Spouse Suffering Emotional and Spiritual Abuse
QUESTION: You published an article entitled When Should a Married Couple Separate. In it you stated, “Some spouses (men and women) suffer from repeated emotional beatings or live in a marriage that causes them serious spiritual vulnerability. They need to flee for protection just as strongly as those experiencing physical abuse.” Could you give me some specifics. I feel strongly I’m suffering under this…Please help me.
ANSWER: Hmm. Well, I guess I should be used to making people mad by sharing my views, so here goes…
Start by Understanding Physical Abuse
Before discussing emotional or spiritual abuse, let’s consider physical abuse to see if there are parallels.
When it comes to physical abuse, views differ about what “is” and what “isn’t.” I’ve heard spouses justify negative physical behavior with statements such as “I didn’t hit him, just pushed him” or “She hit me first and I just let her know what that felt like as I made her back off” or “All I did was grab her and hold her so she had to listen.” In my opinion, a person doesn’t actually have to hit another to physically abuse, and the things just mentioned are physical abuse. If, for example, a man used his physical size to intimidate his wife, causing her to fear physical harm even though he never touched her, I see that as physical abuse.
While the threat of violence may not land one in the emergency room with a broken bone, it can be terrifying. Holding a person against her will, pushing, cocking a fist as if to hit, picking up a potential weapon, backing a person up by being aggressive, and other similar actions are just wrong. In short, my view of physical abuse in a marriage is anything that one does to create fear, dread, or flight in the other spouse.
One of my friends was whipped by her husband as he used a belt on her in front of her children because she “disobeyed” him. Any reasonable person would see that as abuse. Correct?
Fascinatingly, sometimes they don’t. At least not to the point that the abused person has a right to do something about it.
Many years ago a lady told me that her husband tried to kill her every time he got drunk. When I asked how often he became inebriated, she told me it occurred every Friday night. Just the Friday night before our conversation, he had turned on a burner on their gas stove and tried his best to push her backwards into it so that her hair would catch on fire. He teen son came into the room, realized what was occurring, and literally beat his father off of his mother. She told me that it was all she could do to stop her son from killing his father in his fear and rage. When I asked her why she stayed with her husband, she replied that the leaders in her congregation told her that she had no right to leave unless he committed adultery. I advised her to tell them they were free to live with the abusive drunk if they wished, but that she was leaving him and leaving that church.
God called us to die to ourselves and to die to sin. He didn’t call us to die at the hands of an abusive spouse.
What About Self Defense?
There are times when a person may have to resort to physical action in order to defend self or others. However, there is a difference in self defense and retaliation. If a woman, for example, were to slap a man, he may be justified in backing away or even in catching her arm as she swings, but to hit her back isn’t an act of self defense, it is an act of retaliation. Self defense protects from harm. Retaliation gives harm in return. Far too often I hear a husband or wife try to excuse retaliatory physical action as self defense. In my book, retaliation possibly may be understandable in the heat of the moment, but it isn’t right and very likely should be categorized as physical abuse.
So What About Emotional or Spiritual Abuse
Using physical abuse as a basis, perhaps I can describe what I mean by emotional or spiritual abuse.
The short version is that anything that one spouse does or says that creates fear, dread, or flight in the other is unwarranted. While it is true that most of us at one time or another may say something crude, angry, or even insulting, the behavior I see as abuse typically is repeated behavior. As with physical abuse, one act could be enough to warrant fleeing for safety. However, with the emotional / spiritual abuse I describe here, it is much more likely to demonstrate itself multiple times.
If, for example, a wife constantly barraged her husband with criticisms to the point he dreaded being in the same room with her, I see that as emotional abuse. If a husband so undermined his wife’s self-concept by repeatedly correcting her, chastising her, or controlling her, I see that as emotional abuse as well.
Some time ago a lady walked into one of my workshops and could not look at me as I spoke to her. As I witnessed the interaction between her husband and her, the reason for her timidity became obvious. He acted as if he was her warden rather than her husband. It was nearly constant:
“Sit up straighter.”
“That’s not how you pronounce that word.”
“Do you ever think before you talk?”
I was very proud of her when at the close of our workshop she turned to him and said in a voice the entire room could hear, “If you treat me with respect and as an equal, we’ll save this marriage. If you ever try to run over me again, you’ll see me walking out the door.” She meant it. He got it. Today they are as happy as can be, each treating the other with respect.
It can also happen in spiritual realms. I’ve witnessed wives trashing their husbands’ spirituality. I heard one man tell his wife that she would go to hell if she didn’t “obey” him as the Bible said she should. Interestingly, his idea of obey had little comparison to a loving marriage – it was more like a master and slave. Another man would quote 1 Corinthians 7 to his wife to point out to her that God was going to punish her because she didn’t fulfill him sexually. It didn’t take a genius to figure that she couldn’t stand the dictator and the thought of being in bed with him was more than she could take.
Should a person being abused spiritually or emotionally stay with the abuser as long as the abuser doesn’t commit adultery? Of course not. To the gentleman (correction: the arrogant guy) who quoted 1 Corinthians 7 to control his wife, I went further into the chapter and showed him that a believer is not required to stay with an unbeliever. He replied that he indeed was a believer. I let him know my view: A follower of Jesus is one who seeks to be like Jesus, not just one who can quote scripture and show up for Sunday school. He asked if I were questioning his relationship with God. I subtly (well, maybe it wasn’t so subtle) that he should be asking God that question and that if he allowed himself to hear God’s answer, it might not be what he would want to hear.
Rather than my giving more examples of spiritual or emotional abuse, I would appreciate comments from readers about what they have seen or experienced that they believe to be spiritual or emotional abuse. If that conversation gets started here, it should be an interesting dialogue for the next few weeks.