I recently received the following email from a reader:
“I wish I knew how to reinforce “no.” I say “no” but the behavior doesn’t stop, and somehow it’s my fault he keeps doing it.“
I remember being there. I had no idea how to make my voice matter. If I expressed an opinion about something, it was dismissed or turned into something “ridiculous” if it didn’t collude with my spouse’s opinion. Sometimes I was a “bad wife” for expressing it. But the bottom line was, my voice meant nothing, and I didn’t know how to MAKE it mean anything to my husband.
But you know what we need to figure out? Just because our voice doesn’t matter to one human being (or even several), doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Here are three ways to make your voice carry weight.
Reinforce Your “No” by Walking Away
Think about it this way. You are standing in a group of people looking at a painting on a wall, and it’s your turn to talk, so you share your opinion about the painting. One person turns away from you in disgust. Two others are talking to themselves on the outer rim of the group, ignoring you. Another person loudly criticizes your opinion, causing you to feel shame. But the rest of the folks are listening, interested and engaged. You enjoy intelligent discourse and mutual respect as you share and listen to the various thoughts of everyone regarding the painting.
Now let’s zero in on the one who criticized your opinion out loud. Is their opinion your problem? Is it a reflection of who you are, as a person? No, it’s not. It’s just their opinion. It belongs to them. And because of their choice to criticize and shame others rather than to participate in an open-minded and mutually respectful conversation, they are unable to enjoy the group and the variety of opinions and insights the group shares. Too bad for them, but not too bad for you!
Let’s pretend that person is your spouse. The fact that your spouse doesn’t listen to you, thinks your opinions are stupid, and has no respect for your voice means absolutely nothing to who you are as a person or to the value you carry as a member of the human race.
Go back to the group looking at the painting again. Pretend you say to the disrespectful person, “Please don’t interrupt. You’ll have your turn in a moment.”
What if he snarled, “I’ll say what I want when I want to! You aren’t the boss of me!” What would you do in that situation? I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d invite those who were still interested in having a conversation with me to join me elsewhere, and I’d leave the bully standing alone.
“But that’s SO MEAN! It’s not CHRISTIAN! What about FORGIVENESS and OVERLOOKING A MULTITUDE OF SINS and TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK and LOVING YOUR ENEMIES and DOING GOOD TO THOSE WHO MISTREAT YOU?”
I think we misunderstand what God is teaching us about love and forgiveness. Is it loving to enable bullies? Who are we “loving” when we do that? We aren’t loving anyone, including the bully. In fact, Patrick Doyle often says that the most loving thing you can do to someone who is harming you is (drum roll, please) STOP THEM!!!
Maybe if everyone in the bully’s life refused to put up with his $%#! he’d decide his way of relating wasn’t working, and he’d get some help to learn new skills. But even if he didn’t, at least everyone around him would be speaking truth into his life, and TRUTH is always loving. Always. A friend of mine recently told me that she tells her kids the TRUTH is what keeps us safe. Lies and secrets put all of us in danger. Churches that collude with bullies put their entire congregations in danger. And covering up the lies and shaming behaviors of bullies puts the bully in danger of hellfire. This isn’t rocket science, but you’d think it was when you consider how most churches handle this kind of thing.
Reinforce Your “No” by Being Willing to Give Up the Relationship
If you aren’t willing to lose the relationship, the other person will continue to control you. They instinctively know you will stay no matter what. Many Christians teach that divorce isn’t an option for emotional abuse, and emotional abusers take advantage of this man-made, Pharisaical rule based on a couple of cherry-picked Bible verses taken out of their historical context and translated incorrectly by biased, misogynistic, agenda driven translators. (That was a mouthful—but an important one!)
The Bible says that we reap what we sow. It’s a law—like the law of gravity. You sow carrots, you reap carrots. You sow wheat, you reap wheat. You sow weeds, you reap weeds. You sow destructive, hateful behavior, you reap a great marriage and reputation. Wait, what? Well, that’s what many Christians believe! If you have a penis and a wife, you get to do whatever you $%& well want with that wife and any kids you had with her. Why? Because your private parts are AWESOME! That’s why!
The fact is, we don’t throw out everything else the Bible teaches about relationships just because we’re talking about a marriage relationship. A marriage contract doesn’t give anyone, no matter what their bottoms look like, the right to mistreat the other person. And sometimes the only way to allow the destructive person to reap what they have sown is to QUIT PROTECTING THEM FROM THE REAPING PART. I’m serious! We get in the way of what God wants to do when we try to control the situation because we are scared spitless of what will happen to us if we let go.
