Good Monday Morning Friends,
I just returned from my annual girlfriend retreat. These wonderful women are such encouragers and truth tellers in my life. Do you have some real friends that you trust? People who know you well and you can be totally real with? God tells us that we need community and we need one another. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
For those of you in difficult and destructive marriages you are very vulnerable to being negatively impacted by your abusive husband. Please don’t isolate yourself. His words are much more potent when you don’t have other people who tell you different things about yourself. His cruelty, lack of respect and compassion not only beat you down but can infect you with its poison so that you start becoming like the very things you hate. This week’s blog will help you protect yourself.
This week’s question: My eyes are starting to be open to the fact that I am in an emotionally abusive marriage. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that just yet but I’ve also seen myself acting abusively. I’m harsh with my children and I’m retaliating against my husband, mostly in subtle ways but it scares me. I’m so angry and resentful I don’t even know who I am anymore. What can I do heal my own heart before I ever figure out what I’m supposed to do about my marriage?
Answer: You are so wise to recognize that living with an abusive person has very negative effects on you. The Bible tells us when we are around angry people we can become just like them (Proverbs 22:24-25).
A person can’t help but feel angry and hurt when we are mistreated, but those emotions can quickly harden into bitterness and resentment if we’re not vigilant. It’s crucial that if you’re in a destructive marriage you not lose your empathy and compassion as a person.
The capacity for empathy and compassion are hardwired by God into the human heart and brain. They’re essential for all relationships to be maintained and healed. Jesus tells us that we are to treat people as we would want to be treated not as they deserve. (Luke 6:21). Perhaps one of the reasons your husband behaves the way he does with no remorse or change is he has lost his ability to feel your pain or is incapable of genuine empathy and compassion for others.
If that’s the case, do you want to be like that? When we’ve lost our empathy and compassion for others, or never had it, we are diminished as human beings and our darker selfish side will always rule us. When that happens it’s impossible to maintain loving connection with others. Also, when we behave as our worst selves toward those we are supposed to love, we do not and cannot feel good about ourselves.
Empathy and compassion are probably the last things you feel or want to feel toward your husband right now. But aren’t those the core emotions you wished your spouse felt toward you? Don’t you wish your husband felt, even for a minute, what it was like to be in your shoes when he screams at you, ignores you for weeks, berates you, sexually uses or abuses you, lies to you, terrifies you, cheats on you, rages at you, humiliates you, slaps you, and turns your own children against you? If he could feel compassion for you in your exhaustion, your discouragement, your confusion, your hurt, your sadness, your fear, and your hopelessness, maybe it might cause him to stop and think about what he’s doing and want to change.
One of the things that kills empathy and compassion for someone we once felt love towards is the build-up of negative emotions, especially resentment. Jesus knows that when we’re struggling with the effects of a person’s sin against us, we will feel angry, scared, and hurt. That is human and normal. But when the person who has hurt us is not sorry, or continues to hurt us again and again, our negative emotions grow and resentment builds, putting a choke hold on all our positive feelings. I believe that is one reason why the bible commands us to forgive when someone hurts us and why Jesus tells us to love our enemy by doing him or her good. It’s not only for their benefit but for ours, so that we don’t fill up with resentment and become toxic.
Doing good toward your enemy may not make any difference to him, but it will make a huge difference in you. Hear me. It’s not what your husband does to you that will wield the fatal blow to your personhood, but rather what you do with what he does to you. Do you allow it to destroy you? Do you allow it to embitter you? Do you allow its poison to suck all the goodness and love from your soul so that all that’s left is a shriveled up heart that snarls and shames and scoots to safety in order to not get hurt again?
It sounds crazy, opposite to what we would humanly think of as a smart thing to do but ask God to give you his heart of compassion for your spouse. Empathy for someone does not mean enabling him or trusting him or allowing him to hurt you. It means you recognize he’s a sinner just like you. You feel sad for the man he has become instead of mad that he is such a lousy husband. It means you will not treat him as he deserves but you will treat him as a human being who is created in God’s image. That does not mean you never communicate some hard truth or set boundaries with him, but learn to do it without contempt, shame or disrespect. Doing so will give you a much better chance at being heard.
