Question: I’m confused on what constitutes emotional abuse. My husband is a well respected man in our church and community. He doesn’t call me names or curse at me but he thinks he knows best about everything and he believes he should control absolutely everything as the head of the house. I have no say in our finances, what I can buy, how I decorate the house or even what groceries to purchase each week. He tells me what clothes I should wear and when I resist, he says that if I loved him, I’d want to please him in the way I dress.

I’ve told him I want to be free to make my own choices, but he tells me God has called him to be the head over me. When I disagree, or refuse to listen to him he tells me I am being unsubmissive and disrespectful and that I must not love him.

I feel like I’m being slowly smothered and I can’t breathe. I wanted to go to work and he said I can’t because I am needed at home even though our children are in school all day long. If I do not have his meals cooked the way he wants when he wants, he withdraws, sulks and won’t talk to me.

There are times when I feel so angry I blow up and say terrible things. I feel bad for getting angry and sometimes I wonder if I’m not the abusive person because of what I say when I get upset. I find myself sneaking things behind his back and I know that’s wrong. Bottom line is I want to leave him but I’m afraid God will punish me if I do. Am I being rebellious and ungrateful or is there something more wrong here?

Answer: Although we may not be able to articulate exactly what’s wrong, one of the ways we know that we are in an abusive and destructive relationship is that we feel it. Our spirit is crushed and we cannot thrive in the environment that we’re in. We’re slowly shriveling up and dying inside.

From what you describe, although your husband isn’t verbally abusive, his domineering and controlling behaviors are slowly suffocating you. They keep you afraid of making choices for yourself and as a result you function like a child, not a grown up woman. This is not healthy. This is also not what God intended for marriage.

God did not give husbands freedom to demand their own way all the time and call that headship, rather, God calls that behavior selfishness. Biblical headship, as described by Jesus, involves sacrificial servanthood. As the head, your husband gets to initiate that kind of service toward you. To learn more on the whole issue of Biblical headship and submission issues read my article on my free resource page at www.leslievernick.com.

However, as you indicate, your response to his attempts to control you has been to either cave into his demands and allow yourself to be coerced into doing it his way, or have a temper tantrum and/or sneak what you want behind his back. Either way you are not only being treated as a child, you’re responding like one; either a complaint child or rebellious child. If you want to change this destructive pattern in your marriage, the change must start with you.

I outline how to make these changes in detail in my book The Emotionally Destructive Relationship but here are some crucial steps.

First, it’s imperative that you stop and ask yourself why you’ve permitted yourself to be treated like a child instead of an adult woman throughout your marriage? Ask yourself what is going on in you that makes you unable to tolerate both your husband’s disapproval and his withdrawal which he uses to manipulate you into doing what he wants? If you want to make a significant change and become healthy, you’ll have to be able tolerate his disapproval and withdrawal, at least for a season.

Second, you need to face whatever fears you have that keeps you from learning to speak up for yourself in a calm, firm, adult way. You have a typical pattern of putting up with inappropriate behavior until you can’t stand it anymore and then you blow up. You feel ashamed and guilty so you go back to putting up with it until you can’t bear to. Now you want to run away and leave the relationship. But I’d encourage you to stick it out for now but this time from a position of strength, not fear. God wants you to function as an adult woman, not a passive, fearful child. Gaining strength and courage is something he wants to give you. Pray and ask him for his wisdom and strength to begin to have a crucial but calm and controlled conversation with your spouse.

Third, it seems like your husband believes certain lies that hinder his ability to allow you to function independently of him. I’m not sure of all of them but here are a few that I’ve discerned in your question:

Lie # 1: If someone says she loves you, she should always want to please you, do what you want her to, and make you happy.

Lie # 2: If you say you love someone that means you should always do what the other person wants you to do and always want to please him.

Lie #3: God has given men total decision making power in a family and over their wives.

Lie # 4: When my wife disagrees or doesn’t want to do what I want her to do, that means she doesn’t love me or love God enough to submit to my leadership.

Lie # 5: A wife’s sole purpose is to revolve herself around the needs and interests of her family. If she wants anything independent of those things, she is not loving her family or loving God first.

