This week I’m traveling to Toronto, Canada for some meetings. It’s so beautiful here. I wish I could stay longer. I’ve loved Vancouver, BC when I vacationed there a few years ago. But I’ve never been to Montreal or Quebec, which are on my bucket list. I know we have a few Canadian friends here on this blog. You have a beautiful country.
Today’s Question: I have been married for 30 years and most of it’s been difficult and destructive. My husband is verbally abusive and very controlling with the finances, despite the fact that I earn a good income. I’m also in ministry, a leader in my church and want nothing more than to make this marriage work. I’m heartbroken that I’m so unsuccessful at doing the very thing God values the most, keeping my marriage alive. How can I make this better?
Answer: My answer may surprise you. You, as well as most women in your spot, believe some lies that have kept you trapped, guilty, and living in fear. I have just finished a Facebook Live series on the lies women believe that keep them stuck, miserable and afraid. If you want to learn more about those lies, click here.
The first lie that I’m hearing you believe is this one. If you want your marriage to work, then you’ll have to put your husband first and make your marriage your number one priority. You’ve already done that and now you’re heartbroken that despite believing this lie and doing everything you can think of, things have not gotten better in your marriage; they’re worse.
The second lie that I hear is that you believe is that you are a failure since you’ve been unsuccessful at the very thing God values most, keeping your marriage alive. Let me ask you a question. Where have you been told that keeping your marriage alive is your sole responsibility and God’s highest priority for you? That teaching is nowhere in the Bible and yet so many women believe it.
Male or female, single or married, your highest goal is to love God and glorify him by your life. Is that possible in an unhappy or failed marriage? Absolutely! Many women reading this blog would testify to the truth of that. In the Bible, a woman named Abigail loved and glorified God while married to a foolish and angry man (See 1 Samuel 25 for the story and Chapter 11 in my book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage).
I’m going to tell you something most church leaders and Christian counselors will not. One of the reasons your marriage has gotten this bad is that your marriage has been too important to you. If you read this blog for any length of time, you’ll read story after story of women who have sacrificed their safety, sanity, their personhood, their finances, their sexual integrity, and even their children’s well-being just to keep their marriage together. In hindsight they would agree, this was not wise, nor did it glorify God.
Second, when you live with marriage as your highest priority, you are not living from a place of faith, freedom or love, but of fear. That does not glorify God. You already mentioned that you fear failure in God’s eyes. But I would guess that you also fear rejection, fear what people will think of you if your marriage doesn’t make it, or even fear how your children will view you if you can’t keep it together. Perhaps you fear being alone.
You’ve been so focused on trying hard to be your husband’s ideal wife just to keep him happy that you’ve actually not loved him well. You’ve allowed his destructive and controlling behaviors to go unchallenged and without consequence believing that is your role as a godly wife. He’s not only hurt you and probably your children, but he’s also hurt himself. He’s not growing into the man God wants him to be.
For any wife, the biggest red flag that lets us know that we have made marriage too important is when we fall into deep despair or panic when our husband fails to love us well. Any wife would feel disappointed, hurt, and angry. But if you find yourself becoming increasingly despairing, fearful, controlling, or resentful, it’s time to pay attention. Those negative emotions are a good indicator that your legitimate desire for a good marriage has become too important. It’s become an idol.
Whenever we are dependent on something or someone other than God, it will always hurt us. Christian women have been groomed to put marriage first, as their highest purpose and deepest desire. But that’s not biblical. God wants to be our first love and he wants our primary purpose to be to know and glorify him.
Jesus commands us to love God first, with everything we have not only because God deserves our love and is worthy of it, but because he knows how crucial it is to our long-term well-being. God knows that whatever we love the most will rule our lives. Click To Tweet
That’s why the Bible counsels us to let the love of Christ control us (2 Corinthians 5:14), not the love of lesser things. Desiring a good marriage is not wrong. The problem comes when we place marriage above all else, including God. As we learn to center ourselves in God’s love and not our husband, we are no longer debilitated when our spouse fails us or disappoints us.
Yes, we hurt, but we are centered and controlled by something other than our marriage or our man. We have received from God the strength and courage to both forgive our spouse for his sinful failings as well as set appropriate boundaries and consequences when he continues to be unrepentant and destructive to the marriage to us, and even to himself.
