“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” Ephesians 5:28-30
There is no way to justify neglect in marriage from a biblical standpoint. It is an oxymoron; it is hypocrisy. We cannot profess to love someone and consistently neglect their most basic needs and desires and expect the relationship to thrive. I am not talking about the occasional oversight or an inadvertent failure to love perfectly. There are times we all fall short even when our hearts are right. However, the perpetual and deliberate refusal to acknowledge or meet the needs of our spouse represents emotional, material and perhaps social neglect.
In a one-flesh union, it is not a burden but rather a privilege to tend to the heart, mind and soul of our beloved, for our spouse is an extension of our self. We stand before the marriage altar confident that we will traverse this life alongside this person who is more than merely a mate or a lover, but a co-laborer, a teammate, a companion, a confidante and our most trustworthy friend. Therefore, to neglect a spouse emotionally, physically or materially is to dishonor and, yes, to break our solemn vows to love, honor and cherish; vows which reflect not merely intent but active and evidenced devotion.
Quite simply, these vows entail identifying our spouse’s needs and desires, taking the initiative to meet those needs, and investing in one another’s well-being with a design to contribute to – and enjoy – long-term intimacy. So the mutual and ongoing demonstrations of affection, respect, admiration and attentive care should be common hallmarks of a healthy marriage.
Yet I have read and heard countless stories of victims who have suffered profound, deliberate manifestations of neglect. Some neglectful husbands* refuse to allow their wives to pursue an education or a job, while simultaneously hoarding or controlling the income to the point of their families’ desperate need. There have been occasions where the stay-at-home mom must beg permission to take her children to the doctor or dentist for necessary treatment only to be told by her husband that he doesn’t want to cover the expense, and if she wishes to seek medical care she will have to find some other source of money to pay for it. This same kind of neglect can also be felt in a refusal to purchase shoes, clothing, school supplies, or provide transportation and even food.
Then there are the husbands who arrive home from work expecting a hearty meal and the freedom to sit speechless in front of the television for hours night after night without lifting a finger to assist with clean-up or household needs or offering to help the kids with their homework. These same men expect their taken-for-granted wives to eagerly spring into lover mode at bedtime, and then roll over and fall asleep without so much as an “I love you,” while she resorts to holding herself to stem the flow of tears.
And there was the shocking account of a woman whose husband agreed to take care of their infant son for a couple of hours several evenings a week so that she could attend yoga classes. The first evening after class she returned home to find her husband stoically watching television, his tiny son in his lap screaming for attention without receiving any comfort whatsoever from his father, who offered no explanation or apology. He had fulfilled his expressed obligation, but nothing more. It was a devastating moment as the mother realized she could not leave her son with his father for any length of time, and she had to surrender any thought of attending yoga class. Neither the man’s wife’s needs, nor his son’s, were a priority to him.
Depriving a spouse or children of basic, material and emotional attention is wholly inconsistent with what we know to be love. It is neglect – the practical abandonment and emotional betrayal of those who should naturally be the recipients of our most gracious measures of attention and nurture.
What Are Some of the Things We Need?
We need relationship, both the intimacy of a one-on-one relationship with our spouse as well as the freedom and opportunity to enjoy outside relationships and socialize in a variety of settings with friends and family, which may include work, volunteer opportunities, classes, hobbies, meet-ups with friends and recreational outings.
We need shared responsibility, a sense of teamwork and cooperation where needed, whether paying bills, running errands, maintaining the household or caring for children. It should be understood that, if we need help; if we are ill or incapacitated, or involved in a project that requires teamwork, our spouse is willing to do what he can to help out – without whining or complaining or hurrying us along or inferring that we owe them something.
We need to feel understood, respected and accepted, as well as to be encouraged and supported as we walk through the daily challenges that come with everyday life. We need to know that our spouse will provide us with a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on and a heart that does not shame or belittle us, but sees our strengths, loves us in spite of our weaknesses and always seeks our good. Of course, there may be seasons where we must each give and take, depending on the need, and similarly, we also bear a responsibility to vocalize our needs and desires at times when our spouse is simply unaware.
We need affection. While this includes sex, it should not be limited to sex, but should incorporate the incidental demonstrations of care in the everyday, which might be evidenced by acts of service and words of affirmation and casual, physical touch. In fact, if the affection demonstrated in a marriage only consists of sex, then I contend that would constitute physical neglect. While men might be less inclined to agree with that last statement, in my experience, most women long to experience tender, non-sexual affection in addition to sex to feel truly loved, respected and appreciated.
We need some undivided attention and alone time. Scheduling time alone together periodically out of the house, and perhaps out of town provides both partners with the opportunity to unwind and detox and connect on a deeper friendship level. And many of us also need some time either by ourselves or with our closest friends. This requires that each partner reasonably accommodate the other’s freedom and need for outside connection.
The consistent failure to see or accommodate our spouses’ basic needs constitutes neglect; a silent assault on the heart, mind and body. Neglect may not be overtly hostile, but it is a betrayal nonetheless, a slow burn, a form of incremental relational starvation and among the most subtle and least identified of all forms of abuse. It quietly whispers, “You are not important,” its voice borne of apathy, insensitivity, selfishness and pride, and its victims will ultimately find themselves living a life characterized by a sense of barrenness, loneliness and loss.
Some will say that we should find all of our needs met in God, and He will be enough. But in marriage, our spouse has a divine calling and a role to play in the relationship, and each of us enters into that relationship with a belief that our spouse’s confessed love will translate into an appropriate measure of thoughtful devotion.
The Apostle Paul describes the obvious this way:
“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself, for no one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church…”
In the image Paul paints here we see the tangible, proactive, love-based evidence of marital devotion. A nourished person is healthy and satisfied, not left begging for basic sustenance.
There is no place for the sullen, sorrowful effects of neglect in marriage; nor should we be surprised when neglectful marriages fail. As with any other living thing, the relationship that does not receive the nourishment it needs is destined to wither and eventually die.
There is no such thing as a neglectful, happy marriage.
*Although women can be abusive, as well, the majority of abusers are male. For this reason, the abuser is referenced in the masculine. The reader’s understanding is appreciated.