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If you are experiencing emotional abuse in a Christian marriage or know someone who is, here are a few truths to remember. These are the things that helped me survive my own emotionally abusive relationship.
I don’t write about my first marriage very often because most of my posts here are focused on health, food, faith, and weight loss, but my experience with emotional abuse was actually very tied to my 100-pound weight loss journey. I entered into that marriage with very low self-esteem because I had been an obese kid and teenager. I had lost a lot of the weight already, but simply losing the weight doesn’t instantly restore your confidence.
Entering any relationship with low self-esteem is a dangerous thing. The man I married was a charmer. He said all of the right things and made me feel so loved, desired, and cherished, which is dreamy for a girl who was always the fat kid…but that dream didn’t last for long.
I was in an abusive marriage for 6 years, which means I could fill a book series of all of the examples of verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse I experienced.
Here is just a taste of the emotional abuse from my marriage and some encouragement to those going through anything similar in their own marriages.
I had just caught him in yet another emotional affair. I believed he had cheated on me physically too, but I had no proof at the time. What I did have was our phone bill proving that he had lied to me dozens of times that month with made-up excuses to leave the house to call her for hours at a time, along with pages of hidden texts and emails.
I confronted him with the proof and, in a split second, his anger became explosive. The cursing and screaming began and continued for hours, regardless of my response. Suddenly, all of his dishonest, unfaithful actions became my fault. He threatened divorce more times than I count can, skillfully reminding me of how he had the power to destroy my greatest dreams in life (it was my deep desire to become a stay-at-home mom that took the biggest hit).
He was always careful not to lay a hand on me. Instead, he threw his phone at my head and it shattered just inches away from me when it struck the wall. That night, he didn’t sleep. He slammed his clenched fist against my pillow every 15 minutes like clock-work, just next to my head, to make sure I stayed awake and afraid all night long.
In my case, I chose to get a divorce and I am happily re-married to a wonderful man who is kind, gentle, and loving. The abuse of my last marriage feels both distant (like another lifetime), and also so incredibly close. I can be having the best day and suddenly be triggered by the smallest thing that will take me back to that dark time and I feel the pain and the shame all over again.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
I had never even heard of “emotional abuse” when I first got married and didn’t actually use that term to describe my marriage until about the time I was getting divorced. It seemed like such a harsh word to describe what I was going through and for years I fought against its truth.
Emotional abuse is not someone losing their temper in an argument or having a heated disagreement with you on occasion. It is when your normal becomes a regular pattern of disrespectful, hurtful, demeaning, manipulative behavior.
I’m a words of affirmation person. It’s my love language – how I best receive and express love. My ex knew that and used his words as daggers to tear me apart. I vividly remember begging him once to hit me instead of continuing to scream insults at me. “Just” words or not, the wounds go deep.
Healthy Place defines emotional abuse (sometimes called psychological abuse or mental abuse) as: “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.”
What Does Being A Christian Have To Do With It?
All abuse is equally as horrible. A Christian’s abuse is no lighter or heavier than anyone else’s.
In my case, he often found ways to use my faith against me.
He had claimed to be a Christian when we met and he was very convincing. I wouldn’t have married him otherwise. Just months after we were married, he told me he no longer believed in God and his words and actions followed suit.
Abusers take the things that mean the most to you and use them as tools in their efforts to control you and tear you down.
He knew my faith was my everything. He knew the Bible well enough to twist Scripture to fit whatever he wanted at any given time. I am well-educated and I know the Bible and God’s character well, but when someone is manipulating Scripture and throwing it in your face long enough, even Truth gets a little fuzzy.
And he attacked my faith with everything that he could.
He would mock me whenever he saw me reading my Bible and combatively try to stir up arguments about my beliefs. Sometimes I would try to calmly and rationally explain my beliefs, but it was never Truth that he wanted. Sometimes I just didn’t have any fight left in me, which drove me to regularly read my Bible on the floor of our closet, hidden behind a row of hanging t-shirts.
He knew how badly I wanted to please God and him as my husband, so he took it upon himself to regularly remind me what a failure I was and how I was letting both him and God down.
Emotional abuse shakes how you view your identity in Christ.
Know that if you are in an emotionally abusive situation, your faith is most likely under direct attack. Keep going to church. Keep praying. Keep reading your Bible. Make sure you have a support system around you who can help you make sure your beliefs about God and your identity in Him are still aligned with Scripture.
God was my rock during those years and I don’t know how I would have survived without His comfort. But even with all of the faith I could muster, my insecurities mixed with my ex’s words got into my head and twisted things to the point where my worth and my identity were incredibly fragile.
I knew without a doubt that God was enough, I just didn’t believe I was.
Examples of Emotional Abuse In My Marriage
This is directly from a journal entry I wrote on August 31st, 2010. We had been married for 2 years at this point and it was about 3 1/2 years before our divorce. These are exact quotes I wrote down from some of our arguments.
All I hear right now are his words over and over again in my head.
- “Every problem in our marriage is your fault.”
- “Shut up and stop saying you’re sorry.”
- “I thought too highly of you before. Now I know you’re retarded.”
- “You’re no different to me than any other friend. Just a little bit more.”
- “You start all the fights.”
- “You’re a slave master and I’m not allowed to have any friends.”
- “I’m forced to be with you because I can’t support myself right now.”
- “I can’t think of anything I like about you.”
- “Stop telling me what you love about me. I already know you love me so shut up about it.”
- “No, you’re not worth it.”
- “You’re such a stupid idiot.”
- “Get over it.”
- “I don’t care what you feel.”
- “It’s never going to change.”
- “Yeah, well, the truth is hard to hear. Next time I’ll just lie to you.”
- “You look dumb right now. There’s jealousy all over your face.”
