Should I use Tough Love with my Spouse?

One fairly common truth that experience has proven over and over is that “tough love” usually bears rotten fruit! The model for our behavior should always be Jesus. How does He treat us when we are rebellious, willful, stubborn, uncaring, inconsiderate, uncooperative and unfaithful? He responds by loving us unconditionally, and forgiving every sin. He is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful!  He showed His love by laying down His life for us.

Tough love usually includes giving ultimatums, which result with a person calling the bluff and escalating their negative behavior. A definition for an ultimatum could be, “If you don’t do right, I’m going to do wrong.” Some examples: If you don’t stop doing that I am going to divorce you.” and “Either you come home or I’ll keep the kids from you.”

Occasionally, giving an ultimatum will produce results, but most often it does not. I remember a covenant keeper whose husband was beginning to respond to her walking in unconditional love with him and progress was being made toward reconciliation. Then she read a book about “tough love” and immediately gave him an ultimatum thinking this would make him come to his senses and realize he could lose her and their young son. She told him she was tired of his indecision about their marriage and demanded a quick response or she would move to another city and take their son.


The ultimatum backfired and he filed for divorce. She moved, taking their son with her, but immediately realized that she had made a wrong decision. Walls were established between them now that would take many months of prayer to remove.

Covenant Keepers Ministry has a saying that goes like this, “The strength of the tool you use to get something is the strength of your ability to keep it.” For example, if your spouse is still living at home and you are withholding sex until he changes, then you will have to continue using this same tool each time he reverts to old habits. If the tool you use to try and get your spouse home is giving an ultimatum, then you will have to continue using ultimatums once he returns home.

Giving ultimatums is using the wrong tool. 1 Corinthians 13:7-8 says, “Love never gives up, trusts God always, keeps going to the end. Love never fails.” Chapter fourteen goes on to say, “Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it—because it does.”

The principle of sowing and reaping is in effect also. As Christians we like to apply this principle to acts of kindness and love. However, it also applies when we do and say ungodly things and when our motives are not pure. “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Galatians 6:7

A covenant keeper writes, “Let me tell you that I, my wife and our daughters have paid a hard price for my desire to ‘shake my wife up and help her see the truth.’ She divorced me and married a friend of mine. If I had it to do over I would have been a lot more patient, less controlling, more cooperative and I would have said much, much less about what I thought.

“Since I learned to keep my mouth shut, God has been able to restore our friendship. She responded to gentleness, kindness, consideration and friendship when she would not respond to me telling her what to do, quoting scripture to her, giving my opinion, etc.”

So, should we use tough love? Years of ministry proves that in most cases, tough love does not work. “Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13


Does walking in love mean we are never to say “no” or set boundaries? Certainly not. Walking in love means we lay down our own desires and seek God’s will in the matter. We must be willing to crucify our flesh, hear from God, and obey. Our disobedience is no less a sin than our spouse’s rebellion.

When we first begin standing for our homes and families, we are hurting and need much healing. During this time, hearing God’s voice is difficult, much less recognizing our own judgments and unforgiveness towards our spouses. (After all, they are sinning and we are standing!) Therefore, our decisions usually result in rendering evil for evil—which is revenge.

Once healing occurs and we are in a position to hear from God, we also check our own motives. We realize our spouses are accountable to God, not us, and we are able to put them on the altar and allow God to speak to them.

At this point we can say “no” when necessary and set boundaries, especially where our children are involved. As parents we have the authority and obligation to establish guidelines and protect our children. However, realize that tough love cannot make our spouses conform to our desires (which may be godly), because we are not their parents!

Walking in love, prayer, and spiritual warfare are the tools God has given us to use. “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. [We are] destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and [we are] taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 10:4-5 NAS






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