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.
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.
Wendy Alsup is the author of Practical Theology for Women, The Gospel-Centered Woman, and By His Wounds You Are Healed. She began her public ministry as deacon of women's theology and teaching at her church in Seattle, but she now lives on an old family farm in South Carolina, where she teaches math at a local community college and is a mother to her two boys. She also writes at gospelcenteredwoman.com. She is a member of a local church in the Lowcountry Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America.
Find her online at http://theologyforwomen.org/