How Do I Heal from the Guilt and Shame of My Verbal Abuse?

Hello, LV&Co friends! Susan here to contribute for the team; I am delighted to address this week's blog question. As the thunder rolls on this midwestern summer day, I am reminded of what it took to create this type of weather. From my high school days, I recall there are three ingredients necessary to create a thunderstorm. Moisture, unstable air, and air rising; these three things lead to the tumult of a thunderstorm. A meteorologist who sees these brewing can make a clear prediction of a thunderstorm. When talking about abuse, I can identify three ingredients that lead to a clear prediction as well. A mindset of entitlement or control, a pattern of harmful behavior, and lack of responsibility; these three things lead to the tumult of abuse. As you consider what constitutes abuse in your relationships, perhaps that will help you gain clarity.

Today’s Question: How do I heal from the guilt and shame I feel for my reactions to my husband's abuse? I endured his infidelity, lies, stonewalling, gaslighting, etc. My reactions were outrageous and verbally abusive. I feel like I became just as bad as him in our interactions.

Susan’s Response: I appreciate your vulnerability in asking this question and your willingness to look at your own behavior. It may help you to process your feelings better once you have gained a better understanding of what causes victims to react in ways that may seem outrageous and verbally abusive on the surface. I hope you can show yourself some compassion as the victim of abuse and get the support you need to heal. For you and the other readers, it is important to recognize the difference between reactive self-protection and abuse.

Months, years, or decades of cumulative trauma from coercive control and abuse can lead to immense frustration and a reaction of self-defense from the victim. No matter if the victim has experienced fear from physical, emotional, or sexual mistreatment, their body goes on high alert to detect danger and stay safe. Over time the victim becomes so desperate to stop the abuse that continues to happen to them, they react with some of the same harsh behaviors themself. These behaviors, atypical of their normal ways of interacting, often surprise the victim more than the abuser. 

When a victim of abuse does not feel they can get away, the body begins to go into a state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. A victim may believe they can not get away from the abuse for many reasons. Here are a few reasons I hear regularly. Messages from those who claim to be the loving church put the sanctity of marriage above individual sanity and safety thereby creating feelings of being trapped in abuse. Additionally, married women in abusive relationships are often the ones caring for the home and the children and therefore have not put efforts into building a career or earning a livable wage. This can lead them to believe they can not support themselves and their children if they leave. Also, the abuser may have made horrible threats about what will happen if the victim leaves the relationship. This feeling of being unable to stay well yet unable to leave creates trauma, sending the body into survival mode. When other methods don't work, the body will eventually fight for survival. Unfortunately, this survival reaction may look like mutual abuse to the untrained eye.

The behaviors you mentioned in your question, infidelity, lying, stonewalling, and gaslighting are obviously not conducive to a healthy relationship. But also, those behaviors you described become patterns of abuse as they continue. Therefore your “outrageous reactions” to those patterns don't look so outrageous when you understand your desperate desire to end the abuse and protect yourself from further harm. While your actions may not have been a healthy response, your feelings were appropriate and provided good information to alert you to the need for change. In contrast, a pattern of abusive behavior stems from an entitlement mindset and faulty beliefs that lead the abuser to use manipulative and defensive tactics to maintain power and control over another person. There is rarely true remorse for these behaviors unless the heart attitude and belief systems shift. Until that time, the goal is usually to evade responsibility and put the work of repair on the other person. Manipulating the victim to feel weak and unstable, to the point that they become reactive, is a tactic in order to shift responsibility and confuse reality. The abuser then uses the reactivity to blame shift, reverse the roles, and take a victim stance. It is seen as a form of gaslighting because they distort reality in order to make the victim take accountability. As you already know, healthy people take accountability for their actions.

If you are in a relationship that is causing you to feel confused, hopeless, ashamed and as though you are losing your sense of self, pay attention to what your body is telling you. If you have tried all you know to do and yet the relationship has gotten worse, there may be more going on under the surface than you have realized. There are steps you can take for your health and well-being. Have compassion but also learn how to manage your reactivity; the goal is to choose protective responses to his abusive ways that lead to feelings of integrity instead of guilt and shame. 

