By Danni Moss
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[This question/answer segment is taken in large part from a response to an e-mail exchange. Of course, there is no identifying information included about the writer. The questions have been completely neutralized for this purpose. This issue is also gender neutral. I generally write from a woman’s perspective because I am one – but the roles can be reversed with nearly the same effect.]
What do I do if I think my spouse is being abusive? (details not included here)
First and most importantly, I believe this is a great opportunity for you right now. What you have right now is a unique opportunity to learn to know God in a whole new way, and have Him conform you into the image of Christ — in the process of dealing with, understanding, and acting on/in your marriage.
I would strongly recommend going to your face with God for the long-term and asking Him to change YOU. Now, don’t hear me say that I think your marriage problems are your fault! But God used this for me to change me fundamentally — and at the same time He used the process to teach me His truth about what was really happening in my marriage, empowering me to act in a godly manner within my marriage, and then know for sure what His will was regarding the continuance of my marriage. This was the only way I could take definitive action because I was well aware I couldn’t trust myself. But I could trust Him.
Any other way of working through this will leave you carrying brokenness and issues you aren’t even aware of into whatever is “next” – whether that is the continuance of your marriage or its dissolution. SOOO many women get out of abusive marriages just to marry another abuser wrapped in a little different package they don’t recognize! Or they reconcile in their marriages but then are crippled by the past and can’t put it away because legitimate wounds have not truly been healed.
Either option is undesirable. While the immediate “discipline” of learning to relate to God in a whole new way may seem slow and unproductive on the front side, the fruit is immeasurably better.
The first thing God did with me was to teach me what relationship with Him was really like and how He saw me. This radically changed my life. And it made me more able to see the truth of what was happening. Then He started teaching me the truth about relationships, etc. and I was gradually able to clearly and immediately see the difference between the truth and the lies – and act appropriately accordingly.
Two specific “techniques” or “tools” I would recommend to you are these. First, I would recommend journaling about what God shows you from the Word every day. I ask the Holy Spirit to speak to me directly from the Word each day and then write down what He shows me. From that, I often end up taking certain concepts or verses or words and doing more in-depth study of them.
But journaling is actually more important that it may appear at first. Because I have it written down, I can look back over the weeks and months and it suddenly becomes obvious what God has been trying to say. Or realizing He’s been saying the same thing over and over gives me the affirmation that I’m not making this idea up – it is truly from Him. That was how He taught me that my husband’s behavior was abuse, and what the consequences of that would be, among other things.
Second, if you haven’t read it, I think you would get a lot of help with where you are by reading the book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to take Control of Your Life, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. This was eye-opening for me and enabled me to step back and disengage from my husband’s verbal abuse, which then enabled me to respond to it according to the truth.
Now, this only made him madder – but it got the focus where it belonged and freed me from entering into his sin by responding back in kind. The Word really does mean what it says, “Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways and get a snare to thy soul.” (Pr. 22:24, 25) It also says the anger of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God – James 1:20. Entering in the anger always backfires – and it is hard, at first, to not go there!
This is probably the single most important thing to stop a cycle of verbal arguing that escalates into anger,etc. And the fruit will tell you a lot. If you conform to Christ and disengage, what will happen to the arguments? Will he get even madder? (If he is an abuser, he will.) By you conforming to Christ and demonstrating the fruit of the spirit, it will make it crystal clear if he is being dominated by the deeds of the flesh (see this article – the article is less important to this point than the blockquote about the deeds of the flesh about half way through it).
I also cannot say how important it will be, if you do disengage and he continues to escalate, that you take your emotions to God and let them out to Him. Do not just stuff them! That will make you sick – literally. I would stand/sit there and literally just deflect my husband’s words to God to deal with, so I didn’t engage. But what I didn’t do was later take my emotions to God and download them on His lap. Jesus is our best friend – in every way. That is the relationship He initiated under the New Covenant (Jn. 13-16, among others). And He literally means it. We can cry on His shoulder any time we need to, as often as necessary. And “necessity” is measured by what we’re feeling, not by the time we’ve used up on His “clock!”
