The Great Constrainer

The conversation with my counselor went something like this:

I feel like I’m chasing after him. It’s like I’m trying to convince him that I’m worth loving.”

What do you think will happen if you stop?”

I’ll lose him”

Stop anyway.”

God knows I did my best to keep my husband from walking away from me, his children, his home. I cannot count the nights I had lain awake crafting to perfection the words I might use to help him see that his choices and behavior were tearing up our marriage and our family. Or the number of times I confronted him with hurtful evidence of moral failures that were chipping away at the foundation of marital trust.

Now I wonder: Did my anxiety, my strategizing, or my carefully chosen words incite a desire in him to change? Not at all. I may have slowed his progress, or perhaps forced him to work harder to keep his sins a secret. But in the end, I doubt that anything actually changed.

Over the course of so many years, I had become “The Great Constrainer.” I foolishly adopted the role of my husband’s moral conscience. It didn’t work very well. In fact, it didn’t work at all. I was his wife, with no power whatsoever to change or fix or help him, since he wanted to continue doing the things he was doing, regardless of how they impacted our relationship or our family.

The sick and ineffective role I assumed with the sincerest intentions ended up with our relationship becoming a ridiculous game of hide-and-go-seek. As I discovered blatant failures and marital violations, I would pray like crazy, wait for the perfect moment, confront him with the evidence and attempt to squeeze a confession out of him with the expectation of an apology and a promise to never again do whatever-it-was.

He might speak the words I wanted to hear; but the words never yielded the heartfelt changed I longed to see. Oh, maybe in the short-term, I might notice a little more effort on his part to shore up my insecurities, and there were times we made some good memories together, but over time, those convincing promises and evidences would fade, and my instincts would tell me that something in our relationship was seriously wrong – again.

The Great Constrainer that I was, it was only a matter of time before I pointed a finger of righteous indignation at my husband once more and pined hopelessly for him to see how his choices were harming our marriage and our home life. Then the cycle would begin all over again, with him pretending, trying to camouflage and hide his other life, and me playing the role of detective, carrying a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched and waited, knowing it was only a matter of time before the truth was made known. I tried to quell the fear, but in the end, my instincts would not let me let go.

I cannot think of a time when those instincts failed me. If anything, I must have missed many other cues, because my former husband boasted after our divorce that I didn’t know the half of it.

When our world fell apart, and I filed for divorce, I gladly relinquished the role I had assumed, a role I was never meant to fill. Still, my husband, who had tip-toed behind my back for so many years and resented me for cramping his style, had the audacity to tell me he still loved me and wanted me to remain his wife.

“You don’t want me,” I calmly offered. “I am giving you what you’ve always wanted: the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with whomever you want. I was The Great Constrainer in your life, the one who kept you from doing all the things you always wanted to do. But no more. You are free.”

I was somewhat surprised that he uttered no protest, but rather sighed and hung his head in solemn admission. Whatever ideal of marital commitment that might have been retained by proclaiming his love for me, I know he fully accepted, agreed with, and even appreciated the candor of my assessment. The truth was that he wanted to live a life free from the moral constraints that marriage required.

Straining to wonder what a more appropriate course might look like, I was tempted to look at the biblical model found in Matthew 18:16-17

“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

“But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Using this model, the spouse faced with a serious offense might willingly identify it and seek repentance and restoration. If he repents: “Hallelujah!” Life is good.

But, if the inappropriate conduct continues, we’re supposed to confront the offender in the presence of a witness or two. This is where the model tends to get messy. What abuse victim or spouse of a drug addict or adulterer is really going to drag a friend or family member in to confront a wayward spouse? How might a man respond to the wife whom he sees as someone who exposed and betrayed him once they are alone once more? The gripping fear of such an exchange is often enough to ensure her silence. If the witness encounter doesn’t effect change, we’re supposed to take it to the body. Really. But, how many pastors will stand in the gap with an abuse victim?

Too often, believers called upon as witnesses will listen to an abuser’s deflecting tale of woe and subsequently agree with the offender that his victim needs to be more understanding. She needs to simply pray and love and submit and set the example with the goal of saving the marriage at any and all cost. That seems to be the categorical “Christian” response to sin in marriage. Although the Scripture is clear that sin is not to be tolerated, and the church is to identify it and separate the offender from the body until repentance is apparent, in today’s Christian culture such action is generally viewed as harsh and unloving. The contemporary church unwittingly finds itself accommodating sin in marriage rather than addressing it, standing against it.

Nevertheless, even lacking any emotional or spiritual support from friends, family or fellow believers, an exhausted and unsuccessful constrainer may finally take a stand against marital destruction. Many will find themselves utterly alone in the battle to confront overt cruelty and wickedness in their marriages. That is not the way it is supposed to be.

Of course, we’re not completely alone. God knows. But it still hurts when you have been wrongly condemned and abandoned by many within your Christian family.

No doubt there are many, many others who have tried – and continue to try – to live as I did – as The Great Constrainer in their marriages.

Perhaps attempting to constrain our spouse is the wrong approach. Perhaps the best we can do is to…

love our spouses to the best of our ability;

be the wives and women we are called to be;

pray for our husbands and for the wisdom to know which battles to fight, if any;

and to allow our husbands the freedom to choose what kind of men they wish to be, even knowing that they may choose something other than their wives and families, something other than the joy of a godly marriage.

Perhaps it is better to hope that we can inspire our husbands rather than to attempt to fix or change them. I know I did not help my husband by attempting to constrain him; I only earned his resentment. I tried chasing him, tried to prove to him that I was worth loving. But, in the end, there were other things that were more important to him. In the end, he still walked away, and in the end I could only watch him go.

There is only one Lord, one Great Constrainer. And I am not Him.

Cindy Burrell

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