How can you tell if your marriage is emotionally destructive, or if it’s just a normal level of pain?
I caused a firestorm on Facebook over the weekend when I asked whether we talk too much about how “marriage is hard”, and then when people are truly in emotionally destructive marriages, they don’t realize that something is amiss, because they’ve grown up hearing that marriage is the hardest thing they’ll ever do.
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I’m a big fan of Leslie Vernick’s work, and so today I thought we could walk through how to recognize that you’re in a dangerous relationship, using Leslie’s words from her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Even if you’re in a healthy marriage, I think it’s good to be able to recognize that not everybody is–and help them recognize it too!
I first ran this post a few years ago, but I thought it was time to run it again, as so many people need it!
1. Most Marriages Are Not Emotionally Destructive
If you are reading this blog, chances are your marriage is NOT emotionally destructive. I took Leslie’s 50 question quiz to find out how my marriage ranked, and I answered “never” to every single question. I’m married to a great guy–as many of you are too.
However, even though most marriages are not emotionally destructive, emotionally abusive marriages are over-represented on this blog, because so many of you land here in crisis after a Google search. And it’s important that those of us who are in good marriages recognize that emotionally destructive marriages are all too common, and help those in them–even if they’re not the majority.
2. Emotionally Abusive Marriages follow a pattern
In every marriage people may say cruel things during a fight. They may act inappropriately and harshly. I’ve raised my voice at my husband (though I haven’t called him names). He’s raised his voice at me.
But this isn’t typical of our marriage. Leslie Vernick says that a good marriage is one characterized by mutuality, reciprocity, and freedom. We each try to make it better. If a rule applies to one person, it applies to both (for instance, if one person has to make account for the money they spent, then both do. In abusive marriages, often one person forces this on the other without any reciprocity at all). And both spouses feel free to express opinions, make decisions, and choose how to act–even if in bursts of anger we may occasionally do the opposite.
On the other hand, Leslie Vernick says,
An emotionally destructive marriage is one where one’s personhood, dignity, and freedom of choice is regularly denied, criticized, or crushed. This can be done through words, behaviors, economics, attitudes, and misusing the Scriptures…
It’s characterized by repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth. This behavior is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change…
Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.
Eventually the emotionally abused spouse (and either spouse could be abused) no longer feels like “me”.
3. Emotionally Abusive marriages make you sick
The stress from living in an emotionally destructive marriage takes its toll.
Your body feels it. Your stomach churns, your teeth grind, your hands clench, your jaw tightens, your head pounds, your legs shake, and your blood pressure rises. You cry, you can’t catch your breath, and you throw up.
When your husband is near your body starts to shake. Almost all women in these types of marriages experience physical symptoms: ulcers, digestive issues, migraines. And it only gets worse.
One of my best friends left an emotionally destructive marriage recently after two decades of chronic health issues–pain, wounds that wouldn’t heal, and more. She improved overnight.
4. Emotionally Destructive marriages make you crazy
Abusive spouses seek to control their mates through manipulation, anger, rage, and deceit. They play mind games. And then, every now and then they perform acts of kindness to keep their spouses ambivalent about leaving.
But when our personhood is systematically denied and we aren’t allowed to express, or even have, feelings, we feel as if we’re going crazy.
Our emotions always serve a purpose, like the warning lights on a car dashboard. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, and often ignoring our feelings only makes the problem worse.
5. Most typical Christian marriage advice is exactly the wrong thing to do in an emotionally abusive marriage
To me, this is the most important point. I believe in biblical submission–with a firm emphasis on the word biblical. I do not believe in just plain submission. And yet over and over again in Christian blogs and in Christian books we’re told how submission turned their marriage around. How submission was the key to marital happiness.
That may be true–as long as you’re not in an emotionally abusive marriage. As soon as you are, acting in a typically submissive way only makes it worse, as I shared in this post about how not all advice is one size fits all.
Yet too often we in the church are told that the only proper response for a wife towards her husband is to defer to him–a position that ignores the entire book of Proverbs, most of the Pauline epistles, and how Jesus Himself acted towards injustice.
In many emotionally destructive marriages, wives have spent years reading marriage books on how to make their marriages better. They’ve tried everything they can get their hands on–but nothing works, and in fact things often get worse, because the typical advice doesn’t fit.
