Some time ago a man came into my office in deep emotional distress. He was a big, tough-looking man, but he wept bitterly as he told me his story.

He had been married in the temple some twenty years earlier and thought he had a good marriage. He and his wife had their problems, but he assured me that anyone in their ward would say they were the happiest couple in the ward. Then, one day his wife packed up, took the kids, moved out of their home, and filed for divorce.

This man was astonished that his wife had left him. He also expressed deep resentment and anger toward her. It was clear that he considered her action viciously evil and that he felt it had to be stopped at any cost. I became more uncomfortable as I realized that he wanted me to find some way to force his wife to come back to him. Finally I interrupted him and said, “I can’t make your wife come back to you if she is determined not to.”

He looked very disappointed. “I’ve gone to my bishop and my stake president,” he said, “and they couldn’t help me. They told me you were a marriage counselor, so I came to see you, and you say you can’t help me. Now where do I turn?”

I tried to help him consider some approach other than forcing his wife to come back. But as he saw it, she was wrong and had to be punished soundly and forced to do right. He resented the very suggestion that there might be an alternative. As far as I know, he never changed, and his marriage dissolved.

Agency versus Force: An Eternal Struggle

Central in many marital disputes is the eternal struggle between individual agency and force. Few gospel principles are more clearly spelled out in the scriptures, and few are recognized and talked about more widely. Yet few are so widely misunderstood and abused.

Moses 4:1–4 explains clearly that the rebellion in heaven was over the issue of agency versus force. God announced a plan allowing for man’s agency. Satan presented a rival plan, boasting, “I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost.” Christ supported God’s plan, saying, “Thy will be done.” There was a war, and God explained the outcome: “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down.”

The marriages of many faithful Church members who think they are living gospel principles are undermined, damaged, and destroyed by the misuse of agency and the use of force, the same issue over which the War in Heaven was fought.

There are at least five different ways that people try to impose their will on that of their spouse.

1: Use of Physical Strength

The first and most obvious means of force is physical. Physical force and violence have been repeatedly condemned by the Lord. For example, when the Roman centurions arrested Jesus before the Crucifixion, one of the Lord’s followers drew a sword and swung at one of the soldiers, cutting off one of the man’s ears. Jesus immediately healed the soldier and rebuked his follower saying, “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matt. 26:52.)

Although Christ consistently denounced violence, some people who claim to be Christians justify using violence in imposing their will on a spouse. I recall one man who justified hitting his wife by saying, “I never hit her unless she deserves it.” Once we established an understanding that he would not use violence with his wife whether he felt she deserved it or not, we were able to work on some of the other problems in their relationship.

Violence—the use of physical force to impose one’s will on one’s spouse—has no place in any marriage. That should be obvious to people who have a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but apparently it still needs to be taught.

2: Misuse of Priesthood Authority

The second way a spouse may try to impose his will on the other is more subtle and therefore more difficult to deal with. It is by saying that because of the authority of the priesthood, one’s calling or position, or the patriarchal order, one has the right to force another to do one’s will.

This practice has been explicitly and soundly condemned in scripture. For example, D&C 121:39 states: “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”

The priesthood and the patriarchal order can only function properly in an atmosphere of unfettered agency. Verse 46 of the same section teaches that if authority is used properly, “thy scepter [will be] an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” [D&C 121:46] (Italics added.)

Clearly, we must not use priesthood authority as an instrument of force. Yet some men in the Church erroneously insist that because they hold priesthood authority, the members of their family must do what they say, no questions asked.

On the other hand, some women in the Church try to force their husbands to magnify their priesthood callings. They do not realize that they are doing pretty much what Lucifer sought to do when he rebelled against God—to force compliance with righteous principles. The Lord has always rejected the use of force to achieve righteous objectives.

