Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to admit to ourselves when we’re in an abusive marriage.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and before the month was over I wanted to share a letter that I recently received from a reader. Harvey Weinstein and other sexual harassment scandals have been all over the news lately, and one of the big questions people are asking is “why didn’t the women speak up earlier?” But the fact is that it is very, very hard to admit to yourself that you are being abused, or that you have been a victim. That’s difficult psychologically. And so instead we keep asking ourselves, what can I do better? How can I keep going?
Listen to this woman:
I’ve been married for 17 years. At first is was good, but over the last 5 years or so, things have gotten harder.
My husband has severe anxiety/depression problems and is on several medications. I have been yelled at so loudly that my eardrums hurt and been put down (sarcasm, joking: “girls can’t do anything right.”).
My husband wanted me to see his counselor because he wanted me to fix my issues with “passive/aggressiveness.” I was afraid to go because he had been seeing this counselor for a long time–years, so I went in expecting to be diminished more and to be told to submit more and accept it because that is what Biblical wives are supposed to do (that was the message my church was giving me.)
I was so stunned when the counselor said to me on the first meeting, “I am so glad you are here. You must be hurting so much.” I lost it then. I had thought that what I was experiencing was normal. The counselor helped me learn some coping mechanisms for dealing with the anger, for which I am thankful. The counselor also told my husband that some of the ways he was treating and my children were wrong and abusive. My husband did not like that word abusive and told me the counselor has been lying to him and me and my husband refuses to ever see another counselor ever again. My husband is also against me going to see one for myself.
We have recently moved to a new city due to a change of job for him. It’s good because it got us away from the church (my dad and my mother-in-law both said it was like a cult after visiting us a couple of times). I have two questions:
1) I was able to visit my family over Christmas two years ago. That was the first time I had seen many of them. Partly because of money (we live far away and plane tickets are expensive) and partly because my husband said they were a bad influence on me and I wasn’t allowed to visit them except once every 5 years.
I had to go across the country for some medical issues and my brother and dad came there to see me. My husband said that counted as part of the 5 years, so the clock started over. I was so sad. Anyway, with help from a friend I visited my family. They reminded me how much I am loved and I saw how sweet they treated each other. They encouraged me to set up a savings account for emergencies (my aunt said “in case he goes off the deep end.). My grandma passed away not long after that and I did set up a savings account in my name only. Since my husband does the taxes, I did end up telling him about it, but now he is furious (understandably) about it. He keeps telling me to use it to pay off a credit card, but I still feel like I should listen to my family, but am feeling guilty because I am not doing what he says. Is this okay to have my own emergency fund?
2) After being yelled at and having my oldest son yelled at, my desire for intimacy is almost zero. My counselor said this is normal for the type of situation I’ve been in. What has made it worse for me is I told my husband “no thank you” several times. There were a couple of times when I said no, but he would say that was sinning by not giving him what he needed and that it is my fault that he does pornography, he would say that my body is his and his is mine. I would feel guilted in to pleasing him, but would secretly cry afterwards because I had felt violated. I now cannot let him touch me because I just have bad memories. My question is, is it okay to say no for emotional reasons and how do I let myself let him touch me again because it is hurting our marriage more that I can’t get my mind past this?
First, I am so, so sorry that this woman is going through this. I can feel her pain.
And I want to echo what her counsellor said: Her husband is being abusive. I know that’s super hard to admit to yourself, but let’s lay it out today and look at the ways:
He yells to the extent that he hurts her.
Healthy people may occasionally lose their tempers, and certainly some cultures yell more than others! But healthy people do not yell as a rule, repeatedly, to this extent. This is wrong.
He puts her down and insults her and makes her feel like she is worthless.
A common factor in abuse is wearing the person down so that they feel as if they are stupid. That chips away at their self-esteem, so they feel as if they have no choice but to stay, because they aren’t smart enough or capable enough to function any other way. A healthy person builds up their spouse.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)
He refuses to accept blame for anything.
When the counselor confronted the husband and told him he was in the wrong, he stopped going to the counselor. That means that he isn’t willing to admit his own sin.
A wise child accepts a parent’s discipline; a mocker refuses to listen to correction. (Proverbs 13:1)
He controls who his wife is allowed to talk to and isolates her from other people who may challenge him.
Once he decided he didn’t like the counselor, then she couldn’t go, either–and he refused to let her seek out a different counselor.
He refuses to allow her to see her family, and puts limits on it (once every 5 years). That is classic behaviour of abusers. They don’t want their victims being able to hear the other side of the story, or get another perspective. They want to control that person.
He gravitates towards churches that are abusive and uses the Bible in abusive ways.
