How do we tell where emotional abuse ends and illness begins?

Good morning!

I just returned from the American Association of Christian Counselors convention in Branson, Missouri. It was a great time and I appreciate all of your prayers for my time of speaking on Friday afternoon on The Emotionally Destructive Relationship. The room was filled to capacity with standing room only. I was so encouraged to see such interest in this topic. Please continue to pray that church leaders would recognize this devastating problem.

I also want to remind you all that I will be giving a free 3 hour seminar on this topic Saturday morning, October 16th at Calvary Temple in Allentown, PA for Truth for Women. The session starts at 9am and ends at 12:30pm. The doors open at 8am and there will be a question and answer session. You are welcome to invite your church leaders and others you think may be interested. However, you must register in advance, so we have a good head count and have enough refreshments and seats. Please register at or call 610 866-5715. I would love to meet you all and see you there!

I’ve invited a friend of mine, Carmen Lael to respond to today’s question because she has personally lived the answer.

Today’s Question: When an emotionally abusive person is ‘sick' or quite possibly sick (mine has a family afflicted with Huntington's Disease), how can we tell where the emotionally abusive person ends, and the illness begins?

I had tried to allot plenty of leeway over the years for the possibility that some of his anger was organic, but now that he divorced me because of his increasing paranoia, distrust, and his always over-the-top expectations of my behavior, I am at a cross-roads as to how much to be available to him and/or any type/degree of reconciliation. I wanted to stay available to him for emergencies and friendship, but he still uses threats such as “If you intend to stay friends, you wouldn't dare do such-n-such”.

I wanted to hold close enough to my vows of being there for him in sickness and in health. Because for the most part he was and is a wonderful man, and we had a beautiful relationship and Christ centered lives. Thank you in advance for any input on this !

Carmen’s Response: This is an excellent question with no easy answers. As a former caregiver of a husband suffering from the myriad of symptoms of Huntington’s disease, I call what you are experiencing the chicken or the egg syndrome.

Philosophers have debated which came first and geneticists are trying to uncover clues that will tell us the definitive order. But creationists have always known that on the fifth day God created “every winged fowl after [their] kind” (Genesis 1:21) complete with the DNA to reproduce that kind, so from a Christian perspective there’s only one right answer to the question.

The answer is not obvious in your question because it is linked to your husband’s DNA. Unlike the healthy DNA mentioned in Genesis, your husband was born with a genetic hand of cards that guarantees him of a slate of increasingly worsening physical and mental symptoms. These symptoms can cause the sufferer to act out of character from their pre-diagnosis self and, sadly, that usually results in some combination of emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abusive.

The person sitting down to a breakfast of fried eggs or enjoying a perfectly grilled piece of chicken doesn’t ponder the chicken or egg mystery and at this point neither should you. At the heart of your question is not if you should excuse bad behavior because of an illness but the appropriate level of availability in which you should engage.

Please remember that we live in a broken world and ultimately there are things we simply can’t control no matter the desire. No one plans a wedding all the while hoping it will end in divorce. No, we believe this is our happily ever after and that we’ll grow old cuddling our spouse, not being a caregiver.

Like you, the anger, paranoia, distrust and jealousy stemming from Huntington’s disease turned my marriage into a battlefield that at times made me feel as if I was losing my mind. Sadly, my marriage also ended in divorce.

Huntington’s will ravage the brain regardless of medication or treatment. If your husband is like the vast majority of sufferers, the paranoia and anger will eventually disappear along with his ability to drive, manage finances, and make important healthcare decisions. But what do you do in the meantime?

You may no longer be legally married but that doesn’t mean you don’t care. Each letter in the following acronym (P.L.E.A.S.E.) can help you as a Christian woman to find balance in trying to be as supportive as possible. For me the answer was and is to please God first and everything else will fall into place.

Even if your husband says he doesn’t want or trust you in his life no one can stop you from praying for him. Praying for someone has the added benefit of bringing us close to God when we need Him most.

Whether it’s making sure his bills are paid, encouraging family and friends to visit, or cooking meals for him, love is an action verb. Think of at least one thing you can do each day that will help him. Whether he knows you have done it or even accepts it is not the point. Love is sustained by action so be intentional in your love.

The time to embrace good memories is in the midst of the chaos of Huntington’s disease. Tuck them away in your heart and your mind and remember that fighting to stay connected to him is important for you as much as for him.

The healthiest thing you can do for both yourself and your husband is to abandon the old normal and redefine your role in the new normal of your relationship. That doesn’t mean abandoning all the good from the past, but it does mean that you’ll need to shift your perception of your husband.

One of your jobs as a caregiver, and even if you don’t live together you are a caregiver, is to be an advocate. After our divorce I became his legal guardian. In this was I was able to be his medical surrogate and work with his doctors and other medical professionals to find solutions.

Huntington’s is a complicated disease, and his needs will be ever changing. It’s important to educate yourself about the condition and resources available to help your husband. I found by learning about what to expect, attending support groups, joining online forums, etc. I felt more in control of the situation.

Pleasing God is a great focus for the times ahead. You are only responsible for your own actions and the decisions you make must be healthy, realistic, and based on first being the person God called you to be. It wasn’t until my husband passed away that I could fully appreciate how much striving to please God rather than trying to fix problems had helped us all.

As you are reaching out to your husband don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Curling up with a good book, watching a movie, learning to laugh again and spending time with friends are all wonderful ways to de-stress. Next time you go to lunch with a friend I recommend the quiche.

Guest blogger Carmen Leal is the author of nine books including Faces of Huntington’s and Portraits of Huntington’s. She is the founder or HDCaregivers, an online caregiver only support group for those caring for someone suffering from Huntington’s disease. Visit to learn more about the group or to join.


  1. Anonymous on November 23, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    I am interested to know if this same attitude/approach applies to someone who is diagnosed with bi-polar, or PTSD, or borderline personality disorder… and the resulting behaviors in the relationship. Often what I hear being advised is to reject the person & end the relationship. Is that really the Christ-like way to interact with someone who has a mental illness? Do the same 'boundaries' exist in these cases, as with the person who may just be self-centered or have poor social skills?

  2. Leslie Vernick on November 24, 2010 at 12:16 am

    I'm not sure where you are hearing advice from people that says reject the person and end the relationship just because someone is suffering with a physical or mental illness. There are many factors involved in making a decision to leave a relationship that is destructive and/or abusive especially when there are medical and/or psychiatric diagnosis-es in place.

    I think one factor that plays a big part is whether or not the person suffering with the disorder is willing to receive treatment and is complying with the treatment recommended. In other words is he/she is doing all that he or she can to manage their illness in a godly way? I find when someone is trying to get help and manage the illness, the spouse is much more willing to work with him or her than if he isn't.

    The second factor that is involved in these situations is the capacity of the spouse to physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually handle the behaviors, emotional fallout, and physical care of the person with the illness.

    There are times where someone's suffering with bipolar illness or a personality disorder makes living in the same home with him or her, chronically stressful, toxic and/or dangerous to the others living in the home. A separation may be necessary, both for the welfare of the healthy individuals (children too) as well as to send a clear message to the "sick" on that he needs to comply with treatment.

    Boundaries are different in every relationship and we cannot have a cookie cutter approach to these very serious and painful relationship problems. I think Carmen's advice – to love the person as Christ would, as best as you are capable of doing, would be good advice. A person may not be able to live with a spouse any longer, but we can still be kind, still pray for him/her and care for their needs as we are able.

    In other words, we may not be able to have a healthy relationship with him/her because of their illness and their unwillingness or inability to get help for it. That doesn't prevent us from ministering to him/her as we can.

    Hope that helps.

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