintances in Christian marriages far and near. It’s what I call the Withering Wife.

Psalm 128

1 Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways!
2 You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.

3 Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.

This epidemic I am witnessing is the opposite of the beautiful vision of Psalm 128. At first, I saw it with one friend, then two, then four, and now it seems daily my attention is drawn to yet another wife in this condition. Instead of being a fruitful, flourishing vine, I watch my friend withering under the hot sun. No water comes her way, and instead there is cracking dry ground at her roots. Her leaves start to curl into themselves, and her vibrant color fades. She goes through the motions. She starts to shut down. She disengages from her husband emotionally. Why stay engaged in her marriage when she receives no encouragement or emotional support?

I note two things that contribute to this withering – active scorn and passive neglect by a husband.

Some husbands freely communicate to their wives their active scorn. They despise their wife, and she knows it. One friend shared with me how in the middle of a conversation in which her husband talked to her with scorn, he picked up the phone and completely changed his tone of voice to one of kindness and respect with the other party on the phone, and even in conflict at work on the phone, she heard a patient tone that he never used with her. She longed to hear him engage with her that way, but he felt free instead to despise and dismiss her with his tone of voice as well as his words. He talked to her in a way he would never use with anyone else.

Equally harmful (but easier to excuse) is passive neglect. This is when a husband simply ignores his wife’s needs. She may share tearfully that she is struggling, and the husband shuts her down with his lack of response. Or he says they will talk about it later, but he never brings it up again. In so doing, he communicates through his passivity that her emotional struggles are not worth him engaging. He sees her struggling with the children, but he doesn’t actively step in. He watches her frustrated work to keep the house in some order, but he treats her like a nag or control freak that she feels the kitchen should be cleaned or the laundry put away. I ache watching loved ones demoralized by being in partnership with someone who sees them struggling day after day, but the only way to get their spouse to engage is to have a near melt down.

Passive neglect and active scorn may start as two different responses. But I have seen them slowly coalesce into one unified, degrading beast in many marriages. This is the degradation of looking your wife in the eye, hearing her request, maybe even agreeing to it, and then never acting on what you said you would do. That isn’t a small problem, and husbands who do it (I believe) know the power such a thing has to demoralize and wound a wife. Husbands who do it do not fear the Lord. They do not honor God’s command to not lie. They sin grievously against their wife and their God with this lie.

We call such a thing “passive-aggressive.” That’s because, though the husband is passively not doing what he said he would do, the result is an active violation of the sanctity of his relationship with his wife. He lied to her. He looked her in the eyes, committed to something, and then conveniently found reasons to not follow through. He knows it will demoralize his wife, and he has added ammunition to use against his wife when she cries out against his lies to her by claiming she is an impatient nag or manipulator. He was always going to do it after the next round of video games, after the next football game was over.

Pastors, I hope you notice these trends in your churches, preach against them, and call husbands to repentance. In my medium size realm of family and friends, it’s a raging epidemic that is destroying many more marriages than adultery.

On the flip side, I also note strong marriages among loved ones. I see particularly in these marriages that husbands NOTICE. They are proactive. Notice what, you may ask? What are they proactive about? Well, that depends on the marriage. That depends on their wife! Peter exhorts husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way. In other words, understand your wife. Not all wives, but YOUR wife. It’s not generic to wives in general. It’s particular to your unique spouse. Know her loves. Know her gifts. Know her needs. Your wife’s needs aren’t necessarily going to be the same as whatever illustration your pastor gives in his sermon about his wife. Know the difference through intentional conversation and relationship with your wife.

None of this can be remedied without the gospel. Because a wife’s needs can quickly feel threatening to a husband’s identity, husbands must know who they are in Christ and be confident in their standing before God that puts Satan’s accusations to rest. A husband can’t find his identity in his wife any more than she can her husband. But if a husband is secure in Christ so that he does not feel threatened by his wife’s concerns, there is great room to know his wife even when her needs and gifts don’t at first fit a husband’s desires or expectations.

If you are at this crossroads, husbands, I wrote before on praying with your wives . This is such an easy, hopeful, helpful first step! Seriously, this is super easy and will minister a lot of grace to a withering wife. Even if it’s just once a week on a Saturday or Sunday morning, ask your wife, “What’s burdening you right now? What can I be praying for you?” Then right there with her, pray about it. That is an incredible ministry of grace to her in that moment. It’s water for her withering vine. If it’s something about you that’s stressing her, well, pray honestly with her about it. If you as a couple have any kind of faith, you must believe that you access supernatural help in that moment.