It is natural to feel angry about the ways you have been treated. The Bible instructs, in your anger do not sin (Proverbs 20:22). Give your anger to God and allow Him to guide your responses. When we regulate our spirit to God’s and find safety in Him, we are better able to access the fruits of the spirit, which are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). This in no way leads you to be a doormat to abuse. Your strong emotions are informing you to pay attention and you may need to respond with firm boundaries and a strong, “NO more!”. Be aware that when accessing the Spirit, you may be prompted to have a bold response.

Proverbs 28:1 states, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” In other words, the wicked attempt to outrun accountability. Those who hold assurance in God have no need to fear predators or hostile enemies; in lacking fear, they can respond with boldness.

Here are some things you can do to help yourself if you begin to recognize you are reacting to abuse in a way that is harmful to you and your integrity. Know your value and worth; your worth comes from your creator, not from your mate or anyone else in your life. Talk to someone you trust; you will need a supportive person in your life who understands what you are experiencing. Be aware of what is happening and get educated on all of the signs of abuse, some are difficult to detect. Detach from the chaos by observing it rather than absorbing it; get clear on what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s to own. Lastly, find professional help; your safety and sanity is of the utmost importance. You will need help creating a safety plan and learning how to regulate your body’s reaction to distress. Please know, God has a plan for your life that is beyond suffering for someone else's selfish gain.

For all humans, shame is the right response when our desire for earthly perfection falls short and our sinfulness is held parallel to a pure and Holy God. However, for believers, Christ came to absolve you from shame and align you with Himself in holiness. In this world, you will not be perfect. Yet, I pray that you will allow God to meet you where you are with love and compassion and to grow you more into the likeness of His Spirit.

If you need support and healing from the damage destructive relationships cause and being okay with who you are in spite of that relationship, join Leslie Vernick for a free workshop on August 17th. www.leslievernick.com/webinar

Be well!

Beloved Reader when you have been reactive due to extreme distress, how have you managed the difficult feelings that have come from being out of alignment with your own integrity?

16 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on August 2, 2023 at 10:17 am

    I experienced this. He would provoke me until I blew up. My mentor pointed out that my reactions were also sinful. Once I realized this, I made every effort to respond instead of react. I felt better about myself. Note: this made him angry. He didn’t like that he couldn’t push my buttons anymore.

    • Susan K on August 3, 2023 at 9:13 pm

      Thank you for that disclaimer, Caroline! Yes; as you get stronger, the tactics of the abuser may escalate. This is why safety planning is so important!

