Counseling the Wife of a Passive Husband (part 1)

Dr. Lucy Ann MollFor Those Giving Help, For Those Seeking HopeLeave a Comment

passive husband

Married to a passive husband? We’ve all heard of the “perfect” husband. He’s attentive and understanding, a lover of the home. And you’ve also read sick stories of wife beaters and serial adulterers. Disgusting!

But what if your guy falls has simply “checked out”? Life with him isn’t horrible but it’s lonely. What’s a wife to do? Let’s first see if he fits the definition of a passive husband.

This article, which appeared first here at Biblical Counseling Coalition, has been updated and edited for length. It is the first part of a two-part series on counseling the wife of a passive husband.-LAM

Passive husband, defined

A passive Christian husband fails to lovingly lead his wife in the marriage. He may play video games into the night. He may stay late at work, or the bar, or the country club. Or he may be “just a roommate” who’s physically present but emotionally absent. 

For one reason or another he has checked out.

The Oxford Dictionary defines passive as “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance.” Another description of a passive husband is one who refuses to lead his wife, spiritually or otherwise.

The opposite of a passive husband is one who fulfills his responsibility of leadership. Stuart Scott writes in The Exemplary Husband

“The husband’s leadership is a mandate from God, as such is a privilege and responsibility.”

The foundational biblical mandate to husbands on active leadership is Ephesians 5:25-27. Also, God commands a husband to faithfully, rightly, and actively lead his wife in a manner that shows him to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2). 

So the wife takes the initiative 

Rarely does a passive husband seek counseling first. Remember, he’s passive. Usually the wife calls for an appointment to handle her feelings of anger, discontent, and fear.

Typically she has prayed for him to change and to act like an Ephesians 5 man. Perhaps she has also thrown this scripture in his face or nagged. But what she learns in counseling is to think biblically about her circumstance.

Interestingly and contrary to what some people think, a wife of a passive husband does not always nag or dominate her husband. Sometimes she chooses a godly response of maintaining a quiet spirit and trusting God. (You’ll see a sketch of this woman in a moment.)

The truth is, when a passive husband fails to lead his wife in the marriage, the wife may respond to him sinfully or rightly (or both). Either way, she is hurting and needs counsel in order to choose thoughts, words, and actions that are Christ-honoring. 

2 pictures of a passive husband

These sketches, based on a compilation of actual cases of Christian couples, underscore the need to counsel in the heart of Proverbs 18:13 with the wisdom of 2 Timothy 3:16-17

In the first sketch the wife quickly admitted she often complained and held bitterness toward her husband, whom she blamed for her problems. In the second sketch, the wife wanted counseling to learn to help her son deal with his anger. 

Domineering Debra

This 40-year-old stay-at-home mom had legitimate suffering. When her husband became upset with her or their children, ages 6 to 15, he often stomped out of their home in response to her nagging — she admitted she did this — and stayed at his parents’ place for days at a time. 

In retaliation, it seems, he also removed her name from a bank account, which prevented her from using a debit card to buy groceries and other items from stores. Instead, he gave her envelopes of cash. Some may charge that he was financially abusive. What do you think?

However, Debra came alone to counseling. In the office, she quick to point out his mistakes and slow to admit her own wrongdoing in the marriage or examine her own choices (2 Cor. 13:5).

Her heart’s cry: I am a victim. He is wrong to withdraw from me and the marriage. He needs to change.S

Submissive Susie

Though her husband “checks out” by spending hours in their garage after work rather than in the home with her and their two children, Susie did not nag him or complain. Rather, she consistently displayed a quiet hope in Christ.

Data gathering revealed that her husband commonly drank six to eight cans of beer nightly but was able to hold down a job that paid their bills. He admitted his need to lay off the booze and engage the family. He also acknowledged that his failure to do so may be part of the reason their preteen son was becoming increasingly belligerent, the reason for the counseling appointment.

Susie respectfully agreed, admitting that she formerly nagged her husband to join family dinners. Now she left it up to him, praying continually for him and asking God to help her maintain a gentle and quiet spirit (1 Pet. 3:4).

Her heart’s cry: I hate my husband’s passivity, but I am hoping in the Lord. God will be a husband to me and a father to my children while I wait on Him.

Husband leads, wife submits

As Scripture directs a husband to lead his wife, it also informs the wife to submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22-24). Yet the culture in general and feminists in particular push back against biblical submission, providing objections such as, “Is the woman just supposed to let her husband walk all over her?” But Scripture does not espouse “doormat theology,” or total submission (as in the case where a husband asks his wife to sin).

A submissive wife acknowledges she has a different God-given role than her husband. In fact, “male domination is a personal failure, not [b]iblical doctrine,” Martha Peace writes in The Excellent Wife.

The fall brought strain between the sexes. Specifically, Genesis 3:16 decrees, “To the woman [God] said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.’”

Some commentators assert that “desire,” as used here, means the wife would suffer conflict with her husband or domination by her husband. But other commentators like Ed Welch say this interpretation of the passage is lacking

In fact, he expresses concern that it might embolden counselors to make hasty decisions concerning the woman before they understand her. He says counselors (or pastors) “would begin with a theory—women are prone to a quest for power and control—and then we would find evidence for our theory, whether it is there or not.”

In Part Two, we will consider how a counselor might best counsel the wife of a passive husband, relying heavily on 1 Thessalonians 5:14Ephesians 5:22-321 Peter 3:1-7, and passages dealing with anger, self-pity, fear, loneliness, and hope.

Questions for Reflection

How do you provide effective counseling when only the wife seeks counseling? How do you encourage the submissive wife whose husband has passively retreated from the marriage?

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