Sin is deadly, and unrepentant sin will kill a marriage. Regardless of the sin, whether “big” or “small” (from a human point of view), a spouse’s refusal to repent marks the beginning of the end of the marriage. However, there is hope. Like a cancer, if detected, identified, and treated, the marriage can become stronger than anyone ever imagined. Unfortunately, the remedy may be horrifically unpleasant for everyone involved. Nevertheless, unrepentant sin must be confronted. In the words of Christian author and psychologist, Dr. James Dobson, “love must be tough.”
The Lord is relentlessly loving yet utterly uncompromising when it comes to behavior that undermines our relationship. Similarly, we must be willing to stand firmly against sin. However, as women especially have discovered, expressing anger or sorrow is not enough. No amount of arguing or tears will turn a sinner from his sin. It is a sad fact that when the Holy Spirit cracks the shell of a hardening heart, His tool of choice is usually the consequence of wrongdoing. Therefore, our response can be no different. For a tough-love confrontation to be truly effective, it must include no less than five essential steps. Moreover, each step must be thought out well in advance and then expressed with calm resolve at a single confrontation.
As we examine the inner workings of a tough-love conversation, bear in mind that our goal is two-fold. First, we want to encourage someone we love to escape the deadly trap of sin. Vengeance is not ours to give, so punishment is not our purpose. Second, we want to reconcile the broken relationship and eventually restore trust. While we cannot compel another person to join us in repairing the breech, we can invite him or her. And that begins by making repentance more attractive than continued sin.
Step 1: Name the sin.
First, tough love names the sin and holds the wayward partner solely responsible for his or her choices. No one should be surprised when this is met with resistance. Sinners always deny wrongdoing. And when that fails, they minimize the gravity of their behavior. And when that fails, they attempt to shift blame. It goes all the way back to the Garden, where Adam pointed the finger at his wife and she, in turn, charged the serpent.
The sinner will likely try to blame his or her partner’s shortcomings as the reason for the sin. Let’s acknowledge that no mere mortal can ever claim to be completely above reproach; nevertheless, the failures of one person—regardless of how serious or how chronic—can ever justify the sin of another. No one is compelled to pursue evil. The responsibility for wrongdoing belongs exclusively to the person choosing destructive behavior. While we must be willing to address our own shortcomings, this must never become a precondition to the sinning partner’s repentance. There will be time enough for addressing past wrongs after he or she has escaped the mind-warping influence of sin.
Denial, minimizing, and blame-shifting do not deserve a response. Instead, keep the focus on the real issue at hand: there is never an excuse for sin.
Step 2: Clarify the consequences of unrepentant sin.
Describe the negative, destructive impact caused by the sin, especially if the effects continue to the present. Describe how the sin has impacted the relationship. Then—and this is where courage frequently falters—set boundaries based on these responses. For example, in the case of pornography:
“David, I love you, but I have no desire to give my body to a man who willfully defiles his mind. In fact, I’m not comfortable sleeping in the same bed with you. Therefore, you should sleep in the guest room as long as you keep viewing porn. And if you refuse, then I will move in there.”
Or, in the case of alcoholism,
“Michael, your drinking is out of control. You frequently drink too much in public, embarrass me with your obnoxious behavior, and then expect me to take care of you as you vomit through the night. From now on, I refuse to help you in any way when you’re drunk, nor will I remain in your presence. Furthermore, I want to support your career, but your public intoxication embarrasses me. Therefore, you will have to attend company functions without me. I won’t be going until you get help for your drinking problem.”
While this might feel unkind or even manipulative, it is neither—as long as the boundaries reflect the upright spouse’s authentic feelings. And this is crucial. Our loving response to sin must come from a place of authenticity and strength, which begins with a clear understanding of who we are and what behavior we find acceptable.
Setting boundaries is nothing more than refusing to engage in any behavior that betrays one’s conscience or forces him or her to behave one way on the outside while thinking or feeling the opposite within. This is not about getting even; it’s a matter of integrity. Furthermore, the goal of tough love is to allow the wayward spouse to suffer the consequences of sin instead of bearing them on their behalf.
Step 3: Call for repentance.
Encourage the wayward spouse to repent—for his or her own good as much as anyone’s. However, beware of the temptation to beg if he or she fails to repent immediately. Dignity is far more compelling. Begging says, “Please turn from your sin; I can’t live without you!” Dignity, on the other hand, declares, “When you have rejected your sin, I will be there to love and support you.” This is crucial when communicating with a partner whose perception of right and wrong, good and bad, has been turned upside down by sin.
Step 4: Offer a plan for reconciliation and, ultimately, complete restoration.
Work with a counselor or a wise Christian friend to form a specific plan for reconciliation and the rebuilding of trust. (My friend and colleague, Dr. Bryce Klabunde, has written an outstanding article explaining how to recognize genuine repentance, titled “I’ll Change, I Promise” Six Signs of Genuine Repentance.” Good intentions are not enough—for either person. The wayward partner likely feels powerless to stop his or her behavior while the wounded spouse has every reason to expect a repeat offense. Neither the sinner’s self-control nor the victim’s trust will be restored overnight. It’s a gradual process and it must be intentional.
In the case of alcoholism, a restoration process must include three essential elements: individual treatment (rehab, individual counseling, or whatever is deemed appropriate by a qualified professional), ongoing accountability (such as AA or Celebrate Recovery), and eventually couple’s counseling. Meanwhile, the spouse of the alcoholic must seek his or her own counseling. For every dysfunctional person in a marriage, there is a person who picked him or her as a partner. He or she needs to understand why. (There’s a whole article by itself.)
Step #4 is perhaps the most crucial element of a loving confrontation of sin. It is what turns vengeful condemnation into hopeful redemption. Offering a specific plan for reconciling the breach and for restoring a broken relationship is quintessentially God-like. That is what He does for us.
Step #5: Follow through with dependable action.
Tough love says what it means and means what it says. Tough love consistently follows through with dependable action, which is absolutely essential to success. Tough talk without tough action only compounds the problem. Furthermore, any discrepancy between words and deeds undermines dignity, which a sinning partner must see in order to offer respect. The wayward spouse must become convinced that the negative consequences for continued sin are real. He or she must also know that repentance will be met with complete support. In the case of alcoholism, this includes taking an active role in the addict’s recovery as directed by his or her sponsor or case manager. Eventually, this will also require the upright partner’s availability for intimacy as the sinner works to regain trust.
Put simply, the upright partner must follow through on promises.
The key word is response, not reaction or retaliation. We aren’t declaring war; we’re establishing boundaries. We aren’t trying to dominate; we’re trying to redeem. Ultimately, the purpose for tough-love confrontation is not to coerce or control the sinning partner; it is merely to clarify three important facts. First, the wayward spouse needs to know that he or she has the power to decide the future of the marriage. Second, the upright spouse needs to communicate that he or she wants the marriage to be restored. Third, a refusal to turn away from the sinful behavior will lead to greater unhappiness for both, while repentance will lead to complete restoration.
For a more extensive treatment of this tough-love approach to unrepentant sin—especially when the level of dysfunction places others in danger—see my book, Redemptive Divorce.