This week’s question: I am currently deciding whether to separate from my emotionally abusive husband. After months of asking for help, his family has staged an intervention of sorts. I am trying to be positive about it, but it seems it is a little late, as I am so, so weary. I am now expected to forgive and not harbor resentment towards him (he has halfway apologized to me….). However, I am checked out at the moment and do not know if I want the relationship to continue, as it has been so, so destructive (we have had three marriage counselors tell me to get out…).
How can I hold him accountable? How can I make sure he is following through with what he says? (he has lied a lot in the past….places he goes, coming home late, texting other girls…).
You mentioned in your article not opening the spouses' mail…what about checking his phone to see who he is texting? I am not sure where to go from here…..while recognition of his bad behavior is huge, what is the next step for him…and how can I become open to receiving?
What boundaries can I set that aren't deemed controlling?
Answer: You ask very good questions that are at the heart of whether a marriage can truly be reconciled and healed, or whether the couple just stays together for other reasons – financial, the children/grandchildren, because of peer pressure among church or family. I hear you weary of the “just staying together at all costs” path. I hear you asking, “What needs to happen to see real change”?
First, look for a change of heart. Does your husband recognize what he’s done to injure you and your marriage? Does he “see” it? Jesus says it this way. “Your eye is a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is good, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is bad, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is.” (Matthew 6:22,23).
Recently I read that denial is like gauze, covering the eyes. Willful denial is like an opiate, it keeps us from the pain of what is. From what you said, I’m not sure your husband is “seeing” properly yet.
So the next question is, “Is he willing to see?” In other words, when you or other people give him feedback that his behavior appears sneaky or secretive, or that his words hurt you, or that his behaviors are unacceptable to you, does he press pause, reflect on your feedback and his behavior and have a change of heart? Or does he deny, lie, placate, rationalize, minimize, excuse, twist, blame you, or in some way wiggle out of “seeing”
If it’s the latter, he still hasn’t had a change of heart. What is motivating his “apology” is fear of the consequences, not sorrow over what he’s done to hurt God or you. When David repented after Nathan’s confrontation, David recognized the pain he caused God and didn’t make excuses for it (Read Psalm 51). Fear of consequences is not necessarily a bad motivator to start with, but it isn’t sufficient to generate true change. Only repentance, a change of heart, brings the humility and willingness to be “taught” how to live differently.
As one of my favorite writers Francois Fenelon says, “A persuaded mind and even a well-intentioned heart is a long way from exact and faithful practice.”
Let’s look at this process in our own life. How many of us are truly convicted that we eat too much, or buy too much, or need to slow down, or get more organized, or be more careful with our tongue? We know we’re wrong, we feel convicted and sorrowful, but we still do not “do” the putting off and putting on that Paul talks about in Ephesians 4:22 – 5:1.
So if we truly want to change, the next step when we’ve had a change of heart is a change of habit. These two steps are applicable to every Christian, not just for an abusive spouse. But if you have a spouse who has sinned against you but you do not see the willingness or repentance and the humility of heart present, then it’s not likely someone is going to put the work into learning new habits and new ways of thinking, relating, being accountable, honest, transparent and authentic.
Old habits die hard even if you are a believer and sincerely want to change. When someone is caught in a string of negative habit patterns that cause havoc in their interpersonal relationships, they must own that and do what they need to do to not only stop doing those things, but learn new ways of relating and communicating their feelings, needs, desires and hurts. They also have to learn how to tolerate disappointment and frustration in a godly way when the people around them don’t always do what they want or make them happy. These lessons do not come easy or quick, no matter how hard someone tries.
That said, what is your role? What boundaries do you set? Do you stay and encourage and cheerlead and support these changes or do you separate to wait and see?
Here would be some criteria to think through what to do.
First, what is your husband’s “willingness to work, willingness to change, willingness to receive help and feedback from others” right now? Accountability only is effective if the person wanting change is willing to receive it and be honest.
For example, two days ago I asked a friend of mine to hold me accountable to more exercise. I invited her to call me up, drag my body to the gym, remind me of my commitment to get more in shape and exercise with me when I go. These “steps” are hard for me but I’m willing, but need encouragement and help and support. I invited her to be that person in my life.
It would be a very different picture if she came up to me and said, “Leslie, I’ve noticed you haven’t been at the gym lately and have put on a few pounds. I’m going to hold you accountable to being at exercise class three times a week and check your pantry and throw out all the chocolate and potato chips I find.”
That is not her place, nor would it be effective. It would just make my heart hard or stubborn or sneaky.
In the same way, you cannot tell your husband what he needs to do to change or hold him accountable for changes he has no desire to make. However if he wanted to rebuild trust with you he could say, “If you ever want to check my phone to see if I’m being honest, feel free.” Or “Here are all my computer passwords. You can check my e-mail or where I’ve been anytime you want to. I want you to always trust me.”
Those are ways he takes responsibility for the trust he’s broken and asks you to rebuild trust with him by saying he’s willing to have you check those things. If he’s resistant to that, then he has no idea the damage he’s caused to your marriage by his deceit. To force him to do that will not yield the heart changes you’re looking for.
Sometimes when a confrontation happens, everyone’s attention is toward the sinner or addict but we forget that the fallout is experienced also by the family. You said you are weary. Feeling pressured to forgive and let go of all the consequences you put in place because he sort of said he was sorry. How does that sit with you?
You weren’t specific with the kind of emotional abuse you experience or the frequency, but if you are not safe – either physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, sexually or financially, you still may need to stay separate for a season in order for your husband to learn that you are no longer willing to live in an environment where you feel unsafe (Your boundary).
You say you’re tired of policing his behaviors. You don’t want to be the cheerleader if he’s not really all that interested in doing the work. Perhaps you’re also feeling bitter, resentful, a little mixed up in all of this and need some separation yourself so that you do not repay evil for evil or start to become like your spouse – immature, deceitful, or abusive. The toxic effects living with a destructive person are real and if your safety and sanity are being affected, perhaps it’s time to say, “I have to think of me and the kids right now while you work on you.”
This may sound harsh if he seems sorry, but for too long he’s expected everyone in the family to revolve around his needs and wants. Selfishness is pervasive in emotional abuse and sometimes selfishness continues even when someone is waking up from it. He pleads, “I want you to be there for me no matter what pain I’ve caused you.”
However, a change of heart would reveal an awareness of not only the pain he’s in, but also the pain he’s caused you and others. When you cause someone deep pain, you do not have expectations that they will immediately get over it. You understand that you must make amends and show evidence of change before they would trust you again or have positive or warm feelings towards you.
Friends, share with this reader how you know what “safeguards” or “boundaries” you need to put in place if your spouse is showing some movement but not enough?