When Mary* asks her husband about his late nights and questionable finances, she’s continually told she’s overreacting, she’s nagging him or she isn’t submitting to his headship like a good Christian wife should.

Over and over again, she tries to help her husband understand how he makes her feel, hoping he’ll change his behaviour. Over and over again, her husband ignores her and continues to make her feel small, irrational and stupid. Over and over again, she feels torn between her desire to stand up for herself and her desire to be "a good Christian wife."

We live in a fallen world. We’re fallen people with flaws and sinful behaviours that often hurt those we love – especially our spouses. However, what makes Mary’s marriage more than just a difficult relationship is the repetition of this behaviour, with no remorse and no sign of change from her husband. Mary is stuck in an emotionally destructive marriage.

According to Leslie Vernick, author of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, this kind of relationship exists "where one’s personhood, dignity, and freedom of choice is regularly denied, criticised, or crushed. This can be done through words, behaviours, economics, attitudes, and misusing the Scriptures."

Tragically, this abusive power dynamic becomes all the more harmful when Scripture is twisted and God’s beautiful design for marriage is distorted in an attempt for one spouse to gain control over the other.

"Marriage and family are important to God, but just as important to Him are the individuals within those marriages and families," Vernick explains. "God does not value men more than women, or the institution of marriage more than the people who are in it."

When a spouse pulls certain verses out of their Biblical context, we may be tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt, trusting them at face value instead of studying the Scriptures for ourselves, but Vernick suggests another way.

"I think it’s wiser and more Biblical to look at the whole picture of who God is and how He feels about situations like you are in," she explains. "He also has things to say to you in the midst of your suffering to give you help and hope."

Women and men who are married to an emotionally destructive person need a lifeline of truth, and that truth is found in God’s Word.

As we go through these eight truths from Scripture, remember there are many more that reveal God’s heart for you, for your children and for your safety. After all, the only eternal relationship you have is the one with your Heavenly Father (Matthew 22).

1. God knows your pain

You may think, God could never understand this. He could never understand the betrayal, the humiliation, the rejection.

"It’s hard for some people to imagine that the God of the universe, the God who is all knowing and all powerful, has emotions and feels sad, hurt, and rejected – but He does," Vernick explains.

In Genesis, we see God being grieved to His heart when He saw the wickedness of the men and women He created (Genesis 6:6). Throughout the Old Testament, we see time and time again how God’s people turn against Him and seek other gods, breaking His heart in the process. In the New Testament, we see Jesus going through the worst of human relationships.

"He was physically abused, disrespected, humiliated, beaten, lied about, accused, mocked, reviled, spit upon, and unjustly treated by religious and political leaders who misused their power and authority," Vernick writes.

If you ever find yourself thinking, God could never understand this, look at the whole of Scripture to see how He underwent the same pain, rejection and hurt that you are currently experiencing.

2. God wants you safe and wants you to seek refuge

"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," Leslie states. "God values marriage, but He’s also concerned for your safety and sanity in the midst of a destructive and/or dangerous marriage."

Throughout the Bible, we see how God is our refuge (Psalm 46:1; Psalm 91:2; Psalm 27:5; Proverbs 18:10; Isaiah 25:4; Jeremiah 16:19). And in Proverbs, we read, "A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences." (Proverbs 27:12).

"Women feel guilty taking measures to protect themselves, because they’ve been taught it’s unbiblical or ungodly," Vernick explains. "Keeping the family together at all costs is seen as God’s highest value. But there are times when keeping the family together has an extremely high price for a woman and her children, and it may actually cost them their lives. In addition, staying together regardless of the costs continues to enable the husband to grossly sin against them with no consequences, which is not Biblical."

There are men, too, who think they need to keep their families together by appeasing their wife’s destructive behaviour, but God wants us all to be safe – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually – and find refuge in Him.

3. God loves you, values you, and wants you to love Him first

"Women have been groomed to put marriage first, as their highest purpose and deepest desire. But that’s not Biblical," Vernick writes. "God wants to be our first love, and He wants our primary purpose to be to know and glorify Him."

Throughout Scripture, we see the love of God being expressed again and again for His people – for people like you. Men and women who are fallen and flawed, broken and lost. Husbands and wives who are victims, who are oppressed and who are in pain. John 3:16 is a verse that’s quoted so often, it sometimes loses its power, but when you stop and meditate on these words, that God so loved the world, you may begin to see the perfect, selfless, comforting, protective love the Creator has for you.

"As you learn to centre yourself in God’s love and not your husband’s, you are no longer debilitated when your spouse fails you or disappoints you," Vernick explains. "Yes, you hurt, but you are centred and controlled by something other than your marriage or your man."

The same goes for husbands whose wives are emotionally destructive. God desires a loving personal relationship where your value and identity are found wholly in Him.

4. God wants you to walk in truth

An emotionally destructive person is often an expert at distorting truth in order to disorient their spouse and maintain control.

"When you live with someone who prefers deceit and darkness and who twists and manipulates the truth, it can be very stressful, confusing, crazy and damaging to you and your children’s emotions, cognitions and physical health," Vernick explains.

