Why Doesn’t My Spouse Change? Functional Fixedness

Adobe Stock Gemeinsam schmollenMarriage 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!

— ALSO —

Below are some links to additional articles and blogs that we suggest you glean through to see if you can find more information that will help you in your marriage in some way. If the article is written to wives and you are a husband looking for answers, or the reverse is true, please read the article anyway and see if you can adapt the info given to help you.






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90 responses to “Why Doesn’t My Spouse Change? Functional Fixedness

  1. It really saddens me as I read through some of the comments posted of the cycles of abuse in marriage around the world. God sent his only son to be crucified for us all yet we are still being crucified and crucifying one another. Lucifer will stop at nothing. He hates anything of God and Marriage is Designed by God. Just when a person feels they are going through some rough patches in their life, there is someone else living a rougher storm.

    Sometimes it easier to vent your problems but most of the time you can’t wrap your head around what is really going on. Being physically, emotionally or mentally abused is not a good thing for anyone. Hardness of Heart is not good. Forgiveness is a Required Process in Marriage. God said it I didn’t. The emotional stress had gotten so bad for me at one time I was crying and crying and snotting; my chest was hurting my heart was pumping really really fast.

    I had a migraine I was furious and delirious all at the same time I had just gotten out the hospital from having a Lupus Crisis a month and 1/2 prior and I was still recovering. I was flipping through my Bible and playing on google and talking to the Lord at the same time. I ended up on the story of “Hosea and Gomer” The Greatest Love Story In The Bible. I challenge all you to read it. However this story has nothing to do with physical abuse. FORGIVENESS IS THE KEY.

  2. I have been married for 26 years, my 3rd his 5th. He’s retired Air Force and seemed he was Mr perfect. I soon realized he lied about everything! He bragged he was air rescue in Vietnam Nam. He never saw one day of combat! After confrontation over all these years of lies, he began to be very disrespectful to me in front of family, friends and public. Everyone knows of his past and lies and I realize now once people know the truth about him is when he becomes very hateful and disrespectful. Everyone hates the way he treats me. It has come to a point when we make plans for dinner or golf with friends it seems he starts gearing up to be this demon.

    He shows respect to our friends and his family yet he’s alienated everyone from my family. Doesn’t even speak and makes everyone uncomfortable. He has in the past tried to get me to sleep with his buddies, which I have no desire, we haven’t had sex in 16 years. This is no way to live, it eats away at my soul everyday. I think I would be happier with my 2nd husband who was physically abuseive.

  3. Good morning. I’m not sure that this will be seen or responded to but I’m at a cross-roads in my marriage. My wife and I have been married for almost 20 years and we have three beautiful daughters. For most of our marriage I have not been the best of husbands or fathers. I’ve been controlling and demeaning to my wife and kids. I take full responsibility for what I’ve done. Well on Nov 8, 2015, my wife announced that she was done and wanted to be free to find someone that can do the things that will make her happy without her having to tell them. My wife’s biggest complaints of me has been my tone when talking to her or the kids, and the fact that I don’t do enough around the house on my days off from work. She feels that if I’m not off with her and the kids then I should be fixing things and cleaning because that is what she does when she is home.

    Since that dreadful day, I have apologized to her and repented my sins to God and asked him to take over my heart and lead me to becoming a better person. He has forgiven me as I knew that he would but the transformation that I’m feeling is far better than I ever imagined. I’m happy. I’m working two jobs to pay off bills so that she can have her divorce without the stress of car payments and credit card debt. I’m developing a closer bond with my children, and I’m being more productive around the house and watching about a 10th of the amount of television that I use to watch.

    My wife has noticed the changes and she feels guilty that I’m doing all of these things to be a better husband and father. She has somewhat mocked my relationship with God and suggested that I may be better off with a “Bible Thumper”, her words. I found this last comment to be very disrespectful. The bottom line is that she is resentful of the fact that this change in me only happened after she told me she wanted a divorce and not earlier when she asked me to change before. In her words, if I had changed my behavior earlier then we wouldn’t be divorcing and all of the petty differences that she sees in us wouldn’t matter. I’m staying true to my newly re-energized faith and trying to save my marriage. Does anyone have any advice on how to soften my wife’s heart? Thank you.

    1. Hi John, I am only just seeing this text now… I hope not too late. It seems like your wife has been holding in her feelings for too long, and that, although you have known you were “controlling and demeaning,” you did not know the full impact this was having on your wife, until that conversation on Nov 8, 2015.

      I can only say that you just have to keep doing what you are doing… less TV, more chores around the house, etc. Have you had additional talks with your wife? Have you told her you wish you had been a better husband earlier… that you regret changing only after she threatened divorce? Have you talked with her and considered the impact of divorce on the children, and on her own situation? Perhaps she is talking “divorce” because she feels she has no other option? Maybe she has not full thought through the outcome of divorce… Does your wife REALLY want divorce? From what you say here, I am not so convinced. Difficult to be sure. This is compounded by the fact that you seem to be a believing Christian, while your wife does not understand this yet.