With God as your first love, you can love and be compassionate towards your husband without being foolish and enabling because God shows you how to love in a way that is in the best interests of your husband. In loving your husband well, you can trust God with the outcome of your marriage.
Let me close by asking you a question. If you do your part and love your husband well – perhaps by speaking the truth in love to him as well as implementing consequences for his destructive behaviors and your marriage doesn’t make it, can you trust God to be enough for you? Can you live in faith rather than in fear?
You must settle these questions deep in your heart because until you do, you will be too afraid to make the changes you need to make. That’s why it’s so crucial that you really look at those first two lies that I identified at the beginning. Because as you start to do things differently the destructive marital boat you’re on will start to rock and there are no guarantees that it will right itself.
But I do know one thing for sure. When your marriage has been in a downward spiral of sin and destruction and everything you’ve tried up to now has not resulted in any lasting positive change it’s time to change your strategy. Loving God first and loving your husband well does glorify God even if your marriage fails.
There are times you must risk unraveling the life you have in order to create the life God wants for you.
Friends, How did you break free from the lie that a successful marriage is God’s highest priority and purpose for you?
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I realized that God hates abuse more than he hates divorce, that he loves me more than my marriage and doesn’t call me to live a life of oppression and abuse. I had to learn that it was far more loving to my husband to not let him continue to abuse me as far as I was able, and for me, that meant separating and eventually, divorce because I could no longer be responsible for his abusive choices. If a successful marriage were an indicator of supreme holiness, it should have been listed as a fruit of the spirit.
I like the statement that if a successful marriage was a sign of holiness it would have been one of the fruits of the Spirit!
Wow! This is such a helpful message to me where I am right now! As someone born in the late 1950’s, I was taught that I owed everything to my family, and I have lived that. I am relearning a lifetime of misplaced values, well-meant, but destructive. My marriage is failing because of my husband’s abuse and my efforts to “make” everything work. Leslie, your timely words will help me to move forward instead of staying stuck.
I’m standing and applauding! This is so right on, Leslie. Thank you for this!
I believed all of those lies for far too long. I prayed for a miracle not realizing that I was significantly responsible for the mess because I wasn’t loving my husband well by setting limits and consequences. Always bowing to what he wanted, always conceding, always going lower for the sake of peace just perpetuated the problems and actually caused him to disdain me further. I believed I was being righteous and “Christian” to stay under the control of an angry, NPD, verbally/ emotionally/ spiritually/ financially abusive husband for 21 years until for safety’s sake I finally separated from him and then he divorced me. I idolized my marriage above everything else, including God, lived in crippling fear that the marriage would fail despite all my effort and prayer, and dove into deep despair after finally facing his infidelities. That idolization brought with it anxiety, paranoia, grief, attempts to control/ manipulate, trouble sleeping, stomach problems, and occasionally outright panic. Wretched! I didn’t live in faith until it all came crashing down and I had to face the truth of my failure to love God above everything else and how much misery that caused. What a life-changing experience! Who knew that life would be so much better after “the worst possible” thing happened? I found freedom and so much love in Jesus. It’s still a process because it takes time to root out long-held beliefs and the shame that comes with those lies, but it’s possible to move on and find a greater joy than you thought possible. Such a blessing! Now, I am so thankful!
I LOVE how you described your symptoms of knowing something was wrong…”the anxiety, paranoia, grief, attempts to control/ manipulate, trouble sleeping, stomach problems….” because I have been dealing with all of those and sometimes feel like I’m losing my mind! It’s nice to know that this too shall pass, and all I have to do is surrender it to God. Although, I’ve done this several times….laying everything at the alter, it seems I somehow pick it back up a few weeks later, and start believing it’s my job to fix my husband again. Thank you for reminding me that these things are “normal” in this abnormal relationship.
These things are not normal (but common)!
Please seek help so that you can get free of the cycle.
It’s your job to have healthy boundaries and requirements to how you will be in a relationship.
If you are tolerating abuse, you will continue to feed the abuser.
Please don’t forget about healthy boundries.
