In a discussion based on his book Loving Him Well, Gary Thomas offers wives practical advice for influencing their husband when he seems unwilling to change.
End of Excerpt
John Fuller: Gary Thomas has a powerful reminder to wives about how you can positively influence your husband. And he’s our guest today on Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, I’ve got a big smile on my face because I think every wife just leaned in to say, “Okay, I’ve been looking for those answers of how I can positively impact my husband.” Um, the next couple of days, we’re gonna cover this topic, and it’s going to be good. It’s so easy for us to get discouraged in our marriages and feel like our spouse is, uh, never going to change. You know, “I’ve been talking to him about this for so long.” Uh, but I think you’re really gonna be encouraged because Gary’s going to lift up some unique ways, maybe ways you’ve never thought of, that God would want you to approach this. And I’m looking forward to it too, because I think we as husbands, we want to be all we can be for you wives. But sometimes we need it spelled out for us - maybe most of the time, maybe all the time you need to spell it out for us. I think we’re going to be blessed and inspired and educated.
John: And, uh, Gary is always a popular guest here. He’s a best-selling author. He’s a writer in residence and a member of the teaching team at Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. And he and his wife Lisa have been married over 30 years and have three grown children. We’re gonna be talking a little bit today about his book,. And of course, we have copies of that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: Gary, welcome back to Focus. Good to have you as always.
Gary: Oh, it’s always great to be here.
Jim: Gary, this is perhaps the million-dollar question. I’m not sure. I’m - we may have a few million-dollar questions in here. But is it really possible to change a husband? Let’s go there.
Gary: I like to use the word “influence” your husband, but we have to put it in the right context. Let me put it as a husband with his wife. If I try to turn my wife into a love-Gary-like-he-wants-to-be-loved machine, that’s the height of narcissism. But if I want to influence her so that she becomes all that God has called her to be in Christ, that’s a holy pursuit. It says that Christ loved the church, and part of that was wanting to make her holy. So it is a good desire to see your spouse grow into the person God created them to be. It can be an evil desire if you’re trying to turn them into that love-me-like-I-want-to-be-loved machine. Motivation is everything here.
Jim: Right. The difficulty in that, though, is we are born in this world as selfish creatures.
Jim: That’s the sin nature that we all possess, whether you’re a husband or a wife.
Jim: So how - how do you get to the point where you can overlook or put asunder those selfish attitudes and really look out for the best interest of your spouse?
That’s the other million-dollar question.
Gary: I think it begins by dreaming with God about who He wants our spouse to be. So it’s not just us, but we’re sitting at the feet of Jesus and saying, “Who do you want him or her to be as a worker, as a husband, or as a wife, as a friend, as a son, or as a daughter?” And saying, “How do I participate with what you’re already doing in their life?” And you might be surprised. God may take it into a direction - one of the things I mentioned here to just kind of give some perspective because some might say, “If my husband was just a more committed Christian, life would be so much easier, it’d be more fun, it - it would be better.”
Jim: Now you’re ticking off the list. “If he was...”
Jim: ...You know...
Jim: “...Spiritually leading in our family...”
John: “He’d pick up after himself.”
Jim: Okay, we got the list down, don’t we?
Gary: But then I use the story of John Bunyan, who, when he married his wife - his first wife died. So he married her, and he had several children already. He was put in jail for preaching the gospel without a license. And in those days, when you were in jail, they didn’t feed you, and they didn’t clothe you. If you didn’t have family that came and took care of you, you were in trouble. So here’s a young wife, barely married, having to bring his food to the prison every day, having to care for his kids. And in fact, because he wouldn’t stop preaching the Gospel, he was in prison as much as he lived with her outside of prison. So it’s possible that supporting our spouse and who they would be in Christ can make life more difficult.
Gary: That’s why, again, we want to look at the motivations. It’s not about us. That’s narcissism. It’s about them being released to be the person that God created them to be.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s go back to the changing versus the influencing. Um, what is the difference? Let’s be really clear about that. What is the attitude of “I’m gonna change my husband” versus the attitude of “I’m going to influence him”?
Gary: I believe Biblical influence - and here’s - the challenge and the rub comes from setting the example. Paul says, “The stronger gives way to the weaker.” He says, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Throughout the Bible, you see that the best way to influence someone is to be what you want them to be. Let that be contagious. Let it invite them into a new way of thinking. The best way for me to stop gossiping is when I see a person, in a very holy way, turn a conversation toward encouragement and blessing.
