Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse

June 18, 2015

A Word from Your BCC Team: You’re reading the third of a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog miniseries on Biblical Counseling and Marriage. In today’s post, Brad Hambrick provides counsel for a Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse. You can read Part 1 by Robert Cheong at What Principles Guide My First Meeting with a Couple in Marital Crisis? And you can read Part 2 by Li Beach at Dear Missionary.

We Are All Self-Centered

We are all self-centered spouses and married to self-centered spouses. That is what it means for us body-bound souls (always having our self as the center of our world) corrupted by sin (most naturally thinking of our own interests). But there are cases where this “general self-centeredness” becomes chronic—severe to a point that it results in a toxic marital environment of either abuse or neglect.

In this blog we will examine how Jesus directs His followers to respond to chronically broken relationships as we reflect primarily on Matthew 7:6 as the culmination to the more classic text on relational conflict in Matthew 7:1-5. This post is a modified excerpt from the Marriage with Chronically Self-Centered Spouse blog series, which became a booklet.

Stage One: Minor Offense, Broad Relationships (Matthew 7:1-2)

Leading into these verses, Jesus had taught for two chapters on the moral ideal (Matthew 5-6). Listening to Jesus dissect the human heart must have been convicting. Doubtless many listeners wanted to apply His message to a friend who “needed it more than they did.” Jesus cut them off at the pass and says (paraphrased), “By whatever standard you apply my teaching to others, God will apply it to you. Give the grace you need to receive.”

You can imagine someone raising their hand and sincerely asking Jesus, “Teacher, I’ve tried that. Usually it works very well (when I am willing to apply it), but I have some relationships that don’t get better. It feels like I’m being asked to ignore important offenses. I understand it is a man’s ‘glory to overlook an offense’ (Proverbs 19:11), but is that the only way your followers can respond to offenses?”

Stage Two: Moderate Offense, Closer Relationship (Matthew 7:3-5)

Jesus takes up that question and answers by changing the metaphor from judging to logs and specks (paraphrased), “Start by admitting your sin before you confront someone else’s. Model what it looks like to live by the grace you’re wanting them to embrace. Create an environment that sets up reconciliation. Besides, if you don’t, you’re a hypocrite.”

You can imagine many people liking that answer. It is more “real,” is very practical, and allows for a gracious confrontation. But then someone else raises their hand, “Lord, that is great counsel. I’ve done that and it usually works. But I’ve got a couple of relationships where the more I take the log out of my own eye, the more I get hurt. Should I just continue to ‘turn the other cheek’ or is there another way I can respond?”

Stage Three: Major Offense, Intimate Relationship (Matthew 7:6)

Jesus takes up that question as well by changing the metaphor from logs and eyes to dogs and pigs. The first example appears to be for aggressive offenders (dogs) while the second would be for the passive offenders (pigs).1

Before we examine these two metaphors, we should recognize verse 6 is not usually discussed as the conclusion for verses 1-5. Textually, there are three options.

  1. Verse 6 is the beginning of the next thought unit in Jesus’ sermon (v. 7-11). But these are on prayer and there is little logical connection.
  1. Verse 6 is Jesus’ disconnected “squirrel verse” as if something distracted His attention and He dropped an obscure proverb in the midst of an otherwise well-ordered sermon.
  1. Verse 6 in the culmination of Jesus’ teaching on relationships and conflict in verses 1-5. That seems the logical conclusion when you consider the context.

I believe there are two reasons why this passage is often not taught as the culmination of verses 1-5.

  1. The preceding verses are very dense with application. A preacher or teacher can easily fill their allotted time with explanation, illustration, and application of Jesus’ words on relationships and conflict. The result is that little time is left for verse 6.
  1. Verse 6 applies to the most broken and, therefore, minority cases of conflict. It can be hard for a pastor to devote teaching time to problems that affect 20% of the church, especially when doing so would seemingly excuse temptations to back away from relationships prematurely in 80% of the church (statistics arbitrarily chosen for contrast).

But as far back as the 1600’s, pastors like Matthew Henry have utilized this passage in the manner we will apply it in this post.

