The conversation usually goes like this: “Pastor, I’m in trouble. My wife says she’s done. She wants out. She’s talking divorce. I don’t know what to do.” For many men this is the first time a wife’s words of desperation have hit their mark. It’s not that she hasn’t expressed her heartache. She’s shed oceans of tears asking him repeatedly to talk to someone, to go to counseling, to get help for their marriage, and he’s promised to do it more than once but has never followed through.
How has such a huge chasm rifted apart a man and a woman whom God has made one flesh (Matthew 19:5–6)? Often we find that sin has exploited the basic distinction between how men and women handle conflict:
- When it comes to conflict men tend to equate the passage of time with the resolution of conflict.
- For women the passage of time does not equal the resolution of conflict, and so the molehills multiply.
The Molehills Multiply
At first the conflicts, disagreements, and arguments were bearable, like a molehill in the yard—not desirable, but certainly bearable. With every new conflict, however, the little hills multiplied. Each time she told herself, “It’s not that bad. He promised to talk to somebody this time. I know deep down he loves me. Maybe we’ll talk about it tomorrow.” But nothing changed. Conflicts weren’t resolved, arguments weren’t discussed.
She never thought she’d consider divorce, never wanted it, but the prospect of a lifetime in a marriage of continually multiplying molehills is unimaginable and unbearable to her.
Sure he said he loved her, but it got harder and harder for her to believe him every time her heart was crushed anew. She never thought she’d consider divorce, never wanted it, but the prospect of a lifetime in a marriage of continually multiplying molehills is unimaginable and unbearable to her. She doesn’t want to cry anymore and believes that divorce is her only real choice.
Though she probably doesn’t realize it, she hasn’t been guiltless in the molehills. Throughout the marriage she has believed it okay to dump her frustrations on her husband, fully expecting him to know when he’s supposed to listen empathetically and when he’s supposed to offer a solution. And she’s resented his attempts to fix her frustrations and assumed him unloving for “not listening.” Throughout she has felt free to fling barbed words, roll her eyes, shake her finger, wag her tongue, huff, sigh, groan, and assume her husband unloving when he shuts down and walks away.
She has not understood the need her husband has for admiration and respect nor God’s command to give such respect to her husband, whom God calls her loving head (Ephesians 5:23). She has not viewed her disrespectful behavior as an affront to her husband’s headship and a transgression of God’s command (Ephesians 5:33; Colossians 3:18). Sure he hasn’t behaved as the loving head God has commanded him to be; he hasn’t been the Christ-figure he promised to be, but a husband’s failure to fulfill his responsibilities doesn’t relieve a wife from hers. The wife, however, has not seen this.
She knows only hurt (and it is very real hurt). She may not even realize she has had disrespect on her lips and derision in her eyes. She, in all likelihood, is currently unable to see how her disrespect has exacerbated the situation, unnecessarily multiplying molehills. She is also unable to see the significance of marriage’s promise to be faithful “until death parts us.” Her need for emotional well-being (some may call it happiness) has overridden marriage’s promise.
The Multiplication of Molehills Is Mutual
Obviously, women don’t wake up one day and decide to get divorced. What has happened?
At some point in the multiplying molehills the wife, tired of having her heart crushed, started to pull away emotionally. Bit by bit she built a wall of protection around her wounded heart.
The husband saw the wall going up, but failed to see the wounded heart behind it.
The husband saw the wall going up, but failed to see the wounded heart behind it. Misunderstanding the wall, he reacted negatively, typically becoming less loving and more agitated. Physical intimacy evaporated, his wife’s emotional warmth chilled, and he became frustrated, motivating him to increased harshness and insistence on his wants and needs.
Finally the wife, seeing nothing but an insurmountable mountain of continually multiplying molehills, set an end point: “One more unresolved conflict and I’m done.” Inevitably, conflict erupts. Now she drops the “D” bomb. It has been a long time coming and she has not used it lightly. She doesn’t want to be hurt anymore and she believes divorce is her only option.
The Molehills Become an (Almost) Insurmountable Mountain
Saving a marriage at this point is exceedingly difficult. Both have waited too long to get help. This has often been exacerbated by a husband’s prideful belief that “I can handle this. I can fix this.” The good news: it’s salvageable. The hard reality: it won’t be quick or easy. Typically it has taken a year or two, sometimes more, to create the molehill mountain. Tearing it down will probably take as long as it took to make it.
As a counselor it’s important to understand how “done” a wife is at this point. The wall of protection around her wounded heart is high and thick and she is reluctant to take it down for fear of being hurt again. That is understandable. Speaking forcibly against the divorce or asking her to ride things out will only drive her to the divorce. She will only hear someone asking her to be hurt again, which she has resolved to prevent.
Women in this situation have not heartlessly pursued divorce; they feel driven to it.
Women in this situation have not heartlessly pursued divorce; they feel driven to it. Once they resolve to go through with it, they feel backing away from it as a betrayal of the self. It may be prudent to encourage a prolonged separation. Separation acknowledges the severity of the situation, the height of the molehills, while allowing the counselor to work with the couple (either as a couple or individually) to save the marriage. Separation also allows couples time apart to think and grow as individuals so they can come together to discuss the molehills one by one.
Keys to Overcoming Mt. Molehill
Recognize Different Communication Styles
To overcome a mountain of molehills a husband and wife must understand each other’s world. Secular culture teaches that men and women are interchangeable; differences are only apparent and surface. That is a lie. Women do not think like men and vice versa. Couples who swallow this lie make numerous false assumptions about what their spouse is thinking and what his or her words mean. Unfortunately many marriages end because couples believe their spouse should think like them.
