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Emotional Abuse

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Photo Credit: John Nyberg

Written By Elisabeth K. Corcoran

So many people are hurting each other. So many Christ-following people are hurting each other. So many Christian husbands and wives are hurting each other.

I have recently been privy to intimate details of one Christian marriage after another where someone was being desperately hurt by their spouse. I do not mean to add to the stereotype, but a majority of the emails I’ve been receiving are from women. Desperate women with nowhere to turn who are suffocating emotionally and not getting the help that they are begging for.

I am not going to launch into a dissertation regarding the biblical grounds for a divorce. What I am compelled to touch on, however, is what abuse is, how it affects the abused, and what the response of the Christian should look like.

I overheard a conversation between two people dissecting a failed marriage of someone they’ve never met. The first person said, “But she was abused. Are you suggesting God actually wanted her to stay in that marriage?” The other person responded, “I knew nothing of physical danger. If that were the case, this would be another story.”

Why? Not only have I heard this repeatedly, but I’ve said it myself, “If you or your children are being physically hurt, get out and find a place of safety.” Why I don’t go on to say, “If you’re just being called names on a regular basis, suck it up and pray some more,” is beyond me because that is basically the message that I, and the Church, am sending when we offer up that kind of one-size-fits-all advice.

What is emotional abuse?

Barbara Shaffer, Ph.D. in Christian Counseling, defines emotional abuse as “an attitude of entitlement and profound disrespect that discounts at every turn the inherent right of the other person to dignity, separateness and autonomy. Out of entitlement and disrespect spring various overt behaviors that use anger, violence and/or contempt to induce fear, guilt and shame. The other person is controlled, punished or demeaned.”

Read this list out loud. Put yourself in the shoes of receiving these words and actions.

  • You are crazy.
  • You are an idiot.
  • You are an ass.
  • Show me what you bought at the store. Right now. Why did you get Q-Tips? We don’t need Q-Tips. I can’t even trust you to go to Target.
  • If you even think of telling so-and-so about this, I will…
  • I went to my meeting. (Only to find a receipt time-stamped that proved otherwise.)
  • You are no longer allowed to write checks. And I’ll be doing all of the grocery shopping from now on.
  • I don’t want you talking on the phone with your mother anymore.
  • No more tithing.
  • If you want to observe the Sabbath, do it on a weekday so the kids don’t see you doing it and think they can get out of chores.
  • I determine what the thermostat will be set to. Don’t touch it up or down.
  • I drink because of you. If our marriage were better, I wouldn’t have to.
  • Well, you haven’t slept with me in two years…what do you expect me to do?

What does this do to your heart when you hear things like this? Can you imagine this? Can you picture your spouse doing any of these things to you or saying any of these things to you, let alone all of them and so much more?

Or, dare I ask, can you see yourself in these scenarios, saying these words and doing these things, and you didn’t know until this very moment that what you were doing was abuse?

This is emotional abuse. This is what is being deemed nowhere near as dangerous as a black eye, but I beg to differ.

How is the abused affected?

Harsh words and selfish actions, coming from the person who vowed to love you like no one else, kills a spirit slowly and methodically. The man or woman living within this kind of relationship, especially long term, begins to lose track of reality. What is truth? Am I actually crazy? Am I really an idiot? Maybe if I did this, things would get better? Maybe if I prayed more, cooked better, spent less, served more, spoke less, I wouldn’t deserve to be treated this way? Or perhaps, I really do deserve this. Perhaps, it’s not that bad. Perhaps, this is what God has called me to.

Living within an abusive relationship is a slippery slope. I didn’t even realize that my own relationship was characterized by abuse until I met with a counselor who opened my eyes to the truth. I knew things were difficult, but I was blind to how wrong it all had really become.

How should the Christian respond to someone being abused?

If a friend comes to you and shares snippets of her life and they sound anything like what has been described here, please know that she is trusting you with her heart and that she is scared. She may be desperate for help, and she has chosen to reach out to you, possibly under a threat that if she were to ever tell someone, things could get even worse for her at home. So here are some general guidelines for dealing with this kind of situation.

