How Do I Help My Client Let Go?

Morning friend,

I’ve been reading through the four gospels this year, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I’ve been curiously watching Jesus freely express his emotions. He cried, laughed, got angry, felt uncertain of what to do next, felt stressed, tired, irritated, and kind of crabby (when he cursed the fig tree when it didn’t have figs yet). Yet, he didn’t sin. 

Have you been taught that your negative emotions are sinful? Have you numbed, stuffed, denied, minimized, or ignored your negative feelings thinking that was more spiritual? I have at times. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to think about how we might express our negative emotions. Paul reminds us that in our anger, don’t sin. But having feelings, even negative ones is human, not sinful. 

Jesus shows us what a perfect human looks like and it’s not robotic. It’s flesh and blood and tears. Moans and sighs, and doubts and questions. Laughing and crying. Becoming whole means feeling our feeling without shame. All of them. Jesus felt grief, horror, anguish, and fear about going to the cross. He fully felt everything inside of him. He let it out, even in front of others. And he didn’t let his feelings decide his next right step. After he felt it all and expressed it all, he surrendered it all to God. He said, “Not my will, but thine.” 

What might we learn from his example? How might we allow our feelings without shame and trust God for our next right step forward? Both/and, not either/or. 

Today’s Question: I am an ACBC certified biblical counselor and have recently read The Emotionally Destructive Relationship. It was so very helpful for me and my counselee, who is in an emotionally destructive relationship.

She is not married, nor does she live with this man, but he is the essence of emotional abuse; this is the most difficult case I have ever experienced—yet she is not yet willing to leave this relationship, even though it is affecting her physical health and mental well-being.

Of course, he has her convinced she is crazy. I know there are these types of relationships out there but have not yet been able to convince her to take a step to remove him from her life. I would be so grateful for your help! May God's grace and peace be with you.

Answer: Thanks so much for reaching out and asking for help. You didn’t provide details regarding her age, her family history, the length of this relationship, previous relationship history, her relationship with God, and her own general mental/emotional/ health which is important to know. But with the information you provided, let me give you some things to think about.

Your main goal is not to get her to leave. Ultimately that decision belongs to her. If you get her to leave, but she is unhealthy herself, she will only return to the relationship, or repeat the pattern with someone else. Your goal is to listen well, be present to her story, value her, and help her recover her own voice and choice. It’s also to help her figure out why she stays in this relationship when it’s so harmful to her mental and physical health. What’s her story? What’s keeping her stuck? That’s what you work on.

Let’s start here: Why did she seek you out for help? How would she define “her presenting problem?” Or how would she define her problem with his problem? As a counselor, start with where your client is at, not where you want her to be, or where you think she should be. If I were speaking with your client, I might ask her a few questions. For example: “What would you like as a result of us working together? And, “When you get better, what would be different about you?” Another question I might ask is, “If you felt healthy and strong, what would you do differently in this relationship?”

When someone stays in an unhealthy, toxic relationship, we must ask ourselves why? It’s not to blame the individual for staying. Nor does it imply that they are at fault for the mistreatment, but she does have her own beliefs that keep her stuck in accepting this behavior towards her. What are they? Do you know them? Does she know them? For example, perhaps she tells herself, “It’s my fault, I made him mad. I deserve to be treated this way.” Or “When someone gets mad, it’s normal that they get verbally aggressive.” Or, “I’m afraid he’ll hurt me if I leave.” Or, “God tells me I should die to myself and love him unconditionally.” Or, “No relationship is perfect. I’m a sinner too.” 

Leaving her destructive boyfriend might be too big a step for her to imagine herself doing right now. What’s a smaller step forward that could help her grow in her identity in Christ? What could you help her to do to refute some of her own internal lies or the lies he tells her? How can you teach her to listen to God’s voice above her boyfriend’s voice? How can God’s truth (she’s a beloved daughter) become more of her internal truth? Who defines her? God’s words or her boyfriend’s words?

You mentioned that you read my book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, together. I might also ask her, “What did Leslie say that most resonated with you? Where do you sense God speaking to you about ways you need to grow or change your own dance steps in this relationship?” 

Based on her responses, you might begin to develop a plan to help her get emotionally safe, clear-minded, and spiritually stronger. Leaving the relationship might be part of her long-term growth but how might she begin to take better care of her mind, body, and spirit today, even while still stuck in this relationship? What self-care and boundaries could she implement now, even if she is not ready to end the relationship?

