Physical abuse is easily definable and recognizable. Sane people soundly condemn it. If a woman comes forward with physical evidence of abuse, she will usually find support in the church. (She won’t always find support in the church. There are some people who think a wife needs to suffer for Christ even if it means physical beatings. Christ’s suffering wasn’t enough for her. She’s got to complete it for Him. Total rubbish, of course.)
But emotional abuse? Is that even a thing? It is absolutely a thing. It is the most common type of abuse, and it is rampant in our churches. Why? Because it is the most hidden, unrecognizable, and untraceable of all the abuse tactics. Often, the victim is completely unaware that she is in an abusive relationship, and the abuser is in such complete denial that he is unable to see how destructive his behaviors are to his partner. Emotional abuse in a marriage can go on for years before anything is done to stop it, and even then, getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship can be a long, dangerous, and painful road.
Leslie Vernick wrote a book called The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Chapter one has a test you can take to help you discover if you may be in a destructive marriage. There is a PDF of this test HERE if you are interested. (If you think your spouse may be emotionally abusive, don’t show this test to him. A common tactic of abusers is to take whatever you say and turn it back on you. He’ll take the test and call you the abuser.)
So take the test, but I would like to point out, for simplification, that there is one key component of every single emotionally destructive relationship. If this one thing is present in your relationship, you are being emotionally abused. Period.
The One Common Denominator of All Destructive Relationships
Your spouse doesn’t take responsibility for his behavior.
That’s it. You can have an infinite number of variants as far as specific behaviors and abuse tactics, but boil it all down, and you get this at the bottom of the pan every. single. time.
This means you can’t ever resolve anything. If you go to an emotionally abusive spouse with a bit of feedback about anything, you will get nowhere. He doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. Here are some examples of how this might play out:
Wife: “When you did/said such and such, it hurt.”
Husband: “That’s ridiculous. I didn’t do that. You misunderstood. Why do you always have to jump to the worst conclusions? Can’t you even trust your husband? What kind of person does that? You’re always on my case about everything.”
(Wife feels unloved, unheard, stupid, and can even question her sanity. Did she misinterpret his tone? Did she make it up in her head? Is she being unfair and mean? When this kind of thing goes on for years and years, she can start to question her reality and even her sanity.)
Wife: “While I’m gone, can you change the baby’s diaper before he goes to bed? You forgot the last three times, and he woke up soaked.”
Husband: “What? Are you crazy? I’ve never done that. I think I know how to take care of a baby for crying out loud. Why do you always have to nag about everything? You treat me like a child. It’s so disrespectful.”
(Wife feels caught. She feels bad for her baby, and she feels like she can’t remind her husband of anything without being accused herself. She doesn’t want to treat him like a child. She wants to respect and honor him, like a good wife should. So she feels bad that no matter how hard she tries to show him respect, he only views her as the opposite. She also wonders if she is crazy. She could have sworn the baby was soaked the last few times her husband put him to bed. But he seems so sure…maybe she was wrong?)
Wife: “Can I go out with a friend next week end?”
Husband: “I suppose. I never go out with my friends.”
Wife: “But you can go out any time you want to!”
Husband: “Mmmmm. It’s your day. Do whatever you want.” (Deep sigh.)
(Wife feels guilty. Uneasy. Like she is taking advantage of her husband and displeasing him. If she is in a sub-culture that says wives must please their husbands at all times and put their interests first, she may even choose to stay home knowing that would make her husband “happy.”)
Wife: “You committed to such and such over a year ago, but I’ve noticed that you haven’t followed through. When will you keep that commitment?”
Husband: “Don’t you have something better to do with your life other than get on my back all the time? What is your problem? Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything? I’ve been busy. Can’t you see that?”
(Wife feels guilty even though she hadn’t mentioned the commitment for a year. She feels like she can’t remind him, yet she will suffer the consequences of his lack of keeping the commitment.)
Other typical responses to the wife’s input or feedback:
- “You are goofy/silly/crazy/a @$#%&.”
- “Why are you always on my back? What a nag/shrew/#$%$%”
- “Everyone knows you think you’re so great. What a judgmental Debbie Downer. Just back off, why don’t you?”
They are critical, deceitful, and lack empathy. They are not convicted of sin, and they don’t repent. To have peace with them, the wife must take responsibility for her sin as well as his (everything is her fault, after all). She has to sweep all issues under the rug and ignore them, because to bring anything up invites an attack on her personhood. All issues remain unresolved, and her feelings, interests, opinions, and desires are worth nothing.
She becomes a non-person in the marriage. If she tells someone in the secular world who is familiar with abuse, she will get help. If she tells someone in her church, she may be rebuked for slandering her husband. She’ll be told to submit more, make better meals, give better sex, quit nagging, stop trying to be his personal holy spirit, and other choice rebukes with accusations and assumptions embedded in them. All things she hears from her husband regularly. This is how churches align themselves with the abuser and enable him to dig into deeper denial. It’s not only unloving, but it’s destructive to the entire family as well as to the body of Christ. Lies always are.
The ironic (satanic?) thing is that the church’s desire is to keep the marriage together at all costs to the victims within the marriage (wife and children) – for the purpose of “reflecting Christ and the church.” The only trouble is, this kind of marriage isn’t a reflection of that relationship in the least. It’s more accurately a reflection of Satan, the accuser, and his attempts to thwart God’s purposes on earth through His people.
What we are called to as Christians is TRUTH. To walk in Truth. And that means calling a spade, a spade. Even if it means being vilified for it. The most loving thing a church can do is to hold the abusive spouse accountable for his sin. If God grants him conviction of sin and repentance, a marriage can be saved. But clocking the wife over the head just because she is an easy target (she is just a female after all), and the “head of the house” is a slippery devil disguised like a angel—doesn’t save anything. It just aids in the destruction of several human lives. The husband, the wife, and any kids they have. And no, contrary to pious opinion, this doesn’t glorify God or reflect anything of Christ to the world around us.
So what if you just read this and your mind is spinning. You’re thinking, “I think this is me. I think this is my life. What am I going to do?” I would like to write more about this, because several years ago I sat in a coffee shop after spending a night in a quiet hotel room contemplating suicide. I literally spent the entire night wracked with sobs. Every inch of my body was burning with pain inside and out, and I had never been hit. I was bleeding out, emotionally. I wanted to go Home to be with Christ. To be done. I didn’t think I could survive another day of insanity. I felt stuck in a perpetual torturous existence with no end in sight. The only thing that anchored me to this earth was the baby inside my belly, whose birthday was just a few days away. I sat in that coffee shop the next morning Googling stuff related to what I had been experiencing for 20 years up to that point in time. And what I found shocked me to my core. I discovered (was forced to face) the Truth about my marriage. And the truth was horrifying. But it ultimately set me free.