We must study, study, study God’s word and lean on the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and proper application. Otherwise we will pay too much attention to the “extras” added on by man, such as this idea that God says to save the marriage at any cost.
The prospect of failing at my marriage of 30+ years was terrifying. For me, the process of breaking free first started when I read your book, “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.” I cried as I read and realized that God didn’t want me to just tough everything out. Your Biblical approach freed me up to see things differently. It still took a few years of much prayer and hard decisions. I finally realized my only job was to be who God wanted me to BE rather than worrying about outcomes. I prayed for courage and strength. I confronted my husband, saying I wanted us to get counseling and try to make our marriage work, but I wouldn’t continue in a bad situation for the rest of my life. He repeatedly refused counseling or any attempts to fix things, and wanted an immediate divorce. The divorce was like a huge mountain to move, with major surgery in the middle, but with God’s help, I did it last year! Relying on God throughout it brought me so much understanding and peace. When we let Him, God can redeem any situation and bring great beauty out of suffering. I encourage others to start by realizing you are treasured by God – that was an important first realization for me.
None of us can know what God thinks of us. One day when we stand before his throne he will tell us.
What I am starting to realize is that what I endured was the life of an indentured slave rather than a wife. I was lied to at the altar. The person who resembled a man in human form had a huge secret. He did not seek a Christian marriage but rather a sex slave to chain to his side with manipulation, cruelty, coercive control and psychological torture.
I thought I was married. I hoped, prayed, served, yielded, submitted and became physically exploited and exhausted serving a monster masquerading as a husband. Was God pleased with this? Who knows? What I do know is that I wasted decades of my life being abused.
I do know God is a good and righteous God. He sees all and knows all and is omnipresent. I trust his wisdom. Many people have hard lives. I did my time and suffered as was dictated by my religious convictions.
Now, I know the torture I experienced was circumstancial. It was not directed at me. It oozed from my sick abusers brain. It is his burden, not mine.
I live in a free country and can escape such a situation. Many women of all faiths remain trapped and bound in horrible unions around the world. They can not flee their abusers like I can. It is those women I can’t wait to see leaping for joy in heaven as their life here was a living hell.
If we believe that The Bible is the word of God then we can know exactly what God thinks of us. If we believe in Jesus then we can rest assured that God sees us through the blood of Christ.
We are daughters (and sons) of the most high king. A king who is the perfect Father and who adores His children beyond what we can fathom.
There is nothing that I can do to earn His love. Conversely, there isn’t anything that I can do to lose Him. (even divorce!)
This is the good news of Christ 🙂
I am a mature believer, Nancy. I am confused why you felt the need to teach me the gospel as if I needed correction.
Well….I disagree with your comment that no one can know what God thinks of them.
In my view, the Gospel of Christ says otherwise.
If you want to talk about that, I’m happy to.
For me it was realizing that my way of ‘loving’ him was my responsibility, and that my way was not The Lord’s way.
Peacefaking and stroking his pride, and avoidance was destructive and only fed the lies we both believed about what love actually does. It fed the destructive cycle.
Owning my part, and making changes created a space between us that was never there before. A space for The Lord.
I still struggle at times with the burden of my failed marriage and what to do going forward.After a year of legal separation ( and 2 years of in-house separation before moving out) my husband remains unchanged.I am praying for wisdom and waiting for Gods leading as to when to finalize the divorce.I have been overwhelmed by Gods kindness to me this year and all he has provided.I am healing and healthy.This isn’t what I wanted but I am learning to live in acceptance and gratitude.Soo many lies to dispel and replace with truth! Thank you Leslie for all you do,especially for educating the church about healthy and loving marriages.Keep up the good work😄
Janice, after three years of separation, are you ready to admit that the “marriage” is over? I am grateful that the Lord has shown you such kindness. That’s His way. And, praise Him, you are healing. The more you heal, the more clearly you will see that relationship for what it was. So, I’m wondering what kind of message or sign are you waiting for to finalize the divorce? What thoughts (or lies?) are holding you back?
JoAnn, I am working with my counselor on this issue and desire to move forward. I believe with the support I have I will get there.It is a process and this is my journey.Thank you for your comments.
