Tag Archives: abuse in marriage

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

What about the 3 A’s? Addiction, Adultery, and Abuse

I recently wrote When My Marriage Seemed Hopeless, What Made Me Stay? In that post, I mentioned that the three A’s — Addiction, Adultery, and Abuse — are particularly difficult problems for marriages to overcome.

But let me clear: Just because something’s difficult, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

So what if you are dealing with one of these three A’s? How can you kick that issue to the curb and find healing and hope instead?

Broken heart

Addiction. Addiction is a jealous mistress in your marriage. Whether alcohol, drugs, pornography, or something else, addiction actively tries to take your husband’s attention and resists you reclaiming it. Those who’ve dealt with addiction can attest to the strength of that pull. Addiction can even rewire your brain’s perceptions and emotional responses, and withdrawal is anything but pleasant. All that said, many have gone from addict to victor.

So what can you do if your spouse has an addiction?

Stop enabling. When loved ones stage an intervention, when families put a relative in rehab, when friends and family members stop covering up for the addict’s failures, when people around no longer enable the addiction, the addict must face the full consequences of their own actions. In some cases, that added pressure helps an addict clarify what’s happening — to see that his/her actions not only make life difficult, but a healthy marriage and family impossible.

Set boundaries. Set the standards of what you will and won’t put up with, then follow your plan calmly and firmly. How do you choose boundaries and make them stick? My advice is to grab the excellent book Boundaries by John Townsend and Henry Cloud or Boundaries in Marriage for wisdom.

Get on the same team. Remember who the true enemy is. Most of the time, an addict hates what’s happening but feels powerless to change. A struggling husband is not the enemy; sin, the addiction, and Satan are the enemies. Commit yourself to standing with your spouse. Let him know you’re a teammate, not an adversary, in this fight.

Get help. Most addicts want the madness to stop, although a few addicts don’t seem to care how much havoc they wreak. If he denies the addiction, and your marriage is suffering horribly, reach out to others. Get the support system you need as a foundation from which you can launch efforts to get your husband’s attention and tackle the problem together. Tell your pastor, see a counselor, contact a local Al-Anon chapter, read up on addiction, etc.

The addiction may take time to deal with, but get on the right road. Even if progress is slow, progress is what you’re looking for. Starting with him owning up to the problem. As always, pray for your attitude and your actions throughout.

Adultery.  The imaginary thought of some other woman’s lips on my husband nearly makes me apoplectic. So when I hear of couples who’ve endured true adultery, my heart cracks like an earthquake fault. How can you heal a rift like that?

But marriages do survive and thrive after adultery. Interestingly enough, a lot of the advice listed with addiction — stop enabling, set boundaries, get on the same team, get help — applies here. Ultimately, you have to do two things:

  1. Get rid of the affair partner. Goodbye, au revoir, adiós, ba-bye. And never come back.
  2. Rebuild your marriage, so this relationship is where you both want to commit your efforts.

The first one is something the offending spouse has to decide. However, you can apply appropriate pressure. Don’t enable him seeing the affair partner — by allowing excuses about how they work together or those texts don’t mean what you think they do or it isn’t really her fault or whatever to dissuade your hard stance. If he really wants to end it, he needs to end it. Period. Support your husband in getting another phone number, securing a different job, or even moving if you must, but cut off connections.

And now do the hard work with your marriage. Get into counseling and figure out where your own marriage is lacking. No, you are not to blame for his adulterous actions; however, making your marriage stronger can stoke his desire to stay involved with you and not go elsewhere to meet any emotional or physical needs.

While working on your marriage, remember to enjoy it as well — to recall why you married in the first place, to return to date nights and getting to know each other better, to pray together for your future. When it’s time, rebuild the trust in the bedroom.  Reinvent your marriage and commit it to the Lord. You might be surprised to look back years later and see how far you’ve come since that horrible moment when adultery attacked your marriage. True healing, holiness, and happiness are possible.

Abuse. Let’s first talk about what constitutes abuse, because I hear this word bandied about in reference to everything from minor name-calling to a thorough beating. Not everything that’s hurtful or even intentionally hurtful is abuse.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors with the intent to cause injury and/or gain power or control over the other person in the relationship. The abuse can be emotional, physical, or sexual.

So what if your spouse has this pattern of behaviors? If he’s truly abusive?

Some people are abusive because they feel wounded or a loss of control in their lives or saw poor patterns of coping in their families of origin — and can change when you deal with the core issues. Others, sadly, have abuse ingrained in their character, which is far harder to fix. I’m not saying it cannot be fixed, because my God is way bigger than that. What I am saying is those down-deep abusers are difficult to reach and hard to convince that change is necessary. They’ll likely blame their abusive behavior on others (e.g., “If only she would __, I wouldn’t hit her.” — lie).

I’m by no means an expert here, yet I believe emphatically: Without counteracting pressure, abusers don’t stop.

