My spouse has been verbally and emotionally abusive for the better part of our marriage. I have never been physically harmed in any way, but the constant put-downs and mind games have made my life miserable. Some of my friends say I should pursue a divorce, but others have suggested that I don’t have biblical grounds. A few folks in this latter group have even told me that my only concern is to “submit” and continue loving my spouse in spite of the mistreatment. What do you think I should I do?
The second point is this: the state of affairs you’ve described isn’t good for either of you-not you or your spouse. It’s harmful and destructive to everyone concerned, and that includes any children who may be part of the picture. This means that something must be done to change it as quickly as possible, and we can almost guarantee that the change won’t come about as a result of adopting a “submissive” attitude toward abuse.
A biblical side-note in connection with this last thought: in our experience, there are two kinds of people who advise “submission” in cases like this: 1) a few male pastors, counselors, and friends who might take a relatively simplistic view of passages like Ephesians 5:22-33 and Colossians 3:18-25; and 2) abusive husbands. Our response, especially to this latter group, is that it isn’t up to a man to see to it that his wife “submits.” The apostle has given tasks to each partner in the relationship, and each partner is responsible only for his or her own assignment. To put it more bluntly, men need to forget about “submission” and get busy learning what it means to love their spouses “as Christ loved the church.”
So much for theology. Let’s move on to the practical question of what you can do to start taking your marriage in a more positive direction. We’d suggest that your first concern is to investigate your options. All too often people in your position assume that they have only two alternatives: to stay put and suffer, or file for divorce. This isn’t necessarily true. As a matter of fact, there may be a number of other ways to break the negative cycle.
You can initiate your research by setting up an appointment with a Christian marriage and family counselor. Naturally, it would be ideal if your spouse agreed to join you, and you should definitely urge him to do so. But if you encounter opposition, don’t hesitate to keep the appointment alone. If the thought of professional counseling is too overwhelming, consider talking to a pastor or a good friend, or see if you can get a neighbor to take you to a community center where there are people trained to deal with domestic abuse issues. The idea is to find out what you can do, not what you can’t do, and to act accordingly.
In the meantime, you may also want to have a conversation with an attorney-not to talk about divorce, but simply to gather information about your options. Among other things, find out what’s involved in arranging a legal separation. In many cases, a temporary separation can be just what the doctor ordered in a case like yours. Marriages get stuck in deadly ruts when spouses become blind to the hurtful nature of their words and actions. If separation is what it takes to open your husband’s eyes and stimulate some self-examination on his part, then so be it. An abuser can sometimes be persuaded to make a change if his partner has the courage to precipitate a crisis in the relationship-in other words, to say, “I’ve had enough.”
Before closing, perhaps it would be helpful to say a few words about the underlying causes of abuse and list some of the identifying marks of genuinely “abusive” speech and behavior. Domestic abuse is almost always a technique for gaining and maintaining control. An emotional abuser keeps others under his thumb by blaming and shaming. He uses name-calling, swearing, and other forms of contemptuous speech to convince his partner that she is unworthy of better treatment. In most cases he is highly manipulative, displays narcissistic tendencies, and flatly refuses to acknowledge any personal responsibility for difficulties in the marriage. If any of this sounds familiar, you are more than justified in taking whatever steps are necessary to reverse the situation. A good counselor can help you recognize to what extent you may have become brainwashed by your spouse’s behavior and thus lulled into a state of resignation and silent acceptance of your lot.
Focus on the Family’s Counseling staff can provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists practicing in your area. They would also consider it a privilege to discuss your situation with you over the phone if you think this might be helpful.
You can contact our Counseling Department for a free consultation Monday through Friday between 6:00 A.M. and 8:00 P.M. Mountain time at 800-A-FAMILY (800-232-6459). They’ll be happy to assist you in any way they can.