What if your husband isn’t motivated by your pain?
What if he’s only motivated by his?
Many wives live with great frustration because they keep telling their husbands that something he is doing (or not doing) is causing them great pain, but the husband never changes. This confuses the wife. She thinks, “If I knew I was doing something that was really hurting him, I’d stop it as soon as I found out. Why won’t he?”
The answer, according to my friend Dr. Melody Rhode (a gifted marriage and family therapist), is “functional fixedness.” This phrase describes a man who will never be motivated by his wife’s pain; he’s only motivated by his pain. For change to occur, he has to feel his own discomfort. He doesn’t like hearing you tell him you’re not happy; in fact, it probably irritates him. But if the pain necessary for him to change is greater than the pain of putting up with your occasional expressed frustration, he simply endures the verbal outbursts as “the cost of being married” and will put the entire episode out of his mind as soon as it’s over.
Because it’s painful for him to remember the conversation and he wants to avoid pain at all costs!
(For the men reading this post, it’s certainly true that women as well as men can fall prey to functional fixedness. The reason I’m describing husbands here is because I first broached the issue in my book Sacred Influence and have since had women write to me for more clarification. So don’t be insulted. Just flip the gender and the principles will be roughly the same.)
According to Dr. Rhode, men don’t normally change if what they’ve been doing appears to work for them. For example, when a woman allows her husband to treat her with disrespect, he has no motivation to change—and so it’s unlikely he ever will.
“There’s a simple question I ask wounded women who seek help to endure belittling or degrading treatment from their man: ‘Why does your husband treat you badly? Answer: because he can.’”
This is not, in any way, to blame a woman for the abuse, but to develop a new understanding in order to map out a different future.
Melody continues, “If what he’s doing is working for him, why change? He needs a compelling reason to change and it needs to be more compelling than your unhappiness or private misery with the situation.”
A God-fearing man would be motivated to change simply by understanding that his actions or inactions hurt you. But you may be married to a man who doesn’t care if his actions hurt you, so long as he gets what he wants. In such cases, allowing the behavior while complaining about it won’t change anything so long as the husband keeps getting his way. Remember, with such men it’s not your pain that motivates him, it’s his pain. You have to be willing to create an environment in which the status quo becomes more painful than positive change (we’ll discuss suggestions for doing this in the next blog post; this post is focused on the spiritual dynamics behind the problem).
Here’s what’s going on spiritually. Melody points out that “functional fixedness” in men is rooted in the fall—our remaining selfishness and sin nature. Many men never connect their spiritual conversion with how they relate to their wives. “For the most part, men do not experience a conversion, transformation, a renewing of the mind, in their relationship to Jesus and the Holy Spirit that changes the way they see their wives and themselves in relationship to their wives. In the old nature men are desensitized to their wives, clued into their own natures and the fallen bent toward wanting their own way. This could mean simply ignoring their wives or being unresponsive to their wives’ feelings and needs, or it could expand to the extreme of dominance, oppression and abuse.
“Functional fixedness might be equivalent to what the Bible calls being ‘stiff necked’ people or ‘darkened in their own thinking,’ even ‘hard hearted.’ Having eyes, they don’t see the woman in front of them except in relation to their own feelings and needs (i.e., Is she sexy or fat?). Having ears, they don’t hear the woman they are married to except as it pertains to them (Is she nagging or affirming me? Saying something I want to hear or something I want to shut out?). The real problem here is that women can’t change this. The problem lies with the man. It is his uncircumcised heart and unrenewed mind that sees his wife as a ‘self-object’ and her pain as something to be avoided, silenced, ignored or even harshly treated.”
Do you understand what Melody is saying? You’re thinking, “How can I get my husband to be more sensitive?” while your husband is thinking, “How can I end this conversation that is causing me pain?” He doesn’t want your pain to stop; he wants his pain to stop. This is because his heart hasn’t been renewed. He is a stranger to agape love. Putting someone else’s needs above his own doesn’t even occur to him because he does not have a sacrificial heart or mindset. Your call for him to sacrifice simply because something he is doing hurts you is like asking a soldier to fire a weapon he doesn’t possess.
If your husband is mired in functional fixedness, any appeal to empathy is futile. He is spiritually incapable of empathy. Again, he will be motivated by his pain, not yours.
Here’s what Melody says needs to happen spiritually: “Christ calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, which means to take on the suffering of others, particularly wives who we are told are members of our own body. We see very clearly the depth to which Jesus Christ has taken residence in a man by the sensitivity he develops toward his wife who is different than him and has a whole world of pain and feeling that he is naturally unresponsive to. This whole interface reflects how thin or superficial many Christian men’s relationship with their savior is. I think it is a cry for help we women are sounding to herald the need for flaming revival in the hearts and minds of our men.”