You’ll also need to be willing to let go of your church if necessary because chances are, if your abusive spouse loves your church and is supported by the leaders there, it’s very likely a spiritually abusive, misogynistic place, and you don’t want to be part of that anyway. I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of women who lost their marriages AND their churches in one fell swoop (I did too!). Many churches will protect the abuser and demonize the woman who leaves because they have a theology that says rules trump love. Contracts trump human lives. Men trump women and children. Blech!
By way of encouragement, I’ll tell you that if you lose your church, it will be okay. There are 5,972,736,275 other churches out there. You’re bound to find a safe one eventually, and if you don’t, you can always take a break from church for a while until you get your bearings. Jesus Christ will never leave you. His Global Church is faithful, and His sheep hear His voice and follow HIM. Not men. I listen to sermons by Sam Powell (he’s awesome) and sing praise songs on Spotify. (I also found a new church for the sake of my kids, but that’s another story.)
Reinforce Your “No” by Having No Agenda
This is key! If you have a specific outcome in mind and you are dead set on getting your way, you’ll never be able to reinforce your “no.” Some possible agendas we may have (just ask me how I know):
- We want our spouse to repent and change their behaviors so we can have a healthy marriage.
- We want our kids to grow up with an intact family.
- We want to be loved by our spouse, and we think if we hold on long enough, it might happen.
- We want financial security.
- We want to homeschool our kids.
- We want to keep our home.
- We want to keep our reputation.
- We want to keep our friends.
- We want to have a “normal” life.
- We don’t want to be hated.
- We don’t want to be lied about.
- We don’t want to get a job.
- We don’t want to endure the disapproval of others.
And we could go on and on, right? The fact is, your destructive spouse knows this, and they are counting on you to hold on to your agenda like a rabid dog. We can’t count on them responding positively to much of anything. If they do, it’s just part of the abuse cycle. Nice, Not-so-nice. Mean. Nice. The “nice” isn’t so nice when you look at it that way. So we need to make decisions, not based on what we HOPE they will do, but on what they actually DO.
And let’s be honest, if you’ve been married for two decades and this is all you’ve ever seen, why in the world do you think it’s ever going to be any different? Because you are praying it will be? God doesn’t control us like puppets, and He isn’t a gumball machine where we can put in our nickle prayer and get the gumball we want. He doesn’t work that way no matter how badly we wish He would.
Someone recently posted on Facebook that their marriage used to be abusive but is now amazeballs. Why? Because she prayed hard enough. She was shaming women who have prayed their guts out and still have crappy marriages. The idea that our marriage will be awesome if we just pray hard enough is an immature perspective as well as a stupid lie from the enemy. God expects us to steward our lives based on reality, not wishful thinking. We have to stop spiritualizing our situation. The bottom line is, your spouse is worse than nasty, and you can’t change him. Could God change him? Sure. God could turn an elephant into a chimpanzee if He wanted to. That doesn’t mean He will.
So what are you going to do about that? What are YOU going to do? You. An intelligent, competent, adult woman with a HUGE God on your side? (He IS on your side, you know!)
I had to be willing to let go of everything and lose it all. So when I said, “Spouse, if you continue to do x, y, and z, I will not sleep with you anymore,” I had to be willing to never sleep with him again as well as endure his vengeful treatment of me.
And then, a year later when I said, “Spouse, if you continue to do x, y, and z, you can no longer live with me,” I had to be willing to tolerate the disapproval of some folks at my church as well as the confusion and pain of my children as they adjusted to the separation. I had to take responsibility for raising the kids by myself, for taking care of the house by myself, for taking care of my car by myself, and so on.
And then, a year later when I said, “Spouse, if you continue to do x, y, and z, I will file for divorce,” I had to be willing to be a divorced woman with nine children. I had to be willing to lose my church and my reputation. I had to be willing to be a single woman, possibly growing old and dying alone. (Who is going to marry an old divorced lady with a thousand children?) I had to be willing to be viewed as a meanie by a couple of my kids. I had to be willing to work full time and live on a shoe-string in order to survive on my own.
Every single woman I’ve talked to who has already walked this road has told me it was worth it. (You can read about ten of them HERE.) But they all had to be willing to reinforce their “no” by setting serious boundaries and then following through with the repercussions of any violations of those boundaries. If you are married to a real abuser, I guarantee your boundaries will not be respected. This kind of partner will get meaner and more abusive. So before you figure out what you are ready to do, think it through and be prepared for the worst. But remember that in order to get to the best, you’ll need to go through the worst, and others have walked that path before you.