Am I the Quarrelsome Wife?

The Making of a Good-Weather Wife

The listing said they were “a fun-loving British family with two little boys, living in a three-story home in the Italian countryside. Au pair will get room and board, use of a vehicle, and two days off per week.” It sounded perfect. I emailed them, “20-year-old American college graduate, can be there in three weeks!”

The husband picked me up at the airport in Rome and drove like a kamikaze pilot toward his tiny village, delivering Wallace and Grommit-style commentary as we went. We pulled up to the house after dark. He grinned broadly, showing a few missing teeth along the sides. “Ready to meet the wife?”

The wife, Gillian, was in the kitchen — a tall woman with red hair, tanned freckles, and strong, capable hands. A short “hello,” and then she busied herself making me a cup of tea in silence. After a few tense minutes, he received a greeting as well: “Took you a bit.”

“Traffic was that bad,” he said meekly, the foolish grin pasted like a shield over his face. It was the first and last polite evening we had in that house.

Everyday Misery

Waking in my cold bedroom, the first thing I heard every morning was the muffled sound of Gillian’s raised voice. “What kind of . . . JOHN!! JOHN!! . . . Going to help me? . . . STOP IT, JAMES. . . . Guess I will just be getting the breakfast myself. . . . Arthur, THAT’S ENOUGH . . .”

I would trudge down to get the teakettle on the fire. The basement kitchen, built in stone like a dungeon, was the scene where our meals took place. John would sit down with that helpless grin, and both he and Gillian would speak very kindly to each other and the kids for the first few minutes. The boys would smile at me and say something cute. Then, without warning, they would scream, smack, or shout a naughty word at their parents. Gillian would ignore this, cutting up their bland vegetarian fare for them and giving short commands to John about his day.

Then suddenly she’d be screaming in their faces. John would look sheepish while she shouted at him, and then he would walk to the woodshop out back and stay busy for the day.

It was, indeed, a lovely home — built on the side of a breathtaking mountain on the outskirts of a cobblestoned village. We lived next door to a shepherd, ate eggs from the chickens outside, and bought bread at the panetteria and wine from a vineyard just over the mountain pass. Life in the village was as romantic and wholesome as I had imagined. But life in the house was chaos and emotional exhaustion.

And Gillian stood in the middle of it all, unhappily carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.

Contentious Wife

That image — of John trudging out to his work shed with a miserable Gillian inside — always reminds me of the Proverbs about the contentious woman.

It is better to live in a desert land
     than with a quarrelsome and fretful woman. (21:19)

It is better to live in a corner of the housetop
     than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife. (21:9)

A continual dripping on a rainy day
     and a quarrelsome wife are alike. (27:15)

When the writers of Proverbs thought of a contentious woman, they often thought of bad weather. A dry place where your parched throat aches for water, but all you get is sand. A maddening drip, drip, drip on your head, coming through the ceiling in the one place on earth you hoped to be dry and warm — your home. Rather than being a haven in the storm, the contentious woman is the storm. She is, herself, the poor weather conditions; her presence is an inhospitable place.

How does a woman end up here? Does any woman really decide to become the bad weather in her husband’s life? Or are the habits of contention like other, better habits — like joy, gratitude, and laughter — which develop with time and regular feeding?

We Contend for What We Desire

A woman doesn’t become contentious overnight. Her life, like everyone’s life, is made up of many individual moments and responses. But these small moments of decision build on each other to create the mountain of material that defines a character.

No wife sets out to be the sort of person you would move onto the roof to avoid. When a woman gets caught in this cycle of unbearable behavior, she does it because she wants what she wants but can’t get it. These habits of nagging, complaining, and contention start with unmet desires, according to James 4:1–2: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”

Listen to two women having coffee, and you will hear them describing their desires to each other. “We really need more space in the dining room . . .” “If he would just take me on a trip . . .” “I just want my mother-in-law to leave us alone . . .” “He just needs to be more of a spiritual leader . . .” “It’ll be so much better when the kids graduate . . .”

“A woman in love with Christ and the promise of a future with him is a woman filled with gratitude.”

When a woman pulls her house down around her own ears — with a stream of inhospitable complaints, wheedling orders, or picked fights — she is seeking something. She fights and quarrels because there is something she “cannot obtain.” Maybe it’s her husband’s attention. Maybe it’s the admiration of her friends. Maybe it’s joy or more comfort. Whatever it is, rest assured — her behavior is the outraged response of a disappointed woman.

Desire Disappointed

Sometimes, to be sure, those disappointments are deep and sincere; a married woman is the witness to her husband’s lifetime of sins and foibles. But haven’t we all seen the sad result when a woman gives up one of the most helpful tools in her arsenal — the art of feminine encouragement? What results is the perfect cycle: a nagging, bitter woman who becomes more bitter with every passing year, obsessing over the failings of her passive, grumpy man.

She can’t understand why her constant reminders don’t work. It doesn’t occur to her anymore to try a new language, the language of thanks and invitation — that sort of thing is for other women, women whose husbands do nice things for them. She desires and doesn’t have. She covets and cannot obtain. Discontent and ingratitude trace a direct path for her into quarrelsomeness.

All her railings against the husband, the children, and the broken dishwasher are a stand-in for her rage against God himself. God is the one who has really failed her. He is the one who withholds good things. He is the one who decided not to give her the afternoon she wanted, the husband she wanted, the job she wanted — the life she wanted.

Desire Fulfilled

Have you ever met a woman who is simply amazed at her own good fortune, who loves her life?

You watch her, confused. Why is she so happy in that house? Why is she so happy with that husband? Why is she so glad and grateful to have that job? Why on earth does she seem to smile and laugh her way from one trying moment to the next? How does she meet with the same circumstances you chafe under with a profound sense of her own blessedness to be a child of God?

If you watch these women travel through sorrow and suffering with their joy intact, you must eventually face the truth: perhaps contentment is not a product of circumstances. Perhaps your quarrelsome spirit arises not from the cards you were dealt, but from your heart of ingratitude. And perhaps the joy and gratitude available to you would also arise not from better circumstances, but from a renewed heart. Perhaps this is a heart you can ask your Father to give you, even now.

A woman in love with Christ and the promise of a future with him is a woman filled with gratitude. She is a woman to behold. She was dead, and now she lives. She was lost, and now she is found. She was blind, and now she sees. Her inheritance in Christ is sure and has begun to be realized even now in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

She has other desires, certainly. But she brings these desires to her Lord with an open hand. He teaches her many lessons in the giving and taking. Rather than finding that she covets and quarrels, she finds that she desires Christ and has him every moment, and thus everything else is gravy. Rather than hounding her husband to fulfill an ever-growing list of demands, she finds herself willing to search out and encourage what is already praiseworthy in his life.

Cure for Marital Quarrels

If you have suddenly heard the sound of your own voice in this article and have seen yourself in the contentious woman, know that you can become the sort of woman who builds her house instead of being bad weather indoors (Proverbs 14:1). Out of your heart can “flow rivers of living water” instead of a drip, drip, drip from the roof (John 7:38). Instead of a wasteland of criticism and contention, you can become an oasis of delight, nourishment, and rest for those closest to you.

Every day is an opportunity to turn in gratitude to your Father in heaven, who in Christ has already created a hospitable and safe place for you under the shelter of his wings (Psalm 91:1). In his name, you can become the sort of woman people come to in order to get out of the rain.