I’m convicted. They never say “What are you doing?” They just go completely different way - I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that - that is better.” And so change - the danger of change is that many things won’t change. I think it was John Gottman that said about 60 percent of the issues that bug a spouse will never change in a marriage. That’s why when you marry somebody, you marry somebody as they are, and some things won’t change. When I’m working with premarital couples, I go through this. So we’ll talk about what’s most frustrating or whatnot. And some of those things, I’ll point out, “This will never change. This person will never care if they’re on time or not.”
Jim: See, I must be an optimist. When I hear you say that, I’m going, “Wow, 40 percent can change? That’s great!”
Jim: I’m all in. I’m thinking that’s fantastic.
Gary: That’s not the interpretation John Gottman was going for! It was that there - there is a level of acceptance, and there is a level - I think the best marriages, we learn to accommodate that. And I see that now. Lisa and I are in the empty-nest years with a lot of couples that are in the empty-nest years. And we’re - when we’re comfortable with each other and accepting of each other, it changes the dynamic of marriage. You can rest a little bit in each other’s presence. That’s a much more pleasant place to be in marriage.
Jim: Here - here’s another big question. And this - seriously, this is a big one. Um, what does God want for women in their marriages?
Gary: I believe what God wants for women in their marriages begins before their marriage - recognizing who they are as God’s daughter, to receive His love, to receive His power, to receive His affirmation and gifts and pour that grace and mercy and love and courage out on their spouse first and their kids second. One of the things I stress - if you want to influence your husband, you have to take a step back and be influenced by God. You can’t influence somebody that you’re afraid of irritating. You can’t influence somebody that you’re afraid of making angry. So a woman needs to know that she’s affirmed by God every day, that she matters, not because her husband proposed to her, but because God adopted her, that she’s beautiful in God’s eyes, not because her husband is still attracted to her, but according to Colossians 3:12, God chose her and loves her dearly, that she’s secure, not because her husband still wants to be with her and is helping to contribute to the family income, but God said, “I will meet all of your needs.” You need that platform of security to reach out and influence someone because guys are influenced by people they respect. If I’m playing golf, and another guy can barely break 100, and he tells me I’m gripping my club too tightly, I’m like, “Who cares what you think?”
Jim: You’re really hitting me where it hurts.
Gary: Right. But I got the great opportunity to play golf one time with two professional golfers - Jonathan Byrd and Zach Johnson. If Zach says, “Gary, you’re holding your club a little too” - I’m listening. I mean, Zach knows what he’s talking about. And so to be an agent of influence is to be someone who is receiving from God on a daily basis because you won’t take the risk if your happiness, your sense of security, your sense of well-being depends on what your husband thinks about you at any given moment. Your husband’s a fallen man, and he might be angry with you when he shouldn’t be angry with you. He might be impatient with you when you didn’t do anything wrong. And so I would say His desire is for the woman to become God-centered first so that she could really be an agent of His love toward her husband.
Jim: Well, and again, it sounds easy, straightforward. This is the right thing to do. This is what we talk about in terms, as a Christian, to be rooted in Christ and have a foundation in Him for our identity. You’ve said that very clearly. But it’s really tough to put into practical, uh, you know, everyday life. And how do we prevent ourselves, both husbands and wives, from making marriage an idol? Particularly women, I think emotionally they’re expecting a lot out of this relationship at times - more than husbands can deliver? I’m not letting husbands off the hook. I’m just saying this is reality.
Gary: Yeah. It’s a great point, Jim. And here’s how I’ve avoided the idol - well, how I pushed back against making marriage an idol. I try to love my wife out of worship to her heavenly Father. One of my goals - I fall so far short of this everyday, but it’s a goal - I’m aiming toward it - is that I want God to say to his angels, “I wish other husbands would love their wives the way my son Gary loves my daughter Lisa.” I want to please God with how I treat Lisa. And so the way I keep from making it an idol, the way I keep from trying to turn Lisa into a love-Gary-like-he-wants-to-be-loved machine is to please first my Heavenly Father. “God, are You happy with how I handled my wife in that situation? If she’s having a bad day, did I give her grace?” Sometimes you just gotta let somebody have a bad day.
Jim: That’s a great word picture.
Gary: I mean, or does she need encouragement? Because maybe she’s being taken for granted by her kids or her friends. Maybe I really see a way that God can use her, and she’s letting fear hold her back, and she just needs loads of affirmation. Maybe she’s going through a sickness, and I want her to know, “It’s not a burden to care for you, it’s my greatest joy. I’m here. I want you to focus on just getting well. You spent your whole life serving others. Let us serve you at this point.” But it really is, at the end of the day: “Lord, are you happy with how I loved Your daughter?” And I think that’s the adage. And I don’t know how it could ever be an idol because you’re serving the One True God by loving your spouse.
