(For simplicity’s sake, we’ll identify the problem person described in this article as the husband. But wives are just as likely as husbands to be the primary force behind marital conflict.)


  1. Codependency: What is it?
  2. The Dance That Takes Two: How Codependency Develops
  3. The Personal Costs of Codependency
  4. Codependency: The Importance of Personal Boundaries
  5. Overcoming Codependency
  6. Codependency in a Dysfunctional Marriage: Healing and Hope

When Normal Isn’t Normal

In a dysfunctional marriage, the husband — who might even profess to be a Christian — could be addicted, abusive, adulterous, mentally ill, controlling, or irresponsible. But instead of depending on the Lord, he’s dependent on getting high, getting his own way, and getting what he wants outside of the marriage.

The wife — in trying to rescue, fix, or control her husband — becomes codependent. And any time she tries to get him to change his attitude or behaviour, he responds by doing more of the very things that make her feel despondent and trapped.Their relationship has become a vicious cycle of Mutual Assured Destruction — a MAD marital mess.

Unfortunately, the standard practice of once-a-week counselling rarely works in this situation because the husband is self-centred, deceptive, unaccountable, and disinterested in change. He has stiff-armed God and lost respect for his wife.Offering him personal insight or marriage tools would be counter-productive. The marriage relationship, like marriage counselling, requires two cooperative people. If one is resistant, belligerent, or faking cooperation, traditional paths to restoration aren’t effective.

Thankfully, God’s invitation to true change and lasting healing is constant. Restoring a dysfunctional marriage is difficult but not impossible — because with God all things are possible Matthew 19:26. But first, He needs to get the problem person’s attention.

Tough Love: Consequences Can Lead to Positive Change

God is both love and justice. He is both compassion and consequences. He balances tender love with tough love. Throughout the Bible, when someone avoids God’s will, God can make Himself known through a low whisper, or He can show up like the Plagues of Egypt, decimating life and property 1 Kings 19:12 and Exodus 7:14-12:30. God can get our attention, whatever it takes.

We can apply that same truth when dealing with a wayward spouse: Create consequences. More problem spouses straighten up with a tough love approach than with any other effort. We routinely use consequences with children as a loving measure to help them stay within necessary boundaries. So why are we reluctant to use consequences with an adult we love?

Maybe we fear blowback. Maybe we don’t know how. Maybe we think we have to resolve our issues before we can impose consequences on our spouse. Or maybe we believe that enforcing consequences would be ungodly. Whatever the reason, most Christians hesitate to use discomfort — one of the most powerful tools God has given us to influence change in someone’s life.

You can’t change an unmotivated spouse by offering common sense or by nagging, berating, crying, or pleading. However, you and God can work together to get your spouse’s attention by creating discomfort for him. How? Set personal boundaries, and enforce those boundaries with natural, logical consequences.

First Things First: Choose Your Support Team

Are you familiar with the biblical account of Joshua getting ready to battle the giants of the Promised Land? God told Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” Deuteronomy 31:6, ESV.

Don’t try to fight this battle alone. You need the wisdom and support of God and others to help you stand firm and press ahead. Connect with a licensed Christian counsellor or a Christian life coach who can help you think things through, make a plan, and commit to carrying it out. They can teach you what boundaries look like and what consequences could be most effective with your spouse.

If you’re in an abusive marriage, you need to take extra measures to keep yourself and your children safe. Don’t hesitate to call 000 if you’re in immediate danger. You can also get help 24/7/365 through The National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1800RESPECT.

Create a Battle Plan

Therapists often hesitate to provide a detailed plan for boundaries and consequences because they don’t have to live with the outcome. But you do need a basic idea of where to start — so here are some action steps to consider. Run these by your counsellor or life coach for additional insight. These suggestions aren’t the only options for your situation; you should be committed but flexible, and you need to be led by the Holy Spirit.

  • Determine not to be a victim. Be a strong and courageous overcomer in Christ.

  • Let God be your strength. Read 2 Samuel 22:2-3.

  • Connect with a licensed Christian counsellor or professional Christian life coach who understands codependency.

  • Make a plan to set boundaries, announce them assertively, and provide consequences.

  • Stop all enabling behaviours.

  • Stick to your plan, even when it’s painful.

  • If possible, keep lines of communication open with your spouse — you’re hoping for surrender, not destruction. But don’t allow old patterns to continue.

  • Speak the truth in love. Tell your spouse that you believe in him, and let him know that you’re praying for his return to you, the kids, and God.

  • Give your spouse time — he probably won’t change overnight. And don’t fall for teary-eyed promises to change; watch and wait for true transformation.

  • Your need for physical attention might tempt you to short-circuit the change process, but hold out. Don’t sabotage the work God is doing in both you and your husband.

  • Turn your attention to caring for yourself and your kids.

  • Allow this season to draw you back to intimacy with God — dependency on Him alone. Ask Him to show you His purpose for your life.

  • Forgive your spouse as the Spirit leads. Talk to your counsellor or life coach about what forgiveness is and isn’t.

And while it might not seem possible at this point, we encourage you to anticipate a day when your story will encourage others. No matter the outcome on this earth, our suffering is never wasted when we trust God with the bigger picture: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, ESV

© 2019 Russ Rainey. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

Dr. Russ Rainey

Dr. Russ Rainey practiced as a Licensed Professional Christian Counsellor for over 30 years. He has served five churches as Director of Counseling, Support, and Recovery, and he has taught graduate courses in Christian Counselling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and at Dallas Baptist University in Dallas, Texas. He served as Regional Outpatient Director for Rapha (a Christian Psychiatric Hospital Corporation), and was the Vice President of Coaching Services at Matthew 28 Global Ministries.

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