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6 Ways to Give Your Spouse the Freedom to Fail

By Dennis Rainey

At our house, we have experienced plenty of failures, both great and small. During our years of raising six kids, just making it through a meal without spilling something was nothing short of miraculous!

We saw milk shoot across the supper table, and we saw it form a lazy river that cascaded over the edge of the table and splatter onto the floor.

We saw two simultaneous spills. We saw four during just one meal. And we remember one glass of chilled apple juice that spilled perfectly into Dennis’s shoe … while he was wearing it. Our favorite phrase for the children became, “It’s okay. Everybody makes mistakes.”

One evening, I (Dennis) spilled my drink during dinner. A little hand patted my arm, and Rebecca (then a 5-year-old) reassuringly said, “It’s okay, Dad. Everybody makes mistakes.”

After reflecting on all the spills and food that fell off a child’s highchair, I thought about designing a place to have dinner that had concrete floors, a drain in the floor under the table with a built-in garbage disposal, and a power sprayer to clean off the table, the floor, and the kids.

Spills and failures are endemic to the human race, adults included!

It’s comforting to know that we are not alone in our failures. Others, too, have needed and claimed God’s forgiveness when they failed. King David failed through his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. Peter failed by denying Christ. Thomas doubted.

Yet none of these lives represented total failure. Each of these men sought forgiveness. They didn’t give up. They confessed and kept on. They left a track record of faithfulness despite personal foul-ups.

A track record of failures, both big and small, can leave a person paralyzed by the fear of failure.

What is the solution for the fear of failure? How do you encourage your spouse whose feelings of failure are triggered by seemingly the most insignificant of circumstances?

We have found that one of the most powerful principles in expressing love in marriage is: Give your spouse the freedom to fail.

When you give your spouse the freedom to fail, you begin to remove the pressure to perform for acceptance. You free your spouse to take risks and try again.

Failure then becomes a tutor, not a judge. In the presence of freedom, we learn from failures instead of being intimidated by them. In the absence of condemnation, confidence in how God can use us mounts.

If you would like to give your spouse the freedom to fail, we recommend six gifts that will begin to release him or her. Keep in mind that you, too, will possibly fail by taking back some of these gifts. That’s okay. Failure is a part of learning for both of you.

1. The gift of compassion.

Every person’s life has a context. Many people grow up in homes where they are often criticized for mistake and failures. They learn to expect rejection, disapproval, and anger from those in authority. They feel that rejection is the natural consequence of failure.

The more fully you grasp the context of your spouse’s journey to adulthood and express compassion for where he or she has been, the more freedom they will feel to admit failures to you.

Your spouse needs your compassionate, consistent, and tireless belief in him. Talk about the context of his life and together gain understanding of how past mistakes shaped his life. A person who has repeatedly failed and has been corrected, condemned, and rejected can think of himself as a downright failure.

Don’t leave your spouse alone to deal with failures. Make it clear that you are unlike those in the past; your commitment is unwavering, and your love is consistent, despite his imperfections. Your compassion will help your spouse begin to feel free to take risks and to fail without fear of rejection.

This is what the gift of compassion and love for a lifetime can do in another person’s life.

2. The gift of continual affirmation.

Years ago, I (Barbara) drove to the grocery store and accidentally backed our van into a couple’s newly painted Camaro, denting it slightly. I felt so foolish, and my apologies didn’t make the dent go away. Understandably, the car’s owners were not happy and insisted on calling the county sheriff’s office.

I called Dennis, and as I waited for him to arrive, I wondered what he would think and say. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be upset with me, but I speculated anyway.

When he joined me at the store, he assured me that everything would be fine—that in the end it didn’t really matter. We both knew I had made a mistake, and it would have accomplished nothing for him to drive home a moral lesson or give me some driving tips. I needed to experience his approval, and I needed to know he wasn’t angry with me.

Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation.” One of our favorite verses, 1 Peter 4:8, says it best: “ … love covers a multitude of sins.” Continuous, ongoing, unbroken approval in the face of many mistakes and failures of life will heal the past and communicate the powerful love of Jesus to them.

3. The gift of perspective.

Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” As partners in the pilgrimage of life, we are responsible to speak the truth to one another in order to help balance our perspective of failure.

Remind each other about the truth of God’s sovereign rule—that He is in control. This brings an eternal view to your spouse’s mistakes. And the promise of Romans 8:28—that God causes all things to “work together for good”— beautifully illustrates His absolute supremacy.