Jim: Gary, in your book, you have an observation of Napoleon Bonaparte, which, when you think about it, I think a lot of military academies probably lean on him for military strategy and genius, not so much for marriage advice. Um, how did his relationship with his wife catch your notice?
Gary: Well you know, Jim, having read through it, Napoleon Bonaparte can teach us what not to do...
Jim: In so many ways.
Gary: ...As much as what to. He was a narcissist of the highest order, and he was vicious, at times, to his wife when she showed weakness. He said, “I need you to be strong. The - the Empress needs to show her strength.” But what we can learn from that is that the husband’s need really is for the strongest wife possible - that that’s the best way to bless your husband - to become strong in the Lord, to become strong in your character. The only thing you can absolutely change in your marriage - we talked earlier about influence - the one person you can change is yourself. And as you change yourself, you bring blessings into your marriage, and you can learn - you know what? “How do I learn to respond to an impatient husband in a holy way? How do I learn to dissipate my husband’s anger?” You’re not excusing his impatience. You’re not excusing his anger. But you’re learning - “How do I become stronger myself so that I can handle it?” What amazed me is that no one’s ever been as holy as Jesus, and yet no one was ever let down or taken for granted or assaulted or attacked or maligned more than Jesus was. And yet, He never had this poor-me attitude. He never said to His disciples, “Hey, what are you gonna do for me? You know, I’m - I’m...”
Jim: “Look what I’m doing for you.”
Gary: “...I do all these miracles. I heal.” And - and it’s just amazing how because He was so centered in who God is that, um, Ge was strong enough. So again, the platform for influence is strength. And that’s what I think husbands look at. I don’t - you know, I hate to talk in stereotypes because every marriage is its own story. But since I get together with guys a lot, they love to brag about their wives. They look...
Gary: They look up to that. And it might be different things. She might be a great athlete. She might be great with money. She might be a great law - lawyer. She might know her Bible backwards and forwards. She just might be so social, you know, and if the husband particularly is a big introvert, that - that can be a big thing. But ultimately, I think that’s what you’re looking at. As you seek to influence your husband, say, “What am I bringing to the equation here?” Because it’s never - you don’t want to get to the point where “Our marriage will be better when you get your act together.” It’s always got to be the both-and: “I’ll improve my marriage when I improve me.”
Jim: But let’s highlight that because that’s an easy way for our flesh to take us: “When you get your act together, then we’ll be a better couple because my act is already together.” What about for that woman - and I’m sensitive to this - for the woman who is trying hard? She’s the wife that has been doing some of these fundamentals that we’ve talked about in the first part of the program here. But there is that feeling like, “I’m the only one putting effort into this.” So speak to that woman who says, “Okay, Gary, I hear what you’re saying. You know, I got to be the best me I can be in Christ. But, man, I’ve been doing that, and it still ain’t there.” Excuse the grammar.
Gary: Let me make a distinction here, Jim, because I think it’s important. I do believe, as painful as it is for me to say this, that there - rather than trying to save some marriages, there are some marriages that women need to be saved from. In the case of real abuse or dangerous situations, uh, I don’t want a woman to hear this and say, “Okay, I just need to - to focus on myself.” So let’s acknowledge it now. But I...
John: Good distinction, yeah.
Gary: ...I interviewed a number of women. One of them was a woman that I think is similar to the type of woman you’re describing. Her husband was so uninvolved at home. It was so frustrating. He was always fishing. And then she kept talking about it. He says, “Well, fishing season is almost over,” forgetting to tell her that hunting season comes right after fishing season. And then he was so involved in work, and she was so disappointed. She said, “I’m ashamed to admit this but I found myself praying, ‘Lord, I hope he’ll have an affair or die, so there’s a biblical way out.’“ She saw...
Gary: ...No way...
Gary: ...For her marriage to be improved or saved. And she was just miserable. But as a committed believer, she felt like, “Well, I don’t have a reason to leave. He’s not abusing me. He hasn’t been unfaithful.” And she prayed through it. And this will seem severe to some, so I just want to acknowledge that as we go in. She came up with what she called the magic question. And it was a shock. She went - he came home, and she said, “What do you want me to do for you that I’m not doing?” She hated asking that question. She pushed back with the Lord, saying “He should be asking me that question! There are a dozen things he should be doing that he’s not.” And his answer made her even angrier. He said, “I want you to be in a better mood when you get home.” And she said, “Look, ask me to do more laundry, ask me to paint the house, ask me to replace the roof. Don’t ask me to be in a better mood. If you had my life, you wouldn’t be in a better mood either.” But she realized, “You know what? I make him pay for my frustration. Every time he comes home, I let him know how unhappy I am, how frustrated I am with everybody.” And so she said, “Okay, I just - God put this in my mind. I’m just gonna try to do it.” And she did it.