I also think you can benefit by continuing to read what others have written about abuse so you can recognize the difference between two people locked in antagonism or a marriage plagued by abuse.
Love does not enable another person to continue in sin. That goes both ways – the status quo as it is now enables sin to continue. So how does God want you to move forward from here to facilitate personal righteousness and righteousness in your marriage?
What if he says he doesn’t say I can’t do things (like go out with friends, visit family, help out at church, etc.) but instead he says things like, “Your time is more valuable at home. I need you here, God says you’re supposed to be a keeper at home, but you can do what you want…” in that way that I know means he doesn’t want me to? And I know from experience that if I don’t do what he wants he will be angry and throw it in my face over and over and over again until I give up in frustration and to have peace.
Because we want to please and have peace in our marriages, abusers know they don’t have to tell us, “You can’t.” If they can accomplish the same thing by arm twisting, manipulation, bullying and anger – why bother? Besides, this way they can say, “I never told her she couldn’t.” No they didn’t, but we know that’s what they mean and we learn that we will be punished one way or another if we do!
This is a standard tool in the arsenal of an abuser – and I describe the issue with manipulation briefly in that section on the fruit of the Spirit, referenced above.
What if he says he does not want me to get counseling for me because he doesn’t want “outsiders” in our business?
I know this one well! Is he speaking health to your marriage when he says he doesn’t want outsiders “interfering?” Who is he protecting and why?
But there are other ways to get it. The Holy Spirit has been given to be our Counselor (Jn. 13-16 again) and He is completely faithful. And with the advent of the internet we can reach outside our walls without leaving the house or creating a new bill to pay.
Another big thing is that you don’t become isolated. Isolation – whether physical or emotional – is a big weapon of abusers, and at the very least, it is a weapon of Satan. You need to remain connected with friends and family, and with others who understand where you are and will be supportive. There are some online forums if you have no one near you.
I asked my pastor for help and he just said this is normal marriage squabbles, without really listening or finding out what I was talking about. Is he right? What do I do about asking him for help?
I doubt your church is going to be helpful if your pastor has said you are just experiencing normal marriage squabbles when you’ve tried to get help. That’s a big clue that he is not equipped to deal with a serious issue on this subject. I mean him no disrespect – this is a common problem.
The very most basic correct response by a pastor would be to give you the respect of considering you might have reason for serious concern and responding accordingly. His response was a brush-off. It minimized your concerns and let him off the hook from having to deal with what could be a very serious problem – that he would really rather not have be real because that would be messy, difficult, and time consuming. Your situation may end up raising his awareness – but you may have to go somewhere else for help.
I admit that I have also engaged in abusive verbal exchanges with him in the past. God has been working with me on that for awhile. I have done some studies on how I can change and keep a reminder checklist. My main goal is to stop being abusive myself and live as God wants me to live.
This is #1. This is a life-long quest and must remain our primary focus. However, I’d recommend looking at it from a different perspective. I see you doing a lot of “work” to change yourself. And we do need to discipline ourselves to choose to “put on the new man.” But the empowerment for success is not in how hard we work, but from the Holy Spirit as we walk in relationship with Christ. Reading John is revolutionary. Under the New Covenant, our relationship is one of friendship with Jesus Christ, where we learn to love Him because He first loved us (not laid down the law, scared the evil out of us, etc.) Our obedience is then a natural byproduct of that love-love relationship. We want to remain in relationship so much, we naturally bring our behavior into obedience.
So the reason for behavior change is not because we will be punished if we don’t, we will disappoint God if we don’t, we “should”, or anything else. It is because it puts a barrier in our relationship Christ – which is more than breath to us.
So when we are walking in friendship/love relationship with Jesus, we can ask the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside out to conform to the image of Christ because He alone can empower that life change. And He will then be free to teach us, step by step, and to empower us to rise above provocation. We can’t do it no matter how hard we try. That’s why it is called the fruit of the Spirit. But the Holy Spirit has to have our complete cooperation.
