Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

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Ask Dr. David: True Love Requires Tough Love

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • 2006 23 Sep
Ask Dr. David: True Love Requires Tough Love

Dear Dr. David,

I have been married for several years and have two children. During our short marriage my wife has been unfaithful. She has repeatedly entered into inappropriate and destructive relationships. We are Christians and she knows this is wrong and hurts our marriage terribly. Each time this happens she blames me and says since I am the head of the house I have failed her in some way. While I partly agree with her, I cannot make choices for her. It seems like she has to take responsibility for what she has done and how her choices are destroying our marriage.
I have confronted my wife and she refuses to change. I have tried to love her unconditionally, but this only seems to be making things worse as she takes that as license to keep having affairs and hanging out with destructive people. I am wondering if she cannot change because of some emotional or spiritual problem, and what I can do to help. I know that God can work miracles, but my health and well-being are being affected.

--Need Help

Dear Friend,

There are a number of issues raised by your letter. Let’s look at them, one by one.
First, your wife does have a problem that needs attention. You note her repeated unfaithfulness and choosing destructive relationships. Not only are these poor choices stemming from, and leading to more emotional pain, but they are also sinful behaviors. The scriptures teach us to refrain from sexual immorality and stay away from those that would lead us into temptation. Often these destructive behaviors are also accompanied by drug and alcohol issues as well. Problems such as those you describe come in clusters—that is probably the case with your wife and she needs help desperately. Without significant intervention her problems are likely to continue, and perhaps worsen.
Second, I am troubled by her blaming the problem on you. While you are to be the spiritual head of the home, any failures in that regard do not give her license to be unfaithful. It is preposterous to think you are responsible for her acting out behaviors.
Third, I am concerned about your toleration of this chaos in your home. I am saddened that your children witness this chaotic behavior, and wonder how they are doing. You have an obligation, and responsibility, to shield them as much as possible from it, and to do anything less enables your wife to continue her destructive ways.
Finally, loving someone sometimes means tough love. It is not loving to stand by and watch someone walk a destructive path. The Apostle Paul asks a difficult question: "For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?" (Romans 6: 14) He goes on to admonish us to "purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God." (Romans 7: 1) Love demands making difficult choices for someone’s well-being. Your wife appears unwilling to make those tough choices for herself, and it’s time you did it for her, yourself and your children. What might that look like?
Tell your wife that you cannot, nor will not, tolerate the violation of the sanctity of your marriage by unfaithfulness. If she chooses to continue maintaining destructive relationships, you would need to separate from her. Affirm that you love and care for her, but must draw boundaries around your marriage and family. Take responsibility for your failures, but hold her responsible for hers. Let her know you are willing to seek counsel for your part of the marriage problems, and will listen to Godly counsel on the matter, but expect the same from her. While these are not easy decisions to make, they are sound and are taken for the welfare of all.

Dear Dr. David,

I am remarried and my husband has two children from a previous marriage, and I have three from my previous marriage. He is very close to his children and they are close to their mother. His children are fairly well-behaved while my children act like children much of the time, which gets on his nerves. He is critical of my parenting skills, and I am critical of his. His children are loyal to their mother, while my ex is not in the picture.
I understand that these are common differences and to be expected in stepfamilies. His children are very immature for their age and cling to him. My husband tells me that he will do whatever he needs to do to be a good father to his children, including divorcing if we cannot solve some of our conflicts about how to raise our children. He has told me that his children will always come first, and I don’t think that is fair to our marriage. It takes time for a stepfamily to adjust and I want him to understand that. Do you think it is right for him to threaten divorce if we disagree on how to raise our children?

--Living in Step

Dear Step,

Living in a stepfamily can be an extremely difficult challenge. There are many issues at work and it takes patience and new skills to navigate these challenges effectively.
No, I don’t think it is right to threaten divorce if you disagree on how to raise your children. In fact, differences in child-rearing are to be expected; after all, he has children he has been raising one way, yours have been raised another way. The challenge now, of course, is how to create a style of parenting that works for both of you.
Step-parenting takes a new set of skills. You must openly discuss your differences and be committed to acknowledging the strengths in each other’s parenting styles, as well as the strengths in each of your children. You must discuss and decide what role you will play in raising one another’s children. Some step-parents choose to play a limited role in disciplinary issues while others prefer complete co-parenting. There is no right way, though an important guideline is to take things slow and easy. Flexibility is also key. Challenging and criticizing one another will only create defensiveness and barriers; understanding leads to greater cooperation.
It is also important to involve all of the children in these critical decisions. Many stepfamilies find family meetings helpful in airing problems and seeking solutions, particularly when some of the children may be only part-time residents in the home. Children need to know the rules and what exactly is expected of them.
Finally, I strongly encourage getting counsel on how to navigate step-parenting waters. Don’t try to go this alone. I’ve seen too many families struggle far too long, and risk adversely affecting their marriage, before reaching out to a counselor who can help deal with the many challenges of step-parenting.

Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David will address two questions from Crosswalk readers in each weekly column. Submit your question to him at

David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including   Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.