"There comes a critical time in each person’s life when the truth is accessible. Faced with it, you can either run and hide, denying it, or you can face your truth, accept it, and grow stronger," wrote Gregory Jantz in Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse.1
If you are reading this article, chances are you or someone you love is in an emotionally abusive relationship. Your abuser may be a spouse, a boss, a brother or a sister. You may have tried to ignore it, deny it and fix it. Perhaps you have even tried to accept it. But it hasn’t worked. This is your moment of truth. Are you willing to do what it takes to break the cycle of abuse in your life?
While the optimum situation is for both parties in an abusive situation to seek help, Dr. Tim Clinton, President of the American Association of Christian Counsellors, insists one person can change the relationship.
"Change a person; change a relationship," he says.
On the other hand, if the abuse is severe and occurring within the marriage relationship, it’s time to take bold steps and assert biblical, healthy boundaries.
"Sometimes separation can be a powerful attention-getting boundary if you’re fully ready to use it," says Karla Downing, abuse survivor, counsellor and author of 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages. "The purpose of the separation can be to physically or emotionally protect you and your children or to convince your husband (or wife) that you’ll not continue to live the same way. Separation can also be by mutual agreement for each to work on your own problems separately with the goal of reconciling your marriage."
What follows are some general principles, gleaned from professional Christian counsellors, for breaking the cycle of abuse in your life and for beginning the recovery and healing process. They are easy to understand, but difficult to implement.
Before applying these principles to your situation, it’s best to seek help from a trained professional.
Tell yourself the truth. Denial is a hallmark of abuse. Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal the reality about a potentially abusive relationship. Admit you are being abused and recognise the damage it has done.
Seek professional help and guidance. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for healing. You need a trained professional to assess your situation and your safety, to help you deal with emotional baggage from the past and to help you develop a strategy for change. Healing is a lengthy and sometimes difficult journey fraught with emotional landmines. You’ll need help and professional guidance to walk through potentially explosive and destructive situations.
Set appropriate boundaries. In the excellent book, Boundaries—When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, explain how and when to set appropriate, biblical boundaries. However appropriate, set boundaries with caution; it may escalate the abuse. Experts recommend seeking professional help to guide and encourage you.
Find and maintain healthy relationships. It is critical to seek support from friends, family, and, ideally, your church.
"Pastors, church leaders and church members vary in their ability to give support to women in difficult marriages," says Downing. "Always be willing to reach out to your church for support, but remember that staff may not have the same training as professional counsellors."
Support groups led by a trained professional are wonderful sources of healing and comfort. Work to build healthy, biblical friendships and relationships. Research has shown that healthy social connections contribute to better overall health.
Soak in God’s presence and truth. God invites us into his presence and transforms us by renewing our mind (Romans 12:2). Spend time in God’s Word, prayer, worship, and fellowship. It’s possible that because you are damaged emotionally, you are unable to spend long periods of time in prayer or study. That’s all right. Do what you can and trust God with the rest.
Forgive. Forgiveness is not denying or excusing the damage caused by abuse. We forgive because God forgave us. When we forgive, we allow God to heal us. Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. Forgive your abuser and yourself, if necessary. God will deal with everything else.
With professional help—and by following these principles, you can break the cycle of abuse in your life and begin your healing journey. As you reach out to God and others, you can experience God’s redemptive purposes in your life and become a channel of healing in the lives of others. Make Jeremiah 29:11 your mantra: "’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’."
- Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D. with Ann McMurray, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, a division of Baker Book House Co., 2003, p. 157