How is tough love put into action as we face the death of our marriages and impending divorce? Let’s review some practical ways of being loving, but firm, with our spouses. This is not a one-sided venture. Our goal is to help both marriage partners during the crisis of divorce.
Loving Our Spouses in an Unloving Situation
Will Rogers remarked, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Jesus never met anyone He didn’t love — regardless of their problems or mistakes. He met the woman at the well in Samaria — even though Jews did not associate with Samaritans — to show that He overcame racial prejudice (John 4:1-26). He ministered to a man with an evil spirit to show His love to the mentally afflicted (Mark 5:1-20). Although the crowd was against Him, He stood by the adulterous woman until her accusers left. Then He compassionately but firmly urged her to change her life (John 8:3-11). He prayed for the forgiveness of those who jeered Him as He writhed in agony on the cross (Luke 23:34). The many ways that Jesus loved the unlovable are examples for us.
You may say, “But Will Rogers and Jesus never met my spouse!” Death of a marriage can make us cynical toward our mates. But when marriage partners divide, there is a “most excellent way” of dealing with the situation in love (1 Cor. 12:31). The apostle Paul wrote the Galatian church, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
What do we want to carry with us after the divorce is over? Can we take any pleasure in knowing that we have destroyed our spouses? Tough love distinguishes between taking firm action in dealing with imbalanced and sinful situations and never losing sight of the person and his or her worth. We can still love the person despite the predicament.
Defining Acceptable Conduct and Boundaries
Tough love means telling the person you love that there are limits to what conduct is acceptable in your relationship. You and your spouse have a right to define what that conduct will be like between you, using the Bible as a guide.
Real love is not a wimpy acceptance of others — sin and all. Lines have to be drawn — in love. Those in error must see what they are doing to harm themselves and others. We cannot avoid confrontation if these limits are to mean anything. The question is this: Do we have the courage to stand up for the truth and let the chips fall? It is easy to grovel and beg, or to compromise and appease. But the Bible tells us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6, NASB).
Everyone remembers Bill Cosby as the funny but very wise Cliff Huxtable on television. It is almost inconceivable that one who portrayed the perfect father so convincingly could be anything less in real life. But this father of fathers was estranged from his real-life daughter Erinn some years ago through her abuse of drugs and alcohol. Cosby used tough love with her, truthfully acknowledging that his daughter was irresponsible and untrustworthy. “It’s going to take her hitting rock bottom, where she’s totally exhausted — that point where she can’t fight any more,” Cosby told the Los Angeles Times. “Right now we’re estranged. She can’t come here. She’s not a person you can trust. You think that you’re not a good parent because you don’t answer the call. But you can’t let the kid use you.”
Cosby loved his daughter deeply but refused to blame himself for this tragedy. He did not protect Erinn from herself while steering her to help. She had to realize that no one could change her against her will. It was up to her. She made the improvident life decisions; she had to straighten out her own life.
The key to Cosby’s tough-love approach was setting limits to what he did. Certainly he had the time, money, and resources at his command to make his daughter’s life easier. Undoubtedly, it hurt deeply to see his daughter self-destruct. But he set limits to avoid interfering with the lessons of life that would turn her around for good if she allowed that to happen.
Setting limits and boundaries are vital in separation and divorce. It is too easy for spouses to entwine their lives and lose sight of where one’s personhood ends and the other begins. To cope with the loss of our spouses, we must see ourselves as whole persons without them by our sides.
How do we set limits? Dr. James Dobson gives this excellent advice in Love Must Be Tough:
By all means, unless there is business to be conducted, don’t telephone a spouse who has separated. But if a call is necessary, state your reason for phoning after a few words of small talk and then get on with the matter at hand. When your business is finished, politely terminate the call and hang up. Do not, I repeat, do not get dragged into the usual brawls. If you explode as you did in the past, it will be evident that you are, as he suspected, the weak old pushover he has come to disrespect. There may be a moment for anger if he insults you, but in that case, keep your response crisp, controlled, and confident. Throughout these exchanges, you must be careful not to behave in unloving ways. Remember that with God’s help, you are attempting to build new bridges to this disrespectful, trapped partner. Don’t burn them before they reach the other shore. Don’t call him names, except to label his harmful behavior for what it is. Don’t try to hurt him with gossip or even embarrassing truth. Don’t telephone his family and try to undermine his position with them. Don’t inflame hatred in the children of your union. And don’t forget that your purpose is to be tough, yes, but loving as well.
Tough love also makes these limitations and boundaries stick. If not, our efforts to stop unacceptable conduct will backfire and allow others to take advantage of us.
