Marriage Missions International

Why Doesn’t My Spouse Change? Functional Fixedness

Marriage Missions Editor Note: The following article is one that is written to wives; however, most of it could also have been written to husbands because a lot of the same principles apply. We pray you will glean through it and learn what will apply in your marriage:

Dr. Melody Rhode often uses a psycho-neurological term to describe a man’s reluctance to change: FUNCTIONAL FIXEDNESS. Men don’t normally change if what they’ve been doing seems to be working for them. When a woman allows her husband to treat her with disrespect, he has no motivation to change —and so it’s unlikely he ever will.

Melody notes, “There’s a simple question I ask wounded women who seek help to endure belittling or degrading treatment from their man: ‘Why does your husband treat you badly?’ Answer: because he can.” This is not, in any way, to blame a woman for the abuse but to develop a new blueprint for a different future.

Melody continues. “If what he’s doing is working for him, why change? He needs a compelling reason to change, and it needs to be more compelling than your unhappiness or private misery with the situation.”

I would think that a God-fearing man would be motivated to change simply by understanding that his actions hurt you. But I’m also a realist. Some of you may be married to a man who doesn’t much care if his actions hurt you, as long as he gets what he wants. In such cases, allowing the behavior to continue while complaining about it won’t change anything. It’s not your pain that motivates him but his pain. You have to be willing to create an environment in which the status quo becomes more painful than the experience of positive change.

Here’s the trap I’ve seen too many women fall into: a woman keeps expressing to her husband how he is doing something (or not doing something) that is hurting her. Even after several such conversations, he doesn’t change —or he’ll change for a few days and then go back to his old habits, at which point the wife complains again.

Still, no long-term change. The wife reads a book or attends a seminar and decides she needs to find a better way to communicate so she can get her message across, but even after this, there’s no permanent change. Her error is assuming that she’s not getting through. In point of fact, she is getting through to her husband —he may fully understand and be completely aware of her pain, but he’s not motivated by her pain. If he likes the marriage as it is, he’ll put up with an occasionally disagreeable conversation now and then.

In such cases, spouses need to make a serious evaluation. There was a point in “Jenny’s” marriage when she realized, based on her and her husband’s parents’ health history, that she and “Mike” could be married for sixty years. At the time, Jenny had been married for just fifteen years, but that left, potentially, another forty-five years of being together —which also meant another forty-give years of a situation that Jenny wasn’t sure she could live with.

“There is no scenario in my life plan in which I want divorce —none,” Jenny told me. “At the end of my life, my fervent hope and determination is to be, unreservedly, a one-man woman. But I also know enough not to overestimate my patience. I could put up with some disappointments at the time, but was I willing to live with this for another forty-five years? At that point, I felt I needed to be more honest about some struggles and more up-front about making a change. It created some discomfort for a season as I stopped pretending that everything was OK — but was a season of discomfort worth changing the course of our marriage for the next forty-years? Without question!”

Without nagging and without pretty recriminations (withholding sex, the silent treatment, a critical spirit, and so forth), Jenny gently but forcefully made her husband see that as long as he acted the way he did, their marriage was going to suffer in specific ways — ways that affected him. It was only when Mike started feeling his own pain that he was shaken out of his functional fixedness enough to change his behavior.

I believe Jenny makes an important point: be wary of over-estimating your willingness to live with a glaring hurt or a gaping need. Don’t pretend that Satan won’t exploit it or that you won’t be tempted by another man who happens to be strongest exactly where your husband is weakest. If, like Jenny, your ideal life plan leaves no room for divorce, you must honestly accept your weaknesses and be willing to create a climate in which your spouse will be motivated by his pain. This is a courageous and healthy movement toward your spouse and toward preserving and strengthening your marriage, and it is an act of commitment, not rebellion.

All this requires a very specific application based on your spouse’s personality, so I can’t give you “five steps to overcome functional fixedness” here — but you’ll receive plenty of ideas and suggestions as we touch on various topics throughout this book. [This is a good reason to obtain this book.] At this point, it’s enough to say that if merely communicating your hurt isn’t solving the problem, you’re most likely dealing with a case of functional fixedness, and you’ll need to be strong to address that issue.