I can relate to you. Although I have only been separated from my husband for 6 months, I think I may see that there is no hope for reconciliation; however, it’s hard to make that step toward divorce. I’ve seen a divorce lawyer, collected paperwork and evidence, and gotten all my things from his house. But following through with the next step has paralyzed me. There is a lot to grieve and process. Take your time, and pray every step of the way. It could be fear holding you back, or it could be that your right where you need to be right now. You will know when the next season comes to take the next step. Good luck, and many prayers!
One of the strategies that abusers use to devalue and control their victim is deflection. They blame shift their bad behavior onto us. I am concerned that any of us who survived destructive relationships take responsibility for the perpetrators actions. This just prolongs the abuser’s agenda.
Of course God is not disappointed with you. You were victimized and exploited. I disagree that the most loving thing you can do for your spouse is to use boundaries and confront the situation. It is the most loving thing you must do for yourself! Yes, you need love! The abuser is not loving. You need protection from him not more energy directed to “love him better.”
Enough about the twisted person and their needs. That is a destructive hook to sway you into the cesspool of their sick world. So, you made a huge mistake. Don’t waste what is left of your life missing the chance to bear fruit for the kingdom. Live, count it all joy and let’s get going. Don’t look back, the past is over.
LOVE this, Moonbeam. Thank you for saying… Don’t look back! I struggle with this, and I communicate with my husband too much since being separated, so he guilts me by saying that I am “giving up on him and throwing away this marriage”. And if we both love each other so much, why are we not giving it 100%. Then, a few days later, he will text me and say, “If I didn’t love you so much, I would have gotten rid of you a long time ago.” Who words things like that??! But I honestly don’t think he realizes what he is doing. But does that even matter?
Anyway, thank you for the support and encouragement.
Didn’t he join a dating site? Maybe I’m confused and thus isn’t what you posted, but someone else.
And yes!!!, to what you wrote above, who talks that way?
You are correct, It’s irrelevant if he knows or doesn’t know what he’s doing, that doesn’t make the responsibility of his any less accountable.
He calls what he is doing -love- but it’s not because it comes from a very toxic and broken place in him that he needs to address if he ever is going to get (himself out of the way).
He likes that you are person who gives 100% and that you are invested in the relationship more than him so he can manipulate the dynamic down the road.
The next time he blame-shifts and says you are giving up on him and the marriage,
Respond to yourself- NO, I am giving up on being an accomplice to your ‘type of love’ and your ability to become the kind of spouse that can actually DO Marriage!
If you want a godly definition of love, you need only read 1 Corinthians 13. If that definition doesn’t describe your experience, then you need to have a serious time with the Lord. We can love well, and we can apply all of that to our own effort to love well, but if he isn’t loving you well, then it’s time to rethink. Too many relationships are one-sided. To be healthy, the marriage must be balanced, with both giving 100% to the other.
Yes, Aly….It was me whose husband had joined dating websites. However, he says that it’s me that is his first choice and he was only lonely seeking a companion. As I type this, it is so obvious how contradictory! He is an emotional roller coaster, and I tag along willingly. I have asked around for recommendations for a therapist to help me navigate this, and have gotten some names. So, hopefully that would help. I’m also reading Lundy Bancroft, Should I Stay or Should I Go, and Leslie’s book, Emotionally Destructive Marriage.
Glad you are getting those resources!
Do you see joining a dating website as Betrayal?
I’m would not be surprised to find out that is only one exposed area of his betrayals.
I am definitely hurt by it, and haven’t confronted him on it, because I know he will just rationalize it. I know he did it, reacting from a place of hurt and revenge, and so I’ve tried to not feel betrayed….. This is how crazy my thinking has turned into these last few years. I am training myself to stop being an enabler to his tantrums and outbursts.
I know it might not sound like a lot, but since we have separated, I have grown much stronger. A few years ago, had he gotten mad and broken something, I would have been helping clean up the broken glass or mopping up the mess. So, this is progress.
I am learning that God wants more for my life.
When we choose to Love Christ’s way, we don’t have to choose ‘who the boundaries and requirements’ are best for.
Good Boundaries are best for all involved in ANY kind of relationship.
Healthy boundaries define loving God’s way (that is: loving our neighbour as ourselves).
