Emotional abuse is rampant in our culture, and Christians are not immune. While all emotionally abusive relationships exact a toll on their victims, this type of domestic abuse within marriage is particularly destructive. The intimate nature of the marriage relationship presents unique challenges.

Consider Don and Melissa.

They had just given birth to their second daughter. Instead of brimming with joy and happiness, Melissa’s relationship with Don was like "walking on eggshells."

I had just given birth to our daughter and was still in the hospital. My in-laws—recently separated—were coming to the hospital at the same time. Dad walked in, and it was kind of strained. After my in-laws left, my husband became angry with me. ‘You should have gotten up to greet my dad,’ he said. We didn’t have our special dinner as we planned, and he told me to "name the kid whatever you want." The next day when the baby and I were supposed to go home, he didn’t come to pick us up…That’s when I had the breakdown. I knew emotionally, I just couldn’t do it any more.

Both Melissa and Don are Christians. In fact, they met at church. However, as is frequently the case, both came from dysfunctional families. Their earlier childhood experiences set them up for poor choices later in life.

The nucleus of an emotionally abusive marriage

Counsellors agree that you and your spouse need help to work through the challenges—as a couple, individually or both.

Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counsellors, urges victims to find a safe place to talk and to "seek professional guidance when developing a strategy for change." He emphasised that each situation must be assessed and addressed on an individual level.

Until you find that counsellor who best suits you, these resources may help you get started in your effort to curb the emotional violence you’re experiencing.

Karla Downing’s excellent book, 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages (Beacon Hill Press), offers solid biblical principles you can put into practice, including how to speak the truth in love, set boundaries and change yourself, rather than him.

Dr. Margaret Rinck, a clinical psychologist and author, dissects what happens in emotionally abusive relationships and offers sound and compassionate advice in her book, Christian Men Who Hate Women (Zondervan).

She writes, "We need to set women—and men—free from the terrible bondage that entraps them." It might seem that a husband is the "bad guy" in the relationship, but "in reality he is in no less pain than the woman, but he usually does not know it." 1

In a related essay 2, Dr. Rinck recommends using assertive responses to abusive bullying, such as:

"I guess we disagree. It’s okay with me if we don’t see eye to eye about this."

"It’s not okay for you to react to me in this manner."

"I will not be manipulated by your screaming and yelling."

Learning to set limits is difficult, but necessary, for breaking the cycle of abuse.

Separation as an option?

To preserve the victim’s health and sanity, sometimes a "therapeutic separation" is necessary. A "therapeutic separation" gives the victim time to heal and "creates a crisis" in the life of the abuser. It forces him to face the destructive nature of his behaviour and gives him an opportunity to seek help. The ultimate goal of this type of separation is healing—for the victim, the abuser and the marriage.

"When a woman says to me, ‘If I stay here much longer, I’m going to hurt myself or he’s going to hurt me,’ I think it’s time to…move into a period of separation," explains Dr. Clinton. "There are safety factors for her, and the kids that need to be considered."

During the separation, the victim, with guidance from a counsellor, can begin to set appropriate boundaries and goals for the relationship. The abuser can also begin to address the issues causing his behaviour. When both partners are willing to do the necessary and painful work required for healing, spouses can salvage the relationship.

Sometimes—and despite best efforts—separation and divorce are unavoidable. Other times, couples restore their relationship.

Remember Melissa and Don?

It has been a long and difficult journey, but they have found healing—individually and in their marriage. Melissa offers these words of encouragement: "It may seem hopeless, but it’s not. There is a way out. There is hope."

  1. Dr. Margaret J. Rinck, Christian Men Who Hate Women, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990, back cover.
  2. Catherine Clark Kroeger and James R. Beck, Editors, Healing the Hurting: Giving Hope & Help to Abused Women, Michigan: Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Co., 1998, p. 87.

Mary J. Yerkes

Writer, speaker and spiritual director located in Northern Virginia.

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