These words offer comfort, reminding us that nothing is wasted in His economy. God can use even our mistakes and failures; He has always used broken people to accomplish His purposes. Encourage your spouse to believe God and, as a couple, consider praying together and asking Him to use your failures for good.

4. The gift of disassociation.

Most people don’t realize they can fail and not be a failure. They have not learned to disassociate their worth as persons from their performance. Many find it difficult to have their ideas, work, or accomplishments criticized. They feel that others are criticizing and rejecting who they are, not just what they have done.

A teacher told one mother that her son was not a good student. “He can’t learn,” said the teacher. “He’ll never amount to much.” But the mother chose to believe in her son rather than listening to the voice of this “authority.” As a result, that young man grew up in a home of loving acceptance, secure in the knowledge that he was a person of value.

In spite of all this, he continued to fail. In fact, he failed thousands of times on one project before he, Thomas Alva Edison, perfected the electric light bulb. His close association with failure caused Edison to comment, “I failed my way to success.” His mother’s belief in him was the fuel for his inventive spirit.

How can you help your spouse learn to fail without feeling like a failure? Try not to discuss a problem in your marriage or family with accusing words such as, “You never …” or, “Your ideas are always …” Instead, use your words with discernment to help her see the distinction between her personhood and her performance.

When you discuss issues with your spouse, begin by expressing your love, commitment, and loyalty. Then give your spouse the benefit of the doubt and give them grace (God’s unmerited favor).

Remind them of the truth: Your spouse is loved by you, esteemed and valued by God. Call to mind past accomplishments. Most importantly, help your spouse separate himself from his failures. When your spouse knows how to handle failure without being a failure, he or she truly has begun to experience the freedom to fail.

5. The gift of encouraging decisive living.

Many times in life we fail not because we make the wrong decision but because we make no decision at all. Seeking safety and security, we escape to the seemingly trouble-free world of procrastination and indecision. Never venturing out of our protective covering of indecision, we avoid risking a wrong decision that might end in failure. We decide not to decide.

Your spouse may need to understand that a risk-free life is also a potentially boring and selfish life. By eliminating risk, we eliminate many pleasures, too.

Security and safety are not found in hiding from reality and responsibility. In fact, the opposite is true. Failure ultimately looms on the horizon for the person who avoids the decision-making process. He is riding a fence with both feet firmly planted in midair—there is little stability.

We love what the coach of the national champion Colorado Buffaloes, Bill “Mac” McCartney said, “Almighty God can bless a decision, but He can’t bless indecision!”

And if your spouse tends to be overly dependent upon you in decision making, gently begin to send a few more decisions their way. Sometimes verbalizing, “You decide; I trust you, and I’ll back you in whatever you decide” can be very freeing. In this way, your spouse gains confidence in making decisions.

6. The gift of forgiveness.

The effects of failure can be disarmed through the healing balm of forgiveness. Pure and free, forgiveness gives us something we often don’t deserve.

This is how God relates to us as His children. He gives us love when we deserve punishment. Forgiveness says, “I choose to accept you fully, just as you are, and I will neither reject you nor remind you of your failures.”

The apostle Paul adds some powerful advice in Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” He also writes, “... bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13).

Whatever the situation, mistakes carry a price tag. The price can be extra work, suffering, inconvenience, financial expense, lost income. Or perhaps your spouse’s failure caused you to be late, which you hate.

Because of your partnership in marriage, your spouse’s mistakes and failures will affect you to some degree. When you forgive, you give up your right to punish. Forgiveness is an act of the will—a deliberate choice that means you will not retaliate when you feel the other person has failed or wronged you. True forgiveness doesn’t throw your spouse’s failures up to him or use them to hurt him.

The gift of forgiveness is not just in giving forgiveness, but in asking for it when you’ve failed your spouse and you’re wrong. Whether you’re 90 percent in the wrong or only 10 percent, asking for forgiveness takes the logs out of the fire.

Verbalize it. Be specific. And don’t fudge. Some people try to weasel out of their responsibility by making excuses so they won’t have to admit they were wrong. But in doing so, they miss the benefits of forgiveness.

Forgiveness stands with the open arms of a loving relationship ready to embrace. It is illogical for your spouse to resist such an aggressive love. By removing the fear of rejection, you give your spouse renewed hope to keep trying without fear of failure.

Adapted from Building Your Spouse’s Self-Esteem by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Copyright © by Dennis Rainey. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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