I’ll let Leslie Vernick speak to this,
We’ve misdiagnosed a marriage that has terminal cancer and treated it as if it were only suffering from a common cold. We’ve also misplaced the responsibility for keeping the marriage alive by putting an extraordinarily heavy burden on a wife’s shoulders to somehow maintain a loving and warm relationship with a husband who treats her with cruelty, disrespect, deceit, and gross indifference. It’s not feasible, nor is it biblical…
When you are the only one in your marriage caring, repenting, being respectful and honest, sacrificing, and working toward being a better spouse, you are a godly wife, but you don’t have a healthy or biblical marriage…
In some marriages, trying harder does not engender a reciprocal response. It has the opposite effect. It feeds the fantasy that the sole purpose of your life is to serve your husband, make him happy, and meet his every need. It feeds his belief of entitlement and his selfishness, and it solidifies his self-deception that it is indeed all about him.
6. If you’re in an emotionally destructive marriage, be good, don’t be nice
In every marriage, our goal should be to encourage people to be more godly–and that should be all the more so in marriage because we are the helpmeet.
If we act in such a way that we solidify his self-centeredness (or her self-centeredness), then we aren’t being good or loving.
One woman said to Leslie,
I made our marriage worse by never speaking up, by being too nice, by not expressing my needs, and by accommodating Charlie even at my own expense. I went along thinking that this was my role as a godly woman, a submissive wife, a biblical helpmate.
7. To love your husband in an emotionally abusive marriage is to be concerned about his welfare and his soul
Biblically loving your husband doesn’t require you to prop him up in order to enable him to continue to hurt you. It involves something far more redemptive…
He needs a wife who will love him enough to tell him the truth and to respectfully challenge his selfishness, his self-absorption, and his self-deception.
What can you do to help your husband grow? You refuse to accept behaviour that is destructive and abusive.
When you put your foot down and say, “I will not allow myself or the kids to be treated this way anymore. It’s destructive to me, to them, and to our marriage,” you are not going against God by speaking the truth in love. You are standing for goodness, for truth, and for the healing and restoration of your marriage.
If you don’t know how to do that, Leslie lists some very practical examples of how you can set repercussions and boundaries for destructive behaviour while still making sure you and the children are safe. She talks practically about how to get a team around you for support, how to express to him what you will and will not accept, and how to start a process which can lead to him understanding what being a godly man is.
8. The Bible clearly says that if you are married to a fool, being nice only makes the fool worse
If people are doubting whether women have the “right” to put these kinds of ultimatums to their husbands, then I’d suggest you read the book of Proverbs and look at how God tells us to treat fools. Leslie explains in detail these Bible passages and how they apply to marriage.
And she looks at one example we have of a woman who was married to a fool–Abigail who was married to Nabal in 1 Samuel 25–and how she went against his wishes and was not submissive because she put God first.
9. We are to obey God, not man–especially an emotionally abusive man (or woman)
Following your husband into sin may be submissive, but it is not biblically submissive. Allowing him to berate you and your children may be submissive, but it is not biblically submissive.
As Peter says in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than man.”
10. God cares about the individuals in your family more than he cares about your marriage
Finally, if you’re in an emotionally abusive marriage, know that God sees you and grieves for you. In her book, Leslie shows through Scripture how God feels when His children are physically and emotionally hurt. He cries with you.
And she shows how the verse “God hates divorce” is often used against women in abusive marriages, rather than against the husbands who have made the rift–which is who that verse was directed at in the first place!
Maybe you think that God is more interested in preserving your marriage than the well-being of you and your children, but that is not true…
Joanne realized that her marriage, although important to her, had become idolatrous. Keeping it together was what controlled her, not the love of Christ…
A wife is not a body to use but a person to love.
And finally, let me leave you with this:
Most of you reading this are not in emotionally abusive marriages–but some are. And I want you to know that God cares. That you are not alone. And that He wants you to get help. Maybe that first step is picking up a copy of Leslie Vernick’s The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, which outlines how to identify your marriage, how to seek help, and how to do the hard work of seeing if the marriage can be saved. I encourage you to get it–it will give you hope!
Let me know–have you been in an emotionally destructive marriage? Or do you know someone who is right now? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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