We sat silently at opposite ends of our couch, barely making eye contact.

Earlier in the day, I made a comment to Jill that wounded her in ways I wouldn’t know or understand until later. The pain was great enough that she uncharacteristically refused all my attempts to reconcile, keeping her distance both physically and emotionally.

That scared me. It was painful, lonely, and impossible to not take personally. She wasn’t rejecting a meal she didn’t enjoy. She was rejecting me: my words, my affection, my presence.

That evening on the couch, I had a choice to make. I could walk away as an act of retaliation, hoping she felt what I felt – pain, distance, and loneliness. Or, I could try to draw near to her.

The first option would set us on a path toward bitterness and resentment.

The second option, though it would hopefully bring life and restoration, was riskier. It carried the potential for even more rejection than I was already experiencing.

My decision would set the tone for future conflicts.

What would possibly motivate me to make the more difficult choice?

Rejected and despised

The biggest motivator for believers to persevere with patience and kindness is that it imitates Christ’s persevering pursuit of us.

Isaiah the prophet describes the Servant of the Lord who would come to rescue His people from their sin. He would come to bring healing and hope, but He would be “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”(Isaiah 53:3).

People would hide their faces from Him. He’d be pierced, crushed, oppressed, afflicted, cut off, and stricken. Yet He never stopped pursuing those He loved. In fact, He sacrificed everything to ransom them.

Story after story in Scripture pictures this persevering and patient response in difficult circumstances.

One example is Hosea and Gomer (Hosea 1-3). To depict God’s patient kindness toward those He loves, He commanded the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute. Though he lavished love on her, she abandoned him for other men.

But he still doggedly sought her, muscling through heartache and shame to rescue her. He purchased her, clothed her, nourished her, and restored her back into his home and honored his covenant.

Even when she didn’t.

No record of wrongdoing

However, Hosea didn’t bring Gomer back to simply reestablish her presence in the house. He brought her back with the expectation of living with her as his wife and all that implies.

Though their relationship would have its challenges, they could not have moved forward if he constantly threw her actions in her face. A crucial aspect in forgiveness is ditching the scorecard by choosing to not remember wrongs that have been committed.

You may be wondering, Where do I begin?

The letter of 1 Peter is helpful.

In the first half of chapter two, Peter lays the groundwork for how the content of our character as those who have been transformed by Christ impacts our conduct in the world. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Peter goes on to write, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).

In short, believers are called to assume a posture of respect and honor toward others as God’s image bearers.

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What does this look like in marriage?

As a husband, since I’m a follower of Christ, I’m called to take the lead and be the initiator – not an agitator or instigator. Scripture tells me to live in an understanding way with my wife, and show her honor as a weaker (i.e. not inferior!) vessel (1 Peter 3:7). She’s an heir with me, after all—implying how precious she is. When I fail to treat her as such, it not only dishonors her. It dishonors God and will hinder my prayers.

If you’re wondering how to play this out as a wife: Wives, God asks that you extend honor and respect “so that even if some (husbands) do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Peter 3:1-2). Even if your husband claims to be a believer, he disobeys the word when he rejects you or withholds love. Peter is saying that patience, kindness, honor, and respect may win him over.

Taking small steps

Maybe you struggle to resolve small grievances, not unlike my wife and me that day. Or maybe you’ve endured a state of passive hostility, slammed doors, and heavy silence in your marriage for years.

Or perhaps you’re on the other side: You’ve wounded your spouse and want to reconcile, yet there is no return of affection. Those are massive hurdles to overcome, but they’re impossible if you view your spouse like an enemy on a battlefield.

Your spouse is not your enemy. Jesus’ example beckons us to fight alongside one another, not against one another. And you can fight for your spouse, for God’s honor in your relationship, even if your spouse doesn’t want to.

Here are six small steps you can take today to begin to build or restore love and trust.

  1. Write notes – Provided you’re still living with your spouse, leave short notes in unexpected places: on the bathroom mirror, on the milk carton, in a drawer, under a pillow. It’s a small gesture requiring little effort that can have high dividends.
  2. Offer unsolicited words of kindness – Offer a genuine compliment on the house, the cooking, the yard, his attire, her work ethic. Offer words of gratitude whenever you can—including for your mate’s character—so you’re not merely communicating you appreciate how their tasks enhance your life.
  3. Draw near physically – This doesn’t have to mean draw near sexually (though it might if you’ve been withholding sex as a means of punishment). Drawing near can be as simple as a gentle hug, a light hand on a shoulder or small of the back, or reaching out to hold a hand.
  4. Speak kindly about your spouse – When you talk about your spouse, what do others hear? It’s okay to be honest with people about the state of your marriage. But are you respectful and honoring in your words and tone? Do your words communicate to others the amount of graciousness you, too, have required to constantly be forgiven?
  5. Serve in unexpected ways – How often do you help your spouse in ways especially meaningful? Is there a special meal she enjoys that you could prepare? Are there chores he finds tiresome that you could do without being asked or needing to be recognized?
  6. Apologize for hurtful words/attitudes – When Jill and I argue, it’s rarely one-sided. Even if she has sinned against me, there’s usually some way I’ve wounded her. Often, I need to search my heart for my own faults and seek forgiveness. What do you need to confess, both in the attitude of your heart and the way it’s played out?

It’s difficult to draw near to the person who wounded you. After all, no one can hurt you as deeply as your spouse. But expect healing and restoration to take time.

Yet when you step out in faith in the strength of the Holy Spirit, taking action, your affection will likely, eventually, grow. Prayerfully, so will your spouse’s.

Copyright © 2019 Ben McGuire. All rights reserved.

Ben McGuire serves with Cru as an International Sending Coordinator and a Theological Development Coordinator. He received his M.Div. from Southern Seminary. Ben and his wife Jill live outside of Raleigh, North Carolina with their three children Reece, Wyatt, and Claire. Find Ben at his blog: A Legacy in Words.