If another person cannot handle healthy boundaries then the most loving thing to do is to distance oneself (this is best for BOTH people).
Often people here think they are being loving towards another by enabling sinful behaviour. This is not loving. Not to them, nor to their spouse.
No, doctrinal lesson needed or desired on my part. Did I ask for one?
Since this is an open forum, moonbeam, I comment as such.
I’m happy to have a dialogue with you, but would ask you for a respectful exchange.
Moonbeam, your response to Nancy??
It’s seems hostile? Yet also does not fit with the dialog ..Is this correct?
Not sure what you are getting at here? We ask participants to have an honest loving dialogue with one another here, in CORE even when there are disagreements.
Hey Moonbeam, no one said the victim should take responsibility for the abusers bad behaviors, only our own. When did love have to be two sided? Even if we are victimized, God calls us to love an enemy. That doesn’t mean we have a relationship with our enemy, but we are biblically called to love him or her as well as ourself. What that looks like from my perspective is what is in his or her best interests? Is it that we enable or confront? To show grace or implement consequences? Or some other option? Yes loving oneself is also essential, but too many women feel it is unloving to set appropriate consequences or boundaries even it if it is a lie. Being victimized or exploited never gives us a pass not to love. To hate. That would be our natural response, but that is not what God teaches us to do. So although I appreciate your exhortation to love one’s self your post implied an absence of God’s command to also love one’s enemy.
I agree, we have to understand and act according to God’s definition of love. Since God IS love, we can observe how He acts. He’s not always soft. Sometimes He is tough (as in the book The Two Sides of Love).
My question for you, Leslie, is about grace. Titus 2:11-12 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age.” The word “instruct” means the kind of child training that includes correction and chastisement. That’s why I don’t think showing grace is the alternative to implementing consequences. I think consequences can be one of the best ways to show grace.
I’m not saying we always have to implement consequences, but the opposite of that is better described as something like forbearance, or overlooking their sin.
On a separate topic, I hope this blog community can meet up at the ERLC conference in Texas in October. I plan to attend. I’m really looking forward to hearing you speak.
What is the ERLC conference?
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Convention. Here’s a link. Leslie is speaking, too!
I will be meeting some women from my CONQUER group for lunch on Saturday after the conference and if anyone from this blog is there, please join us
I agree, sometimes the most loving gracious think to do is to tell the truth or allow someone to experience the consequences of their own foolishness or sin.
I have realized in the last 6 months or so that I have been in an emotionally abusive relationship. I thought I was going crazy, but I am starting to understand what has been going on. My husband also has an addiction to cocaine and smokes weed almost daily. He’s also started to drink. In the past, he has been physical with me that resulted in his going to jail twice. We separated the last time for about two months. He seemed to change his behaviors, although in hindsight, he had a difficult time staying with his brother and didn’t really have anywhere to live. He has had difficulty finding a permanent job so his contract had ended and he had no money. I had helped raise his now 15 year old son, who I have regarded as my own. I realize that I had such low expectations that I was willing to accept words and the most tiniest of changes from him. I felt at that time of reconciliation that he had finally seen how bad his brother had treated me. I have no immediate family here, they live in California, and I in Florida. So his family was my family here. However, I felt many times that if I was upset with my husband for doing something hurtful or drug-related, then I received no support. I was seen as the bad guy in the family because he is their blood family. So loneliness and the threat of abandonment are soft spots and he has used them as weapons. When the physical abuse stopped because he now knows I will have him arrested, he upped the emotional and verbal abuse. He goes into rage attacks, often in the car, when we get in arguments. And by argument, I mean, if I bring to him something that upset me or was wrong. For example, he often disappears and more than once, came home at 5:30 a.m. with no care or explanation about why he thought that was acceptable. I tried to put boundaries, by locking him out if he was not answering or letting me know what he was doing. It only makes him madder. Today, as I sit here and write this, he is attending his cousin’s birthday party. He took himself, and his son and daughter. Leaving me, my two daughters (who he’s a stepdad to for the last 10 years) and our daughter. I told him how hurtful it was to leave us out of his family. He said it was all my fault and I’ve destroyed him and this family. That it would be a very bad idea for me to be at his cousins because I’m assuming he’s told them lots of bad things around me so I’m not welcome. I can’t tell you how much this hurts me in my soul. This person promised to love and protect me. I feel used and alone. I’ve been the main breadwinner, I’ve tried to be the one to hold everything together. I feel like my husband will rather let this all blow up than keep us together because as he puts it, I’m too “complicated”. By this, I think he means I am starting to have boundaries and expectations of what I will and what I will no longer accept. I know to go back to accepting crumbs is just not an option anymore for me. But I’m scared and the pain is raw with dealing with his refusal and emotional abuse. I know that I am afraid of being divorced, 44, overweight and alone with all the financial strain. But I also know I have to keep moving forward and put God first. But to say that this is easy or that I don’t cry daily from utter despair would be a lie.
