Married individuals are encouraged to sacrifice in marriage.
And in a healthy marriage, spouses can indeed cultivate a tender and compassionate awareness of each other’s needs.
They can talk about seasons, their varying pulls, and how they can support each other.
If each person maintains autonomy, and the sacrificial love goes both ways (i.e both spouses are open-hearted and self-giving, not just one spouse), and “sacrifice” is not the default relational dynamic, then, temporarily suspending some immediate comfort or preference for the sake of the other is healthy.
It is when sacrifice in marriage is positioned as a default relational style that things get wonky.
When it’s presented as the way to love in a controlling, abusive, neglectful, betraying, overall corrosive relationship, when one spouse is asked to permanently forfeit their own needs so their marriage can survive, then we have a huge problem.
Bad Christian Marriage Advice
We know Christian marriage advice has gone over the cliff when the spouse of the receiving end of destructive patterns begins to get clarity and strength (recognize that they deserve true love, honor, respect, fidelity), and Christians tell them the new-found strength is all for the sake of the marriage.
- “Well, God is helping you and giving you strength so you have more grace to give your spouse.”
- “God’s will won’t lead you where His grace won’t sustain you.”
- “God is healing you so you can bring that peace to your marriage and be supportive of your husband.”
Well, all that sounds lovely.
Until you are the spouse being asked to lay down your hard-won peace at the feet of someone who delights in destroying it.
Until you’re the one being, yet again, asked to empty yourself, without any guarantees that things will get better or your spouse will change.
Many Christians have forgotten that God does not call individuals to lay on an altar and give up their lives for their spouses.
God does not want us to endure harm. Instead, He asks us to draw boundaries, expose darkness, and expel the wicked.
Sacrifice in Marriage: The Freedom
Jesus has already paid the ultimate sacrifice for the salvation of humankind, meaning spouses are not responsible for the health of each other.
Each individual has direct access to God and can count on His liberating power to set them free from unhealthy or harmful desires and behaviors. Spouses don’t need a human being to do what Christ already achieved for all.
So when the individual married to a harmful spouse finally fully embraces what Christ’s love and freedom mean, it is a day to rejoice. Not a day to ask them to give it up so they can save their marriage.
A marriage that costs every ounce of sanity and dignity someone has is not a marriage. A relationship that requires the relinquishment of our personhood, hopes, and dreams is not a marriage. It is oppression, a dictatorship, and a slaughterhouse. It’s not of God.
When people finally begin to exit that confusion and pain and rest in God’s love and grace, they have every right to protect their truth and space.
I hope more Christians begin to understand that just because God is doing amazing work internally, holding someone together and clarifying the issues doesn’t mean their marriage will automatically be saved.
It doesn’t mean a problematic spouse will have the same level of clarity or willingness. It doesn’t mean God will “use” one spouse’s transformation to change the other. One person’s wholeness will not “cover” the other person’s unhealth.
So let’s remember that:
- God’s peace might lead her to step away from that situation that seeks to destroy it.
- The clarity and strength she gathers from counseling might be for saving herself and her children, not for saving the marriage.
- Her growth might mean she won’t settle for a mediocre, one-sided, immature, soul-and-body-destroying relationship.
- Individual peace and growth do not automatically translate to marital stability and harmony.
In a healthy marriage, spouses can cultivate a tender and compassionate awareness of each other’s needs and go the extra mile. In a destructive marriage, the immediate focus is (must be) safety.
Unholy Fruit | Your WILD Guide to Discerning Toxic Character
Are you in a chronically problematic marriage? Or perhaps you know someone who is and you desire to support them.
In this Workshop and Checklist (affiliate link), Coach Sarah McDugal empowers your ability to discern the Fruit of an UNholy spirit.
If you have felt confused by the dissonance between someone’s pious words and their exploitative actions, this workshop offers clarity and some possible next steps in your healing journey. Click here to check it out.