Men, let me talk to you for a second here: Let’s take Melody’s words to heart. The depth of God’s work in our souls is demonstrated by the level of compassion, concern and care we have for our wives and their pain. To be hard-hearted toward our wives reveals a hard-heartedness toward God.
I agree one hundred percent with Melody that the problem isn’t marital; it’s spiritual. The husband’s conversion hasn’t affected the way he looks at himself or his wife. He is still motivated by selfishness.
What can a woman do? Melody (who has specialized in working with women who are married to narcissists) suggests the following: “Women need to quit being bent to their husbands for their worth and validation; that’s the female result of the fall. They need to be helped to know God as their husband, provider and protector, and not to be expecting this from their husbands. If they believe in the Kingdom of God, they need to pray blessings on their spouses and that God will captivate them, wrestle them down by the brain to transform them from being selfish peacocks or thugs to love the Lord and then demonstrate that love by being kind, gentle, sensitive and compassionate to their women.”
To the men reading this, we can construct a helpful grid. How close are you to God? How godly are you? We can measure it by asking how kind are you to your wife? How gentle are you with her? How sensitive and compassionate are you at home? These are the markers of God’s Spirit in a man’s soul. To receive Christ is to receive the spirit of the suffering servant who puts others’ needs above his own. To not care about another’s suffering or to increase another’s suffering isn’t the work of Christ; it’s the mark of his enemy.
For women, this spiritual reality means that you need to adopt a long-term view of change that will be internal and spiritual before it is external and marital. More than simply praying for a change in the way your husband treats you, pray for a change in his heart toward God. In the end, that’s the most effective way for him to change the way he treats you and looks at you. He’s spiritually bent, so that needs to be your focus before God. Instead of trying to “fix your marriage,” ask God to overwhelm your husband’s soul with the presence of the Suffering Servant, Jesus.
Take your focus off yourself for just a moment and place your energy and efforts on how you can you influence your husband to go deeper in the Lord. Can you encourage him to get involved in a circle of men who will challenge him? Can you help him find a local church that impacts him? Are you just attending the church you like, or is it a church where he feels at home, where he can connect with the teachers, where he comes alive spiritually? That might mean changing churches.
Can you ask him to read a Christian book that will kindle the fire in his soul, promising him something special in return? Maybe he won’t read a book—will he occasionally read a blog with you, as long as you find a way to make it interesting? He may not be seeking spiritual inspiration, so you may have to do it for him.
There are so many gifted teachers today online. If you can’t find one in your hometown who motivates your husband, go to the digital world and see if there is one with whom your husband can “connect.” Personally, I listen to about three to five sermons on any given week. You don’t, as a couple, have to put God “aside” when you get home from church on Sunday afternoon. As you’re driving, doing the dishes together and just sitting having a cup of coffee on Saturday morning, take 35 to 40 minutes (most sermons last no longer than that) and get a special “boost” from God’s word.
If your husband won’t do any of this, then you have to keep praying (not as a last resort—I’m recommending praying as a first response, too) for God to soften his heart. Join with other women to plead with God to bring a revival amongst the men in your community.
Also accept some responsibility. When you marry a man with a hard heart, it might take a long time for the heart to soften, but don’t forget—you chose this man. It won’t serve you at all to accuse God for choosing this man for you. I’ve addressed this in other blog posts (God Didn’t (and Won’t) Tell You to Marry Your Spouse). You need God on your side as an encouragement; nothing will be gained by becoming His accuser.
Settle in and take the long-term view. In Sacred Influence, I tell the story of a woman who was married to an unbeliever for over two decades before he became a Christian. In some cases, a husband’s heart may never soften. Choices—including the choice of who we marry—have consequences.
I sincerely hope that offering such a stark description of the spiritual heart of a man won’t discourage you; in reality, nothing is as discouraging as empty promises designed to sell books and tickle ears. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Trying to get a dead or luke-warm spiritual heart to be white hot requires a deep spiritual transformation. If a man is infatuated and the sexual chemistry is high, he’ll change. But it will last only as long as the infatuation and sexual chemistry does. Many of you have witnessed this firsthand (and often the change is superficial, lasting only as long as it takes to get married).
Having said this, there are a few practical things you can do in your marriage to help address functional fixedness while you wait for a spiritual transformation. That will be the subject of my next blog post. For this one, I just want to state the problem and emphasize that it’s spiritual. Until you understand what’s really going on, you won’t be able to address it in an effective way. Put your effort into pursuing a spiritual change for your husband (or your wife). That’s where you need to start.
I know there’s a lot of pain out there. Before God, I pray that these words will bring a little bit of healing at least in the way of understanding what’s going on, even though they will not resolve the problem.
In the meantime, if you’re into books and want a longer discussion of this issue, check out Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of their Husbands
This article originally appeared here.