Why Won’t My Husband Lead?
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Dave and Ann WilsonDave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus churc...more
FamilyLife Today hosts Dave and Ann Wilson answer a wife’s question about responding to a husband who doesn’t lead.
Why Won’t My Husband Lead?
Bob: Dave Wilson has always been a confident take-charge kind of guy; but early on, leading his family spiritually—that was intimidating for him.
Dave: I felt like I could lead in other areas of my life better than I could lead my wife, spiritually, and my kids, spiritually. Part of it was I was trained as an athlete, so I could walk on a field and feel confident. I got a degree/I went to seminary; I have an understanding—I’m not saying I’m great—but I can preach. I know how to lead a church; I know how to cast vision. I know how—
And then I walk in my back door; and I felt a paralysis, like, “I don’t know what to do.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, October 1st. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What should a man do if he feels inadequate to lead his family spiritually, and is there anything his wife can do to encourage him? We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I would imagine, as you talk to wives about frustrations in marriage—about the things that they wrestle with/the things they wish could be fixed, or could be different, or could be better—what we’re going to talk about today is probably, if it’s not at the top of the list, it’s top three; don’t you think?
Ann: I think so. After 30 years, I’m amazed that this still rises to the top—
Bob: Yes; yes.
Ann: —of issues that women are so frustrated with and are looking for answers.
Bob: The issue is a wife’s frustration when a husband is failing to initiate—to take the lead/to lead the relationship—specifically, to lead it spiritually; but it can just be his failure to lead in general/to be passive; right?
Ann: I sat down with a woman, a couple of weeks ago, and she said, “I’m thinking of filing for divorce.” I said, “Tell me what’s going on.” She said, “I’m married to a good man; he’s a good father, but he is the most passive man I’ve ever met. He doesn’t lead spiritually at all. He never wants to initiate anything. I’m always leading the family. When I hear, biblically, what this should look like, it doesn’t look like it should; and I’m the one always leading. What should I do?”
Bob: She’s thinking, “What I should do is—I should bail.”
Ann: She’s thinking, “There must be someone else out there that would do a better job.”
Bob: The level of discontentedness that comes from a husband’s failure to lead spiritually/to lead in general is something that—it’s not just an annoyance—this goes to the heart of what we long for in a marriage relationship.
Ann: Right; I don’t think all women are to that point of saying, “I might file for divorce”; but I think they’re lost in thinking, “What do I do? Can I do anything besides pray for my husband?” So I’m here with two experts. [Laughter]
Dave: No; I was just thinking the opposite; I was thinking, “Okay, honey.”
Ann: No! [Laughter]
Dave: Bob and I are sitting here with a wife.
Ann: No; no; no. We’re not turning it on me. I’m saying, “Guys, help us to know how to respond.”
Dave: Wait; wait—okay; here is my first question then: “What do women want? What do you want from your man in the area of leading spiritually?”
Ann: Well, I think, as women, we hear what it looks like to be a spiritual leader. Maybe, that involves initiating prayer with our family, or some sort of dialogue about God with our kids, or initiating saying, “Hey, kids/hey, honey, let’s get ready and go to church,”—instead of a wife saying, “Are we going to church today? Are you going to go with me? Are you going to go with the kids?”—someone who is modeling their pursuit of Jesus.
Bob: Now, you’ve acknowledged that you had kind of an idealized vision of what that was supposed to look like when you first got married.
Dave: Oh, yes; she did!
Bob: You thought Saint Dave was going to do it a particular way. [Laughter] You had to do some correction to your thinking; because your expectations were—I mean, we talk about Saint Dave—somebody would have to be a saint in order to live up to what were your expectations.
Ann: I think we do that as women. We have a picture of what godly men are doing in their homes. Mine was Dennis Rainey—Dennis would talk; and I thought, “Dennis is leading his family every day in prayer, reading the Scriptures. He’s calling them together, and they are all sitting at his feet, saying, ‘Dad, teach us,’”—I was hoping Dave would initiate that, at least, some sort of a time with Jesus as a family. Is that not a realistic expectation?