And then she asked him again, and He gave her something else that had to do with the kids. And at first, again, she was - “You’re the absent father, and you’re telling me how to be a better mother?” But what he said was true, and it renewed her relationship with one of her daughters in particular. She had a blind spot. And that’s just what we always have to remember - just because our spouse is wrong doesn’t make us right. You can be wrong in 100 different directions. You can miss a target North, South, East or West. But that doesn’t mean because somebody’s hitting it North you’re not missing it South.
And then what happened - when she began to make those changes, her husband came along, and he began to change as well. I actually just heard from her last week. They’re celebrating their 44th wedding anniversary. She said it’s never been better. And so it’s going back to this that you’re the easiest person to change. And for her - again, I know some women are going to hate me till their dying day that I even recorded the magic question. And I’m not going to suggest this works in every marriage. But it was a bold experiment that, for her, paid big dividends. She just said, “I’m so frustrated with him, I’ve colored him by my disappointment, I’ve defined him by what he isn’t.” And it was just this process of calling him forward that when he began to see that, she lifted him up as well. And it doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but a lot of times, the best way to lift up a family member is to lift up ourselves first.
Jim: No, that’s good. I want to make sure people hear clearly what the magic question is, so just repeat that again.
Gary: “What do you want me to do for you that I’m not doing?”
Jim: Yeah. Make sure you get that right. It’s not what you can do to make me feel better, so that’s important. Uh, Gary, women can get frustrated with their husbands because their husband has something you call “functional fixedness”. Uh, what is it, and how does it typically play out in a marriage - functional fixedness?
Gary: I want to give the credit here to Dr. Melody Rhode. She’s the one that introduced me to the idea. She’s seen it with a lot of couples. But functional fixedness, in a sentence, is this: it describes a husband who isn’t motivated by your pain. He’s only motivated by his pain. It’s a spiritual immaturity. But here’s where wives miss it if they don’t understand what’s going on - they keep expressing to their husband, “This hurts me, this frustrates me, this is confusing. Would you please stop doing it?” And then they’re doubly hurt when he knows it hurts her, and he keeps doing it. He knows it frustrates her, and he keeps doing it. And so she thinks, “I gotta find another way to express it. How do I help him understand it?” The challenge isn’t that he doesn’t get it. The challenge is he’s not motivated by her pain. He’s only motivated by his pain.
Now, let me say a mature, godly man would be motivated by his wife’s pain. Not every wife is married to a mature, godly man. His discipleship, if he is a believer, hasn’t reached to how he’s treating his wife. And so it’s recognizing that, “Rather than always trying to make him understand that this frustrates me, if I know he’s only motivated by his pain, I have to start letting him face the consequences of his actions rather than rescuing him from those consequences because he’s not gonna be motivated if it hurts me. He’s only gonna be motivated if it hurts him.”
Jim: And what does that look like? What are appropriate consequences in that context?
Gary: If she’s nervous because, let’s say, the family budget is being blown every month - uh, he’s got a hobby that’s out of control or something - and she’s told him, “You know, we’re living on credit cards at this point. That’s not good enough.” And then she finally says, “Well, I guess we have to cancel cable or something.” Then he turns it on, and they don’t have cable. And she’s not doing this in a passive aggressive way, but saying, “We agreed” - and I would recommend you setting this up. You know, you go to a Dave Ramsey seminar or something. You agree we’re gonna live within our means. And if you do that, just say, “I didn’t know what else to cut.” Or you’re serving Top Ramen three nights in a row or something, but you’re just saying, “We agreed to this, and this is the situation you put me in.” But you’re just realizing, “Okay, he’s responsible for what he does. I still need to be responsible for others.” And it’s letting him face the pain of what he’s doing.
Jim: There’s a couple of reactions there. One is for the woman who feels, “That’s like I’m raising another child. I mean, you’re really putting me in a spot where I’ve got to give that much thought to this?” But there’s also that passivity that can occur that, you know, “I don’t want the conflict.” I mean...
Jim: ...So they don’t - they can’t muster the courage, I guess, it would be, to put that pain grip on their husbands to get their point across. So how about that woman that’s a little more passive. What would you say to her? “Well, the home’s peaceful, Gary. I mean, I’m just sucking it up, and it seems to work.” Why is that a destructive attitude?
