Emotional Abuse in Marriage
By Elisabeth K. Corcoran
So many Christian husbands and wives are hurting each other. I have recently been privy to intimate details of one Christian marriage after another where someone was being desperately hurt by their spouse. I don’t mean to add to the stereotype, but a majority of the emails I’ve been receiving are from women. Desperate women with nowhere to turn who are suffocating emotionally and not getting the help that they are begging for.
I’m not going to launch into a dissertation regarding the biblical grounds for a divorce. What I am compelled to touch on, however, is what abuse is, how it affects the abused, and what the response of the Christian should look like.
I overheard a conversation between two people dissecting a failed marriage of someone they’ve never met. The first person said, “But she was abused. Are you suggesting God actually wanted her to stay in that marriage?” The other person responded, “I knew nothing of physical danger. If that were the case, this would be another story.”
Why? Not only have I heard this repeatedly, but I’ve said it myself, “If you or your children are being physically hurt, get out and find a place of safety.” Why I don’t go on to say, “If you’re just being called names on a regular basis, suck it up and pray some more,” is beyond me because that is basically the message that I, and the Church, am sending when we offer up that kind of one-size-fits-all advice.
What is emotional abuse?
Barbara Shaffer, Ph.D. in Christian Counseling, defines emotional abuse as “an attitude of entitlement and profound disrespect that discounts at every turn the inherent right of the other person to dignity, separateness and autonomy. Out of entitlement and disrespect spring various overt behaviors that use anger, violence and/or contempt to induce fear, guilt and shame. The other person is controlled, punished or demeaned.”
Read this list out loud. Put yourself in the shoes of receiving these words and actions.
- You are crazy.
- You are an idiot
- Show me what you bought at the store. Right now. Why did you get Q-Tips? We don’t need Q-Tips. I can’t even trust you to go to Target.
- If you even think of telling so-and-so about this, I will…
- I went to my meeting. (Only to find a receipt time-stamped that proved otherwise.)
- You are no longer allowed to write checks. And I’ll be doing all of the grocery shopping from now on.
- I don’t want you talking on the phone with your mother anymore.
- No more tithing.
- If you want to observe the Sabbath, do it on a weekday so the kids don’t see you doing it and think they can get out of chores.
- I determine what the thermostat will be set to. Don’t touch it up or down.
- I drink because of you. If our marriage were better, I wouldn’t have to.
- Well, you haven’t slept with me in two years…what do you expect me to do?
What does this do to your heart when you hear things like this? Can you imagine this? Can you picture your spouse doing any of these things to you or saying any of these things to you, let alone all of them and so much more?
Or, dare I ask, can you see yourself in these scenarios, saying these words and doing these things, and you didn’t know until this very moment that what you were doing was abuse? This is emotional abuse. This is what is being deemed nowhere near as dangerous as a black eye, but I beg to differ.
How is the abused affected?
Harsh words and selfish actions, coming from the person who vowed to love you like no one else, kills a spirit slowly and methodically. The man or woman living within this kind of relationship, especially long term, begins to lose track of reality. What is truth? Am I actually crazy? Am I really an idiot? Maybe if I did this, things would get better? Maybe if I prayed more, cooked better, spent less, served more, spoke less, I wouldn’t deserve to be treated this way? Or perhaps, I really do deserve this. Perhaps, it’s not that bad. Perhaps, this is what God has called me to.
Living within an abusive relationship is a slippery slope. I didn’t even realize that my own relationship was characterized by abuse until I met with a counselor who opened my eyes to the truth. I knew things were difficult, but I was blind to how wrong it all had really become.
How should the Christian respond to someone being abused?
If a friend comes to you and shares snippets of her life and they sound anything like what has been described here, please know that she is trusting you with her heart and that she is scared. She may be desperate for help, and she has chosen to reach out to you, possibly under a threat that if she were to ever tell someone, things could get even worse for her at home. So here are some general guidelines for dealing with this kind of situation.
Acknowledge her pain and that it is indeed real.
She may not believe that what is going on is truly that bad. She’ll need to hear from someone else if it really is.
Ask gentle questions.
Try to gain more information such as how long it’s been going on, and what kinds of abusive acts are being done. But know when to pull back a bit if it becomes too painful for her to talk about.
Be careful not to lay blame.
Odds are, she’s been blamed for too long for how things have ended up, so try not to say that if maybe she were to change something specific, he might not fill-in-the-blank anymore. Though every relationship takes two, there will be plenty of time later for her to figure out her part in the dysfunction.
Do not give her marching orders to simply do more of something.
She’s probably thought of all this herself anyway—pray more, serve more, praise more, cook more, initiate sex more—and it probably hasn’t changed much of anything for more than a few days or weeks. (That’s what is called the honeymoon phase…where things seem to be getting better, but it never lasts.)
Do not try to help her all on your own.
Determine what kind of help she might need, whether it be a visit with a pastor (choose him wisely) or a Christian counselor.