Dave: Well, I mean, first you’ve got to go back and say, “Is that really what happened in the Rainey household?” [Laughter] The answer is, “No!” I mean, I’m not saying it was bad; but it wasn’t that.
Dave: I think a lot of wives do what you did. It’s like they glorify or they actually create an unrealistic—
Dave: —view. They see it [in their mind]; it’s not even real. Same thing they do with “I’m going to marry Prince Charming,”—
Dave: —sort of this—
Dave: —glamorized thing. I think you have to go down and say, “What should it look like?”
But then, as the man, you’ve got to ask, “Why am I not leading?”
Bob: So with your wife—who is thinking, “My husband is spiritually passive; he never does anything,”—maybe, the first place to start in your conversation with her is: “What is the expectation?” Is that a realistic expectation, and are you expecting him to be more than most men are capable of being?—which is not to say that a guy shouldn’t step up and do something—maybe, this guy is doing nothing—but I do think some wives need to have their glorified image adjusted before we get in and start talking about how the man needs to get in shape; right?
Ann: I think that’s true.
Bob: Yes; I remember a conversation we had a number of years ago with Elisabeth Elliot when she was still alive. She used an illustration I’ve never forgotten. She said if you walk up, and there is a guy, who has got on a plain white shirt—a business shirt/dress shirt—but he’s had an ink pen in his pocket, and that ink pen has leaked; and there is a quarter-sized purple spot at the bottom of his pocket—she says, “Where do your eyes go, and what do you focus on?” You focus on the spot that’s there. She said, “Now, how much of the shirt is still white?”—most of the shirt/99 percent—“but your eyes keep getting drawn to the flaw/to what is wrong.”
I think that is another part of this equation, where husbands or wives can become so fixated on the flaws that we see in our spouses, that we fail to remember and to recognize the good things that we’ve come to take for granted.
Ann: I think you are right, Bob. We can focus on the weaknesses; we see the things that need to change. We do that ourselves, as women; instead of looking at ourselves holistically in the mirror, we look at all the flaws; and we don’t see any of the good. It’s easy to do that in marriage.
I think, too, especially if you are a stronger woman and a woman that is a leader—and maybe, our husband isn’t as strong—we expect him to become this man that is stronger than us. That may never happen.
Dave: I know that—I don’t know if you want to bring this up—but I remember, Ann, back before COVID, you said you got a text from a woman in our church that said, “I want to leave my husband; because he doesn’t want to go to church, because he doesn’t want our kids around this virus.”
Ann: “He won’t shake hands.”
Dave: Yes; he doesn’t want to go to church. She’s like/Ann just sort of relayed this story—I said, “What are you going to say to her?” Tell them what you said, because I thought it was really beautiful.
Ann: She was looking at the negative; she said, “He’s being a bad example to our kids, because he’s being unfriendly to other people.” What I said was: “Oh, isn’t it good that you have a husband, who is being protective of you, who is watching out for you, who is watching out for the kids? Maybe, you approach him in that vein of saying, ‘Thank you for being such a protective husband and a protective father.’”
Bob: So, again, we’re talking to a wife, who is frustrated about her husband not leading the relationship spiritually. We’re saying: “Do you have a realistic expectation? Are you valuing the good things about your spouse?”
The principle we are following here is: “Before you go to try to fix your spouse, have you looked at your own eyes?—the logs that are in your own eyes. Have you gone through a checklist and said, ‘Okay; I need to really think this through carefully rather than just jumping on the one thing that’s frustrating to me right here’?”
Ann: Let’s talk about this: “As men, what motivates you? Maybe, you tend to be more passive, as a man, or not as strong of a leader; how can we, as a wife, motivate you in those areas of leading?”
Dave: Every man is motivated by praise, by affirmation, by appreciation—every woman is, too, actually—but I know that, when you and any wife sort of critiques or is disappointed, and you sort of think, like, “I’m going to be the coach that’s going to kick him in the rear-end, and it’s going to get him going,”—
Ann: I thought that was helping. Was it not working? [Laughter]
Dave: No; I mean, obviously, there are times where that does work—there are coaches that use that, at times, and it works—but generally, I think, for me, as a man—I can’t speak for Bob—but I’ve talked to a lot of men that feel that demotivates.
