“To the bravest women I know. Your faith, strength, and courage inspire me.“
This is Leslie Vernick’s dedication in her brand new book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope, written for women or anyone who wants to help women dealing with a silent, insidious abuse that often infects Christian marriages and goes on unchecked.
Before I begin this review, let me be clear that this book is not written for women who are in normative type marriages. There will always be conflict, annoyances, and hurdles to get over in every single marriage. This book is also not written for the woman who is looking to “find herself” or is dissatisfied with her lot in life and wishes for more excitement or romance.
If your marriage is normal and you don’t know anyone in a destructive marriage, then this review really isn’t for you either. It IS for those women who have ragged nerves, are weary in their spirits from dealing with emotional pain on a daily basis, have physical issues related to their emotional stress, and feel like giving up on life because sometimes it doesn’t seem worth living anymore. You know who you are. Or maybe you know someone like that and you want to throw them a life-line, but you don’t know how to help. This book could be that life-line.
What Is Emotional Abuse?
“Destructive behaviors and attitudes can sometimes be difficult to describe succinctly. That’s why an emotionally destructive marriage is not usually diagnosed by looking at a single episode of sinful behavior (which we’re all capable of), but rather repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth. This behavior is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change.”
You can download a free questionnaire to discover if you or someone you know is in an emotionally destructive relationship HERE.
Why Emotionally Abusive Marriages are Common in the Church
Leslie points out some of the lies that abusive men say to justify their abuse. Lies that are reinforced by Christians who are not careful to apply the Word of God correctly in their lives.
- God says I’m the head of the home; therefore she has to do what I say and I get to make all the decisions my way.
- God says a woman is to obey her husband.
- God says she should forgive me and never bring it up again.
- If she’s hurt by what I say (or do), that’s her problem.
- God says a woman’s role is to serve the man.
- It’s not my fault (or responsibility).
- She is being contentious or a nag when she asks me questions or holds me accountable.
- The Bible says I have a right to have sex with my wife whenever I want to.
- The Bible says she has no right to say “no” to me.
- If she hurts me, I have every right to hurt her back.
- If she loves me, she’d do what I want.
- If she respects me, she won’t disagree or challenge my decisions.
- She should stop doing things that upset me.
- I have the right to be in control of my home and my wife.
- She should do it my way. God says that’s the way He designed marriages to work.
- She makes a big deal out of nothing.
- I’ll never please her.
- The past is the past, and she shouldn’t bring it up anymore.
“Somehow people have gotten the idea that marriage voids God’s law of consequences, except in the cases of adultery and perhaps physical abuse. Counselors and pastors often advise a wife that God calls her to suffer in her marriage while continuing to provide all the privileges and benefits of marriage regardless of how her husband treats her, provides for her, or violates their marriage vows. This stance only reinforces the delusion of the destructive spouse who believes he can do as he pleases with no consequences. Marriage does not give someone a “get out of jail free” card that entitles a husband to lie, mistreat, ignore, be cruel, or crush his wife’s God-given dignity. To believe otherwise is not to know the heart of God.”
What Counselors Do to Perpetuate the Abuse
Many Christian women, once they wake up to the realization that they are in an abusive marriage, are riddled with fear over anyone finding out. They instinctively know they would be blamed. Especially in cases of passive aggressive behavior which is indirect, subtle, and difficult to expose, the spouse will appear on the outside to be the nice guy. The wife knows that if she narks on her husband, she will look like the problem; the dishonoring woman exposing her good man to humiliation. This shaming fear keeps many women silently suffering for years.
“…what happens next is that the counselor turns to the wife and encourages her to stop pushing the husband’s buttons. This is a grave counseling error but especially troublesome in cases of controlling abuse. This implies that it is the wife’s responsibility to anticipate and manage her husband’s emotions. It also feeds his craving for unlimited control and endorses his mistaken belief that he gets to make the rules for her to live by.”
What happens when a woman begins to realize that the marriage she thought she had was just a fantasy?
“When a woman starts to wake up from her dream of a loving marriage and realizes she is trapped in a nightmare, she feels desperate. She often slides into dark depression. But sooner or later, little by little, she must start to fight and claw her way free from her husband’s oppressive control if she is going to survive…
Once a woman starts to fight back, her rage and hurt often get expressed in sinful and destructive ways. She may appear irrational, ungodly, unstable, controlling, mean, and even a little crazy to those who don’t know the whole story of what she’s been through and what she lives with.”
In a Christian marriage, this often does not happen for many years. She will try harder, reading marriage books, getting help from others to hold her accountable for her “bad attitude,” memorize verses on the tongue and about love and submission, repent and ask forgiveness over and over and over, and yet, nothing gets better. The mind games continue and she is left feeling alone, uncared for (by both her spouse and the church), and in despair after spending years of hoping and praying for something better.