Some women fall into the trap of failing to speak up for fear of losing their man; they don’t want to “rock the boat,” even though it appears that the boat is headed toward a waterfall. But this passive acceptance makes it more likely that the husband will stray; he won’t respect his wife for putting up with his poor behavior, and this attitude will only reinforce his disrespectful behavior. Sadly, many women think their husband’s anger is the great enemy of their security, but, if fact, weakness and the corresponding relational boredom pose a far more potent threat.

If you can stand strong and secure in your identity and in your relationship with Christ, courageously making it clear how you will and will not be treated, you will be amazed to see how to respect and show for yourself rubs off on your husband.

Things Must Change
Here’s the male insider’s view, right at the start: you have more influence over your husband than you realize. When you are a woman of respect, the last thing your husband wants is to lose you. If he things he can heave you and his aberrant behavior, he’ll take both. But if the day comes when he knows you won’t simply turn a blind eye to what he’s doing, when he thinks he might even lose you if he continues down the path he’s walking, he’s going to be shaken out of his functional fixedness and at least consider making changes.

…Dr Melody Rhode sees the threat of a husband’s losing his wife as perhaps the greatest possible motivator for a husband. Of course, we have to place this within the context of a covenantal, committed marriage. The Bible is very specific and very limiting regarding what constitutes an acceptable divorce. Discontentment, seeming incompatibility, and mere displeasure don’t qualify! Melody points out, “A woman’s power needs to be surrendered to God and used for his purposes, not our own.”

She also stresses, however, that most women, because of our culture, don’t realize the power they have to move their husbands. “They feel powerless because of their sex,” she observes, “and this has resulted in a lot of pent-up anger, frustration, and even desperation.” As your brother in Christ, I’m encouraging you to be bold, courageous, and strong. Use the natural and very spiritual influence and role that God has designed for you to move the man in your life.

… Our culture in general —even Christian culture —is on a long slide toward passivity that completely goes against who God made us to be.

Let me be blunt: hope is not a strategy. Merely “wishing” that your husband would change, merely “wanting” your marriage to be different, won’t do anything. The problem is that some Christians spiritualize wishing —we call it “praying.” Please understand, I’m not knocking prayer; I’m challenging a misconception about prayer, namely, that we can merely voice our displeasure and expect our world and our relationships to be transformed. True biblical prayer is about much, much more than that. It involves receiving our marching orders and then acting on them.

A good marriage doesn’t happen by accident, and a good marriage isn’t maintained by accident. I’ve never written a book by accident, and you can’t build a business by accident. These endeavors require deliberate choices and much perseverance. When you start acting instead of merely wishing, when you begin taking initiative instead of simply feeling sorry for yourself, you become an active woman, and active women mirror the active God who made them.

Active God, Active Women
Genesis 1 provides our initial glimpse of who God is. The first thing God wants us to know is that he is an extraordinarily active God. In Genesis 1 there are thirty-eight active verbs describing what God does: he creates, he speaks, he separates, he calls, he blesses, he gives, and much more —all in just one chapter.

Then —and this is the key —he tells the woman and the man to do the same: “God blessed them [male and female] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’” (Genesis 1:28).

God made you, as a woman, to rule in this world, to subdue it, to act according to his image. Sin begins with sluggishness, despair, and despondency. People give up on their marriages, give up on prayer, give up on their churches, give up on their kids, and eventually even give up on themselves. They say, “It’s no use,” and start to sulk instead of painstakingly remaking their marriage —simply because their first (or even tenth) attempt failed.

This may sound like a hard word, but readers of my previous books know I’m not one to shy away from that. Your marriage is what you make it. The relationship you have is the direct result of what you’ve put into it, and in many cases, a marriage can rise only to the level of your courage. Initial romantic intensity is unearned; it seems to fall on us out of nowhere. But marriage has to be built stone by stone. We have to make deliberate choices; we have to be active and confront the weaknesses we see in ourselves and in each other.

The above article comes from the GREAT book, Sacred Influence: How God Uses Wives to Shape the Souls of Their Husbands written by Gary Thomas, published by Zondervan. There was so much more in this chapter and in the entire book that we would have liked to include in this article. But you’ll just need to find a way to obtain the book to see what else Gary Thomas has to say on this subject (and others). You’ll be glad you did!

