Q: It seems like the principles of love and respect are too simplistic. For example, how can you respect a spouse who is committing adultery, has addictions, or is abusive?
Dr E says: Let’s not confuse unconditional love or respect with condoning sinful behavior!
We must separate the sin from the sinner. Jesus hates sin, yet he loves the sinner. We are called to do the same. Jesus intends for us to care enough to confront sin. As unpleasant as confrontation might prove to be, refusing to confront may prove more unpleasant. A spouse’s sin might worsen. The cliché “forgiving is forgetting” might undermine God’s intention for you. This is especially true when dealing with destructive behaviors such as adultery, addiction, and abuse. God’s Word does not advocate enabling sin but rather the opposite. The apostle Paul warns us to not participate in unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead expose them.
Possessing a forgiving spirit demonstrates Christlikeness but ignoring a spouse’s sin might evidence cowardice. How absurd for you to close your eyes to your spouse’s affair, abuse of the children, or cocaine use. When you suppress the truth about your spouse’s sin, this does not constitute forgiveness.
However, the key is to confront the sin respectfully and lovingly, not with contempt or harshness, which always backfires. Contempt and harshness only heap more shame on the offending spouse, which drives them deeper into the sin as a way of escape. So I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do this with respect!
But how? Your words, tone of voice, and nonverbal actions should all portray love and respect for your spouse who is created in the image of God. You see their heart that desires to be free, but is weakened by sin. It is this person you respect, not the behavior that he/she falls into.
Finally, remember that love and respect is not a magic bullet that erases all sin and conflict. It is acting in obedience to God's word, regardless of the behavior of our spouse. But at the same time, NOT confronting sinful behavior can lead to enabling that behavior, allowing it to continue.
In my book, The Language of Love and Respect, I address these issues specifically in the Appendix entitled "Forgiving - but also Confronting - the Three A's: Adultery, Abuse, and Addiction." Also in this book, I include a chapter on Good Will vs Evil Will, and Forgiveness.
In addition, I recommend that you turn to a pastor, a Christian counselor, or some other authority capable to assist. Do not put this off. Plan a way to confront the adultery, abuse or addiction. There are many groups ready to serve you.