For example, if he keeps her on the phone late into the night so that she’s losing sleep, and she knows it’s impacting her health, could she tell him, “I need to get to sleep?” Or if she isn’t ready to be that direct, could she decide not to answer the phone after 9pm, creating a boundary for herself that says, “I will steward my health by ending all phone conversations by 9pm each evening so that I can wind down and get a good night’s sleep.” If she can’t do that, why not? What is she telling herself that keeps her on call for him? What does she feel inside when she thinks about taking care of her own self? 

Don’t minimize these seemingly smaller steps forward. As she begins to take them, she will gain two components necessary to her future growth. First, she will start the process of self-stewardship and self-care. As her counselor you recognize that he doesn’t treat her well, but she is not treating her own self well either. Learning to take care of herself can build her health back and hopefully she will begin see the benefits of that for herself. 

Second, when she starts to value and take better care of herself, her boyfriend’s coercive control, bullying, and dishonoring ways will become clearer. As she reports back to you how she handled herself and how he responded to her newfound growth, you can invite her to be curious as to why her boyfriend (who is supposed to care about her) would be so angered at her steps to take better care of her own self? Instead of believing she is crazy, perhaps she will begin to see with greater clarity his own wrong thinking, selfishness, pride and demeaning behaviors and attitudes. 

Often women in destructive relationships become isolated from family and female friends. This enables the destructive partner to have more influence and control over her mind and will. Your client took a brave step forward by reaching out to you for help. How might you encourage her to connect with her family, friends, work colleagues and others to build a larger support system of people in her life? As she experiences other people who love her and treat her as if she is valuable and important, her boyfriend’s power to label her as crazy will lose its potency. 

Finally, be curious about some of her positive Christian virtues and values that may make her more vulnerable to accepting destructive behaviors from others. Below are seven good qualities that I have found can make Christian women more vulnerable to manipulators, users, and takers when these qualities are not balanced with other strengths.

1. People Pleasing: People always gravitate to givers. If she is a person who loves to give that’s great……….as long as she is also capable of saying “no” without feeling guilty or gets manipulated to change her mind when someone is disappointed with her no.

2. Loyalty: When a woman is unquestionably loyal to a habitual liar, cheater or to someone who doesn’t reciprocate loyalty, then her loyalty becomes dangerous and harmful to her and her health. Some women have a hard time saying goodbye to a relationship, even when that person is toxic. The Bible says to love your enemy, but it doesn’t require people to trust an enemy or be friends with an enemy. 

3. Forgiveness: Toxic people love a 70 times 7 forgiver. Why? Because they can perpetually take advantage, abuse, and neglect someone knowing that they will be forgiven with no accountability, consequences, or restitution.

As Christians – we are called to forgive, but that does not require someone to be a perpetual doormat or trust someone who has repeatedly harmed her. Forgiveness does not always lead to the reconciliation of a relationship that has been harmful. Sometimes those people become enemies.

4. Forbearance: Overlooking an offense is a great quality. As Christians, we are not to be easily offended. However, ignoring serious sin or being passive, pretending it isn’t happening, is not Biblical forbearance. It’s foolish. It may also be participating in the unfruitful deeds of darkness (Ephesians 5:11). It’s important that women learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in certain situations and learn to speak up and set boundaries, not forbear.

5. Kindness: Kindness with no boundaries is a recipe for being used and eventually feeling resentful. Stewarding her resources of time, energy, money, and talent is Biblical, not selfish. 

6. Selflessness: A selfish person loves to be with a person who is willing to give up her needs, her goals, her feelings, her voice, and her very identity to make someone else happy. Sometimes women are wrongly taught that their Biblical role is to orient themselves around their man’s needs, goals, desires, and wants.

Biblically dying to self does not mean having no self. It means dying to pride and ego, in other words, not being narcissistic. When a woman allows herself to be worth less than the other, she will begin to feel worthless. When she is treated as an object to use instead of a person to love, her self-lessness not only hurts her, it hurts the other person by allowing selfishness to grow.

7. Naïve trust: The Bible never says we should trust everyone, always. We are called to forgive, but not always trust. Jesus didn’t trust everyone even though he loved all. When someone demands forgiveness, amnesty, or continues to repeat his or her sin, it shows that the person who has broken trust is not repentant despite what he or she says. (See Proverbs 25:19; John 2:24; 2 Timothy 4:14-15)

Christian teaching often glorifies dying to self, forgiveness, loyalty, kindness, forbearance, selflessness, and trust. These can be wonderful virtues, and biblical qualities to develop to grow like Christ. But equally important is wisdom, discernment, good boundaries, and the ability and courage to say no without feeling guilty or selfish, as Christ did numerous times. 