  2. O. on August 2, 2023 at 8:56 pm

    How strange, I have been giving this exact issue a lot of thought lately.
    I have trouble with the domestic violence hotline idea that there is no such thing as mutual abuse.
    When I was younger I felt like the writer—so much confusion and shame concerning some of my reactions. Now I can see they were self defense. He was very emotionally abusive and walked on egg shells then eventually start crying then blew up.
    But there were other things I did wrong that I am not sure were self defense even though I maybe would have not done them had I not been so discouraged. Being controlling about house stuff since I felt like why bother being nice myself. After some years of emotional abuse I felt like I gave up considering his well being and was really pretty self centered (at least in my marriage.) at one point he became very controlling about finances for several years. That completely stopped, but then I became really controlling about finances. I literally thought “I am doing you a favor staying married to you so don’t expect me to care about you or how much you are working or your problems.” I just figured I would care about other people and poured myself into that.
    And I think when I started trying to regain some of my original compassion through CORE, I did better for awhile, but then kind of slid into a colder worse bitterness where I never reflected on anything I did wrong in marriage lest I return to blaming myself. I felt like I could not guard my heart except by becoming hard hearted. I think partly I just did not want to feel sad.
    Meanwhile eight years ago my husband got help and over time made huge changes. He puts in so much work every day. But by that time I was too guarded and bitter to open my heart. I felt so scared things would become abusive again because I know the statistics are bad. Only recently did I have the revelation that for the past few years I have behaved very selfishly and critically even though he really was different.
    Things had not always been abusive, our first three years got better and better, but then much much worse for a long time. He was really emotionally abusive and I struggle even though he has demonstrated consistent effort and growth and substantial sustained change. He has always had a neurological disease that causes emotional instability as well as physical problems and anger is a widely known symptom. He even hesitated dating me because he did not know if he could treat me well. We were friends years first. but that does not explain gas lighting/manipulation/blame-shifting. To be fair, he never uses that as an excuse.
    I just feel like not every response to abuse is self protection. Being reactive, and blowing up, I think that can be self protective, and emotionally shutting down can certainly be self defense . But I’m not sure being selfish or hard hearted or constantly critical (as I did after some years) are self defense even if they occurred in response to abuse. I have known people who endured a lot of abuse and eventually even had affairs—that is understandable but not really self defense. So it seems like all reactions cannot be self-defense.
    I don’t know. It is hard but I did feel God showed me very clearly the other day how selfish I had become (in marriage, not all relationships.) it was kind of appalling. I saw how my husband has actually overall been nicer than me for several years, not that either of us are perfect. I am not sure I have been abusive, but I have not been a great partner for many years. My husband says I don’t have anything to worry about and it was entirely his fault I shut down towards him. That is the right attitude for him to have, but in reality I feel I took it too far and stayed shut down longer than necessary.

    • R on August 3, 2023 at 8:56 pm

      I guess the question is, what will you do from this moment forward? I think all of us can look back with regret, but how will your pattern change in the future? You can’t fix the past, but you can ask the Lord to help you make a better future.

    • Susan K on August 3, 2023 at 9:21 pm

      Each situation is different and can be complex. Keep doing your work and get support. I like the question R posed to you. What will you do from this moment forward? Lean in to God for continued clarity and guidance!

  3. Yvonne on August 3, 2023 at 8:46 am

    Responding instead of reacting allows you to take your power back. We know it’s all about power and control for them so naturally that would anger him but you are not responsible for his response or reaction to that only yours. I was often reactive in 26 years but came to a point where I would just shut down and give no reaction or response and that angered him as well so he would change his tactics so that he could get a reaction out of me. In the end he got a response led by the holy Spirit and it was the best decision I ever made that day. 4 years into divorce recovery and walking through the healing process. It feels good to just be okay and healthy.

    • Susan K on August 3, 2023 at 9:23 pm

      So true, Yvonne! Glad you are feeling happier and healthier!

    • Kim on August 4, 2023 at 6:17 pm

      Yvonne, it was 33 years for me and I am just over 5 years divorced. Same type of situation as you. He wasn’t happy if I spoke my mind, didn’t like it when I shut down and kept quiet. Even when I would agree and go along just to keep the peace, he would get bored, change his mind or whatever and the cycle would just start again.
      Though it was difficult when I left and I’ve had hard times, God carried me through and made a way through every step of the process. He opened doors and provided everything I needed…even when I couldn’t see a way! I am so much more healthy and happy. I give God all the glory for my release of this control that held me down for so long.
      There is hope for anyone going through these experiences. You are not alone. Give it to God. Be open and accept your short falls. Forgive yourself and get healthy emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

  4. Agnese Vizbulīte on August 3, 2023 at 9:45 am

    Oh, my.. when I was in my abusive “marriage “ this is the way I reacted and I turned into something that I am not and do not like. And of course it gave my spouse a reason to say that I am the abusive one not him because he had never had hit me or called me names. But he never ever took any responsibility and blamed all difficulties in our marriage on me. He actually said it out loud that all is my fault and so eventually I begun to believe that and even wanted to end my life.. thank God we had to move to my parent’s and so they saw with their own eyes that he was not treating me right. When we separated I found out about Leslie and read her books about abusive relationship and marriage so I finally saw that I was in very abusive and manipulative relationship and had to get out.
    I have a child from this marriage and he is using him as a way to hurt me and try to control me but because I do not respond to him the way I used to and he is getting sooooooo mad and blasphemous towards God and Holy Spirit. It is hard that he still has to be in my life but I know that God IS in control and won’t allow this for long.