They were involved in a church which people whom this woman love describe as a “cult”. Unfortunately, there are some supposedly-Christian movements that treat women horribly, holding that the most important thing for a woman to do is to submit to her husband, rather than to follow God (in fact, they equate the two). Thus, to these teachers, abuse is not even a valid reason for divorce. Instead, God would honour the woman who is abused and will repay her for her suffering, so she’s just supposed to take it (Here’s a total take-down of that absolutely unbiblical argument that I wrote a few years ago: Submission does not mean lying down and taking it).
Then he uses Scripture to force his wife to agree with him and do things for him (like sex) without any obligation on his own part to love his wife. He is treating Scripture as a weapon, and that is called spiritual abuse. When we pull verses out to force people to do our will, completely absent from any obligation to love on our part, then we are not walking in Jesus’ steps, and we are not following God–even if we’re trying to sound pious by wrapping our words in Scripture.
He controls the money and refuses to allow her any financial independence
Another classic hallmark of abusive spouses is that they retain complete control of the money. That’s why it was so important that her family encouraged her to have an emergency fund–so that she could get out and take her son to safety if necessary. I’m sorry that she told him about the account. Yes, it’s okay to have this money, and PLEASE don’t give it to your husband to use for the credit cards.
He blames her for his pornography use
He cheats on her by using porn and blames her for it–saying that he wouldn’t need to do this if she had sex with him more. He is failing to take responsibility for his own sin.
He sees sex totally devoid of intimacy and love
He has made sex only about his own physical needs, and not about emotional needs or real intimacy. He has completely disregarded his wife’s feelings, and when you do this, you make sex only about you and ruin your spouse’s sexuality. In many ways, this is emotional rape.
I have written before on the question, “do you have to give your husband sexual favors“, and I think this applies here.
Those who believe that 1 Corinthians 7 means that a woman cannot refuse her husband no matter what are basically saying that marital rape cannot exist. That is completely and utterly wrong. They are the ones who are being sexually evil by taking something that God made to be beautiful and mutual and turning it into a selfish act. To distort something beautiful and make it evil is not the mark of God; it is the mark of the evil one. And Satan thrives on distorting sex, because it has such tremendous power to bring real intimacy and passion. So he works to ruin it as much as he can, especially by enticing Christians to frame sex in terms of men’s sexual needs.
If I may be so bold, she is asking the wrong questions. It is not how to make life better despite the abuse; it is what to do now.
She is asking two questions: is it okay for her to have her own money, and is it okay for her to not want to have sex? I don’t think those are the right questions. I think there’s a far more fundamental one, and it’s this:
Given what you know about your situation, can you admit to yourself that this is abuse?
It sounds as if she already knows that it is. Her counselor has told her. Her family has told her. She has believed her family enough that she started to save some money. She feels hurt and angry enough that she is distancing herself from her husband. She knows, at heart, that his treatment of her is wrong.
Maybe some of you are in the same abusive place right now.
You know that this isn’t a normal marital disagreement. This isn’t just about you two butting heads; this is about him trying to control you and not allowing you to have your own thoughts, feelings, and needs. In fact, any time you do have your own thought, feeling, or need, he makes you sound like the selfish one. He turns it on its head. And you start to question yourself again. Are you really selfish?
No, you’re not. You are a wonderful woman made in the image of God. That means that you are worth something. You were bought with a price. Jesus loved you enough that He died for you so that you could have a relationship with Him. You are precious. And He values you. He made you with your thoughts, personality, gifts and talents so that He could use you on this earth. You are important.
And He wants you to live a big and passionate life. That is God’s will for you.
I know that it’s hard to admit that this marriage, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of your life on earth, is abusive.
But look at the big picture. Ask, “is this relationship glorifying to God?” God is not glorified by us allowing ourselves to be hurt and stifled and insulted. God is not glorified when a marriage becomes an empty shell, and merely a vehicle for someone to exert their will over another human being. God is glorified when relationships reflect him. The marriage is not more important than the people in it.
If this has struck a chord with you, I invite you to read these three other important articles:
- Submission Does Not Mean Taking Abuse
- A Letter to the Woman with the Controlling Husband
- What God Says about Abuse and Divorce
- For Male Victims of Emotional Abuse
If you are not being abused yourself, then please learn about what abuse looks like. We all have friends and family who are walking through this, and they likely need US to call it out, because they may not be able to do so themselves. When you’re not in an abusive marriage, it’s easy to assume that other people’s marital conflicts are just like yours: minor and only about specific things. But controlling behaviour isn’t like that. When you see it, speak up. Hold a friend’s hand help them cut through the fog and confront their issues.
Abuse is never okay, and it won’t stop until we all admit it exists, and call it out when we see it.
Have you ever walked through this in your marriage? Or do you have a friend or family member walking through it now? What did you do? Let’s talk about it in the comments!