Over the course of about seventeen years, I read or was told the following advice, repeatedly, regarding how to be a better wife in my difficult marriage:

Cook more.
Submit more.
Respect more.
More sex.
Clean more.
Keep your mouth shut more (i.e. nag/criticize less).
Date more.
Read your Bible more.
Praise more.
Go to counseling more.
Serve more.
Forgive more.
Overlook more.
Trust more.
Take out your own planks more.
Pray more.

More, more, more. Basically, be a better version of yourself. Be less of who you actually are. Try harder. If you do fill-in-the-blank, he might not fill-in-the-blank so much. And whatever you do, do not point out flaws…because you are quite the disrespectful sinner, you know.

So, dear pastors, do you know what I did for over seventeen years, albeit very imperfectly? I tried to cook more, submit more, respect more, have sex more, clean more, keep my mouth shut more, date more, read my Bible more, go to counseling more, praise more, serve more, forgive more, overlook more, trust more, take out my own planks more, pray more.

And do you think my marriage got better? No. No, it did not. It got worse. Much, much worse.  

Do you know what message that list sends? Your marriage is up to you. Not that your marriage is up to both of you, but since you’re the one coming for help and asking, we’re going to assume you’re the stronger one spiritually and therefore, turning this thing around is squarely on your shoulders. This is all on you.

If someone comes to you in what I call a regular marriage, sure, give them that lovely little list. Go for it. More power to you, and them. It may work. If they’re just in a funk, yep, take a weekend away to rekindle that fire. If they can’t get passed some issue like whether to have another child, absolutely, try counseling for a while.

However, I have heard over and over and over again of women going to their pastors or someone at church for help when being abused or when addiction was a part of their realities and time and time again - just like me – there were given that list of mores.

I am sure you meant well. I am sure you didn’t think you were sweeping anything under the rug. I am sure you didn’t mean to perpetuate her abuse or her spouse’s addiction. I am sure you didn’t realize that you were basically patting her on the head and sending her right back into a war zone. I am sure you didn’t mean to possibly put her in more harm or actually make things worse.  

But that list above not only WILL NOT HELP this kind of woman in this kind of marriage, it will more than likely HURT HER and her husband. It will keep the abuse going. It will keep the addiction going. It will keep the sin going. And as a pastor, you probably already know this, sin does not just go away on its own. In fact, abuse and addiction and sin, when left unchecked, just get worse.  

(May I also suggest you steer clear of comments like, “God hates divorce,” “you don’t have grounds,” “I’ve heard worse,” or “well, you’re doing all this counseling on your own and your marriage is the same…shouldn’t that tell you something?”)

So if a woman comes to you for help who is in a marriage where abuse or addiction take center stage, you need to give her a different list. There absolutely must be a different list.

And here’s just an idea of how that conversation could start:

I am so sorry for your pain. I hear you. I believe you. Marriage is not supposed to be like this. I want to help both you and your husband.  

How long have these behaviors been going on?

Do you believe your husband has an addiction? If yes, have you tried AlAnon or Celebrate Recovery? If yes, is it affecting your finances? His health? Your safety? Your sanity?  

Here’s a copy of the power wheel of control & abuse. Looking at it, how many of these issues do you see in your marriage?

Has your husband hurt you or your children physically or sexually? If yes, do you feel unsafe? If yes, do you have a place to stay? If no, do you need help looking for a place?

Would you be comfortable starting a record of what-have-you (names he calls you and how often, how much alcohol he seems to be going through, upsetting behaviors like locking himself in his office for hours then changing all the passwords on his computer, etc.), so we can get an idea of what we’re dealing with?

Listen, I know this is messy. I know both sides need to be taken into account. I know sometimes people lie or their perceptions are skewed.

But I also know this. If a woman is going to her church for help a) you are probably her last resort, no offense, and, b) she is probably only scratching the surface of what’s really going on.  

Please, please. I am literally begging you to do this better. There are too many women languishing in their Christian marriages. We must take this seriously. We must listen. We must believe. We must stand up against abuse and addiction and sin. And we must protect women and children in the name of Jesus.

Additional resources:

(c) Elisabeth K. Corcoran, 2013

Elisabeth is mom to Sara (17) and Jack (15-1/2). She loves spending time with her kids, her friends, reading and writing. She is the author of At the Corner of Broken & Love; One Girl, Third World; He Is Just That Into You; In Search of Calm: Renewal for a Mother’s Heart; and Calm in My Chaos: Encouragement for a Mom’s Weary Soul. All these books can be purchased on Amazon.com. Her newest book, Unraveling, released with Abingdon Press in October.

Visit her website and her blog.

If you are in a difficult marriage or find yourself going through a difficult divorce, I have created two private groups on Facebook that I would like to invite you to. Simply email me at elisabethkcorcoran@gmail.com for more information.

Elisabeth is a proud Member of Redbud Writer's Guild and has been featured on Moody’s In the Market with Janet Parshall, This is the Day with Nancy Turner, and Midday Connection with Anita Lustrea

Publication date: November 8, 2013