  • Acknowledge her pain and that it is indeed real. She may not believe that what is going on is truly that bad. She’ll need to hear from someone else if it really is.
  • Ask gentle questions. Try to gain more information such as how long it’s been going on, and what kinds of abusive acts are being done. But know when to pull back a bit if it becomes too painful for her to talk about.
  • Be careful not to lay blame. Odds are, she’s been blamed for too long for how things have ended up, so try not to say that if maybe she were to change something specific, he might not fill-in-the-blank anymore. Though every relationship takes two, there will be plenty of time later for her to figure out her part in the dysfunction.
  • Do not give her marching orders to simply do more of something. She’s probably thought of all this herself anyway — pray more, serve more, praise more, cook more, initiate sex more — and it probably hasn’t changed much of anything for more than a few days or weeks. (That’s what is called the honeymoon phase…where things seem to be getting better, but it never lasts.)
  • Do not try to help her all on your own. Determine what kind of help she might need, whether it be a visit with a pastor (choose him wisely) or a Christian counselor.
  • Offer to go to any meetings with her as she might be ashamed or scared. Taking the first few steps out of abuse can be terrifying and she’ll need support.
  • Do not advise any rash decisions. Saying something like, “I don’t know how you’ve lived this way so long,” or “If I were you, I’d meet with a lawyer right away,” will not help. It just might serve to further paralyze her. She needs to take small, steady steps into health and healing. And you might just be overlaying your past or emotional scars onto her situation when they don’t really apply.
  • Check in with her. She more than likely feels isolated. Asking for help took courage; asking for more help, if you do not follow up, may take more courage than she has, and she might not reach out again.
  • Point her to Scripture that affirms her worth in God’s eyes, and God’s power to heal and be her strength. She needs to be reminded repeatedly that she is loved, that she is precious, that she is being taken care of.
  • Pray. Pray with her and commit to pray for her. Keep bringing her before Christ and allow his healing to wash over her.

These thoughts just scratch the surface of a hugely controversial topic. If you or someone you love is in this kind of situation, please get help. There may not be a black eye, but a heart is being broken a little more each day.

[tooltip text=”TOOLTIP TEXT”]Elisabeth is mom to two teenagers.  She loves spending time with her kids, her friends, reading and writing.  She is the author of At the Corner of Broken & Love; One Girl, Third World; He Is Just That Into You; In Search of Calm; and Calm in My Chaos.[/tooltip]
If you are in a difficult marriage or find yourself going through a difficult divorce, Elisabeth has created two private groups on Facebook that she would like to invite you to. Simply email her at [email protected], let her know if you’re interested in the married group or separated/divorced group, then send her a friend request on Facebook. If you’re in need of some encouragement, she invites you to join us.

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  1. Thanks for this WONDERFUL post. As a Christian woman who had to leave an abusive marriage with two toddlers in tow, I can vouch that what you wrote is dead on. Thank you. :)
  2. Thank you for addressing this abuse concerning divorce. An abuser will use Scripture to beat up the spouse saying she has no grounds for divorce. My sweet Sister is in this situation.
  3. Hello, I believe myself to be in an emotional abuse relationship. I have such paralyzing fear and no resources to get away. Sometimes I feel like I must deserve the way I am treated or that I am crazy. He is very subtle in his games. Nice one minute than cruel and brutal the next When I cry and say I am scared he laughs. All winter we had no heat and no hot water. It was all I could do to look professional and put together for work. I finally lost it and quit my job in March. I was do afraid that I was going to crack at work Now it's July and I have lost my car and am being threatened to be put out on the street because I am worthless.
  4. I'm just getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship. Thank GOD it hadn't progressed to the level of marriage. I got out early on. I never, never thought this could happen to me. My eyes are opened in a way I never expected to the realities that all too many women face, especially in Christian circles. For me, the hard part was thinking, "Oh, I'm getting older, I'm too set in my ways, I'll never find another man." Ridiculous. I'm so much better off (even if it's still very fresh and painful).

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