Yet, when you praise—I’ve said this many times—when you started praising who I was, as a man, I actually didn’t think I was that good that you were saying I was; but I wanted to be. It motivated me to be the man you said I was that I wasn’t yet—[Laughter]—which doesn’t make any sense—but it was motivating. Again, I’m not saying every man is motivated that way; but it made me step up.
Ann: I agree with that. Bob, would you?—is that true for you?
Bob: I think it is. I’ve said, for years, that guys are not going to keep playing a game that they are not any good at. Guy goes out and plays golf three or four times. He goes, “I’m just not getting the hang of this”; he’s not going to keep trying to conquer it. He’ll just say, “I’m going to go to something that I’m good at.”
Well, if he’s tried leading his family, spiritually, three or four times, and he just goes, “This does not work at all; I feel like a failure,” then he is not motivated to try the fifth time. He just says, “I’m going to try something else; because this, obviously, doesn’t work.”
If a wife can come along and say, “Here is what I saw in that…”—it’s what you did with Dave; you’ve shared the story on FamilyLife Today about acknowledging the power he had in your sons’ lives, and how they listened to him, and how they gravitated. You pointed it out, and you said, “I’m jealous of the power you carry.”
Ann: “…the power that you carry.”
Bob: When Dave heard that, he goes, “Oh, there is something here that I’m good at”; and you leaned into that.
Dave: For me—and I’ve talked to enough men to know this is common—I felt like I could lead in other areas of my life better than I could lead my wife, spiritually, and my kids, spiritually.
Ann: Why is that?
Dave: Well, part of it was I was trained as an athlete; so I could walk on a field and feel confident; you know? I know what to do; I know how to read this coverage; I’ve prepared: “Give me the ball; let’s go.” I got a degree/I went to seminary; I have an understanding—I’m not saying I’m great—but I can preach. I know how to lead a church; I know how to cast vision. I know how—
And then I walk in my back door; and I felt a paralysis like, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what she wants. Her expectations are way up here. I’m supposed to walk in and be [with powerful voice] Dennis Rainey; you know? [Laughter] And I don’t even know what that means; but I hear it all the time.” Nobody’s really—I don’t remember a class in seminary about leading your family—by the way, there should be—
Dave: —so I’m on my own. “Okay; what did my dad do?—oh, he left.”—okay; so I don’t have that—“What did my pastor do at the church I grew up?—I have no idea.” Again, you feel this—
Dave: —paralysis. You’re scared; because you know there is an expectation—I could feel it at the dinner table—the kids are sitting there; there is Ann, like, “Come on; do your thing.” I’m like, “What’s my…”
I think, sometimes, fear paralyzes you; so instead of doing the wrong thing, you do nothing. That’s like the worst thing; because your wife is like—oh, she’s so disappointed.
Bob: We’re back to expectations; because it may be that you were not doing nothing—
Bob: —but you weren’t living up to Ann’s idealized view of things. This is where I think a wife needs to look at her husband and say, “Okay; what is he doing? Is he modeling godly character?”
Ann: That’s a good point.
Bob: “Is he an honest person?” “Are there things that he is—
Ann: “Is he hard working? Is he providing?”
Bob: Right; can we lean into some of those things and just say, “I’m so grateful that our kids are growing up, seeing somebody, who values hard work,”—
Bob: —or “…who is honest”? This is so important; a lot of kids don’t have that.
We’ve said for years that, as parents, our kids are going to pay more attention to what is caught than what is taught. If parents only had one option: “You can either have devotion times with the kids and do all the formal training—quiet times, all of the/read bedtime stories—but don’t model anything spiritually”; that’s one option. The other option is: “Don’t do any of that stuff but model godliness.” If you had to pick one, pick “model godliness”; right?
Bob: Because at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to make a bigger impact in a child’s life. The point is—you don’t have one—it’s not an either/or; it can be a both/and. I think a wife can acknowledge and validate, “These are the things you are doing that are making spiritual deposits in our kids’ lives, and I’m grateful for that.”
