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Loving an “Unlovable” Spouse or Other Family Members
Posted by Clare
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I no longer love my husband. I’m not looking to get out of this marriage, but he’s selfish, insensitive to my needs and feelings and a mediocre father at best. Yet, the Bible commands me to love him. I’ve tried, but I just don’t find much in him that’s lovable. So, how does that work?”



I get this question all the time. It comes from Christians who I perceive to be good willed, not looking for a divorce, but feeling guilty because they don’t feel any love or admiration for their spouse. Last week’s blog was about honoring parents who appear to deserve no honor. This week we turn to other family members and in particular, spouses. So, what does the Bible have to say about this dilemma?

Does God himself, love people he doesn’t like?
Consider this from respected theologian, Floyd Barackman; “When we consider God’s love for the world, we must be careful not to equate this love with human friendship or love, which is based on the pleasure that we receive from others.  God’s sacrificial love for the world is based wholly on His grace, or undeserved favor.  God’s love is an affection that moves him to provide for the well-being of humans, regardless of their personal merit, worth or spiritual state. 

It is God’s kind of love that we are to express toward others, even toward our enemies (John 13:34-35; Matt. 5:44-45).  God does not ask us to love all people, that is, to take pleasure in them.  He does demand that we minister to their needs, even at personal sacrifice (I John 3:16; 1 Cor. 13:4-7), and that we show them patience, kindness, and courtesy (1 Cor. 13:4-7).  Needless to say, we can do this only by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Gal. 5:22).” 1

1Practical Christian Theology, Floyd Barackman, page 549, Kregal Publications.

L1, L2 Love
For ease of discussion, let’s think of love in terms of Love 1 and Love 2 (L1 and L2).  L1 love is that love that we are commanded to have for all humans.  We are told to love others as ourselves, which means at a minimum, like God, we are to be kind, compassionate, forgiving of their failings, and care as much for their well-being as our own.  This is the love Jesus described in the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.

Nowhere in this story are we told that the Samaritan enjoyed or became friends with the man he helped.  However, Jesus said that the Samaritan fulfilled the command to love others, or L1 in my terms, by having compassion on the man and putting this strangers needs ahead of his own.  We don’t even know if the victim was thankful to the Good Samaritan.  In the end it really doesn’t matter, the Good Samaritan did the right thing; he acted with kindness and compassion, L1 – what we Christians refer to as unconditional love.

However, for us to achieve the level of L2 love with another person, a spouse for instance, which include warm feelings of admiration and enjoying them deeply, requires something more.  There is some responsibility on the part of your spouse to work at being more loveable, enjoyable, safe and trustworthy.  You cannot, by an act of your will, make yourself love another in person this way unless they take some personal responsibility to be worthy of this level of love.

In the same way, you can also make yourself more loveable to others by your good attitude and behavior. The reverse of that is also true. You can make yourself less likeable or lovable by your bad behavior or attitude.

One word of caution; we don’t have the right to sit back and say to another person for whom we have harden our hearts, “be lovable and worthy of my love and then I’ll love you”.  As I said last week, we can actually hinder truly loving others by our attitudes toward them.  If we believe someone will never measure up to our standards, they probably never will.  Our personal responsibility is to have the attitude beautifully described I Corinthians 13.

“Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  I Cor. 13:4-7 (This passage teaches that we are to think the best of others, even in the face of evidence to the contrary in the past.)

Respect R1 and R2
“However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”  Ephesians 5:33

I believe the same principle holds true with respect.  To respect someone, at a minimum we must speak respectfully to them and speak respectfully about them to others.  Specifically, for a wife to have a R1 respect for her husband she must speak respectfully to him and about him to others.  If a wife does this, she is honoring God by respecting her husband, even if his character and behavior are not admirable.  (That goes for a parent we don’t really admire, or even a boss.)

However, for a husband to be fully respected, that is truly admired by his wife (R2), his character must be such that he is worthy of respect.  His wife cannot make herself, or will her heart to fully respect him (R2) if he acts selfishly, without integrity, etc.  A man has the personal responsibility to earn the full respect of his wife and children by being a man worthy of respect.

However, just as it was in our discussion on love, if a woman hardens her heart against her husband and refuses to look for the good in him; she grieves the Holy Spirit and sins.
(Ephesians 4:29-31)

So, whether it’s love or respect, in the case of husband and wife, if the relationship is really only on an L1 or R1 level, each person ought to examine their own life and ask two absolutely critical questions:

1. “What is there about my current character or behavior, or what have I done in the past that keeps my spouse from fully loving or respecting me?”