Unfortunately many marriages end because couples believe their spouse should think like them. The reality? Men and women experience the world differently.
The reality? Men and women experience the world differently. Dr. Emerson Eggerichs, author of Love and Respect and The Language of Love and Respect, describes men as wearing blue sunglasses and blue hearing aids. Women, he says, wear pink. Through his books and DVD series, Eggerichs masterfully unpacks these differences and reveals Scripture’s relevance in marriage and communication. For an introduction to these biblical principles, see my prior review of Emerson’s Love and Respect. Then purchase his books and DVDs (available at www.loveandrespect.com) to share with married couples in your midst and with your local pastor.
Appreciate Different Approaches to Conflict Resolution
When it comes to conflict men tend to equate the passage of time with the resolution of conflict. Wives encounter this when their husbands say, “That was a month ago!” “I thought we were past that.” “Are you still stuck on that?” “Can’t you just get over it?” Husbands must realize that their wives do not share their perspective on conflict.
For women the passage of time does not equal the resolution of conflict. Unlike men who tend to experience every conflict afresh, women relive every hurt with every conflict. They don’t segment life into distinct boxes, such as family and work, past or present. They view life as an integrated whole. They simply cannot put a painful conflict in yesterday’s box and “get over it.”
This reality produces a situation ripe for conflict. He assumes a conflict is over because time has passed. When she reveals she’s still struggling with it he accuses her of keeping score and using it against him. He may even feel justified, since Scripture defines love as keeping no records of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). But he fails to recognize that her stewing over a matter is not necessarily an accusation; it might simply be an admission that she’s struggling to sort through the very emotions that he so easily has filed away in the “already dealt with it” box. Then she assumes he’s being unloving for failing to talk about it.
Disrespectful and unloving words have been uttered. ... To prevent the molehills from mounding into an insurmountable mountain couples must address each conflict through face-to-face talking.
Disrespectful and unloving words have been uttered, but both are operating under false assumptions regarding the other’s actions. To prevent the molehills from mounding into an insurmountable mountain couples must address each conflict through face-to-face talking. They must talk about every one. For couples who have entered into a separation, this means scheduling regular meetings to talk about previous conflicts (whether with a counselor or on their own).
This is a critical point in the process and many men simply want to forget the mountain and start fresh. A husband will be tempted to resent his wife for wanting to talk about each molehill and subtly blame her for her inability to “let it go.” In his mind he thinks, “If she’d just get over this everything would be fine.” Husbands must not assume this. Women are not wired like men. They’re not wrong; they’re different. They must talk about every molehill.
Men must also realize that they are going to feel dumped on during this process. A husband will feel like everything is his fault and be tempted to point out where his wife has failed too. This is imprudent. It is true that the mountainous molehill is not entirely his fault, but his wife is blinded by her hurt. She acknowledges that she “isn’t perfect” and that she “has made mistakes too,” but she is currently unable to see or believe that she may have misunderstood her husband, may have misread his words and actions, may have interpreted his pulling away, his shutting down, his stonewalling in escalating conflict as an unloving rejection of her and not as a noble attempt to keep the conflict from getting out of control. She may not realize the inappropriateness of her disrespectful tone or nonverbals.
Husbands, Recognize Your Special Calling in Christ
Christ the groom bore the burden and blame of His bride, the church. Certainly, He didn’t deserve it, but He bore it willingly for the sake of His bride to present to Himself a bride of splendor, without spot or wrinkle or blemish.
For counselors, it’s helpful at this point to remind the husband of his role as the Christ-figure in the marriage. Christ the groom bore the burden and blame of His bride, the church. Certainly, He didn’t deserve it, but He bore it willingly for the sake of His bride to present to Himself a bride of splendor, without spot or wrinkle or blemish. Christ saw our sin. He saw our faults. And yet He cleansed us through the waters of Holy Baptism. He presents us now as a bride of splendor. A husband is called to do likewise (Ephesians 5:25–28):
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies.
Regardless of his wife’s words or actions, he is to see a woman of splendor without spot or wrinkle or blemish.
Is this fair? No.
Is this Christ-like? Yes. This doesn’t give a wife the freedom to do as she pleases; it frees the husband from uncharitable thoughts and helps him love his wife as Jesus loves the church.
Maintain Patient Perseverance
From here it’s a matter of patient perseverance. Eliminating molehills takes time—but time alone does not heal the wounds. Patience for mutual understanding goes a long way. Ultimately, however, a husband’s and wife’s renewed understandings of each other must be grounded in their shared understanding of Christ’s love for them both. By God’s grace, they forgive each other as He has forgiven them.
A husband’s and wife’s renewed understandings of each other must be grounded in their shared understanding of Christ’s love for them both. By God’s grace, they forgive each other as He has forgiven them.
If a couple is separated, the husband must respect a wife’s boundaries, especially physical intimacy. A wife, meanwhile, must acknowledge her husband’s positive steps forward. These steps won’t be mistake free, but if he is committed to being the Christ-figure, they will come. The husband must soften his tone, sand his abrasive edges, and truly hear his wife before he responds. “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).
As each molehill is resolved another brick in the wall around the wife’s heart will come down. She’ll learn anew to entrust herself to his care, rediscovering the biblical submission that knows no fear (1 Peter 3:5–6).
Thus the mountain can be summited one molehill at a time.
Pastor Jonathan Conner of Zion Lutheran Church in Manning, Iowa, is a former board member for the Hausvater Project.