Offer to go to any meetings.
Offer to go to any meetings with her as she might be ashamed or scared. Taking the first few steps out of abuse can be terrifying and she’ll need support.
Do not advise any rash decisions.
Saying something like, “I don’t know how you’ve lived this way so long,” or “If I were you, I’d meet with a lawyer right away,” will not help. It just might serve to further paralyze her. She needs to take small, steady steps into health and healing. And you might just be overlaying your past or emotional scars onto her situation when they don’t really apply.
Check in with her.
She more than likely feels isolated. Asking for help took courage; asking for more help, if you do not follow up, may take more courage than she has, and she might not reach out again.
Point her to Scripture.
Point her to scripture that affirms her worth in God’s eyes, and God’s power to heal and be her strength. She needs to be reminded repeatedly that she is loved, that she is precious, that she is being taken care of.
Pray with her and commit to pray for her. Keep bringing her before Christ and allow his healing to wash over her.
These thoughts just scratch the surface of a hugely controversial topic. If you or someone you love is in this kind of situation, please get help. There may not be a black eye, but a heart is being broken a little more each day.
Resources for Abusive Marriages
What can appear to be the perfect marriage, behind closed doors, can be one of domination and emotional abuse. With the damage that words can cause, women need to be able to identify signs of emotional abuse. We know that this is a difficult and touchy subject, so we hope you will find these resources helpful so you can see the red flags, as well as how to respond when you or someone you know needs help.
ORGANIZATIONS & WEBSITES
Life Skills International #303-340-0598
Life Skills International focuses on reaching out to individuals in broken and strained relationships. They are a nonprofit organization created by Paul and Judy Hegstrom. Paul spent over 18,000 hours in research while developing the curriculum for programs concerning domestic violence that would aid both the abuser and the victim of abuse. The organization is based out of Aurora, Colorado and has expanded into an international program with over 100 centers. The website hosts a radio broadcast, information concerning the signs and red flags of both emotional and physical abuse, as well as live seminars.
National Domestic Violence Hotline #512-794-1133
National Domestic Violence Hotline provides information on the different types of domestic abuse as well as signs of domestic abuse. It also has resources for victims to find help, information on how to help a friend, and how to locate resources in one’s area.
Wounded by Words: Healing the Invisible Scars of Emotional Abuse By Susan Titus Osborn, Karen L. Kosman, Jeenie Gordon
In Wounded by Words, the authors explore how emotional abusers isolate, disorient, and indoctrinate their victims and how their unkind words leave lasting scars. Through the study of God’s Word, prayer, and advice from a counselor and other victims, readers will see their distorted self-images begin to change. As they lay down a new life foundation, with Jesus Christ being the cornerstone, readers can begin to erase old, destructive tapes that replay in the mind and gradually renew hope and faith.
With godly guidance and practical experience, Vernick offers an empathetic approach to recognizing an emotionally destructive relationship and addresses the symptoms and the damage with biblical tools. Learn how to recognize abuse, stop it, and survive its impact on your life by embracing God’s freedom. Readers will understand how to reveal behaviors that are meant to control, punish, and hurt, and how to confront and speak truth when the timing is right.
Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse By Steven R. Tracy
Abuse is far more rampant than many Christians realize—and the long-term damage to a victim’s soul is profound. But healing is possible with God. In this well-researched, biblically and scientifically based resource, Dr. Tracy surveys the nature and effects of physical, verbal, sexual, and spiritual abuse—as well as strategies for prevention and recovery. Just as surely as abusive relationships have tremendous power to wound the soul, so healthy relationships have tremendous power to nurture and heal the soul.
The Power of Words By Nancy Leigh DeMoss
In this study you’ll discover the connection between your heart and your words. You will be challenged to examine your heart and to consider the consequences of your words. And you’ll gain practical insight on “tongue control” from the Word of God.
Finding Peace for Your Heart: A Woman’s Guide to Emotional Health By Stormie Omartian
In Finding Peace for Your Heart, Stormie Omartian offers personal insight on emotional healing as she guides you to transforming your inner self. Join her on a personal journey as she walks you through issues such as recognizing that God is on your side and showing you how to live in obedience so that you can gain the wholeness you desire.
Through a fascinating, yet thorough examination of the psychological components of various types of abuse, along with true examples from his own life and others, Hegstrom points the way back to wholeness and freedom. An invaluable aid for the man who batters, the woman who feels trapped, and the pastor, counselor, or friend who desperately wants to help them both, Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them offers straight answers for those willing to overcome the cycle of violence.
Overcoming Hurts & Anger: Finding Freedom from Negative Emotions By Dwight L. Carlson
Overcoming Hurts & Anger has been helping people deal with the hurt feelings and angry responses that wreak havoc in many relationships. In this thoroughly revised and expanded edition of his bestselling book, Dwight Carlson presents balanced, biblical insight for openly and honestly dealing with powerful emotions that everyone experiences at one time or another.
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