    I have admitted my faults because I know that he is not the only one to blame, but I am still recovering and praying to God that my son will learn that God is loving and always in control.

    • Susan K on August 3, 2023 at 9:26 pm

      Stay strong, Agnese! It sounds really hard still. But I hear the courage in your words. Keep doing your work; you are worth it!

  5. Michelle on August 3, 2023 at 11:20 am

    I too have fallen into this same cycle, and with years of marriage counseling, believed it was on me to fix everything (thanks to many misguided counselors). How wrong I was! My husband was very quick to point out my reactions as harmful, but now that I look back at them, they definitely were warning flags for me personally, and provided some good learning lessons for my own self control. I am not a super reactive person, but definitely needed to learn to temper my emotions a bit and get a bit more curious vs. spew responses, which never helped anything. His tactics also were verbatim for what was noted above, which is very, very validating once again.

    I am so thankful for you Leslie and your God-given wisdom and experience, as well as all of the coaches who are helping to change lives. It has entirely changed my life. I am in the final stages of divorce, and despite how extremely difficult it has been to walk through, I know in my soul it is the right path for me. I wish I had realized that God didn’t value marriage over a human heart sooner – but I guess I had to reach a point of being able to fully grasp what a destructive marriage looked like, experience it and use all of that to adjust some faulty core beliefs I had in addition to make the courageous decision to stop the cycle.

    I have noticed that once the abuse tactics are known, it gets easier to see them come up again, so I am thankful for the many times I’ve gotten practice my newly found skills here. I will never put myself in a relationship like this again and am thankful everyday that I can teach my daughter to not repeat my pattern either, as she was under the same control with my husband. We are learning together. God has SO much grace that He gives to us, even when we are in the wilderness. He truly loves us so much.

    • Susan K on August 3, 2023 at 9:31 pm

      Thank you for sharing, Michelle! Glad to have you in the community. We are stronger together! May God bless you and keep you in this next chapter of your life.

  6. Bonnie on August 3, 2023 at 12:44 pm

    I am so grateful for your ministry, and that you are addressing the topic of reactive abuse. It was my major sin in my own situation, along with believing lies about myself, others, and God, which Leslie’s ministry helped me to correct.

    It is important to distinguish between our normal, non-sinful reactions to abuse, for which we might be wrongly blamed, and our sinful reactions, for which we do bear blame. It’s important to acknowledge that our own verbal abuse, even if reactive, is harmful to others, including the one abusing us and those (children) who may witness it or be the brunt of it. We can learn to be honest about our feelings and reactions without expressing it sinfully, but if we do express it sinfully, we owe apology for the harm it causes. We owe apology when we attempt to overcome evil with evil rather than good, even if we fear the apology might be used against us. It is still the right thing to do.

    And of course we can be forgiven for our sinful responses, even if not by our abuser; that’s what grace is for. That gives us hope to go and sin no more.

  7. Susan K on August 3, 2023 at 9:32 pm

    Thank you for that encouraging response, Bonnie!

  8. Maria on August 13, 2023 at 9:11 am

    What a wise and at the same time wonderful response, Susan! And your remark to also have some compassion for yourself, after years of abuse, will help a lot of women.
    Especially, because the entitled partner often says: “We have both been wrong.” Which makes the situation for the victim even worse, causing feelings of guilt and shame. This clever tactic of the entitled partner makes it also much more difficult for the victim to see the REAL situation.

  9. Maggie on September 20, 2023 at 6:09 pm

    This post and the comments will give me a lot to chew on . THANK YOU to all.

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