2. “What has my spouse done to me for which I have not truly forgiven them which keeps me from fully respecting or loving them?  Am I grieving the Holy Spirit?”

I’d recommend the wonderful book, Love and Respect, by Emerson Eggerich for an in-depth understanding of both love and respect in marriage.

My questions for you:

1. Do you agree or disagree with the L1 or R1 or 2 ideas?
2. Is there anyone you don’t L2 love or respect because you’ve hardened your heart to them?

Following Jesus in Real Life


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Comments (6)
  1. James said...

    Good article, what if you love someone, who continually disrespects you (wife to husband) by lying, ( and claims to be a Christian) and the trust is gone! And trashes you in your church and amongst your friends by lying because you dare challenge her behaviour, at first gently, but in the end, its done in anger and pure frustration?

    • Clare said...

      James, I’m sad for you. I’ve been an elder many years and have run into this kind of behavior in the church all too often. I’d recommend writing a sensativly written letter to the offending spouse, clearly identifying the lies, asking for proof to the contrary from them, or an apology to you and anyone to whom they told these lies. Ask another Christian you trust to read the letter first so you’re sure it is as fair and honest as it can be and without words that wound unnecessarily Tell them if this situation does not stop, you will be contacting the elders and asking them to investigate the situation, in the spirit of Matthew 18.
      If the lies continue, contact the elders but only after a day of fasting and prayer. If that still doesn’t work please let me know and we’ll discuss the next steps. I blogged a year ago about discipline in the church. You may want to read those. In the meantime I’ll pray for you.

  2. Beverly said...

    After 30 years of watching and waiting and hoping and even doing some very odd things to help my husband ‘get it’ he still isn’t coming around to being able to accept his responsibility for his (emotionally battering) behavior toward me and his contribution to our relationship being strained and unlovable. I know him very well now, and have been thru countless therapy and counseling sessions, both secular and spiritual based, for myself because I was under the false impression I was to blame for our disconnection. But over the past couple of years, he’s not even saying he’s sorry anymore for things he may do that are hurtful. He says he’s tired of saying it and God knows he’s sorry and that’s all that counts.

    I am weary of it all…ready to leave again…but stay out of compassion for a man who is partially disabled and trying hard to defend himself against, what he considers, a world that is out to get him. The drama over and the dismissal of my feelings by him are incomprehensible to others and I have no allies, except for the comfort of knowing that God does see and understands.

    I am tired and virtually have given up, except I keep trudging onward and keep reading and praying for a breakthru of my own that will allow me to be more loving and giving. I keep the faith and continue in spite of all odds. I know God knows…but that isn’t enough sometimes, there for I am writing this in an attempt to both vent and seek more wisdom about how to love the unlovable…

    • Clare said...

      Beverly, thanks for you comments. I feel so sad for you. I’d suggest three things; The first, please call your pastor and get his/her advice and ask if the elders would talk with your husband. If you truly feel unsafe, move out of your home temporarily until things improve. It may just be the “shot across the bow,” your husband needs. Lastly read the book, “Boundries'” by Cloud and Townsend. And of course pray, but it sounds like you’ve been doing that for awhile. I promise to pray for you. Clare

  3. Lisa said...

    I’ve been married for 26 yrs. We were in love and had sex daily. 2nd yr in my husband raped me bc I didn’t want to. He said sorry but did it again and again. This caused me great pain and developed into hate. To stop the actual rape I just started laying there and and letting him go ahead, hating him and sex. Now it’s dwindled down to every few months I endure again. I really do hate him but don’t want to divorce. He is my only help in life and I need him. I don’t know what to do.

    • Clare said...

      Lisa, I cannot imagine the nightmare you are living. I’m so sad for you.
      First, I will begin praying for you, as well as your husband. Second, have you discussed this with a pastor, or Christian counselor? You do not have to take being raped. If you have a church, they may be able to help you. Do you have a friend who you could live with until your husband agrees to either stop or get counseling?
      Third, as hard as it may be, ask God to give you the will power and desire to speak respectfully to him and about him to others. I’ve seen women do this and it changed their husbands from being brutes to being more kind.(But not always, or even the majority of time.)
      Finally, consider writing your husband a letter. Without anger, share with him just how his sexual advances feel to you emotionally and that is impossible for you to really respect him as a man, when he uses you. but before you give this letter to him, have a trusted Christian friend, or counselor read it, just to make sure the tone is right.
      Praying for you right now.

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