I don’t have a second step to offer, but I think it’s better if I leave the second step to the Spirit anyway who works after the first step in a couple’s heart according to their needs for their specific relationship. I am hopeful that if you pray with your wife, you will see movement in a good way.

This dynamic of course does not characterize all husbands and wives. Like I said, I know many great husbands of flourishing wives, and it is perhaps that I get to watch those healthy relationships that also helps me see dysfunction in others. And there are wives who likely need to notice their husbands. But today, husbands, I encourage you to look over at your wife and notice her. If she is withering, take the steps you need to stir up your own love and concern for her and then minister grace to her that will revive her. Christ in you equips you to minister this grace to her.

19 Responses to Withering Wives

  1. Gabe November 27, 2017 at 12:22 pm #

    Excellent, thank you for this. I would say praying with your wife is the MAIN step. As I pray for my wife (both with her and by myself), my heart changes toward her, and I naturally become more concerned and sensitive to her in the course of daily communication.

  2. Kellie November 27, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    Beautifully and profoundly sad, this is authentic admonition. I have passed it on …thank you.

  3. Barbara November 27, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

    Thank You, Dear Sister:

    I wondered when I would hear from a woman of God speak on this. I continue to
    walk out my “call” given to me from the Lord. It is difficult. But I will succeed
    with Jesus’s help.How can a beliving husband hate his wife?? This is happening
    in Christendom. Because husband’s are Pastors, Deacons, Leaders in the church.
    So. if the wife goes to the pastor or leader. She is not believed Yes, these husbands
    are in leadership. They are very well loved. They are one way in church or with the
    Saints and another at home.

  4. Monica November 27, 2017 at 7:22 pm #

    A couple of thoughts for your readers. One is that happiness in wealthy nations (that would be us) tends to be U shaped. (google “U-shaped curve of happiness”) If you are miserable and unhappy and you are in your early or mid 40s, or if your husband is miserable, hang in there, and consider hanging in there with him. This is a hard stage and age. We start getting cancer. Our parents start to die. Our children grow up and grow body hair. The horizon of our mortality is far off, but we know its there. And if your husband happens to be a white male who is not self-employed, realize that he is being told he is the problem with the world. It is hard for him to be told he is the problem with your world too. Recheck the whole love languages lens. When your spouse doubles down on the wrong-love language, he may feel like he is working hard to love you but you may feel like he doesn’t care that you are withering.

  5. Adrian C Keister November 29, 2017 at 10:08 am #

    Wonderful! Very convicting for me, alas.

  6. Tamie November 29, 2017 at 11:45 am #

    Good stuff Wendy. We Aussie Christians are talking a lot about abuse in marriage atm after a big investigation into the church’s mishandling of DFV conducted by our national broadcaster. I’m wondering whether you put this withering into the abuse category, or into one that’s unhealthy and ungodly but perhaps qualitatively different from abuse? There may be overlap, but wondering where your thinking is at on that?

    • Wendy November 29, 2017 at 2:35 pm #

      That’s a good question. Active verbal abuse is obvious. How to categorize passive-aggressive silence/neglect? I don’t know. I think the entire reason it is used is that it is such a sneaky sin.

    • Tamie November 29, 2017 at 8:41 pm #

      Yeah, I think I’m seeing two categories emerge among Christians, ‘normal sin in marriages’, and ‘abuse’, and it just seems way more complicated than that, but I find my thinking fuzzy. I’m not asking in order to tell women to ‘stay’, I’m asking to give some more language around the topic. In this case, withering suggests that the marriage is not dead yet, but also that she may need to leave if she’s to sustain her (emotional, spiritual, physical) life.

    • Wendy November 29, 2017 at 9:05 pm #

      Right. Withering implies hope still. Hope for the marriage and the individuals in the marriage. I like the idea that we are adding language that helps us precisely understand issues so that they can be accurately addressed. I particularly find the term passive-aggressive immensely helpful for identifying why the impact of some negligent act feels far worse than it at first seems on paper.