That’s why God calls us to seek His unwavering truth: "Walk in the light while you can, so the darkness will not overtake you. Those who walk in the darkness cannot see where they are going." (John 12:35).

He knows the damage that’s caused by walking in the darkness and He wants to save us from that destruction. If you’re worried about facing those hard truths, rest assured He’ll be right there with you as you deal with them.

5. God calls you to hold your husband accountable as his helpmate

"God does call you to love and respect your husband and to be your husband’s helpmate, but you may be surprised at what that really looks like," Vernick writes.

Being a helpmate is so much more than just standing by as your spouse continues on a path of sinful behaviour. Being a helpmate is courageously holding them accountable in the journey of becoming more like Christ.

As Vernick explains:

"In her book Lost Women of the Bible, Carolyn Custis James points out that the Hebrew word for ‘helpmate,’ ezer, is ‘a powerful Hebrew military word whose significance we have barely begun to unpack.’ She wrote, ‘The ezer is a warrior, and this has far-reaching implications for women, not only in marriage, but in every relationship, season and walk of life.’ She continues, ‘Eve and all her daughters are ezers – strong warriors who stand alongside their brothers in the battle for God’s kingdom.’"

"Biblically loving your husband doesn’t require you to prop him up in order to enable him to continue to hurt you," Vernick adds. "It involves something far more redemptive."

Likewise, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25) and just as Christ lovingly holds us to a higher standard of behaviour, encouraging us to put aside anger and malice and put on compassionate hearts and kindness (Colossians 3:8-12), so too husbands are to lovingly hold their wives accountable.

6. God calls us to be peacemakers, not peacekeepers

For years, Richard* felt the need to walk on eggshells around his wife, doing his best to keep her anger at bay by being nice and trying to keep the peace, but this is not what God talks about in Matthew 5:9.

"Pretending or keeping up appearances for the sake of staying married won’t bring healing to serious marital wounds any more than a Band-Aid can stop arterial bleeding," Vernick explains. "And pretending and peacekeeping isn’t what God call us to anyway. Biblical peacemaking involves being prepared to enter into battle in order to bring about the possibility for true shalom peace, reconciliation, and restoration of your marriage."

7. God wants us to set boundaries with emotionally destructive people, as Jesus did

Just like you may wonder if God knows your pain, you may wonder how God dealt with emotionally destructive people. Thankfully, Jesus Himself set an example for us.

"He loved the religious leaders unconditionally, but they did not enjoy a loving or close relationship," Vernick writes. "A marriage that has no boundaries or conditions is not psychologically healthy, nor is it spiritually sound. It enables your spouse to believe that the normal rules of life don’t apply to him, and if he does something hurtful or sinful, he shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of relational fallout. That thinking is not Biblical, healthy, or true."

Loving your husband or wife unconditionally does not mean having an unconditional relationship with them, Vernick notes. When you set boundaries to protect yourself and your children, you are setting those boundaries out of love for your spouse. As psychologist Henry Cloud explains, change doesn’t happen when we allow a person multiple chances to hurt us, it happens when we finally put up the limits that that force them to make a change.

8. God wants mutual submission, not an abuse of power

"The Bible never says that submission is only a wife’s or woman’s responsibility, nor does it say that the husband or man gets the final say in all decisions," Vernick explains. "These ideas have been misrepresented and misunderstood. Wrongly applied they can cause harm to men, women, and children, as well as thwart God’s plan for loving family relationships."

In the New Testament, we see Jesus teaching His disciples what it means to be a servant-leader (Luke 22:25-26), and husbands are told to love their wives, and not to treat them harshly (Colossians 3:19). In the famous 1 Corinthians 13, we read what it really means to love – and it’s never an abuse of power, a means to control or an authoritarian voice in the home. In Ephesians 5:21, Paul talks about the necessity of "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (emphasis added).

"We may have different roles and responsibilities, but one is not over the other," Vernick writes. "Mutuality of servanthood, submission, and sacrifice is the Biblical model for the Trinity and for godly relationships, including marriage."

In Ephesians 6, we’re told to put on the armour of God, equipping ourselves with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17). A major part of your journey is to arm yourself with God’s truth found in His Word.

"If you want to get clearheaded," Vernick explains, "in addition to listening to wise counsel, you must study the Scriptures yourself and ask God to help you understand what the Bible says. Jesus tells us that He gives each one of us, as believers, the Holy Spirit, which He promises leads us into all truth (see John 16:13)."

"Marriage is a gift," Focus on the Family Canada counsellor Karin Gregory explains. "But God created us in His image. He does not value the gift given to His children more highly than He values the children of His creation."

If you or someone you know is in an emotionally destructive and abusive relationship, we encourage you to contact a Christian counsellor or 1800RESPECT.

You can also purchase Leslie Vernick’s book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage from a Christian bookstore for more helpful information on this topic.

  • Names changed to protect privacy
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

Amy Van Veen

Editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.

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