3: Appeal to Higher Authority

A third way people apply force is by appealing to higher authority. Some people quote the scriptures and Church authorities or invoke gospel principles to force others to comply with their will. This manipulative tactic is not to be confused with the legitimate expression of sincere religious feeling. It is a cynical use of scripture or of the names and statements of Church authorities to force compliance with one’s own will.

Some time ago, I was counseling a couple who were members of the Church. She was very dedicated to the Church. He attended church with moderate regularity, but had little desire to carry his involvement much beyond that. He was a good, loving husband, dedicated to his wife and family, but he did not have a genuine testimony of the gospel and was not interested in adopting many elements of the LDS life-style. His deeply distressed wife felt that his apathetic attitude toward Church involvement was a direct threat to her eternal salvation.

She had tried in many different ways to force her husband to change. Finally, she brought him to see me. She knew that I was a dedicated Church member and hoped I would try to make her husband change. As we counseled together, she tried to enlist my help in forcing him to comply with righteous principles, as she understood them. She repeatedly quoted scriptures and Church authorities and gospel principles to encourage me in this. But I avoided trying to force her husband.

At one point I mentioned the verses in section 121 quoted above, suggesting that trying to force her husband’s compliance was not appropriate. The husband looked at me earnestly and asked, “Does this mean she shouldn’t be trying to force me to take her to the temple?”

I said, “That’s the way I understand it. What do you think?”

He said, “Yes, I’ve always believed that. I love my wife very much. I want to be with her for all eternity, if that is possible. I don’t know if it’s possible or not, but I know it isn’t right for her to be trying to shove temple marriage down my throat.” He looked intently at the page he had just read from, and his wife quietly wept.

As the wife stopped trying to force her husband, their loving relationship began to flourish once again. I feel confident that the husband’s chances of finding the joy of gospel living are now greater in an environment of love and free expression of agency. Probably the greatest flaw in Satan’s plan is that it simply doesn’t work. Behavior can be forced in the short run, but a relationship can only endure when both partners are free to commit themselves to one another and to righteous principles.

The woman in the preceding story was not as manipulative and hypocritical as are many people who appeal to higher authority to achieve their own ends. But people who try to force change sometimes violate gospel principles in a much more offensive way than the people they are trying to correct.

Christ was understanding and forgiving of every type of repentant sinner, but he strongly denounced those who hypocritically professed righteousness as a manipulative device to serve their own selfish ends. “Woe unto you,” he said, “for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones.” (Matt. 23:27.)

Some of the most serious problems in marriage come when spouses try to camouflage their manipulative tactics under the guise of righteous principles. The scriptures refer to those who attempt to do this as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their hypocrisy is deep, insidious, and evil.

4: Use of Criticism

The fourth means of force is criticism, ridicule, and blame. A very human example of this method is found in the account of Mary and Martha, as told in Luke 10:38–42.

In this incident, Martha assumed that her desires were right and that Mary’s were wrong. That is the basic, usually incorrect, assumption of all criticism. More important, though, Martha tried to force Mary to comply with her will. First, she tried to get Jesus to criticize Mary, and then she asked him to pressure Mary into helping her. Jesus refused to reinforce Martha’s criticism, and instead was supportive of Mary. He did not criticize Martha either, though he raised some question about her priorities. Neither did he try to force a behavioral change in either woman. This is consistent with his powerful, premortal stand in defense of our individual agency.

Great damage is done in a marriage through criticism, blaming, and fault-finding. One couple who came to see me spent most of our session mercilessly criticizing each other. Finally I asked them if they could think of anything good to say about their partner. They glared at each other for several moments, then the wife shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, what can I say? He hasn’t killed anybody.”

These were both honest, sincere people who had gotten married because they liked a lot of things about each other. But over many years of trying to change each other’s behavior, they had replaced the acknowledgement of those good traits with a constant stream of criticism and disapproval. This had soured their relationship almost beyond repair. Before this couple can regain the sweet, loving relationship that made them want to get married in the first place, they will have to give up their critical nagging, and with it the attempt to force change on their partner.

