Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?

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.

Resource List

17 thoughts on “Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?

  1. Lianna

    There is also “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” by Leslie Vernick … she specializes in Marriage problems. She has many good books for relationships as well as marriage.

    Reply
  2. Dana

    Thank you for posting this! I was the frog in boiling water until my counselor had me read Emotionally Destructive Marriage. I still tried to make it work for over a year because “God hates divorce and everyone will judge” and so many fears of something different and unknown. I like that you pointed out the difference between situational and characterological abusers too. If I had known that before, maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much time going back just to be hurt again… probably not, but it might have made the final decision less guilt-filled. Thank you for encouraging people in this situation to seek help and leave if there is abuse.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Thanks for sharing your story, so that it can help others. I’m so sorry for what you went through! Glad you found a counselor who recognized what was happening and helped you make better choices. Blessings!

      Reply
  3. Cara

    And don’t stay “for the kids”. It doesn’t help them and it perpetuates the cycle.
    It’s better to be poor and have your kids know that this behavior is not tolerated. (Someone I know stayed because they didn’t know how to support the kids).

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Yep. Studies show that staying in a ho-hum marriage has positive results for kids, but staying in an abusive or high-conflict marriage hurts kids. It can be a struggle to figure things out, but it doesn’t benefit a child to live in a volatile and violent environment.

      Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Thank you so, so much for this post!

    As a woman raised by an emotionally abusive father, it has been an especially difficult thing to face the reality that I’m living my mother’s life, just with different details. It’s difficult to fight off the thoughts of blaming myself for not recognizing the truth sooner. To the outside world, mostly, my husband appears to be a Godly man who everyone loves as soon as they meet him — a “great guy.” That is partly because I took the advice early in our marriage to never speak negatively of my husband to anyone, publicly or privately (good general advice I still think), to the point of making excuses when his angry outbursts and insults of me happened around family and friends. I became an enabler, thinking I was being a good submissive wife. That seems to be a fine line to walk in my situation.

    I had never heard the distinction between situational and characterological before. After reading your description and taking one of the quizzes, I realize I’m experiencing the 2nd one. That’s heavy. I have recently started really standing up for myself and pointing out that he is blaming me for his own mistakes and overreacting to unimportant things, and that seems to be having a positive effect. But I don’t know yet whether it will lead to real change or if I will never be able to just relax. He’s always apologetic when I stand up to him now, unlike in the past. But then it happens again soon after.

    I’ve spent so many years weighing every word and facial expression and apologizing for things that aren’t my fault, so as to avoid sparking his anger. But I’m determined to put an end to that. And I will now be more aware of the “slow boiling” thanks to your post, so hopefully I can see if it truly becomes hopeless (or already is?). I am also in counseling now.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      My heart goes out to you. I pray that you can find answers and healing. And this really hit me: “I took the advice early in our marriage to never speak negatively of my husband to anyone, publicly or privately.” I have seen that advice A LOT, and it always makes me wince. Because keeping the family secrets is a core feature of highly dysfunctional families. Yes, we shouldn’t husband-bash, but it’s reasonable and responsible to share with a trusted ally concerns you have to gain wisdom about what you’re going through.

      Saying a prayer for you right now. Blessings.

      Reply
  5. S

    Thanks for this post; my husband is NOT abusive but I’m so glad you are here to help those who are struggling with this.

    I am curious if you can someday write a post about sexuality/marriage struggles for those with childhood emotional/physical abuse. I lived in denial for many years (until the birth of my first child 2 years ago) about abuse I experienced and witnessed as a child. It is extremely difficult for me to talk about even with my husband and it’s been a mess because I still live in the same city (and attend the same church) as my mom (who was abusive and still can be very manipulating). I want to honor my parents (I guess I’m still protecting their reputation) but I also still struggle with my past with them, so I can’t really talk with family friends about what happened and how to move forward.
    I am usually an assertive person (ENTJ/INTJ Meyers Briggs) but have an EXTREMELY difficult time asking for things for myself (including communicating my needs, sexual or otherwise to my husband). I know I can’t be alone in this, but haven’t seen many Christian posts about overcoming emotional abuse during childhood, and also how that affects my marriage now.

    Thanks so much for reading!

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I’m so sorry for what you went through! That never should have happened to you. The childhood abuse I’ve covered on my blog, given my topic, is sexual abuse. Honestly, there are better sites about child abuse and experts who can speak much better on that issue than I. But I feel for you so much.

      Blessings!

      Reply
  6. Mark

    I have often wondered, if it is possible for any abuser to actually be in love with their victim.

    Also if it is possible for an abuser to know what it means to actually be in love. There seems to be many forms of abuse, the two obvious ones are physical abuse and emotional abuse where the abuser is saying and doing mean things that is targeting their spouse and even kids.

    I also think there is a form of emotional abuse when a couple is married and aren’t truly in love with each other.

    If love isn’t discovered, it will eat away at one’s heart and become an emotional drain.

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I believe the characterological abusers may care, but everything comes back to them in the end. So it’s a limited love at best.

      Reply
  7. E

    I’m not married but I’ve seen SO many Christian women (especially) jump into a marriage without really thinking it through. We put so much pressure on young people to get married in some churches. Instead we need to teach young women how they deserve to be treated and how they are priceless in God’s eyes. That their value isn’t on their marital status. They will be quicker to know their worth and RUN with a hint of abusive behavior. The saying is true “When people show you who they are— believe them.”
    Ask the hard questions. Ask your family and friends for support in discerning character. Don’t ignore red flags.
    Nobody is perfect! We all need Jesus and forgiveness but don’t settle for the sake of getting married. Who you marry matters. It’s why I’ve waited around until 30 for my right guy to come around! I’m thankful my parents gave me that confidence— and that I’ve found him

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I haven’t seen direct teaching about abuse in churches; that is, warning people what it is and to avoid such people. I have seen churches surround a victim of abuse and help them out of a terrible situation, but I wish we did a better job of helping people avoid the heartache and damage altogether.

      Reply
  8. M

    “As much as I believe in marriage, you are worth more than your marriage.” THANK YOU!
    Thank you for this excellent post, and all the links. I’m neck-deep walking with a dear friend who has just fled her husband and is finally able to verbalize she is a victim of domestic violence. I had no idea! There was a lot of gaslighting going on, and I knew their marriage wasn’t good, but had no idea the extent. Sadly, our church leaders aren’t taking her part – her abuser is too deceitful and says all the right things, and has always been careful not to leave bruises after my friend documented bruises once.

    Thank you for this article, because I think so many of us Christian women don’t know what domestic violence is, its warning signs, or that we might be enabling it under such generally good guidelines as, “Don’t speak ill of your husband.” Thanks J!

    Reply

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