“In some marriages, trying harder does not engender a reciprocal response. It has the opposite effect. It feeds the fantasy that the sole purpose of your life is to serve your husband, make him happy, and meet his every need. It feeds his belief of entitlement and his selfishness, and it solidifies his self-deception that it is indeed all about him.”
God Cares About Women
“God does not value men more than women, or the institution of marriage more than the people who are in it.” (pg.2)
“God is not only for marriage, but He is for people, and for women. He is for you and loves you with an everlasting love. He does not ask you to be the sacrificial lamb; He already provided one. Jesus. Let Him show you the way to walk through this darkness.” (pg. 62)
What’s a Woman to Do?
If she keeps doing what her church and counselors tell her to do, she will enable her husband to continue without impunity. This doesn’t work in society to solve criminal activity, and it doesn’t work in a marriage or a church to solve abuses of power. The reason it doesn’t work is because God didn’t make the world go round like that.
“…most wives know that their husbands do not act destructively in other settings because they know they would experience serious consequences if they did. Most experts in family abuse say these abusive and destructive behaviors are not irrational, but purposeful. They are aimed at controlling their intimate partner.”
And I’d add that they have the Christian community on their side. But Leslie points out that women DO have choices. Women can either enable their husbands to continue to abuse them, or they can implement strategies to help turn the bad cycles of abuse around. She makes the important distinction between punishment and consequences, making it clear, by the way, that it is inappropriate to punish a spouse, but that implementing natural consequences is a necessary part of helping the abusive spouse.
However, painful consequences for sinful behaviors are designed to teach us not to repeat the same behaviors over and over again. When we tell a woman she must nullify the painful consequences for her destructive husband, we not only hurt her, but we hurt him. He won’t learn, grow, or stop his destructive ways.”
She goes on to give very practical, real life ways to apply God’s principle of consequences when a husband is destructive.
How the Wife Can Change
My favorite chapter in this book is chapter 7, where Leslie talks about building your core. Core is an acronym for the following:
C – ommitted to truth and reality
O -pen to growth, instruction, and feedback
R -esponsible for myself and R-espectful toward others without dishonoring myself
E -mpathetic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me
She uses the rest of the book to demonstrate how building these CORE strengths with help you handle a destructive spouse with wisdom.
“Sacrificing yourself by allowing someone to sin against you to keep peace in your marriage is never a wise choice—not for you, not for your husband, not for your marriage. God calls us to be biblical peacemakers, not peace keepers or peace fakers.”
Love Stands Against Destruction
“Bold love is the active, unnerving pursuit of the offender to wisely and winsomely incite reconciliation by exposing the need for confession, repentance, and restoration.” Dan Allender
Leslie has some great encouragement for how to strongly love your abusive spouse by standing on truth and speaking up in love.
“For his mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being, he needs to live in reality and truth, and that is the only place that he will find healing. But the way you tell the truth can make all the difference in the world as to whether or not he hears you and is willing to take your words to heart. However, even the best truth tellers (like Jesus) are hated and abused by those who prefer darkness to light.”
Do you just keep trying harder to love and respect your husband so he will love you? Do you worry that you will not be a good “help meet” if you stand against the destruction? Leslie points out that by not standing up against it, you are enabling his sin to go on unchecked, and this is not helpful at all.
“Do you think God is asking you to try harder to become your husband’s fantasy wife (which you will never succeed at), or does God have you in your husband’s life for a far more radical and redemptive purpose?
In her book, Lost Women of the Bible, Carolyn Custis James points out that the Hebrew word for “helpmeet,” ezer, is “a powerful Hebrew military word whose significance we have barely begun to unpack.” She wrote, “The ezer is a warrior, and this has far-reaching implications for women, not only in marriage, but in every relationship, season, and walk of life.” She continues, “Eve and all her daughters are ezers—strong warriors who stand alongside their brothers in the battle for God’s kingdom.” This means you are going to fight (God’s way) to bring about your husband’s growth and his good. You are going to allow God to use you to meet your husband’s real needs, not just his felt needs….
What he needs most (for his welfare) is a real wife who is a godly woman. He needs a wife who will love him enough to tell him the truth and to respectfully challenge his selfishness, his self-absorption, and his self-deception. That indeed is risky love and redemptive love, and it’s difficult to do with the right heart and actions. It’s the laying-down-your-life kind of love because you do not know how he will respond or what will happen to you or your marriage once you do.”
The Emotionally Destructive Marriage is diagnostic, informative, encouraging, empowering, and practical. I’ve bought several copies for handing out, and I pray that God uses this book to help heal both men and women who are living in emotionally destructive marriages. To find out more about how Christians typically respond to emotional abuse, and how we must respond more Biblically, see this article HERE.