Last week, I gave advice on How to Read a Marriage Book, which might be one of the more important posts I’ve written, since the points there can make a big difference in whether a resource helps or hurts your marriage.
One point I made is that most marriage books presume good-willed spouses. Yes, these spouses may have moments of high frustration, over-the-top words, or hard stonewalling. However, those are moments and usually arise from deep-seated emotional pain the spouse feels in the face of relational conflict they don’t know how to resolve.
That’s different from a pattern of abuse, in which a spouse exhibits behaviors intended to keep their partner under their thumb. Such behaviors include physical violence, direct threats, constant belittling, gaslighting, economic deprivation, sexual force, and emotional intimidation. And for those spouses in an abusive marriage, or with features of abuse in their marriage, the typical marriage advice isn’t going to work.
For instance, there’s no reason to read my own book, Hot, Holy & Humorous: Sex in Marriage by God’s Design, with information and ideas on how to improve your marriage bed if your spouse is raping you. That would be like getting your car detailed when the engine has fallen out onto the road.
If you’re in an abusive marriage, the first order of business is addressing the abuse. If and when that resolves, you can address other relationship issues.If you're in an abusive marriage, the first order of business is addressing the abuse. If and when that resolves, you can address other relationship issues. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
Where do you begin?
Let me first point out that I am not a clinical psychologist; licensed, professional counselor; psychiatric specialist; licensed social worker; law enforcement member; or domestic abuse expert. I do not have a background working with individuals or couples who have experienced domestic abuse. Thus, everything I advise here is based on Scripture, common sense, expert resources I’ve consulted, and personal contact I’ve had with victims of domestic abuse.
And that caveat is why my primary suggestion is you consult the expert you need, as soon as possible. What do I mean by “the expert you need”? Here are a few examples.
- If you or your children experience physical or sexual violence from your spouse, call the police. It does not matter that you are married to the offender, you are still being assaulted and deserve protection and justice.
- If you feel you or your children are at risk of physical or sexual violence, contact the domestic abuse hotline or a local shelter. You need to get to a place of safety.
- If your spouse is denying you access to your home, personal belongings, or money to feed and care for yourself and children, you may need to speak to a lawyer to get what is legally and rightfully yours.
- If the abuse is verbal or emotional in nature, you should see a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker, or professional counselor.
In an abusive or destructive marriage, the dominant spouse has gained outsized control and an unfair advantage. The way to re-balance the scales is to bring in reinforcements. So get help from people who can actually help you.In an abusive marriage, the dominant spouse has gained outsized control and an unfair advantage. The way to re-balance the scales is to bring in reinforcements. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
If you don’t know whether you’re in an emotionally abusive marriage, take the Are You In An Emotionally Destructive Relationship? Quiz from Leslie Vernick. This is her area of expertise, and she also maintains a website where you can find resources to help you navigate an emotionally abusive situation.
What if the maltreatment isn’t so dire?
Some marriages simply have abusive or destructive traits. That is, they don’t pose an immediate threat to your safety or survival, nor do you feel like you’re in an emotional war zone, but your spouse sometimes behaves horribly toward you. What can you do?
In dysfunctional relationships, we tend to take on a role that unwittingly keeps the dynamic going. For instance, you may play the role of caretaker, scapegoat, or clown/mascot—all in an effort to calm the storms caused your spouse. But if you want to stop a system, throw a wrench into the gears. That is, stop playing your part and choose a different role—a healthier role.
This is an underlying principle in programs for spouses of addicts, as well as a key part of Boundaries, a wonderful book from Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. These Christian clinical psychologists also wrote Boundaries in Marriage, in which they lay out how you can stand up for yourself in the face of mistreatment from a spouse. By changing your way of dealing with unacceptable behavior, you make it more difficult for the other person to continue their misconduct—at least not without real cost.
Are all abusers the same?