“Our zeal against sin must be guided by discretion, and we must not go about to give instructions, counsels, and rebukes, much less comforts, to hardened scorners, to whom it will certainly do no good, but who will be exasperated and enraged at us…Our Lord Jesus is very tender of the safety of his people, and would not have them needlessly to expose themselves to the fury of those that will turn again and rend them…Christ makes the law of self-preservation one of his own laws, and precious is the blood of his subjects to him” (p. 72) Matthew Henry in his Commentary on Matthew.

“Do not give dogs what is holy…lest they…turn to attack you.” There were many wild dogs in Jerusalem that roamed the streets. But if an animal lover tried to feed one, the dog would bite the hand that offered it food. Similarly, Eddie [case study from earlier in the booklet] would attack the gracious efforts of his wife to restore the marriage. Her efforts at restoration resulted in her repeated harm. Jesus says it is permissible to stop feeding such dogs.

“Do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot.” A pig has no use for nice things. Similarly, Jim [another case study from earlier in the booklet] would ignore or minimize anything his wife tried to address – log (her faults) or speck (his faults). She could exhaust herself trying to make things better and, like a pig, Jim would just “waller” in himself.

This does not remove hope from a self-centered marriage. But it does grant freedom for the abused or neglected spouse from unduly owning the problem. It brings to bear Romans 12:18 for such a spouse, “As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Jesus is saying that once you leave stage two, “it” (restoration) no longer only depends primarily on the abuse-neglected spouse.

Criteria for Declaring Your Spouse a “Dog” or “Pig”

The question becomes, “When should we apply these categories? Most of us are slow to repent at times. We shouldn’t use this passage to justify our impatience or bitterness. How do we differentiate unpleasant and rude from unhealthy and destructive?”

The following criteria are meant to provide guidance on when to apply Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:6. The more of these that are present the more likely you are in a Matthew 7:6 relationship.

Aggressive “Dog” Actions:

  • Physical violence or restricting the ability to move freely.
  • Authority or power is used to silence or intimidate.
  • In arguments, threats are made about alienation from children, family, or friends.
  • Major and/or risky financial decisions are made without your consent or awareness.
  • If you ask for a time out in an argument the spouse will not grant it.
  • The spouse is condescending during a disagreement.
  • The spouse uses the Bible as a weapon to silence dissent.
  • The spouse exaggerates their own achievements, abilities, and importance.

Passive “Pig” Actions:

  • Your pain is consistently met with a “What do you want me to do about it” attitude.
  • Hard times are faced by escaping through substance, entertainment, or pornography.
  • Your day-to-day thoughts and concerns are ignored or misunderstood.
  • Your spouse withdraws and/or pouts for days if he is upset with you.
  • Your spouse has a hard time taking pleasure in the joy of others.

Relevant to Both Aggressive and Passive:

  • When apologies are given, the wrongs are minimized, redefined, or blame is shifted.
  • You are shamed for feeling hurt or tried to be silenced when you’re upset.
  • Clearly immoral actions are defended as acceptable.
  • There are repeated lies about known offenses.
  • The spouse will question known facts during an argument.
  • After an explosive exchange the spouse wants to act like nothing happened.
  • Inflexible thinking – what they are thinking of must be the subject of conversation.

In later parts of the blog series and booklet, I examine how to respond if these criteria describe your spouse. For now, you (and your spouse) need to know that your “right response” to these actions will not “fix” the marriage.

The offended spouse frequently fluctuates between effort and despair. Don’t take this assessment to mean that you are left with “nothing to do.” You are doing the most important thing right now–educating yourself on why your previous efforts have been ineffective.

Other Suggested Reading

Join the Conversation

Does accurately assigning responsibility where it belongs and categorizing the degree of brokenness in a marriage feel like it contradicts the teaching of 1 Peter 3:1-6?

How does rightly labeling the severity of an abusive or chronically neglectful spouse’s behavior allow both the offended spouse and church to respond more wisely to these kinds of marriage situations?

1In this verse Jesus appears to be using the chiastic poetic structure common to that time and biblical literature: A-B-B-A to dog-pig-trample-attack. The distinction in aggression can be seen in the animals chosen; wild dogs are aggressive animals and pigs are almost universally viewed as passive/lazy. The verb “trample” for pigs might not give a passive connotation until it is considered in light of the normal activity of pigs. Pigs trample many things, but it is not the wild stampede of a herd of buffalo; rather it is walking over things as part of their daily routine.

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