I’ve given you a lot of places to jump in and start helping this dear woman get healthier and write a new chapter in her life story. Remember, one of the key components of a destructive relationship is coercive control. One of the most important things you can do is help her regain her own agency so that she can make good decisions for herself going forward.

Friend, if you were in this woman’s shoes, what would you like or find most helpful from your Biblical counselor?

9 Comments

  1. Cindy M on June 1, 2023 at 8:55 am

    This post is so helpful. It is clear and concise and so accurate. I was the counselee here several years ago and looking back I wish my counselor had said, “I think it is reasonable for you to ask yourself if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship” or “I see ways in which you are being mistreated” or “your judgment is good, you can trust your intuition.” I don’t know where this person is at in their journey but I needed someone to help me see that I had access to wisdom and discernment from the Lord and I could trust that … I was not the fool that my abusive partner told me I was. My partner was occasionally kind and affirming to me and that intermittent schedule of reinforcement (love bombing) was very powerful in keeping me in the relationship; I hung on to hope for a LONG time.

  2. Rebecca on June 1, 2023 at 9:36 am

    I concur with everything you’ve said. My personal experience recently when switching counselors has been that the current counselor is doing just what you’ve said. She’s encouraging me to find my voice, and my identity. And it’s not selfish. My last counselor, which was a marriage counselor for both of us together, only kept saying I needed to speak up and open up but she never addressed the how or why and it left me feeling like I was the only one in the relationship with a problem. If there was a conflict then it became about how I said something or my tone of voice which only serves to make me even more cautious about opening up.

  3. Alice Pearce on June 1, 2023 at 10:07 am

    I as an older woman I am frequently meeting with younger women in pastoral conversations through my church I am not a pastor or elder but have been in leadership in our women’s ministry . My husband was an elder for many years . We had a very happy and blessed marriage of 53 years.. He passed away seven years sago but since then I have been able to carry on in our women’s ministry .
    Yeti situations I have found very difficult to address from a Biblical perspective are the following .Neither are a destructive marital relationship.)
    1. A single woman in her 70’s who adopted a baby with physical and cognitive disabilities now is living with a very strong willed, self-centered 27 rear old woman who does work but cannot drive. This daughter phones her mother many times a day… sometimes 2-3 times a n hour to check in.. sometimes to ask what she should do or say, other times with frivolous Questions or comments. This daughter spends every check she gets on clothes( which she does not care for, or expensive food and snacks.
    She cannot drive because of a congenital cognitive impairment and perceptual deficits( unable to find her way , but is able to use the public bus system.
    Her mother is feeling frantic with constant demands for transportation to where the public transit does not service..
    This mother feels trapped and as she ages, cannot continue to the demands and emotional drain this relationship is taking . The daughter is. also very impulsive and at this time very aggressively “ flirting with men. She is a believer and she does say she wants to trust and follow the Lord..
    How can I help this mother at this age, move toward a healthy, relationship ?
    2. A mother in her 50’s has a don who is a young pastor , living in another state. who is has in the past 3 years, refused to let her visit, , to see a new grandson, to lay. With or read to his two little daughters . His w offer has also been cold and aloof when they have on rare occasions, visited in the parent’s home. The mother came bro me asking “is this normal?”.
    We met for more than a year
    .A biblical counselor whom she called but never met, told her that this is idolatry on her part and recommended a book on idols of the heart. The mother called me and asked if we could read this book together which we have done, but this relationship has.
    continued to persist in spite of the mother’s persistent attempts to ask forgiveness, reconcile an restore a relationship with the grandchildren. She has been unable to sleep and feels incredible grief and despondency . She and her husband now live another state where she has found another counselor who is helping.
    My question is, how can I wisely listen and provide biblical perspective to other mothers and parents I know who are in great pain and confusion when their young adult children cut off any meaningful contact or communication with their parents.
    This previous blog has been very insightful and helpful but I’m wondering if there is a resource you could recommend like the closed group online support group for married women in a toxic marriage relationship?