      Talking with a Christian counselor, getting support from trusted friends, continuing to do what you are doing, and above all, PRAYER! All these seem to be good things to be doing. The Bible tells us in Romans 12.21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” and 1 Peter 4:8 “Keep fervent in your love for one another because love covers a multitude of sins.” I hope this helps John, Take care, WP (Work in Progress)

      1. Thank you for responding. I’ll try to answer all of the responses with one email. Since posting my initial thoughts, things have become different. Not better and not worse, but different. I started to go to church on my own the beginning of the year and after a few times I asked her to go with me. We have gone a couple of times together and each time the message has been about foregiveness and grace. If those aren’t signs then I don’t know what else she needs to see.

        Last weekend she decided, on her own, that we were going to church and asked my oldest daughters to come with us so that we could go as a family. Afterwards, we stopped for dinner and picked up some ice cream to take home. I did not get any for myself but she sat down beside me and shared hers with me. This behavior is very confusing to me. I don’t know if she’s trying to come back but the past is preventing her, or if she’s setting me up to be best friends after divorce. I’m not sure. I told her that I love her more today than I did yesterday and that I want to remain married, I know that it will take work and effort but I was committed. I also told her that while I like that she is not freezing me out anymore, that I don’t know how I’ll handle a relationship with her if we are not married. i.e.: don’t call me to hang out of fix things around your house.

        I’m concerned that it may take divorce for her to see what she is giving up and that would put my youngest (7 yo) through an emotional roller coaster that I don’t want to imagine. I am practicing patience and continuing to be the best person, father, and husband that I can and hope that it’s enough for her. I have faith that God will provide for me and us in time. Thank you all for the prayers and well wishes. Have a blessed day.

        1. Hi John, Things certainly seem to be looking up!! Very interesting that the message each time is about forgiveness and grace!! Very hopeful development! Her sharing ice cream with you at dinner… also very positive! I wouldn’t worry about the “ulterior motive” so much- just that fact that she did that has to be a good thing!

          Your 7 year-old… Oh Oh! The children are the ones who pay when the parents break up… but of course you know that. I certainly hope you wife knows that too! I have a friend who recently finalized her divorce… her comment was, “I had NO idea how expensive, and how emotionally exhausting a divorce can be!” (She was the initiator.)

          You really seem to be on the right track here John… I have high respect for you. Perhaps the site below can give you more ideas? http://marriagemissions.com/100-ways-you-can-love-your-wife-her-way/comment-page-4/#comment-347263

          Take care… and keep doing what you are doing! WP (Work in Progress)

    2. Wow, John, I applaud you and I praise God with you for the change that has taken place in your life. Wow. Awesome. I encourage you to stay the course, John, and not be influenced in anyway by what you see with your eyes, BUT view it by the same faith that you know changed you. That is the same God that can and WILL do the work in your wife. The enemy is the accuser so understand that that is who your fight is with, not your wife.

      God has give us authority over him but he is not powerless, as so many people say. We have to fight and we as Christians do our fighting on our knees. Jesus makes intercession for us. FIGHT. Stand On Galatians 6:9 “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” DON’T GIVE UP OR BE discouraged by what you see or hear. Continue to trust God! Again, I rejoice with you in what God has done in your life.

      1. Very true Tiffany… I am glad you mentioned the faith in such clear terms… seems very difficult for John. Thank you for this response. Your Scriptures are just right! We need to pray for him and his wife… of course. WP (Work in Progress)

      2. Hello, I don’t know if anyone will read this or much less respond but here is an update as to my marital situation. My wife became open to counseling for our marriage and dropped the ex-boyfriend in Pennsylvania. This was a relief to me but it came with a heavy price. My wife confessed to having an affair with the guy for the last 6 and a half years. She professed her love to him and they have met 4 times in the time span that I was unaware of. On one trip she went to his hotel room and they kissed and she admitted to me that she was wanting to have sex with him. He could not but it doesn’t change the fact that she lusted for another man.

        She has been living a lie and denying anything was going on for the entire time. She told me that she was dead in our marriage ever since they reconnected. In a nut shell, I never had a chance for the entire time because her heart belonged to someone else. After declaring her desire for a divorce, she was hoping that I would just give up and leave and solve her problem for her. As I began to improve myself, she became conflicted as I started to occupy her heart again. She became desperate for answers from him about where the relationship was headed and when she didn’t get the answer that she was hoping for she ended it.

        After her confession to me, I said nothing (it was hard not to). I simply picked her up, pulled her in tightly and told her that I forgive her. I am still angry for her betrayal but my love for her is stronger. She is going to work on herself and our marriage. She wants to get close to me again. Thank you all for your prayers and kind words.

        1. Hi John, God is clearly working on your behalf as you trust Him with very difficult issues, and as your faith is being severely tested. You are an example to the rest of us! It is my hope and prayer that you continue to be guided by the Word of God, and that you allow no selfish or short term negative motive in to your space. Your account reminds me of the account described in the website here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQUMFYNe8sk

          You take care John, and please let us know how you are progressing? May God continue to look after you, WP (Work in Progress)

  4. I have been married for more than 21 years. We have two sons. I love my husband very much and my kids love him. At the beginning of our marriage he told me to do things (example to drive bicycle on dangerous places or eat bad food) and because I refused he hit me (not very strong to hurt me) or did not let me in the house. After our kids grew he stopped hitting me, but started to ignore me, or if I did not do what he liked he stopped talking to me for months. Sometimes even for no reason he stopped talking for 3-4 months.