5: Use of Personal Power

The fifth way people try to force their will on others is by simply using the strength of their personality. In a marriage where one person is more self-assured and assertive than the other, the weaker person is likely to lose in any confrontation. Such a situation may be comfortable for the strong one, but the weaker person will likely build up deep resentment and anger over a period of time. Fear and insecurity usually keep these feelings from surfacing immediately. Such a situation is a fertile breeding ground for depression and apathy on the one hand, and for subtle, hidden retaliation on the other. Ultimately, it creates a very fragile marriage which the weaker person may tolerate as long as possible and then just leave in despair.

Marriages like this are particularly difficult to repair because the partners usually don’t seek help until it is too late. The strong person sincerely does not perceive a problem, and the weaker one is too timid or frightened to make the problem clear until the marriage becomes irreparable.

Again, the scriptures provide an ideal pattern for avoiding the use of force in this type of situation. John 4:6–42 tells the story of the woman at the well. It is quite obvious in this story that Jesus is dealing with a weak woman, and his strength and self-assurance are equally obvious.

The interesting thing about this story, though, is not the vast difference in what psychologists call “ego strength” between Jesus and the woman, but how carefully Jesus avoids taking advantage of his strength in dealing with her. He could have used not only his personal strength, but also his scriptural authority and criticism to attempt to force her compliance with his will. But he intentionally avoids using any of these power tactics. Instead, he said, “Go, call thy husband, and come hither.

“The woman answered and said, I have no husband.” (John 4:16–17.)

Her response was clearly misleading, and Jesus knew it, but he did not criticize her or flaunt his knowledge. He carefully protected her feelings and spoke to her in a sensitive, caring way; yet he still got to the point, saying, “Thou hast well said, I have no husband:

“For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.” (John 4:17–18.)

Note the lack of criticism or sarcasm, the complete lack of any hint of a forceful, pushy attitude. Jesus fought for the principle of agency prior to our mortality, and he never violated it in his earth life.

What follows in this story is very instructive: “The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.” (John 4:19.)

This respectful, sensitive attitude brought a positive response. The woman was receptive and teachable. She proceeded to learn gospel principles from him, and she was instrumental in bringing many in that city to a knowledge of Christ. It is clear from this story that Jesus was much more effective by respecting this woman’s agency than he could possibly have been by using his superior knowledge and strength of personality to overpower her.

Often in marriage there is a difference in ego strength between spouses. This need not be a problem if the stronger spouse does not use his or her strength as a weapon of force, but too often the stronger one controls the weaker one. These strong people would likely be shocked at the thought of using physical force to impose their will on their spouse, but the force they use is no less damaging psychologically. The use of superior ego strength to force one’s will on one’s spouse is no less a violation of gospel principles than the use of superior physical strength.

We have explored five methods that weaken marriages. If we eliminate all of these tactics, how can we achieve our righteous purposes and help our spouses grow and improve? We can use those means that are compatible with gospel principles, which are also more effective and more appropriate. Besides denouncing unrighteous dominion, Doctrine and Covenants section 121 [D&C 121] outlines some legitimate tactics, and chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians [1 Cor. 13] expands on them. We would all do well to read those passages and then examine our various relationships in light of them.

The opposite of force is agency. Force can ensure that people will behave in a certain way in the short term, but will cause resentment and provoke resistance. In the long run, it will always fail. Love, fidelity, and loyalty can thrive only in an atmosphere of freedom. This was the major issue in the War in Heaven, it is a significant factor in this earth life, and it will likely continue to be important throughout eternity.

A happy, mutually satisfying marriage will not long survive tactics of force, regardless of the reason. Such a marriage must be built slowly and carefully on a foundation of individual agency.

Illustrated by Ondre Pettingill

Show References

  • Larry K. Langlois, a marriage, family, and child therapist, teaches a parenting class in the Pasadena California Stake.