    • Angela Bena on June 2, 2023 at 11:36 pm

      Dear Alice, thank you for being a Titus woman to younger ladies in your church. That is a wonderful ministry and so needed in today’s world.
      1. For the single mother in her 70’s with a 27 year old adult daughter. Boundaries are greatly needed in their relationship. Help this mom create those and lead her to continue teaching her daughter how to function in her world for the time when her mom is no longer around or able. Examples: helping her daughter reduce the number of calls from work by establishing a specific time she can call (perhaps once at lunch) and what topics they can address. Helping her daughter mature and become more dependent on herself including reassurance she can handle her job are much needed. It won’t just benefit the mom, but the daughter as well. Regarding transportation, the daughter needs to be taught how to utilize other options such as Uber or Lyft. If those aren’t available in your area, she can hire someone to drive her (including her mother IF she’s available and willing). This will help her learn how to budget her time and money by being responsible in paying for services she receives. She will learn not to waste her money and others time on frivolous trips.
      2. Many adult children (even so called Christians) have alienated and estranged their parents today. God speaks of this in His word. It is horrible and painful. If this mom has truthfully looked at herself, apologized and tried to make amends, she has done what she should do. The rest is up to God. Assure her that God doesn’t like what is happening and it breaks His heart too. She needs to work on being healthy and committing those relationships to the LORD. Rejoice at the time she has with her family and pray for open eyes to others God may bring in her path to “adopt” as family. This has happened to both myself and my sister when a birth child decided to separate themselves due to their choices. God brought a precious couple into my life (both of their mothers have passed) and their daughter needed a grandmother. I serve as her “Glam-ma” and know without a doubt God has given them to me as a blessing for what the locusts have eaten. He has done the same for my sister. I don’t know any specific support groups, but I imagine there are many out there as this is a rampant issue today. Please tell her she is not alone, that God sees, and He will provide!

  4. Lydia on June 1, 2023 at 10:31 am

    I am married and need help, we fight and I am depressed and lonely and isolated. his life is very full and very buys with his job, hid family his meetings- everyone and everything is more important – he lies to me.
    I have started traveling and visiting friends and cousins and leave as much as possible because when I am home I get so depressed I don’t leave the house- I watch him go surf morning or to the beach and I use to be an out going person, I don’t have a job that I go to right now- I just have passive income.
    Hes cold as ice- id I ever start to share me feelings or hurt or upset he shuts down and walks out and says OH here we go again…

    • JoAnn on June 1, 2023 at 1:53 pm

      Lydia, I agree that you do need help,, and one thing that will help is to find a counselor to work with, someone you can talk to and unload these thoughts and feelings. I suspect that you are depressed, and some medication could help. I think it’s great that you go out to spend time with friends and relatives, but be careful that you don’t burden them too much with your problems. That should be a time to do other enjoyable things and get your mind off of your situation. Can you look for a part time job or volunteer work that will give you a sense of purpose and help you develop a fuller life for yourself? Step by step, one at a time, to rebuild yourself and your life.

  5. Kim on June 1, 2023 at 11:19 am

    I think that helping her know her own worth through the eyes of Christ. Knowing who she is in Christ is necessary before she can have the courage to set safe, God honoring boundaries is key and vital. Also, if she is like most of us who have been abused she may have some skewed understanding of Biblical headship verses. Some xhurches drill ideas of submission into women’s and men’s heads that causes women to not have boundaries at all and think that is Biblical. So finding out what her core beliefs are in those teachings might be significant. Also, asking her if she wants to add her spirituality as a component and what that might look like to her.

  6. Susan on June 3, 2023 at 11:57 am

    Yes, the essence of the Gospels is to Jesus, the man, flesh and blood, authentic, our example. He has felt every feeling we ever have and more. Happy you shared your awareness

  7. Karen Kersten on June 4, 2023 at 4:59 pm

    This is Karen, the counselor working with this emotionally abused woman. Leslie wished that there was some more background info, so here it is: “E” is 34, was sexually abused as a child, has a family history of somewhat apathetic parents, her husband died suddenly when she was 24, and has been in a very toxic relationship for six years (the man appears to be the quintessential narcissist). She has three children from elementary to middle school age. E professes to be a Christian (I have done a lengthy Gospel presentation with her), but her problem, as she sees it, is “needing help standing on her own feet solidly with God, not feeling like she needs to have certain circumstances present in her life to be ok”. E’s emotional health is very shaky (fog brain) and is beginning to affect her physical health. (I failed to mention earlier that there is some physical abuse–shoving, slapping, which has been escalating.) Her escape for comfort is bingeing and purging, which she emphatically states would go away if this relationship was gone. What she hopes to gain from counseling is finding peace within herself, confidence and growing closer to God, also instilling better habits for coping (do you see here that she is not looking at leaving?–this was stated about 4 months ago).
    Her reasons for not leavings are being alone, can’t face another loss, they have things in common.
    I plan to use all of Leslie’s questions for her and steps such as boundaries and self-care, some of which I already have done. She is an attractive woman, expresses herself well and would be a fun friend. She’s been encouraged to take time with friends and I have invited her to come to our church, where I and my advocate would take her under our wings and get her involved with other moms and groups who will welcome her.
    Christian virtues which maker E more vulnerable will be discussed.

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