    Since the beginning of our marriage until now he has been ignoring me like I am some trash. 15 years ago he met a 7 year older than him woman (and not pretty woman) at his job and was telling her everything that happened between us. 5 years ago she divorced and he started an affair with her but I was not sure because he was telling me that she is only his friend and he is only emotionally friendly dependant on her. 3 years ago he moved to Canada (me and my kids came one year ago, he sponsored me to get my permanent resident visa), and she still lives in our home country. But my husband talks to her on Skype every night for more than one hour in the basement.

    I have told him I love him very much. Many times I went to hear what he was talking to her. He is promissing her that he will bring her to Canada, and marry her. He also tells me that he will leave me and our kids. But she does not have a visa to move to Canada. She is 56 years old; he is 49, so I think he is misusing her to abuse me emotionally. If he wanted to be with her he would not separate from her 3 years ago.They have been separated for 3 years so somethimes she threatens him to break. Three months ago he lied to her that he started the procedure for her visa.

    Over the last 20 years I cried a lot, suffered, but a month ago I decided to hold a distance to him. Three days ago I moved to sleep in another room. But he continues to talk to her every night on Skype. I really do not know how to change him. His father and brother have the same behaviour. I miss him very much but as a good husband. I do not like to divorce him; is there any way to change him?

    Please advise me how to change his abusive behaviour. I cannot convince him to see a therapist. I know that with adequate help he will change. He is not a bad person he has just been threating me how his parents taught him. As per your experience do you think he will really leave his kids, his wonderful family to live with her? Will he bring her to Canada? Why is he doing this when he has a wonderful family? Is he in love with her? Is he only emotionally dependent on her or is he just using her to abuse me?

    1. Danica, this is really a mess. There are so many levels of messed up thinking and behaving that are going on here that you need MUCH more advice than I could give you here. You need to talk to someone who is marriage-friendly, yet will listen to what you need to say, and talk to you straight. Your husband may not go to counseling, but you need to talk to someone. There needs to be some changes. It would be crazy to think that your husband will all of a sudden “get it” as far as investing his time into your marriage and family life again without making some radical changes. He needs to be shaken up into stopping this nonsense. You need to talk to a marriage-friendly counselor to see what they can suggest, after hearing your heart and your telling them of your circumstances. At first, I wouldn’t tell my husband I’m reaching out to a counselor until the counselor tells you it’s advisable because your husband may want to squash that idea. He probably feels he has a good thing going, so why stir up the nest. Please reach out and then see what you are to do from there.

      I GREATLY encourage you to contact the ministry of Focus on the Family — Canada. Their web site (with contact info on it) can be found at: http://www.focusonthefamily.ca. They can listen to you and then direct you further to someone else within your area, or over Skype, I’m sure. Please don’t keep closing your eyes to such bad behavior. Marriage is not a game of intrigue and taunting. Your husband needs to be either all-invested in your marriage or some real changes need to happen. I’m hoping the counselor can help you to do some things that will eventually wake your husband up, but he has a free will, so I just don’t know. But this is too troubling to keep on this way. You need some serious help. I hope you will reach out for it, and I pray the Lord will give this counselor great wisdom in unraveling this thing and coming up with a good plan. I also pray for you, your marriage, and your family.

  5. This is relatable. But I don’t know what to do or turn it around. Can you give examples of things I should do as a wife to change my husband? “Heather” in the story has been physically injured from the car wreck. Myself and other women aren’t. In the Bible it says women tend to the kids and the home. For me that’s what I do. I’m a stay home mom while my husband works. And it does get exhausting; it’s 24/7 non stop even when I was working. Please respond.

    1. Hi Jamie, I think the article above answers your question reasonably well. When the husband is confronted by a consequence, which will directly affect him and his well being, he tends to be very motivated to change! You need to be creative and, without threatening or nagging, let him know that the situation as it is is not OK for the long term.

      How you do this is what you are asking. Perhaps go away for a weekend with a friend and let him look after the children for 2 days? There are very little supporting details in your text here above, so it’s hard for me to visualize your particular set of circumstances. What is it, specifically, that you want changed? Please advise? Hope to hear from you, WP (Work in Progress)

  6. I recently discovered that my husband had an affair. Although he says he’s remorseful & wants to fix things, he’s very passive about doing so. I’m very frustrated with him as I feel he is standing in the way of all blessings God has in store for us & our family. Please help me to know how best to deal with his apathy.

    1. Hi Paulette, Perhaps your husband is very passive about fixing his affair because he doesn’t really want to fix it, and / or, it is very difficult for him to end the relationship. He needs to know that this is clearly hurting you, and that you don’t accept this as a norm in your marriage. When he understands that there will be a consequence to his well being, he will be more motivated to change. When he knows you are supporting him with this change, and that you stand behind him – all the better. I am a husband married 36 years… we have dealt with this too…WP (Work in Progress)