What Your Spouse Really, Really Needs From You

They say that the best lovers are the ones who are the best learners. The best lovers have more than sexual sizzle, since loving someone well requires that we pay attention and learn the nuanced ways of our loved ones: do they like gentle back tickles or more robust get-that-itch scratches? Should the peanut butter be crunchy or smooth? Do they need to debrief as soon as they get home from work, or do they need to decompress alone first? Love calls us to become experts in loving our spouses.

There is a dangerous down-side to becoming an expert with regard to our spouses, though. Paying close attention to our spouse’s habits can make us not just familiar with their ways, but judgmental of them in ways that are damaging. No-one knows more than I do about my husband’s sleep, eating, work, exercise, and grooming habits. I know what shows he’s watched, what car he’d like to drive, what more than a few of his favorite things are. Apart from the Spirit of God who searches all things (who else knows the mind of a man but Him, after all?), I claim the undisputed Runner-Up Crown in the People-Who-Know-Him-Best contest; and he, in turn, bears the same Title as the One-Who-Knows-Me.

But there is a fine line between familiarity breeding intimacy, and familiarity breeding contempt. Knowing the rhythms of another so closely that we become one another’s warp to their weft also provides a prime opportunity for us to pick holes at one another, and so slowly start to unravel.

It becomes easy, then, instead of just knowing our loved one’s habits, to critique them. The Beloved-Learner assumes the role of Bossy-Lecturer: you should get more sleep, you should go for a run, you should hang out more with this person and less with that one. You should do this project now, and leave that one til later. You should wear this, do that, be this, go there. You should change this. You should have said that. You should drive this way, parent that way: trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I know you.

(And yes, I know, it’s no picnic being married to someone with so many opinions. He’s a saint, I tell you: a SAINT.)

But this is what I am slowly learning in this life-long lesson in love: my spouse does not need me as a critic, although no-one knows his mistakes as well. He does not need me as a life coach, though no one else bears the consequences of his choices as much as I do. What my spouse needs from me more than anything is my encouragement, because no one else knows his vulnerability as I do. He needs me as a cheerleader on the days when he’s weary. He needs to believe in him when he’s discouraged. He needs my careful, attentive, knows-him-like-no-one-else ability to discern when he needs extra prayer, extra kindness, or extra laughter at the end of a stressful day.

This became most apparent in a tough season while we were in grad school. His data wasn’t coming together and the end was nowhere in sight. We were too far in to quit, but not even close to seeing how we would make it through.

He was discouraged, withdrawn, and under tremendous pressure. He felt the pressure to digest academic journals, maximize his course load, and churn out research papers at the same rate as his single co-worers did. But meanwhile, he was committed to serving in our church, and had a wife who expected him to come home for dinner and who got decidedly frosty if he opened his laptop within thirty minutes of finishing his meal.

What he needed, I thought, was better time-management. More fresh air. A frank talk with his supervisor. Better boundaries between his work and personal life. But a friend reminded me that the way of wise parents—and indeed the way of our Heavenly Father—is to encourage us towards growth with kindness and grace, rather than to punish and find fault at every infraction. We need someone to see our potential more than we need someone to point out mistakes.

What my husband needed, it turned out, was what all of us really, really need from our spouses: not an advisor, or an advocate, but an ally. A thick-of-thin, by-your-side, come-what-may, I’m-in-your-corner ally. That same closeness which could make me his biggest critic could also make me his biggest cheerleader.

Because, as they say, the best lovers are the best learners, and those they love lean safely into them.


Bronwyn Lea loves Jesus, writing, ice-cream and the sound of her children laughing. She writes about the holy and hilarious things in life at bronlea.com, where she also hosts a faith and relationship advice column. Find her there, or follow her on Facebook or on Twitter.

  • CJ

    What I need is a revamped marriage and a wife with a heart who truly wants me to be her husband. I still love her passionately, but after 21-plus years of marriage, she has lost that loving feeling (been confirmed for the past few years now verbally and emotionally). Please pray that our good and gracious God will reconcile us into the marriage that He wants to see and that, someday, we can become friends and spouses who mutually care, respect, cherish and love one another!

    • I’m sorry to hear that, CJ: that sounds hard. Lifting you up in prayer now.

  • ashslater

    Great piece, Bronwyn!

    • Thanks, Ash. I liked your Downton Abbey take: timely!! 🙂

  • Would like to see advice from the opposite perspective. What if you are the picked-on spouse? How do you remain gracious and kind year after year?

    • That’s a good question: one I’d like to think about and ask others for some wisdom on. Watch this space 🙂

    • We can remain gracious and kind only when our own needs for grace and kindness are being met through Christ. Only as we draw Living Water from Him are we able to pour out to others. Developing supportive, healthy friendships with others can also be a great help.

  • Joni

    Married for 33 yrs to my high school sweetheart. Last 5 years have been difficult as we have been separated for last 2 yrs. My husband has been praying since we’ve been separated for God to speak to my heart. Lack of communication, and many things swept under the rug which led to the 5 years. Just when I thought I could go thru divorce had come to Jesus moment, thinking my husband we be happy, what he’d been praying for. He wasn’t, said he was divorcing me anyway. First 2 months thought we were going to make it still hopefull since neither of us could bring self to pull plug. During that time I found out he was having affair with a women for the first 2 months while trying to get back with me.left the church, etc. Here I am 8 months later, watching the affair continue with an unsaved women, counsel for last 6 months by myself, and by the grace of God I’m still hanging on, on my knees praying daily to be able to continue to forgive, love, respect and honor him knowing the Godly man I once knew is in there somewhere. Praying God will intervene and do a miracle here. I’m so tired of being on this roller coaster, don’t know where to get off. I’ve been thru so much in the past 2 years, death of both parents, car accident with broken neck, which just had spinal cord surgery for in Feb., and losing my husband to another women. Please pray for our marriage to be saved. Don’t want to file for divorce, have tired everything. But, I do know God does not want my heart to be in this broken state any longer.
    Sorry for book….

    • Jess MacCallum

      Joni, I am really sorry for all you are going through. We are coming up on 28 years, and there’s something odd been happening since we hit our 25th. It’s like the stuff you had the energy to keep in check just starts to dry up. The stuff starts to win. I see it among our friends too. Maybe mid-life is harder than we all thought? Maybe empty nest (and sometimes not empty enough) throws us off. Not sure. But I hear a voice from the flesh more than ever. It’s the voice of justification for quitting, adultery, etc.: “After all I’ve done for her…” Once that track starts running, you’re pretty much done. Just a matter of time. Like the Yiddish proverb, “A man is not honest simply because he never had the chance to steal.” I really hope God works the miracle you are asking. And I hope anyone finding disappointment in their spouse will take your words to heart before it wreaks havoc. Thanks for opening up the book of your life.

  • Absolutely! We all desire that “thick-or-thin, by-your-side, come-what-may, I’m-in-your-corner ally.” May we be unfailing allies to our spouses! Thank you for the great article, Bronwyn.

  • “We need someone to see our potential more than we need someone to point out mistakes.” Needed to hear this. That’s good advice for a variety of relationships! Appreciated this article, Bronwyn. Thank you!

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