You can choose to grow in Christ-like character through your difficult circumstances or you can succumb to the lies of your real enemy, Satan. The bible warns us, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) The devil may already be chomping away at your husband’s heart, but don’t let him get yours too. Maintaining your empathy and compassion not only protects you from staying a victim, it protects you from becoming an abuser.
Marital adversity not only reveals character, it shapes it. You have a choice about how that shaping is taking place right now. When you know and believe that you are a loved, valuable, worthwhile human being and live from that core place, toxic people lose their power to manipulate you. They can’t control and intimidate you as they once did when you felt worthless, dependent and needy. If you don’t strengthen your connection with God you will always live from your circumstances and your emotions. On the other hand, when you live from who God says you are, your abusive/destructive husband might permanently damage your marriage, but he cannot destroy you.
Friends, those of you living in toxic relationships share how you keep from losing your empathy and compassion, even toward your enemy.
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My husband and i just separated a month ago because of emotional abuse. When we were together I had to daily remind myself that he is just a man with his own struggles and pain. I know he went through abuse as a child. Not that that gives him the right to turn around and abuse someone else but I chose to see the little boy in him full of pain who never had the chance to grow up in a healthy home. The Lord has forgiven me many sins in my life either through willful disobedience or sheer blindness. The grace that the Lord has shown me is great. How can I turn around and not extend that same grace to my husband? In my humble opinion, I believe that appreciation and gratefulness for all the Lord has done will keep the heart full of compassion and empathy. Please understand, I intend to be compassionate from a distance. Just because I love my husband doesnt mean I subject myself to abuse. Ive turned my husband over to the Lord. He will deal with him as He will. My job now is to pray and to trust God.
The last paragraph really speaks to me. I was very emotionally fragile, needy and insecure when I got married. I would constantly worry about my marriage and constantly try to be a better wife, hoping to change him and my marriage. I now realize I can’t change him but I don’t have to allow myself to be ruled by what he thinks. Through God’s goodness and grace, He has grown me so very much. I know that I am loved unconditionally no matter what by a God who is always there. I no longer allow my husband’s anger or displeasure to break or define me as I once did, although I can still struggle with a positive self image. His outbursts are less frequent. I do catch myself becoming bitter and wanting revenge from time to time. It’s not the person I want to become. I find that I have to return to God and His ways and I am much more at peace with myself. I am thankful that though I could have self-destructed in this situation, my Saviour had other plans for me. It’s not worth it to allow the enemy to steal who God made you to be for anybody or anything. Remember, as we sow good seed we will reap good things, the best being life everlasting.
I lived through an emotionally/mentally abusive marriage for twenty years. I got married when I was 24, not a Christian and was very insecure. His abuse destroyed what little self esteem I had, but gratefully I found the Lord about ten years into the marriage and started to find my self-worth in Him. I came to realize that God is my only true constant in life and all men would just disappoint time and again if I put my sole worth in what they thought of me.
My ex-husband had no empathy for me or our two sons and slung his words at us like knives which cut to the core of our being. I found myself over the years losing all feeling in myself and I learned early on in the marriage to stuff my emotions because any sign of emotion from me was not acceptable to him. If I were angry or would cry in front of him he only grew more volatile and hateful towards me. Eventually I learned how to stop showing emotion, at least in front of him.
After he left me and our two sons the first thing that begin to happen, the first real healing that started taking place was learning to feel my emotions again. I learned how to be angry, how to express sadness, how to really feel all the emotions. It was actually a very freeing experience and at times overwhelming as all these emotions came flooding in at once in the early months.
And yes, I found throughout the marriage, the longer I was in it, the more I became like him. I recognized it and had to try extremely hard not to act as he did, but it was very hard. I found myself becoming less empathetic towards my boys and I hated that feeling. I had to fight it time and time again. And my boys started developing it too. Even now at ages 21 and 18, I see how they struggle to feel empathy towards others. If someone is upset or hurt their first response is to want to turn away, but they recognize what they do and one time my oldest even made the comment, “I do not want to be like my dad”…referring to getting mad at someone for being angry or upset towards him. I thought that was pretty good that he could see how he was acting and was willing to be accountable for it.
Anyway, this is a great article and really opened my eyes to how easy it is to be influenced by others around us, especially our spouses and their abusive behaviors.