Ann: I think, too, to have the conversation with your spouse of saying, “What would it look like?—let’s dream together of what we want, spiritually, for our family.” Is that intimidating if a wife asks that question?
Dave: It depends how.
Dave: If she does it like you just did, that’s pretty tender—still a little bit scary for a man to enter that conversation—but I think we had that conversation. What I learned over the years is—you didn’t need me to be Dennis. All you said, really, was: “Just lead anyway you want,”—because you finally gave up the: “It’s going to look like this,”—and stepped back and said, “It’s going to look like the way God’s made Dave.”
The way God made me was—I want to teach through life. You encouraged me to say, “Well, grab those moments then; because you are good at that. When you’re watching TV, or when you’re in a moment, just turn it and go, ‘Hey, let’s go vertical here.’” Hopefully, that’s what I’m doing anyway in my life.
I remember—and again, I’m like a lot of guys—I’m like, “Just tell me what to do/just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” I remember doing a Lions’ chapel—I don’t know; 20-some years ago—and a guy came up after and said, “My wife wants me to lead her spiritually. I don’t know what to do.” I said, “I know what to do. Here’s a devotional,”—it’s a daily devotional—“read it with her. There is a little prayer at the end. It’ll take you five minutes. Do that every day. This is a tool.” I gave him something out of the toolbox.
He did it, and I didn’t know he did it. He never said another word about it for several weeks. Then I run into Rebecca, his wife, somewhere; and she goes, “Oh my goodness! Thank you.” I go, “What?” “My husband is now leading me spiritually, and it’s because you gave him this little devotional book. We do it every night. It’s unbelievable; it’s changed our entire marriage.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s good!”
Again, it was just—and what do we have?—FamilyLife® has all kinds of tools. We have The Story of Us, where it’s all the speaker couples writing little devos that you can do daily. There is a tool; just take it, guys. I can make a guarantee: “One hundred percent of the wives listening right now are going to say, ‘If my husband said, “Let’s do this,” I’m in.’” I doubt if any of them are going to say, “No; I don’t want to do that.” They are going to say, “I’m in, because he’s going to…”
Small simple way to initiate—that’s really what it came down to. You just said to me, “Just initiate. It doesn’t have to be a big prayer; it doesn’t have to be a long Bible study. All you have to do is just take a step, and we’ll all follow.” It changed our family.
Ann: It was interesting—I was leading a Bible study with Detroit Lions’ wives, probably, around 20 of them. They are all in their 20s and 30s; and one wife said, “It’s interesting what we’ve been doing. Every morning, my husband wakes me up, and we do a YouVersion Bible app devotional together before he leaves for work.”
The wives stopped; there was silence, and they were like, “Wait. Wait. Wait. What do you do?” She said, “Yes; it’s only takes ten minutes, but we read that together—it’s Scripture—then we pray quickly. It’s not very long.” There was so much jealousy in the room. Yet, all they are doing is reading it together, being intentional of taking the time; but every wife was longing for that.
Bob: You know, I think most guys, when they hear that, they are thinking to themselves, “Okay, I could try that; but honestly, I will feel like a poser and like a fraud if I say to my wife, ‘Let’s read this devotional.’ It’s like she’s going to be thinking,—
Bob: —“‘Oh, who do you think you are?’”
Bob: Sure; we think, “You know me; you know the flaws. You know that I’m not Dennis Rainey.”
Ann: “I’m not the initiator.”
Bob: Right; so if I do this, you’re going to go, “What do you want?” or “This is not…”—
Ann: “How long will it last?”
Bob: Yes; right.
Dave: Although, could it be—and I hope the wife would look at this—and a husband could go the other way—it’s like [wife:] “Wait a minute,”—if you said, “Hey, tomorrow morning, I’m getting up; I’m going to start a workout program.” It might be like [wife’s potential response], “You’ve never done that before, dude”—but it’d be like [wife’s preferred response]—“Wow! That’s inspiring; good for you!”
Well, it’s the same thing—it’s like, “I want our marriage to be different. I’m not very good at this; I’ve never even done it before, but will you go with me? Let’s start a workout program together called Devotions,”—or whatever you want to do—maybe, it’s a five-minute/one-minute prayer. Why not aspire to something better and greater than where you are right now?