In the pages of this book, you’ll find a fresh perspective to help you understand your husband: the view of the marriage relationship through a man’s eyes. Thomas gives you insider information on how men think, feel, and can truly be motivated. Sacred Influence shows how God can bless you with a soul-filling intimacy as you and your husband are shaped into the people he intends you to be. This is a WONDERFUL book that we HIGHLY recommend for you to read. It really gives a new fresh insight into the male mind, along with spiritual help in seeing this from a Godly perspective. It talks about being a strong, godly woman that glorifies God, living out God’s plan for your life, and yet also being a true helpmeet for your husband.


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64 Responses to “Why Doesn’t My Spouse Change? Functional Fixedness”
  1. Vanessa from United States says:

    I have tried everything… to where I’ve given up and went to counseling myself, but he won’t go. He makes financial desisions that have put us in a lot of difficulty more than once, some things sexually he has done that I’ve told him I didn’t like or it was painful and it didn’t help my interest. So you would think if he wanted more he’d make those changes… he is passive… won’t talk… never apologizes. I have disagreed with things and it didn’t matter he did it anyway. I’ve suggested he get counsel elsewhere if he didn’t think I knew what I was talking about and we could discuss it… Where do you say enough is enough?

    • Kara from United States says:

      I have a husband exactly like this. We’ve tried marriage counseling and still, in his mind, he does NOTHING “wrong” or can require different actions on HIS part. Even though he has been explicitly told otherwise. The kids hate it. Expressing my thoughts or point of view are met with derision. I’ve been told THIS WILL NEVER CHANGE, because HE WILL NEVER CHANGE (for whatever reason -saw it growing up, no empathy, whatever…).

      Please, don’t put a ton of thought into what you’re doing “wrong” -start to focus on what you would like to do that makes life enjoyable. If you wish to stay longer in the marriage -start looking for activities AWAY FROM HIM that you’d enjoy. It will really help. DO NOT ALLOW your children to copy his behavior, even if you have to talk to them separately, away from him. DO your BEST not to respond to him at all if he’s disrespectful. This may mean altering your conversations around him, but not around your kids (i.e. limit the number of possible situations where he can use it as a way to disrespect you).

  2. Summer from United States says:

    I was a heroin addict for 10 yrs. My husband knew this before we married. I asked before hand if I was to relapse if he would leave me and he said the first time no but he would make me go to rehab and set boundaries. After 2 yrs sober 7 months into our marriage unfortunately I relapsed for 4 week’s. I lied, stole money from our account, and risked the safety of our family.

    I went to rehab came home got a job and have been obeying the boundaries that’s been put in place. He’s trying to decide whether or not he will be able to trust me and if he’s going to divorce me. I didn’t commit adultery during my relapse. There is a girl he works with that he gives a ride to everyday either on his motorcycle or in his car. The other night I looked at the texts between the two of them and some were of sexual content and he has also had her over for coffee while I wasn’t home. I had at one point asked him if there was anything going on between them and he said no, so when I confronted him about the texts he said they were jokes because of an accusation of an affair.

    We are a Christian family but both have taken a step back from God. But for the last several weeks I’ve been back in church as well as attending rehab aftercare at a faith based recovery facility 3 night’s a week after work. He says this other woman is his only friend, which hurt. I told him it did and his response was because of my relapse I’ve lost the friend title and I’m just his wife. He won’t attend counseling or do anything to work on our marriage together and as of now I don’t know what to do. Please help.

  3. Brittany from United States says:

    I’ve been married only 5 months… we’ve been together a little over three years. He works and is an amazing provider and at times he’s very good to me and our kids. He had 2 kids previously and I had 2 before him as well. I don’t work but I am in college, I take care of all 4 kids by myself for the most part, keep a clean house, keep the laundry done, and cook everyday. My husband is frequently mean to me, too rough, makes fun of me, calls me names, cusses at me, acts like he works and pays for everything and I do nothing. He has even yelled at me in public or in front of family; the kids are tired of the arguing.