- “You drove me to hide my relationship with her. It’s your fault I fell out of love with you.”
- “Studying is more important than you. If you want me to care about you, then I guess I’ll just drop out of school and you’ll never get to be a stay-at-home mom.”
- “I’m going to make you pay my way through school and as soon as I graduate, I’m divorcing you so that you never get to be a stay-at-home mom. You make a terrible wife.”
Last night, he got angry at me for praying for him and told me I needed to stop. No matter how I responded, he kept fighting.
- I tried to be nice and calmly answer him – he got mad.
- I tried to change the subject – he got mad.
- I told him I wasn’t a good person for the type of discussion he wanted (because I didn’t have all of the facts he wanted for that particular theological discussion) – he got mad.
- I tried to tell him how much I needed to get to sleep – he got mad.
I’m trying so hard to be a good wife, God. I’m doing my best to love him and respect him. I’m obviously failing, but I don’t know what else to do. Help me, Jesus. Please help. I have nothing left to give and I am just so tired.
This was just from one journal entry. I have at least 5 journals overflowing with similar examples.
If you are reading this and are in or have been in a similar situation, there are a few things I want to tell you.
The Most Important Advice I Can Offer
The one thing that helped me the most during that marriage (and my divorce afterward) was my support system.
You need people you trust who can ground you in reality and tell you the truth about your situation.
Build a support system.
My support system included:
- My family
- My pastor
- My pastor’s wife
- My small group leaders
- A Christian counselor
- A few close friends
Building a support system and sharing the messy details of what goes on behind closed doors is not an easy thing. I did not open up to everyone about it (nor should you), but you desperately need people.
They didn’t just magically appear. I stepped way out of my comfort zone more than once to build this group of people. My ex-husband did not like that I had a support system one bit. Whether I was talking to them about him or not, he wanted me to be isolated. He tried many times to separate me from friends and family. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
I often couldn’t talk to them at home when he was there, so I called them in grocery store parking lots or on my lunch break at work, met them for coffee, and reached out whenever I could in a safe environment.
I fought for my marriage with every ounce of energy I had, so I needed people I could lean on to just keep going. My self-esteem was crushed by the end of that marriage. I had no idea who I was and I felt like a shell of a person and that was WITH an incredibly strong, supportive group of people holding me up. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them.
Truths to Remember When You Are Experiencing Emotional Abuse in Marriage
Just because your spouse says it (sometimes over and over again), doesn’t make it true.
The more often we hear something, the more real it becomes to us. If you are hearing “you’re stupid” or “it’s your fault” every day for years, even if you knew it wasn’t true when he first said it, your grasp on that truth loosens as the words slowly wear you down over time.
I was always looking for truth in his words. He was my husband and I wanted to be able to trust his opinion as the one person who knew me best in the world. I wanted to see the areas where I fell short to be able to learn, improve, grow, and mature.
Unfortunately, those were never his goals when he spoke.
Don’t depend on his words alone. Check your words and actions against Scripture and do the same with his. Use your support system here. Run situations past them and ask them if you have responsibility to take there. If not, go to them as many times as it takes to hear that you are not stupid and it is not your fault.
Be around people who will remind you of your true identity. When all you hear at home is the negative things about yourself, it’s easy to start believing there is no good left. Be around people that remind you of the good. Spend time with the people who think the world of you and don’t hesitate to tell you all of the wonderful qualities you have. Read the Bible verses that talk about your identity in Christ over and over again.
You are not crazy.
I am big on communication. I wanted to understand his perspective. I wanted to hear him out. I wanted to please him and resolve our conflicts.
But, so often, it seemed like my ex-husband’s version of reality didn’t line up with mine. We would be talking about the exact same situation, but our stories were vastly different.
I doubted myself. I questioned my memory. I questioned the situations, words, and feelings that were so real to me.
So often, I felt like I was going crazy and he would be the first to jump in and verbally confirm it.
It’s a very strategic and effective form of manipulation, power, and control that just wears you down over time.
You are not crazy.
Just because your spouse hates a boundary you set, doesn’t make the boundary unreasonable.
Anytime I asked something of him, he would rebel and throw an adult version of a temper tantrum. He would stomp out of a room, curse, yell, give the silent treatment, and try to twist words to make it sound like I had just asked him to do something completely ridiculous. He was quick to jump in and call me controlling.
I want to clarify that these were usually requests that I had talked to friends, pastors, and counselors about before asking him to make sure that they weren’t unreasonable on my part.
I was asking him to honor our vows – to be faithful in our marriage and respectful toward me.
Being a people pleaser and a wife who desperately wanted to please my husband, I hated the inevitable backlash to my requests…to the point where I mostly just stopped asking.
Don’t stop asking. Stand firm on the healthy boundaries you know are appropriate, whether he likes them or not.
Should You Get A Divorce?
Unfortunately, that’s just not a question I can answer for you. I hate divorce, just as I know God does. I want to see marriages succeed, reconcile, and flourish.
I fought fiercely for my marriage and for 5.8 of the 6 years I was married, divorce just wasn’t even an option in my mind.
But every situation is different.
I don’t believe God wants you to just sit there and take the abuse.
- Fight for your marriage in every way that you possibly can.
- Be patient.
- Forgive more than they deserve.
- Pray without ceasing.
- Surround yourself with people who love you, build you up, and speak God’s Word into your life.
- Learn how to set healthy boundaries.
The Boundaries in Marriage book by Dr. Henry Cloud & John Townsend was one of the best resources I found on the topic, as was the book Safe People.
You are worthy of love. You are worthy of respect. You are not a failure.
And you are enough.
I also encourage you to read my post, Please Find Me Beautiful: Not Your Typical Love Story. Those were the first steps I took to rebuilding my identity in Christ after my divorce.
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