Dear guera714, If this is your first post,welcome.Myheart is breaking for all you have endured during your marriage to your husband.Dealing with the truth is harder but ultimately saner for you and your children.Your addicted,abusive and abandoning partner is not behaving as a vow- keeping husband and therefore you cannot have a marriage as God defines marriage.As you continue on your journey towards clarity God will guide and bring support to you.This blog is a great resource as well as “ A cry for justice” and Patrick Doyle videos( a Christian counselor). I have learned so much from all these “wise others” as I have been navigating my path out of similar insanity and into calmer waters. You are a precious daughter of God and are loved beyond measure.Keep reaching out for help and find safe people ( not your husbands family of origin) to share with.Perhaps a domestic violence shelter.Thank you for your transparency and willingness to share your painful story.
Ah, so well written. I realized that my behavior towards his manipulation & indifference was turning me into a shrew. Once I realized, with Leslie’s counsel, that I was not the person God made me to be, I began to unfurl my fist and let go of the fantasy that if I tried, prayed, nagged, loved just a bit more, my husband would become a loving, Christian man. I grieved the loss of the perfect marriage that I realized had been a fantasy I’d perpetuated by ignoring or minimizing his destructive behavior for decades. Two years later I am a very different person. I no longer try to control the outcome and trust God to work on me so that I can become who I was meant to be in His eyes. No more excuses. Not living up to my potential is no ones fault but my own. And my husband, his faith, (or lack thereof) his happiness, his behavior is (never was but I didn’t get that) not my problem, not mine to shape or control and not my burden to fix. It’s quite freeing in the end. Thank you Leslie for your ministry❤️
You describe the process of your growth so well!
Hi. I was wondering how this works when you are single? I grew up with a emotionally abusive father. I still feel like I’m a failure as I have had different jobs and find myself over and over again feeling like I can’t cope with the job demands, that I’m not good enough. I often feel like a failure because I haven’t been able to have intimate relationship or get married and have children. There were 4 years of constant abuse and as the eldest I took on the role to protect my mother. I’m 32 yrs old, but I remember more what my dad did to my mother than the constant criticism and shouting he did to us as children. I had to go limited contact this year as he did it all over again when I tried to have holidays with them in Dec 2018. I’m struggling to work through my past and have been reading up as much as I can on emotional abuse, but I tend to feel overwhelmed as I don’t know what to do anymore with my life and my relationship with my family. I want to be believe God has a better plan but it feels like it hasn’t happened.
Dear Anoeschka, My heart grieves for what you have endured. The abuse you have been subjected to will take time to heal, and the best thing you can do for yourself at this point is to find a good christian counselor who can help you deal with your painful past. Having grown up with abuse will make it difficult for you to engage in healthy relationships. Also, be diligent to develop a real and personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. He loves you, and treasures you. You are always “good enough” in His eyes because He purchased you with His own blood. Start reading the Bible (New Testament), and learn to know Him and His love for you. This will change your life. Our prayers are with you.
Anoeschka, I’m sorry you’ve had to go through what you did. I pray that you do find someone to talk to, and guide you through unpacking the trauma you have gone through, and processing it all. Please work through this before you get into a serious relationship, or you run the risk of finding someone that ends up treating you like your father did. I know it seems like that couldn’t happen, but it often does. Also, is your mother still with your father? If so, she has my prayers also. Is it hard to have a relationship with her? Maybe some strength and encouragement is what she needs, to help her make steps to get away from the abuse herself too.