  7. Gary Sweeten November 29, 2017 at 7:00 pm #

    As a Marriage and Family Therapist, these issues are happening across the world. Successful relationships take work, training, skills, and coaching. I did a dissertation on interpersonal communication and have spent the last 40 years training Pastors and Lay people how to “Equip God’s people with relationship skills” that apply to mariage and Family life. Just as Preachers need training for preparing and presenting a great talk, so do we for relating to loved ones.

    Marriages can be saved, healed, and enlivened!

  8. David J. November 30, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    Wendy, a loving reaction here.

    Your post raises three concerns for me. The first is the husbands you’ve seen acting this way. There’s no excuse for it (there may be reasons — more on that below — but no excuse). Someone who observes this behavior needs to confront them about it — ideally a male friend, relative, or church leader, but if those haven’t seen the behavior or haven’t challenged it, then a female friend, relative, or church sister. My conviction is that most genuinely Christian husbands will either begin to repent when confronted by someone outside the marriage or at least be moved to seek help, for themselves and for the marriage. Confession: I was, at times, one of the husbands whose attitude and behavior would have contributed to such withering. I had reasons, humanly speaking. Neither neglect nor scorn (nor anger) was my primary emotion; they were secondary to hurt and perhaps other emotions. But in the face of my obligations as a Christian and as a husband, I was wrong. Regardless of my human reason(s), it was my responsibility to love her. I wish someone had called me on it, if anyone ever perceived it (I don’t know that anyone did). They would have been right to do so, and it would have made at least some difference.

    My second concern is the absence of any discussion of the number one most likely cause of such behavior from a Christian husband: his wife’s disrespect. Please note that I’m not saying that’s the only possible cause of a man’s bad behavior. In fact, my fiancé’s first marriage was to a man who claims to be a Christian but behaves like a classic narcissist; he neglected her for years, cheated on her early, and later cheated on her again (perhaps in between as well; it would not be a surprise). He is unrepentant for it all to this day. I’m sure there are too many others out there like him, as well as others who have other character flaws or pathologies that allow them to be that way. Most of the time, however, the withering behavior is not what would have occurred in the absence of pervasive disrespect. I can tell you men in general are insecure about their leadership — I’m convinced that’s part of the reason the Bible’s emphasis to wives is that they respect their husbands. Take that weakness and pair it with ongoing disrespect and it becomes paralyzing and debilitating. The disrespect takes a million forms — complaining (both about circumstances he can control and circumstances he can), criticism for failure (whether his fault or not), “I told you so,” raised eyebrows, jokes to others, put downs, and, yes, nagging, plus — the absolute worst — criticism or even mockery in front of the kids, and more. Ask any husband and he can tell you exactly what his wife does to cut him off at the knees. It’s no surprise that our secular culture encourages this kind of disrespect, but our church culture does as well. Too long a discussion to get into here. Over time, the husband gives up and withdraws (hence the passive neglect). He’s also angry (hence the active scorn). There will be fights when he defends himself, but he learns those are pointless so they happen a lot less often than he gets disrespected. He knows he should love her anyway, and sometimes a sermon or an article or a radio show will rouse him to try. Sometimes he just misses the way things used to be or should be, and that rouses him to try. For some reason, though, even extended periods of trying have no real impact on the disrespect. It really does become the case (or seems to) that nothing is ever good enough. Again, I speak from personal experience, whether that strengthens or weakens my point.

    My third concern is how quickly discussion of divorce crops up as a response to the withering you see. You mention that this problem destroys more marriages than adultery. If so (and I’m not disagreeing with you), who is the one who files for divorce, which makes the destruction permanent and irreversible? Three out of four times, it will be the wife. Is this withering a biblical ground for divorce? Under the historic orthodox understanding, absolutely not. Under another understanding that still takes the Bible seriously as the only authority on the issue, perhaps, but only at the end of a biblical church discipline process. How many Christian wives actually go through a church discipline process before filing for divorce? Very few. Instead, they go with the flow of the culture and, probably, their Christian friends’ advice (or at least permission). There are many responses to withering behavior from a Christian husband short of divorce — requesting intervention from friends or relatives; requesting intervention from church leaders; seeking counseling; and so forth. Personal experience again: I wished I could divorce my wife because of the way she treated me for many years; ultimately, our Christian marriage counselor advised that I had biblical grounds (the disrespect wasn’t the sole issue). For a time, I was moving toward a 6-month separation in the hopes that it would jog progress that wasn’t occurring otherwise; but I ultimately decided not to pursue even that, much less a divorce. I knew I could not be responsible for the damage that would do to the kids, as well as the body of Christ. I’ve said too much. My main concern on this point is that wives who read your post will not be prompted to seek help or church intervention, but will feel confirmed in any already-existing wish for a divorce. Comments on the post have raised the possibility of treating this withering behavior as straight out abuse and as extra-biblical grounds for divorce (“she may need to leave if she’s to sustain her (emotional, spiritual, physical) life”). Those impulses are contrary to scripture; see I Peter 3:1-2 regarding living with husbands who don’t obey God’s word.