Your husband may mean well but if he’s attached to these lies, he’s blind to the truth. He may not be able to see clearly but you must. However, when you assert yourself understand that it will not only make him angry, it will be painful to him because it means to him that you either don’t love him or don’t love God enough.

In order to break this pattern, you must begin to refute the lies your husband believes in your conversations with him. In addition, you must not allow his sulking behavior or withdrawal to intimidate you to do what you do not want to do.

As you implement these changes, I’d encourage you to have a “speak up” dialogue with him where you address not only what you do or don’t want to do, but you address the lie in order to expose it to the light of truth. It might go something like this:

“Honey I know you mean well and you are trying to do what you think is best for me and our family but I’m a grown up woman and need to make my own choices. If I choose an outfit for myself, it’s not because I don’t love you, but I want to wear clothes that make me feel comfortable and attractive and I think I can best decide how I feel in certain clothes.”

Or when he withdraws and sulks because you haven’t done something he wanted you might say something like this:

“Honey, I know you’re disappointed that I’ve decided to take that part time job but I need some outside stimulation and am bored at home all day. I know you think that the household chores will suffer but I think that I can still cover the basics with working these hours. The kids can help out more and I think I will feel happier as a person. I need you to respect my decision, even if you disagree.”

This change will feel very awkward to both of you at first. He won’t like your new found strength to stand up to him and you will feel uncomfortable asserting yourself without using your anger as a shield. But I promise you that if you stick with being respectful toward him, yet assertive in what you need for yourself, this path will have the best shot at turning around his controlling behavior. If you refuse to give into his sulking and just go about your business, then it no longer works for him to do it. He will probably respond in one of two ways. He will either escalate into more controlling abusive behavior, or will adapt to the changes you are trying to make in the marriage. If he adapts then you have given your relationship a new foundation, if he escalates into greater abusive behaviors, then you have more grounds to consider separation.

Readers: When you realize that you are being controlled or manipulated through someone’s emotional withdrawal or hurtful words, how have you gained the strength to respond and set healthy boundaries in a godly way?

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous on July 29, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    i can understand all that has been said.34yrs i have been with my husband. he will not talk to me about anything very deep nor plan about anything. he seems to be angry all the time, as if i have done something on him but he will not say what. financially i am unable to leave. he is really nice to everyone else and everyone thinks he is great.why do i get it all from him? i have never done anything wrong.my father never treated my mother like this.if i leave i would lose my family as they always take his part. i cry a lot.

  2. Anonymous on July 17, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    I have been mentally abused more than one time a day… he tells me bow to dress….hes always watching wen im at work. He tells me not to.tlk to anyone. If catches me sayn somethin to someone… he gets mad n wants to tear things up. Wen we are at work he will be like 300 feet from me n hell gesture that he watchn me. He always says something about everything i do.. n he will say that hes always worg. And hell say ( what about me,, what about my feelings miserable n depressed..he always is correcting me. What do i do? Im scared of him. Wen i cry he say( i dont giv a fuck if u cry) i cant have friend at all.

  3. Kristi on November 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Amy I just read your post and we must have led nearly identical situations. I too believe the Lord rescued my children and me from a situation that wasn’t going to change. My children are happier now that they have more structure in their lives (ages 13 & 16). All my parenting was previously unde mined by their father, and I am less stressed now. It was a relief to read your words, it was as if I’d written them myself.

  4. Jackie on April 28, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    My husband was put under church discipline because of his manipulative behavior toward me. I’ve set up boundaries with him and it doesn’t seem to matter to him. He has begun treating me with the same behavior, but it’s mean-spirited. We continue to grow further apart, with no effort to make the wrongs right. He also keeps me at the place of blame. It’s never been my desire to divorce, but to reconcile. He knows my heart, but no effort is ever made from him. Living my life apart from him is difficult. I’m still grieving the loss of life I had with him. Living this life is exhausting, because we have no unity in our marriage. We live most of lives very separate from one another. There is no emotional bond.

    • Leslie Vernick on April 28, 2015 at 6:15 pm

      I think the separation is showing you that nothing is changing on his end. You can desire reconciliation but true reconciliation takes two people seeing the problem, confessing their sin and working to change. From what you right, I only see one person who has done that. The other one (your husband) doesn’t admit to doing anything wrong. SO glad your church has supported you.

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