    I’ve gotten to where I have no confidence and feel depressed. I’ve tried talking to him about it… he usually says he’s sorry and things are better for a few days. I’ve even left him several times. He promises to change, I come back, and the change lasts a few weeks. He’s an alcoholic but if he doesn’t drink he just sleeps and the grouchiness is worse. I’ve prayed. Felt it didn’t work. I feel like giving up. I’ve dreamed of leaving but with no job, money, and no family to help with the kids while I work and go to college I’m stuck. And really, we’re a good family but the emotional abuse is tearing me down.

    • Shirley from United Kingdom says:

      Hi, I read your post and my heart goes out to you. What I am about to tell you will be of little help but I want it to serve as a future reminder. I have spent 30 years with a man not unlike yours. I have no money, no friends and I am forced to do cleaning jobs to buy food etc. as he is not a good provider and in 30 years I have had nothing. Our home is a mess; I have never had the simple things in life like haircuts, new underwear.

      It all sounds so silly but with four children to bring up and not a penny to our name as he does as little as possible (and that’s been 30 years) so he will never change and as soon as my last child reaches 18 I will be off. I would rather sleep on the streets than spend any more of my shameful life with him. I do feel very ashamed when I think how much I’ve put up with and now at 51 I am still putting up with it for the sake of my children. But in truth they have seen how he treats me and they now as adults do the same, so I really have messed up.

      So, what I am trying to say is we only get one life please, please, leave now while you can get help from social agency’s as believe me there is nothing worse than sitting down and realising you have lost 30 years of your life already and there is no getting it back. So please believe me – get out now as these people never change and you will you will get weaker and he will destroy your every being. Good luck, my thoughts are with you.

    • LAVERNE from United States says:

      Brittany, I feel your pain. I have been married, retired, and moved away from family and friends who love me. Things fell apart after, and I found myself up and down the highway to regroup, giving it a few days to go back. When I did it was ok for a few days then out of no where it would start back up with cussing, grabbing, and mental abuse. Then he gave both of us a knife. I was scared to death, so scared that I talked my way out of it by saying I have no fear in man, but in God… that I needed my sons and family.

      I have been accused, mentally, physically, and verbally abused. What I’m saying to you is don’t stay in something that will not change. It gets worse. Think of your children. If a boy does not respect you, then you don’t need him. There are places for you and your kids to go. Speak about it and don’t think it’s going to be ok. Call this hotline… they will help: 800-799-7233. My advice is to get out. Always have a Plan B… have emergency bags ready to go to make a mad dash. My heart goes out to you. Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Have peace in your heart. If you love you and the safety of your children, and he knows you have no where to go, he will use that. Be strong or the stress will kill you. I was married 4 months, was jumped by my husband 3 times, but he did not hit me. He verbally abused me, and it’s way worse than mental or physical… again, get out.

    • LAVERNE from United States says:

      Brittany, I don’t know where you are at with your situation now, but I looked up on the web site and found this. Get with the Hotline for abused women and your children are a part of it. If you don’t love yourself, think of your children.

  4. Julie from United States says:

    My husband refuses counseling. He emotionally disconnects and cuts me off when he’s angry at me. This can go on for weeks on end. We have had so much counseling, marriage intensifies and seminars. He knows what he’s doing and how he’s hurting me but he doesn’t seem to care. He says he does not want a divorce and his only solution was for us to live in two separate homes. He also wants me to sign a post nuptial agreement that I don’t want to sign. I finally bought a home to move into and now he’s angry even though that was his solution. In the past I have over functioned in the marriage by trying to figure out ways to fix it. I’m tired and don’t want to do that anymore. But he just sits back and refuses a divorce but won’t be proactive about working on the either. I don’t know what to do.

  5. Blessed from says:

    How can you continue a relationship when it’s so one sided and distrusting? Both people are Christians, but being born again only helped both stop doing outward things. But with one of them that old man keeps sticking its head up, repenting then up again, repenting, then up again. This is done over, and over, with no consistency. I’m happy in Jesus and I want to stay that way, not treated in a ungodly way; that is not God’s plan for me. Jesus came that we might have life and… abundantly, not lacking anywhere in Him. Self-righteousnessness has a lot to do with things and knowing it all with no room to be told another perception without it appearing like you are challenging them. Well, in the meantime, til my change comes, I will continue to serve, and worship God because I love Him.

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