Micromanaging, criticizing, and fault-finding are toxic to a relationship. But problems don’t go away by ignoring them. What do you do when your spouse is doing truly hurtful things? How can you confront your spouse about their bad behavior without destroying your relationship?

You married a sinner. And so did your spouse. Humans will hurt each other, especially in an intimate relationship. Some of those hurtful behaviors make a bigger impact than others.

If you’re impossible to please, this article is not for you. Most of the small stuff you would do well to simply let roll off your back. Don’t be like the micromanaging husband who loudly berates his wife for going over their monthly food budget by six dollars, or the miserable wife who fills the house with vitriol if her husband forgets to turn off the coffee pot.

But if your spouse’s ongoing bad behavior is damaging your life, your marriage, your spouse’s life, one of the roles God has given you may be to confront, “speaking the truth in love” to your spouse.

Here are some important guidelines for doing that.

  1. Seek First to Understand

You will get a lot farther by seeking to understand. To take a small example, your spouse arrives home two hours later than you expected. Sure, you’re upset. But it makes a big difference if you discover the bridge was out and they had to take a long detour and their phone had died, versus finding out they had stopped for drinks with friends or to go shopping without letting you know.

There are always reasons behind whatever behavior causes irritation or pain. Your spouse perceives the world differently from you. Family of origin, past traumas, personality, maturity – it all makes a difference.

Understanding does not mean you excuse their bad behavior! It does mean that seeking understanding is the place to begin. It provides perspective to help you know what to do next, and is the only basis on which communication can take place.

You may know a lot already; use that to begin seeking to understand. And then asking your spouse to help you understand will go a long way.

  1. Attack the Problem, not the Person

If your spouse knows what he/she is doing is hurtful, they are likely already carrying plenty of shame. You heaping on more shame and blame will only push them farther away. (If your spouse finds pleasure in causing pain, check out this article on Toxic Marriage.)

Own your own responses, and explain how your spouse’s behavior is affecting you. That could look like, “Your drinking is using up money we need for food, and when you’ve been drinking you yell and break things. That scares me.” Or, “Knowing you use pornography shuts off all my feelings wanting to be close to you. It’s destroying our marriage.” Or, “I feel really hurt when you tease or criticize me in front of our friends.”

Such conversations are a place to start, not a place to end. Unless your spouse is acting from an evil heart (you need God’s perspective here), see it as you and your spouse working to address the problem from the same side of the table. To confront your spouse in a healthy way, make it about the problem, not the person.

  1. You’re NOT the Enforcer

It’s not your role to “train” your spouse. A young wife was hurt by her new husband’s emotional cheating. Thereafter she became judge, jury, and executioner evaluating every social media interaction, text message, or phone call her husband made. Such an attempt at controlling your spouse’s behavior will likely completely destroy any chance at intimacy.

When you’re hurt it’s natural to try to control – circumstances, your spouse, everything. Don’t. You’ll only wear yourself out and damage your relationship. Your spouse does not need or desire you to be a parent. Confronting from a position of trying to exert power over your spouse will damage both your own heart and your marriage.

That doesn’t mean you allow bad behavior to continue without consequences (see next guideline below). It does mean you can’t change your spouse. Only your spouse and God working together can lead them to experience lasting change.

  1. Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries in marriage is not for the purpose of controlling or punishing your spouse; it’s for the purpose of preserving the relationship and making a future possible. It’s protecting yourself (or your children) from further harm.

That may look something like, “I’m asking you to go to AA for your drinking, starting today. If you don’t, I’m going to ask you to leave our home until you do.” Or, “Your belittling of me in front of our friends is too painful for me to continue to endure. I will not go to social gatherings with you until this behavior changes.”

Remember, setting a boundary is about choosing what you will do or not do; it’s not about trying to control your spouse. It’s important that you are prepared to follow through if your spouse again engages in that particular behavior; i.e. you really must be prepared to ask your spouse to leave if they don’t start attending AA.

  1. Guard Your Heart

Conflict in marriage can lead you to want to close off your heart. Being hurt can tempt you to become bitter and angry. But you don’t have to go down that road. Guard against your own tendency to blame your spouse for your unhappiness, or to let your hurt “leak out” on others through prickly critical behavior.

Stay on your knees. Keep asking God to show you who He needs you to be to your spouse in this season. Seek out healthy mental/emotional/spiritual nourishment. Hang out with healthy uplifting people. Take responsibility for your own thoughts and actions.

Confronting your spouse with wisdom and humility has the potential to strengthen your marriage. What they do next is their responsibility. Remember; you can’t change your spouse. You can only change you.

My prayer is that both you and your spouse allow God to continue His transforming work in you.

Your Turn: Have you tried to confront your spouse? What was that like for you? Which of these steps can help your next confrontation be more effective? Leave a comment below.

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