Gary: Because God created men and women to rule. That’s clear. In the book of Genesis, it said male - speaking of male and female, that they’re to rule. There are 39 active verbs in the first chapter of Genesis describing God. God is an active God, and He calls His people to be active. And so it’s - rather than just being passive and letting things happen - here’s another example. If she’s passive, and her husband is saying hurtful things or - or even scaring her and - because he doesn’t know how to handle conflict in a healthy way, it’s fine for a woman to say, “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. I’m gonna go to the other room. When you cool off, and we can talk in a healthy, constructive way, we’ll have this conversation. I’m not running away from you. I’m not running away from this issue, but I can’t talk to you when I’m treated this way or disrespected this way.” You’re just letting them face the consequences. If he wants to find out a way to communicate to you, he has to figure out a way to communicate that is healthy. That’s not treating him as a child. That’s really just treating him as adult who’s responsible to respond in an adult way.
Jim: Well, that is really well said. Gary, this is so good. And I’m hopeful that you, the listener, are benefiting from the conversation. Uh, I envision you sitting here at the table as we’re talking, and uh, I hope this is giving you some uh, real good tools to move forward in your marriage. Because that’s our desire here at Focus on the Family - that’s my desire for my own marriage - that we will be able to um, show our faithfulness to Christ in our marriages. I don’t always do it well. I got to confess. I know you do, Gary. But uh, you know, that’s part of what we’re trying to do here - is equip you to do it so well that it draws people to Christ because they look at you and say, “What is happening there that’s so good?”
Um, for those who are really struggling - I mean, you might be at that point of separation or maybe even considering divorce - some of the examples that Gary has used. We have uh, at least a path for you to consider, and that’s our Hope Restored program. It’s a four-day marriage intensive. We do that in Branson, Missouri. And it has an incredible post-two-year success rate of over 80 percent. And I’m telling you, it’s worth your time and worth the money to come and experience that. And I hope that if you’re in that spot, you will call us and ask for that kind of help. Your marriage is worth it. I often hear from people that say, “Well, it was too far to travel or it was slightly a little bit too much to spend.” Are you kidding me? This is your marriage, especially if you have children, but for all of us, and I hope you’ll take advantage of that.
And we also have other great resources, like Gary’s book, which I want to put in your hands. And we’ll do that for gift of any amount. And I’m telling you, if you can’t afford it, just let us know. We’ll get it into your hands. There will be others who will help us cover the expense of that. But don’t look the other way. Don’t be that passive wife who just is gonna do the best you can in a marriage that’s suffocating. Do something radical to raise it up before the Lord.
Gary: Jim, as a pastor, if I could just jump in, I want to give a pastor’s response to Hope Restored. Because I’ve worked with a lot of marriages, and I found sometimes people say, “Well, we tried counseling, and it didn’t work.” But if you reach a certain level of your marriage where you’re in contempt or just patterns that you can’t get out of, one hour a week marital counseling just doesn’t work. You’re past that. And I so believe in these intensives. They’re sort of a new thing that’s come about in the last decade. And it’s so encouraging. I’ve sent so many couples there because you just need the time to get in, to dig in, to deal with the issues and to really work on your marriage. I’m so supportive of Hope Restored and all that it does.
Jim: Well, I appreciate that, Gary. And so many couples have gone through the program and have been - it’s been successful, not for everyone, but for most. And uh, I’m honored to even uh, you know, be a part - a small part of that here at Focus. Um, we’re gonna come back next time and dig in more to this great content.
Gary, the Lord has really given you tremendous wisdom in this area of marriage, and you just keep delivering such great insights, biblically-based in the books that you write and the content you share. It’s a blessing to have you here.
John: Yeah, we appreciate as well, your affirmation of Hope Restored, which has helped so many couples. And uh, if you’d like to learn more about Hope Restored, if you want to schedule a time to talk to one of our counselors, certainly get a copy of our conversation and Gary’s book,. The starting point is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Just call us: 800-232-6459. We do have information about all of this and so much more at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And please, as Jim noted, make a donation, if you can, to help us cover the costs of producing broadcasts and making great resources available to couples.
On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I’m John Fuller, thanking you for listening to Focus on the Family. Thanks for joining us, and uh, we’ll see you here next time as we once more help you and your family thrive in Christ.
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Gary ThomasView Bio
Gary Thomas is an international speaker and best-selling, award-winning author whose books include Pure Pleasure, Holy Available and Sacred Marriage. He has also written numerous articles for several prominent national magazines. Gary and his wife, Lisa, reside in Texas and have three children. You can learn more about Gary by visiting his website, www.garythomas.com.