Helping others to face up to responsibility without protecting them from the consequences of their own decisions is what tough love is all about. Setting limits as to how far we can reasonably go in helping our spouses allows God to work His loving discipline in their lives.
Speaking the Truth in Love
Tough love courageously sees matters as they are and “tells it like it is” with sensitivity and love.
We all know that the word “love” is overused, misused, and abused. Too many believe that love means never having to say you’re sorry, as the movie Love Story made popular years ago. Still others think the true meaning of love is to look the other way and ignore harmful or sinful behavior of those close to us. This is a gooey type of “love” that accepts what is evil and false as readily as truth and righteousness. The Bible says, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:6). Ephesians 4:15 says that the truth is to be spoken in love.
In the guise of compassion, we can make excuses for our spouses. We can reinforce rationalizations in the process. Lovingly speaking that truth shifts the focus away from tolerance to accountability. Our spouses must know where they stand to properly assess their situations.
It is not wise to shield our spouses from the emotional turmoil that’s going on inside. Nor should we take it upon ourselves to protect their reputations if divorce is what they want. This is not an authoritarian or retaliatory action on our part. It is a loving, measured response to whatever actions our spouses make. In essence, our spouses face their own consequences head-on without interference from us.
Speaking the truth in love is not an opportunity to vent our anger from a raw temper. Tough love is not screaming, accusing, and berating. It is not trading insults, accusations, or blaming, nor is it using labels or absolutes (“You never… ” do this or that). Exercising tough love makes brief, specific, and firm requests about problems without indulging in insults, accusations, or blaming; addresses conduct in a positive manner without using absolutes, over-generalizations, and labels, and without second-guessing motives; listens to and understands complaints by disregarding any negative statements while making every effort to find reasonable points of agreement; finds qualities and actions of others to compliment and reinforce; and does not hesitate to apologize for one’s own mistakes.
Exercising Responsible Forgiveness Instead of Revenge
If there is ever a time when revenge against anyone is tempting to us, an hour in the divorce process might be prime time. Anger and resentment peak. The unjustness of a divorce eats away at us day and night. We ask ourselves a thousand times, “Why did this have to happen to me?” But all the tough-love considerations discussed above have the wrong impact if revenge is our motive. There has to be a foundation of forgiveness and unconditional love.
Revenge and selfishness are self-destructive. If we thirst for revenge, we really do reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). Revenge breeds counter-revenge. That circle of poison and hate between spouses destroys everything within its path. Like the modern proverb says, “Bitterness hurts the vessel in which it is stored more than the object on which it is poured.”
My family has a classic story illustrating this truth. We all love ice cream. For years, ice cream on Sunday night was a special chocolate treat. It was a family tradition going all the way back to the dueling between my aunt and father in their teenage years. Wanting the leftover ice cream for herself after one particular Sunday’s feeding frenzy, my aunt had a devious idea. She cleverly put a typewritten note in the freezer that boldly warned: “I spit on this ice cream.” Imagine her surprise upon checking the freezer to find my father’s hastily scribbled footnote: “I did too.” Revenge works that way. You end up with nothing but a loss in every way.
Our spouses may wrong and hurt us; we may want payback. But God is the judge — not us. Any vengeance is His alone.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:17-21).
Real love, especially the tough love we are considering, begins with the knowledge that a better way exists. It ends with a responsible decision to take the high road of justice, mercy, and forgiveness.
As we hold our spouses accountable for their own actions and put aside our inner desire for revenge, our additional challenge is to pardon our spouses for how they treat us. There has to be a release of wrongs done to us in our hearts. Without it, we will dwell in bitterness and resentment even if we do not seek revenge. No one knows how difficult this is to do more than those who have suffered from years of physical or emotional abuse — yet it must be done for our own healing. We can still love that difficult person.
James Dobson stated the principle this way:
I know it is easier to talk about forgiveness than to exercise it, especially when the hurt was inflicted by a marital partner. Nevertheless, that is what we as Christians are required to do in time. There is no place for hatred in the heart of one who has himself been forgiven of so many sins. The toughness I have recommended in response to irresponsibility can be destructive and vicious unless it is characterized by genuine love and compassion. Our purpose must never be to hurt or punish the other person, even when retribution is deserved by him or her. Vengeance is the exclusive prerogative of the Lord (Rom. 12:19). Furthermore, resentment is a dangerous emotion. It can be a malignancy that consumes the spirit and warps the mind, leaving us bitter and disappointed with life. According to psychologist Archibald Hart, “Forgiveness is surrendering my right to hurt you for hurting me.”
We have to crucify that bloodthirsty penchant for revenge within us. It begins with forgiveness in our hearts, bathing ourselves with prayer for the mutual benefit of our spouses and ourselves, and walking in absolute dependence upon God.
