Can a marriage emerge from emotional abuse to be healed–to feel whole and intimate?

Last week was a depressing week on the blog. It really was a hard slog. I took an in-depth look at the book Love & Respect, and talked about how the Love & Respect enabled emotional abuse. And then so many of you shared your stories of dysfunctional marriages that were rooted in bad teaching like Love & Respect.

And I had so many of you saying: Can you please share stories of couples who actually healed from emotional abuse–couples who didn’t divorce, but came through on the other side?

Some of you did leave those stories, about how once you learned to enact boundaries, your marriage did get better. And it reminded me of a story that I shared several years ago on this blog, that I think it’s time to share again. So let’s take a look!

Heal from Emotional Abuse - Can an Emotionally Abusive Marriage Heal?

Emotional abuse is always wrong.

It is not, however, always straightforward.

Sometimes emotional abuse is caused by a narcissistic, or even sociopathic, spouse. One of the most profound books I’ve ever read was Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. It was all about toxic people who are simply evil. Most evil people are married, hold down good jobs, and look respectable. But they try to control people, usually by ignoring truth and redefining reality. It makes those around them feel crazy.

It is these kinds of people who often gravitate towards positions of absolute power in churches that are very hierarchical. It is these kinds of men who gravitate towards beliefs about marriage where the husband always has the final say and the wife must submit to his wishes no matter what. It is mostly (but not exclusively) these kinds of people that Leslie Vernick was writing about in her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.

Other times, however, emotional abuse starts from two people in a stressful situation who don’t handle that situation well–and who start developing extremely toxic and counterproductive coping patterns.

It’s not personality disorders as much as it is a difficult stage of life.

I’ve been writing a lot lately on how to stand up to a controlling husband and how to make sure that you’re not enabling sin.

Today, though, I’d like to share a real-life story of a woman who went through emotional abuse in her marriage–and who emerged on the other side.

When what you’re dealing with is not a personality disorder (like narcissism) but instead negative interaction patterns, then you can get through abuse. And I think this is so important to understand, because sometimes we paint all abusive behavior as so terrible that it can never be recovered from.

Human behavior isn’t that simple.

My good friend Natalie from Flying Free has been writing a lot about walking through a marriage where narcissism is prevalent. That’s something that you can’t get through save from an extraordinary miracle from God. And I am not trying to say that those of you who are married to a narcissistic spouse should just try harder.

What I am trying to say is that it’s possible to develop really destructive interaction patterns without meaning to–especially if you’ve been raised in a church culture where you were taught that if a woman disagrees with her husband she’s disrespecting him, and that he should get unconditional respect.

Ronni Peck, aka The Screenwriter’s Wife, shared her own journey of how emotional abuse started–and how they got out of it. And I want to highlight a few things that we can learn from her journey:

Stress and job loss can do horrible things to people.

Here’s Ronni’s story: When their first child was a year old, all of a sudden her husband found himself out of a job because the company he worked for went belly up.

As month after month of unemployment passed, KP found himself struggling with purpose. His morale and self-esteem were low. He questioned himself, his writing, his dreams.

This was the starting point of her husband becoming abusive. At the same time, Ronni was feeling isolated, which made it easier for her husband to manipulate her.

We need a community to help us keep perspective.

Ronni writes:

Early on in our marriage, because I wasn’t as passionate about a particular career path as KP was of his writing dreams, it seemed a natural choice for me to leave behind my unsteady entertainment industry job for the steady income of a teaching position. After a year in a brick and mortar school, I further transitioned to a work-from-home online teaching position, a position that I enjoyed.

However, I’m already a bit of a homebody and so my social outlets gradually dwindled down only to KP’s circle of friends. I had no local friends of my own.

It was in this environment of stress and isolation that her husband started belittling her.

One of the characteristics of emotional abuse is the abuser needing to feel as if the other person is always at fault for something.

When emotional abuse stems from a feeling of inadequacy itself–as in the case of job loss–then it usually manifests itself in having to feel superior to someone else. Here’s how Ronni describes it:

No matter how our fights started, they always included KP telling me some or all of the following:

  • That my memory was faulty and unless I could “prove” what I thought was said in a previous conversation, that I was wrong and had no clue what I was talking about.
  • That everything I said was really a subtle attack against him. No matter what I tried to discuss, it was always turned around into how I was victimizing him. If I did not recognize how I was attacking him, it was because my memory and interpretation of situations were inaccurate.
  • That I did not keep the house clean, and never did the dishes or vacuumed or laundry, and this showed how irresponsible and lazy I was and how I didn’t care about our family.
  • That talking to me was like talking to a child and until I could grow up and accept responsibility for my actions (i.e. the state of the house and my attacks on him), that nothing I said was worth listening to.

Then, at some point in the argument, usually when it was at its highest convoluted peak, he’d tell me that talking to me was pointless since I was never going to change or grow up. Then he’d leave the room (and sometimes the house) and refuse to talk to me until I apologized. Which I usually did, hours or days later.