My husband has only physically abused me once. When we went to the pastor for help, he admitted it to the pastor and “repented.” But he has never admitted it to anyone else, and the way he talks to me and treats me is still the same – just no hitting. How do I trust that he has really repented? Now he says since that was only one time and caused by the bad circumstances of the moment, I’m just being a nag and “can’t give it up.”
This is not genuine repentance. Genuine repentance does not merely confess to one source s/he knows will keep it confidential! All this type of “repentance” accomplishes is to fool the pastor or counselor who is taken in by the words without looking at the whole package accompanying the performance.
Repentance also does not qualify the “event.” It takes responsibility for the heart – which wouldn’t act that way if it were right, no matter the provocation.
Repentance realizes the HEART is the issue. The heart determines the behavior. From the HEART proceeds physical violence. But physical violence is not the quantifier or qualifier of abuse! The same heart produces other behaviors which are equal and just as wrong and deadly.
Social abuse is keeping the other party isolated – which can be accomplished by manipulation and suggestion – that you are “supposed” to obey and respect, thereby accomplishing the same thing as if he had outright said “you can’t.”
Economic abuse is any means – whether outright statement or manipulation – that forces one party into absolute financial dependence on the other. The most extreme form of that – in the sense of being hardest to see – is when a spouse pushes the other to work, but ties up the money they earn so they are still completely tied to the relationship!
Spiritual abuse in a marriage is most likely to take the form of disrespecting your faith, disparaging and undermining what you believe God is teaching you, telling or convincing you you are spiritually “faulty.”
Verbal abuse is assault on who you are in every way, on your value, on your person-ness, disparaging you as God created you, it devalues your intelligence, your feelings, your value in the relationship, your personality, etc. It is disrespect – even if the abuser also surrounds what they say with the words “I respect you, I value you, I love you” — their behavior and their other words say they really mean the opposite.
We are told to examine the fruit. Get very familiar with Gal. 5:19-end. What is the fruit? The fruit reveals the heart, no matter what the mouth says.
He says I don’t respect him. But my problem is that I have trouble feeling respect, or trust, or even desire, for him. He says I am being a stumbling block to him because I can’t “forgive and forget.” How do I respect him?
This is a universal claim by Christian husbands against their wives if they object to being mistreated. This is particularly effective because our Christian culture has all eyes on women respecting their husbands, and tends to blame all marriage problems on women not respecting their husbands. Respect is not accepting unrighteousness. Respect will keep me from answering back in kind because, as a person created in God’s image, he does not “deserve” that, no matter his behavior. I respect God’s creation – it is not about the man or his behavior.
However, because I respect him as God’s creation, I will not and cannot enable him to continue in sin by doing nothing when he has persistent sin he will not address or acknowledge. I respect him enough to attempt to turn a sinner from the error of his ways. In a respectful manner.
Respect is a choice, not a feeling.
That said, an abuser cannot expect not to have consequences for his/her behavior. This is another indicator of genuine repentance. A husband who has damaged his wife and her trust of him, must accept that her feelings are very real. He must accept that he will have to invest time and humble diligence to regain her trust (we weren’t commanded to trust him!) and her love (we weren’t commanded to give that either!). And that time-frame isn’t something he gets to tap out on his wristwatch! In fact, there may always be some sore spots that he has to work with because of the damage he has done. True repentance will take responsiblity for the damage done and for whatever it takes to rebuild.
I am so confused because my husband is not a bad man. He has many admirable qualities – though he is a different person toward me and the children, than toward others. He seems so sincere and loving when he wants to be, but then there is the other stuff. I am so mixed up. I walk on eggshells all the time to try to keep him happy. I still love him and want our marriage to work, but which is the real man?
It is very hard to separate the words and actions (because part of the time they do all the right things) from the persistent heart expression. One of the hardest things for people in abuse to realize is that even though the other person “is not a bad person” and has many excellent qualities – they are still an abuser. It is very, very, very hard for us to get past that hurdle. My ex is an excellent person in many ways – as long as you’re not his wife or child – but there was that pesky little problem…