Respecting Our Spouses’ Right to Make Wrong Decisions
Tough love honors the freedom both marriage partners have to make their own choices independently. God gives every human this right even if spouses exercise that freedom irresponsibly to end marriages.
The sixties philosophers were correct about one matter: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t return, then it never really belonged to you in the first place.” Marriages frequently end if one or both partners feel trapped in some way. This is not to justify anyone’s desire to leave the marriage if it is wrong, but some marriages may be a jailhouse relationship. A true loving relationship always invites one to stay; coercion confines and condemns.
If our spouses have made an irrevocable decision to divorce, we must let them go without punishing them for it. If they no longer have to fight us for freedom, they are better able to see their own errors. Battling and grabbing on our part only diverts attention away from the truth. It keeps us in the headlines while the real issues in their hearts get buried in the back pages. There is real wisdom in returning good for evil, as the Bible says. The ones receiving unmerited graciousness have no one else to dislike but themselves. Doing anything less deprives our spouses of facing the full consequences of their decisions.
Becoming a Model of Confidence and Self-Respect
To have the maximum impact upon our spouses, tough love requires a firm and measured response in a calm and confident manner. They must see no equivocation or hesitancy in our actions. Acting decisively carries great authority and commands attention.
Let’s face it: divorce is terrifying. We must face the fear of rejection, embarrassment, loneliness, single parenthood, and possible financial ruin. There is an uncertain future. We can dwell on it and sink like a stone, as Peter did in walking on the water to Jesus, or we can keep our eyes on the Savior and trust Him for guidance and deliverance (Matt. 14:22-33).
Tough love means viewing ourselves as whole persons, with or without our spouses. It means having the confidence and self-respect that we will make it with God’s help. While being vulnerable in our love, we can appear self-assured and virtually fearless about the future.
Showing this confidence may require us to be less predictable in what we intend to do. It means restraint from foolishly speaking everything that is on our minds (Prov. 29:11). Self-confidence, self-respect, a confident quietness, and a wise and responsible independence should prevail as much as possible. It is setting a good example and being a positive witness to everyone watching how we handle our situation. Our goal is to reveal only what is necessary to help our spouses take an inward look. No annoyance or distraction on our part should interfere with that process.
Looking for Common Values
When either or both spouses have a fierce determination to see divorce through to the end, minds close to many issues. This leads to stonewalling tactics and unnecessary destruction. Instead, why not identify common values as a foundation for some compromise and mercy?
Our spouses will make some serious life decisions that will have a tremendously adverse impact on us. But are they evil? Do they really desire to make us hurt and suffer for the pure pleasure of it? Usually not. For right or wrong reasons, they are trying to achieve freedom and happiness for themselves. The divorce may not be as much of a personal attack as we believe. Therefore, looking for common ground without compromising our efforts at tough love can keep a bad situation from becoming worse.
Guy N. Woods relates the following incident from the Civil War. At the end of a day of fierce fighting, the deadly cannon and musket fire ceased. The stillness of a summer evening fell like dew on the two armies. Only a narrow river separated them. Softly at first, then enthusiastically, the Union soldiers began to sing “The Star Spangled Banner”. As the final notes died on the evening air, the Confederates across the river struck up “Dixie”. The men of the North followed with “Rally ‘Round the Flag”. The Southern soldiers answered with “My Maryland”. This went on for many minutes as they challenged each other with patriotic songs. Finally, the night air carried the sad, sweet words of the song “Home, Sweet Home”. Soon, both sides were singing the familiar refrain. At that moment all the bitterness of war was forgotten. Men on both sides were overwhelmed with thoughts of fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and sweethearts far away. Precious memories of home and loved ones surging through their breasts had — for a moment — transcended their differences and united them.
Who does not melt at the thought of wanting a peaceful home? Our days as husband and wife may quickly end, but surely preserving some of the precious and irreplaceable gifts of home, such as children and each other’s health, should keep the divorce from becoming a bloodletting contest. The stakes are high. Take the initiative. Why cause further damage to ourselves and our families as the divorce runs its course? Break the circle of poison. Despite how our mates choose to proceed, we still have a responsibility of loving them in a positive and constructive way (Rom. 12:10-19). As much as it depends upon us, God urges us to make every effort toward whatever leads to peace and mutual edification (Rom. 12:18; 14:19).
Joseph Warren Kniskern is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina with more than 32 years of experience, who has been cited in Who’s Who in American Law. This article has been excerpted with permission from When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce (B&H Publishing Group, revised edition copyright @ 2008).