Yes! When I realized that I was strong, and worth love, IN God, abiding and rejoicing, I felt such surges of ebullience and freedom! This was during a time when my husband was away, and the realization of how things were better when he was gone made me see the inequity and harm in our relationship. While feeling immensely freed of being controlled, I was also appalled and embarrassed that I had not known/seen what was in front of my face. But I had such courage and assurance (while still devastatingly unsure of the outcome, because it was his choice and in God’s hands) to declare that things couldn’t continue like they’d been. It was HARD for him to hear that things were better without him there. But the emotional stun-gun effect of that did produce repentance (after anger, and with some residual attempts at manipulation/abuse along the way — again requiring resolve and much prayer from me — I also lapsed back at times into old ways of relating/being too passive and fearful, but was able to “re-set” each time, by the grace of God). He opened up to God in new ways, and to a counselor, and slowly began to find healing (hard work) from his own past hurts and wounds and do new mental/relational/spiritual exercises that caused positive growth and brought new health with truth to his own spirit, his relationship with God, and to our relationship. Key to this was seeing him with great, pure compassion, but not budging one inch from the fact that some of his actions were flat-out wrong. At the time, I came across the verse in Ezekiel, “Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” I clung to this and it built my trust in God … Source of the sanctuary, the water, the fruit and the *leaves for healing*. I also got a mental picture of him in “the belly of the whale” – surrounded by stinking, caustic juices, but really, in a growing place of realization – if he were to seek and hear God’s voice and follow God. Praises and honor and glory and thanks be to God who brought us out of darkness into light. God is soo beautifully faithful and restoration was and is possible.
So much of what Leslie said is true and worth hanging on to in the hard moments. I am a big fan of Love and Logic. As a teacher I came across this method in some training. One of the bedrock principles in Love and Logic is that any kind of boundaries or consequences that are administered without compassion will ultimately fail. They recommend in Love and Logic to practice showing compassion and empathy in front of the mirror if you have to. Now I have to tell you that at times I have really blown this. It is a very tall order indeed to find any compassion for someone who lies and has hurt you so deeply. But on the occasions that I do in fact call upon the Lord and pull it off correctly it really does have an impact.
Right now God is impressing upon me the fact that He never wanted me to get into this situation to begin with. I was a new convert when I met my husband. It was my husband in fact that led me to Christ. Even as a young believer God was yelling in my ears not to marry this man. I didn’t want to listen to His voice and now I have paid a very high price for that… The pain of living with my husband has caused me to lean hard on God and listen to His instructions very carefully. And in a way I can be grateful as well as sorry that my husband has been an instrument in Gods hands to teach me these things. All I can think of is the warnings of Jesus of how sorrowful it will be for those who are not willing to repent in the end. Keeping this in mind helps me to remain in an attitude of compassion for my husband. Thanks for the much needed reminder Leslie. This is definitely the difference Christ makes in our hearts. I pray that He continues to rule over darkness in all of us. And that is what sets us apart as believers isn’t it? Loving our enemies and those who mistreat us yet balancing that truth with loving confrontation and truth and much prayer.
Though I admire the testimonies here regarding letting God temper your spirit, I would not stay with an abusive husband for any reason. It is not good for you or your children. A man must pay for his sins and if he is not willing to change through serious counseling, I would separate from him. He needs to get a strong message that there is zero-tolerance for any abusive behavior. Period.
I tolerated a husband who was capable of killing me for over 14 years with 4 children in tow. He refused to change. I, too, was hollering and becoming an emotionless zombie. So I left him. Today, it is clear that the three children who remained with me as a single mother for 20 years have hearts of gold. The one who stayed with his father to this day struggles with the same abusive tendencies his father has.
Be watchful of the garden your children grow up in. Although we divorced, and even though I knew he was abusive, I still allowed him weekly contact with my children as he never stopped being their father. But at least I was able to reduce his negative impact upon them.
Perhaps those of you who are tolerating these men have greater faith than me. Just be sure your faith isn’t blinding you to your well-being and that of your children. As long as he thinks you will never leave him, what reason does he have to change?
Being a single parent was anything but easy. However, when I finally reconnected with myself, I never regretted it. Granted, he also committed adultery so I had cause for divorce but nonetheless, why in the name of God would anyone allow themselves to be abused? If you must show him unconditional love, consider doing it from a distance so your children can realize what a safe haven truly feels like.
And you, too.