That pressure may need to come in the form of your absence (for your safety as well, if the abuse is physical or sexual); intervention from family, friends, church leaders, or even law enforcement; and defending yourself appropriately (what that looks like depends on your situation). Bill Maier of Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to stronger marriages, says, “Men who have abused their wives in the past are likely to abuse again.” Therefore, you must take steps to stop the abuse; if and when the abuse stops, then you can work on healing the marriage.

Seek quality resources. I am not an addiction or abuse counselor, a marriage and family therapist, a psychologist, a medical doctor, or a Ph.D. in Recovering from the Three A’s. I’ve watched others walk through these journeys, spoken to them about the hardships and the healing, and studied resources dealing with these issues.

If your marriage is facing addiction, adultery, or abuse, don’t just follow the advice in this post; seek out the best resources you can find. Take a step in the right direction, get help, and pray for a revival in your marriage.

“Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—
those he redeemed from the hand of the foe.”

Psalm 107:2
(and the whole chapter is worth reading)

Safety & Vulnerability in the Bedroom

Woman with wreath in hands

Handle with care
Photo credit: Microsoft
Word Clip Art

Sexual intimacy, as God created and desires for marriage, requires vulnerability. Most women understand that sex requires vulnerability, since our bodies are literally invaded by another person’s body part. However, I believe that vulnerability is an issue for men as well.

To give yourself intimately to your spouse, you must lower your defenses, get naked, allow someone to touch and kiss the most private parts of your body, and join yourself physically to another. There is an emotional and spiritual unveiling of yourself in all of this too.

As an analogy, let’s think about stage fright. To perform for an audience, you have to feel comfortable that you have something to say or can actually sing or whatever; you must feel okay about yourself. You must also feel that you have some possibility of connecting with your audience; you must feel okay about them.

But what if you knew going out there that the entire crowd would shout insults and boo? Would you take a single step onto the stage? Would you pick up the microphone? Would you feel like saying one word or singing one note? Would you more likely think, Forget It, and pass up the chance to have a shining moment to express your self to others?

It is so much more vulnerable to engage sexually with someone you love than to say a five-minute speech or sing a two-minute song to people you don’t know. But what if your spouse criticizes, belittles, and generally boos you in every other area of life? What if their criticism extends even into the bedroom, as they comment about your looks or feelings or expectations?

What if when you try to discuss how you feel about your sex life, you are greeted with indifference or insults? What if your heartfelt feelings are dismissed with “You shouldn’t feel like that”? (One of the worst things to say to someone in my opinion.) How can you be vulnerable with someone who is cruel or abusive?

Marriage expert Gary Smalley and his team have done extensive research into the importance of creating a safe environment within marriage so that love can flourish. If a spouse does not feel safe, he or she will not communicate freely, give trust, and participate fully in the relationship. Why share your thoughts or feelings when you know they will be shot down, as they have been repeatedly in the past?

Is there anyway to get past this? How can you follow God’s command to engage sexually with your spouse when it feels like your marriage or your bedroom is a mine field?

I have some background in psychology, but I am not a therapist.

I have worked in ministry, but I am not a minister.

I have gone faithfully for annual check-ups, but I am not a doctor.

Here’s my two cents anyway:

Ask how bad the mistreatment is. Does it rise to the level of abuse? Do you feel mistreated because your expectations are simply not being met? Or are you a moving target in your own home? Is it “He doesn’t appreciate me like he should” or “He tells me I’m stupid, ugly, and worthless several times a day”?

If you are not sure, get wise counsel to make a determination. Your close friends are probably not the most objective people to ask. Talk to a doctor, a minister, a therapist.

Pray for wisdom. If you are in a terrible situation, go to God. You may even be angry at Him right now for what you’re going through, wondering why He won’t intervene and stop it. However, God has promised to be with you through the horrible times (Isaiah 43:1-2, Matthew 28:20). Jesus knows what it is like to be cruelly treated and can relate to hardship. Continue to bring your concerns and sorrows to the Lord and ask for His help to sort through your feelings and your options.

Talk to your spouse. If you have not approached the subject, do so. If you have done so before and believe you can bring it up again without reprisal, try again. However, if your environment is unsafe and you simply cannot talk to your spouse, don’t. Your physical safety must be assured to experience emotional and sexual vulnerability.

Seek help. If you are in an abusive marriage, you are not the wife or husband we are talking to when Christian marriage authors encourage more vulnerability, frequency, or playfulness in the bedroom. You need outside help to get clarity, establish proper boundaries, and get your life back on track. Speak with your minister or a counselor in confidence and let them know what’s going on. Ask for resources. Seek out Christians who will support you as you try to deal with a marriage that has gone down the wrong road.

I hope my two cents helps, but as I have stated, I am not an expert. Thankfully, there are great resources out there for those in need. Seek them out.

God desires that you, His beautiful child, be treated with gentleness, respect, and love. Remember your worth.