Ann: Maybe, you start with once a week—
Ann: —if you haven’t been doing anything.
Dave: Yes; although you are not going to lose 20 pounds once a week. You’re going to have to do it every day. [Laughter] No, three times a week—that’s what you need.
Ann: I think, too, for us as women, not to become resentful; because there is a seed of bitterness and resentment that can start to grow that vanquishes your feelings for your husband.
Dave: Let me add this—just one last thought; it just hit me/I was thinking—“Okay; if you think like an athlete, or business person, or whatever, and you want to be the first stringer”—I mean, I was a quarterback. I didn’t want to be the backup; I want to be the starter. If I’m the backup, and the starter is better than me, what am I going to do if I want to get that job? Man, when he goes to bed at night, I’m working out. When he’s—
Ann: This is Voddie Baucham who says this.
Dave: —I’m watching film; I’m doing whatever it takes to get first place.
I know a lot of guys say, “My wife is more spiritually mature than me. She’s probably a better leader than I could be.” I’m like, “When she goes to bed, get in the Word,” “Get in a small group with guys.” If you’re like you’re not there yet, let’s rise to the place and win that job; because it’s the job God gave you. Why wouldn’t you say, “This is more important than anything else”?
I’m looking at men right now and saying, “Dude, be the starter. You can do it. It’s going to take some time and practice. You can do it; and when you take it, your wife is going to fall right behind.”
Bob: What did you say to the wife, who said, “I’m frustrated. I want to get a divorce, because he’s passive and won’t lead our family spiritually”?
Ann: I pointed her to the good things. I also said, “God has made you a natural leader,”—and this probably hurt her feelings a little bit—and I said, “You are a little bit scary. You are so strong that it probably scares him to the point of not knowing what to do, because he’s going to be scared he’s doing it wrong.” I said, “If you could pull back just a little bit. You’re a natural leader—if he doesn’t pray—pray. If you’re going to bed, and you’re talking about spiritual things, and he doesn’t jump on the page with you, then it’s okay. Tell him he’s a good man; see the things and say the things that you see that are really great about him.”
She went on to say, “He loves Jesus. He just doesn’t know how to pursue Him in the way that I do.” I said, “It’s not going to look like the way you’re doing it. It will look different, and that’s okay.”
Bob: Yes; Dave, you mentioned tools that you recommended to guys. The couples who speak at our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways have collaborated on a devotional that couples can read once a week together to facilitate a spiritual conversation and have a time to pray together. Now, again, it’s once a week; so we’re trying to make this as easy and doable for couples as possible. Set your date—plan that every Sunday night or every Thursday morning, whenever you want to do it—you’re going to get out The Story of Us devotional, read that week’s devotional, spend a little time praying together. That’s a step in the right direction.
You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to find out more about The Story of Us devotional. You can order it from us, online; or you can call to order. Then I’d just recommend, guys, read your book, Vertical Marriage. In fact, what I’d suggest is that you read a few pages of that book out loud together as a way, again, to have some spiritual dialogue in your marriage. The book by Dave and Ann Wilson is called Vertical Marriage: The One Secret that Will Change Your Marriage. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order copies of the book, or call us at 1-800-358-6329 to order a copy—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, I sometimes wish our listeners could just spend a couple of days with us listening to some of the phone calls that come in, reading the emails/the letters that we get from people, hearing about the impact FamilyLife Today is having in the lives of people all around the country. There are marriages that are still together because of this program. There are children who are being pointed in a new direction because mom and dad are listening to FamilyLife Today. Those of you who support this ministry—you’re the ones making that possible. You’re the ones who are providing the practical biblical help and hope that so many couples are looking for today. Every time you donate, you’re investing in their marriages and in their families.
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We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to hear a conversation that happened recently as Ron Deal, who gives leadership to FamilyLife Blended®, spoke with Sandi Patty and her husband, Don Peslis, about what happens when a marriage begins in the midst of a lot of brokenness. That conversation comes up tomorrow. I hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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