Question:How should I respond to my spouse’s insensitive words, manipulative mind games, and cruel put-downs? This has been a problem for the greater part of our marriage. I have never been physically harmed in any way, but the constant verbal and emotional abuse 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 second 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?
There are two things you need to understand about your situation. First, it’s more common than you may suspect. There’s a surprising amount of emotional and verbal abuse going on behind closed doors, even in Christian marriages. This suggests: 1) that you’re not alone; and 2) that many people have devoted a great deal of time, thought, and energy to coming up with solutions. Among them are some of our most gifted and highly qualified marriage therapists and counsellors. In other words, answers are available if you’ll take the time and trouble to look for them.
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. 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. We can almost guarantee that the change won’t come about as a result of adopting a "submissive" attitude toward abuse.
In connection with this last thought, we’ve observed that there are generally two kinds of people who advise "submission" in cases like this: 1) a few male pastors, counsellors, and friends who take a simplistic view of passages like Ephesians 5:22-33 and Colossians 3:18-25; and 2) abusive husbands. Our response, especially to the 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. Each partner is responsible only for his or her own assignment. To put it bluntly, men need to forget about "submission." Their job is to learn what it means to love their spouses "as Christ loved the church."
So much for theology. Let’s move on to something more practical. What can you do to take your marriage in a more positive direction? We suggest you begin by investigating 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 find out more by setting up an appointment with a Christian marriage and family counsellor. Make sure that the therapist you choose understands the dynamics of abuse, power, and control, and that he or she is well trained in the highly specialised field of marital conflict. It would be ideal, of course, if your spouse were to seek counselling as well, but we don’t recommend that the two of you do this jointly, at least not in the beginning. It’s far too easy for an abusive spouse to manipulate a couples counselling situation and subsequently turn it to his own advantage or use it as an excuse for further abusive behaviour. If the thought of professional counselling is too overwhelming, consider talking to a pastor or a good friend, or see if you can get a neighbour to take you to a community centre 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.
As you consider your options for obtaining professional assistance, it’s vital to bear in mind that this probably isn’t going to be a quick and easy process. Abuse is usually rooted in deeply entrenched patterns of thought and behaviour, and you can’t expect to reverse those patterns in a couple of counselling sessions. While working on the problem, you may find it necessary to create a crisis by giving your husband an ultimatum. An abuser can sometimes be persuaded to make a change if their spouse has the courage to stand up for themself and say, "I’ve had enough." Tell him, "Either we both get counselling (separately), or I’m moving out until you’re ready to help me resolve this issue." Separation may be what it takes to open his eyes to his behaviour and to stimulate some badly needed self-examination on his part. Naturally, you’ll want to make sure that your support system is in place and that you actually have a safe place to go – the home of a friend, family member, or neighbour – before you put the matter to him in these terms. Lay your plans, line up your resources, and make your arrangements prior to packing your bags and walking out the door.
In the meantime, you may want to have a conversation with a lawyer – 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 is exactly what’s needed in a situation 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.
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 behaviour. 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 counsellor can help you recognise to what extent you may have become brainwashed by your spouse’s behaviour and thus lulled into a state of resignation and silent acceptance of your lot.