    Sorry for the length.

    • Liz December 2, 2017 at 8:38 pm #

      David, I have to point out that your second paragraph sounds a lot like, “Well, they started it,” (a phrase I hear often enough from my 3yr old and 6yr old). There are surely ways wives wrong their husbands, also, but I don’t think it’s productive to try to ascertain which came first, and certainly not to suggest that one behavior excuses another. I don’t believe the Bible says, “Husbands love your wives (but only if they’re showing you enough respect).” Particularly as husbands are to reflect Christ- I know Christ didn’t wait for adequate respect from the Church prior to loving.

  9. Jen November 30, 2017 at 9:54 pm #

    This is my mom. My dad has emotionally abused her so much over the 40 years of their marriage that she’s a shell of a person. (He outright calls her stupid, dummy, etc. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.) To survive she’s developed the emotional maturity of a child. I hate to say these things but they’re true. I love my mom so much. But I begged her to divorce him.

    • Wendy November 30, 2017 at 10:02 pm #

      I’m sorry, Jen. That’s very troubling and sad.

  10. Mia December 3, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing about this. Until recently i didn’t know there was anything out there about this kind of thing. I will never forget the time that i was with the worship team and the worship pastor’s wife came by, and when they talked together, i was taken a back by how he spoke to her. He looked at her when she spoke and his voice was kind. I was so accustomed to the way it had been in my own life for so many years. This article puts to words exactly what i experienced. It was very hurtful.

  11. SBPQ December 5, 2017 at 6:04 pm #

    The example in this article was spot on a description of my Ex. But I would label him passive-dependent, instead of passive-aggressive, as he would not do anything unless I told him when, why, how, etc. Not sure how I was supposed to respect that. I tried. I also talked to him repeatedly about it. No response/reaction. Finally after 5 years went to counseling. The counselor said, she’s right. You are a bump on the log. Quit going to counseling when nothing changed. Resolved to remain in a a miserable marriage for the boys. Then my neighbor assaulted me and it was easier for my passive-dependent husband to blame me than to confront evil and pursue justice. And there, David, is why this needs to stop. Men need to man up. I begged and begged. He chose not to. And there, David, is where the question becomes: at what point is neglect abuse? And women can take it to the church or to a counselor, but even then you can take a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. It’s wicked to marry a woman and then abuse or neglect her. And why is divorce allowed, speaking of orthodoxy, for adultery, but not assault? Why is divorce ok for a woman whose husband cheats on her, but not a husband who beats on her? Or lets another man beat her? That, too, is easier to excuse. In both cases, the husband has broken his vow. Why must a woman share her body with a man who won’t share his body to protect her? Isn’t marriage mutual sacrifice for mutual benefit? Isn’t a man supposed to love his wife like he loves his own body. And David, I agree with Liz, it’s like you are saying “She started it.” Are you sure your name is not Adam?

  12. M December 5, 2017 at 9:12 pm #

    James 3:13 – 18
    13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.
    16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

    During this time in marriage,it’s helpful.

    • M December 5, 2017 at 9:14 pm #

      That was meant to say, it’s been helpful to me, 🙂

  13. maxine December 11, 2017 at 8:46 am #

    Thank you so very, very much for this article. I couldn’t stop the tears as you described the passive aggressive behavior of some husbands. My husband passed away some years ago but I still live with the guilt I feel for not loving him the way a wife is supposed to. He was a pastor and would turn the world upside down to meet the needs of others but ignored me when I tried to explain that I was emotionally and spiritually perishing. Maybe I can now start to forgive myself. God bless you!