No, they’re not. Some abusers can be reformed, but even as Christians who believe that God can redeem any situation, we must face the reality that some abusers will not change.
It appears that there are two types of domestic violence: situational and characterological. Situational violence describes a conflict in which one or both partners escalate in their frustration and anger to the point of lashing out. These spouses tend to recognize the awfulness of what they’ve done, feel genuine remorse, and want to avoid repeating that experience. Experts say such abusers lack self-control and conflict resolution skills—but, with the right help, they can learn.
Meanwhile, characterological violence means what it sounds like—it’s a core feature of the person’s character to dominate, manipulate, and maltreat their partner. Such abusers tend to blame their victims, give halfhearted or just-for-show apologies (if they give them at all), and maintain their pattern of abuse. Moreover, their escalation isn’t tracked in a single incident of losing control, but over the course of the relationship, with the abuse slowly becoming worse and worse. This building of intensity can be compared to the frog placed in a pot of water and heat slowly rising until it reaches boiling point; by the time the frog (or abuse victim) realizes what’s happening, they’re stuck. Or at least feel stuck.
Sadly, the characterological abuser is unlikely to ever change.
He is like the man with a hardened heart whom God cannot change. Not because God lacks the ability to mold a sinful person into something beautiful, but because the clay will never admit it needs the Artist’s hands. If you are married to this kind of abuser, I’ll say it plainly: Get out.
If your abuser later decides to confess their sin, repent of their sin, and embrace God’s love instead, you can re-negotiate then. But you cannot have anything resembling the kind of marriage God desires with a characterological abuser. As author and speaker Gary Thomas said: “How does it honor the concept of ‘Christian marriage’ to enforce the continuance of an abusive, destructive relationship that is slowly squeezing all life and joy out of a woman’s soul?”
The Bible says that God knit you in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:14), that He has numbered the hairs of your head (Luke 12:7), that He sacrificed His Son for you (Romans 5:8), and that, through Christ, you are God’s beloved child (1 John 3:1). As much as I believe in marriage, you are worth more than your marriage.As much as I believe in marriage, you are worth more than your marriage. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
When it’s a matter of saving your life, your soul, your value, it’s okay to find the exit door. And then enter God’s welcoming, comforting arms.
Therapy for you, not us
If you are in a marriage with a characterological abuser or controller, couples’ therapy probably won’t work. Why? Because such abusers and controllers are unlikely to tell the truth, accept responsibility for their actions, respect a counselor, or even attend counseling. They don’t believe they’re the problem anyway. If they go, they want the counselor to say you are the problem.
Sadly, that’s what some counselors do. If that happened to you, let me assure you it shouldn’t have.
Other couples’ counselors can and will see what’s happening and encourage you toward positive steps to change the unhealthy dynamic.
But given the destructive nature of your marriage relationship, your best option is seeking therapy for yourself. Explain to a licensed, Christian counselor what you’re dealing with and ask for wisdom and help. Learn what you can do to care for yourself, your children, and yes, your marriage, if it can be healed.
You may be in for a long road, but the road will feel longer and harder if you continue the path you’re walking. Don’t simply reach for another resource that presumes two good-willed spouses. If you’re in an abusive or destructive marriage, get real help for your situation.
- Are You In An Emotionally Destructive Relationship? Quiz from Leslie Vernick
- The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick
- Do You Think You’re Being Abused? Quiz from National Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- Adult Children Secrets of Dysfunctional Families: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John & Linda Friel (older book, but still some good stuff in there)
- V Is for Violence from The Gottman Institute
- Boundaries in Marriage by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
- Elisabeth Klein Hope & Healing Private Facebook Group (for wives in difficult marriages or going through divorce)
- When Love Hurts: A Woman’s Guide to Understanding Abuse in Relationships by Jill Cory & Karen McAndless-Davis (not an overtly Christian book, but recommended by Christian experts)
- FOCUS Ministries – Faith Based Domestic Violence Help for Women and Families