Do you see how so much of this has to do with one spouse challenging the other’s memory and interpretation of the past? It’s this constant redefining of history that is so confusing for someone walking through emotional abuse. You can never work anything out, because if you try to bring up a time you were upset, somehow the abuser turns it into “you’re remembering wrong” or “by feeling that way you’re abusing me.” Your feelings are always suspect.

Here’s how Ronni experienced it:

I questioned my own thinking, was I really misremembering situations? Was I really subtly attacking him with everything I said? I live far away from family and I had no local friends to be a sounding board to help me gauge the accuracy of my thoughts. I felt like who I was…had slowly diminished away.

Support is necessary. Boundaries, however, are too.

We need to support our spouses when they’re struggling. But you can still have boundaries which say, “when you insult me or criticize me I’m going to remove myself from the situation” without meaning that you aren’t supporting him. Boundaries are important, too, and Ronni didn’t have boundaries.

Though he was often grumpy and short with me, I knew that these actions were likely a passing phase and I wanted to be a good, supportive wife in this difficult time for him. So I put up with his moods. I tried to be extra kind and sympathetic and strong for him by willingly accepting his cranky criticisms. I figured I was giving him time to work through things, and by not putting up a fight to these early criticisms, I thought was “helping” him to come out of his funk and showing him that I’d always be by his side no matter what life brought us.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead of seeing my sympathy as a lifeline drawing us closer together, he instead capitalized on the opportunity I didn’t realize I’d given him: the opportunity to use me as an emotional whipping board.

Do you need to learn how to enforce boundaries?

51ARlATfBaL - Can an Emotionally Abusive Marriage Heal?

Learn how to ask for what you want, and how to point your husband to Jesus–

so that you both have the kind of marriage you need.

She knew that the abusive behavior went against his basic character.

Here’s the defining difference between what Ronni went through and what someone married to a narcissist is going through: Ronni knew that this behaviour was atypical. She writes this:

During that time when our marriage was really tough and I felt so lost – I could have given up on it. A lot of other people in my shoes probably would have. But I knew my husband deep down, and I knew that he wasn’t always like this, and I knew that the good guy that I married was still in there somewhere…

I knew he could be a better man than he was showing me at that time.

Emotionally Abusive Marriage - Can an Emotionally Abusive Marriage Heal?

How did she start rebuilding their marriage? She started enforcing her own boundaries.

But I also finally realized that I did not just have to sit there and take what he was throwing at me. I did not have to submit to his frustrations with his own life. I didn’t have to give up on him or on our marriage –but I also didn’t have to remain under his emotional control anymore either.  Even though KP may have been 85% of the problem, it wasn’t until I accepted responsibility for my 15% and stopped giving in to his emotional manipulations were we able to move toward true reconciliation as a couple.

Here’s how she explains it:

Once I started exerting more independence for myself, an interesting thing happened. KP stopped having control over my emotional state…If he started to criticize, I let the criticism roll right off me. I’d answer rationally and calmly if I needed to, but otherwise, nothing negative he said could penetrate my emotions. I told him I loved him and wanted to stay married to him, but I wasn’t going to do this fighting thing anymore. I was over it… In a way, it seemed like I became more cold with him, but in reality, I was acknowledging that my emotions were not affected by him anymore.

And slowly, but surely, things started changing between us. Once KP realized that he couldn’t get that emotional rise out of me, he had no reason to continue pushing.

She stopped “the dance”.

I’ve heard this back-and-forth emotional argument called “the dance” by some therapists. He pushes that button, you respond by doing this, that in turn causes something else, and so on, and so on.

But if you refuse to dance–if you don’t respond to it–then it can, over time, end some of the behavior. You just don’t participate anymore.

Ronni has written another lengthy post on how to recover from a difficult marriage, and it includes such things as becoming committed to the marriage; finding a third party to talk to; believing the best; trying to find the win-win–all things we talk about on this blog. And she and her husband have emerged from that really trying time, and she even asked her husband to write some of the post on emotional abuse.

I wanted to share that today to give some of you hope that marriage can get better–that it can heal from emotional abuse.

I know that this may still sound depressing, but to me it’s really hopeful. It says that, in quite a few cases, even if the marriage is really difficult, by changing how we react, we can actually grow intimacy again. To me, that’s good news!

Now, Ronni’s situation was unique in that her husband was not physically dangerous, and his abuse was mostly caused by job stress, his own feelings of inadequacy, and her not standing up to him.

Sometimes, however, abuse is caused because the other person truly is narcissistic or dangerous. In those cases, enforcing simple boundaries can result in violence. If that is the case with you, please contact an abuse shelter and get some help. If your husband hasn’t been violent, but you’re worried he may be violent, call an abuse hotline to talk, or please find a counsellor to talk to.

So let’s not assume that abuse necessarily means that a marriage is over. Even if you’re in a marriage where he routinely dismisses your needs, or you feel like you’re invisible, if you stop the dance, and start enforcing boundaries, you may just find that your spouse responds positively–and you get that intimacy that you’ve wanted.

If you’ve been through something like this, let me know in the comments: how did you stop “the dance”? Or how do you know the difference between a narcissist and someone just going through a really difficult stage of life?

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