This week I am in Texas with a group of lovely women ministry leaders. We’ve been coming to this place for about 8 years to refresh, recharge, exercise, and encourage one another. I’m blessed to have a group of women who know the pressures and responsibilities of ministry who can speak words of truth to me.
How about you? Are you a part of a small group or have a core group of women friends who know what your life is like, who love you, hear you, question you and encourage you? If not, I highly encourage you to make that one of your goals for 2016.
At the end of the month, Chris Moles (a pastor and batterer intervention specialist) and I will be presenting a free webinar on Effective Counseling Strategies for the Emotionally Destructive Person. If you know someone who is interested in learning how to better work with these people, please let them know of this important FREE webinar. It will be Wednesday, January 20th at 7:30. Registrations are now open. CLICK HERE to register.
Question: Since my husband wants to work on our marriage, I believe the right thing to do would be to work on our marriage. But this is not what I want, and not even what I think I am capable of. What advice would you give an abused wife whose husband now wants to work on the marriage, but she feels unwilling or unable to do so?
My husband has been, emotionally, and spiritually abusive to me for 8.5 years. He has been controlling, manipulative, angry, bitter, expecting me to be like him for 8.5 years.
Now in the last week, he has radically changed, at least for now. He is trying to get right with God and telling me he wants to save this marriage and is not giving up on this marriage.
I was not too far away from leaving because he has been abusive and because he has tried to prevent me from following God and from living a Christian lifestyle.
I was planning to leave soon, and was looking forward to it. I am very disappointed that he wants to work on the marriage, because it's not what I wanted, I don't know if this is real or if this is one more way to manipulate me, and I don't like the idea of having to continue to live with him.
He has changed me, and hurt me so much. Can you help me? How do I know if the changes in him are real? How do I deal with my own feelings? Thanks
Answer: Last week I answered a question from a woman who had strong feelings of attachment and didn’t want to let go of her husband even though he said wanted a divorce. You feel the opposite. It’s understandable that you feel done and ready to close this chapter of your life and marriage. Your ready to stop being abused and don’t want to go back to that – ever again. That's good.
Don’t be too hard on yourself for feeling the way you do. Most healthy people would. However, just because you have these feelings, doesn’t mean you should write off the possibility of future reconciliation. You said that you believed the right thing to do was to work on your marriage, especially since your husband showed such a radical change.
But I think you are mixing up two separate but related issues. Your marriage definitely needs work and repair if it’s to be reconciled, that’s a given.
However, his abusive behavior is not a result of his marital unhappiness. It’s a result of his own wrong thinking, inability to handle his own hurt and negative emotions and unreasonable expectations or demands of you and marriage.
That said, for your marriage to be reconciled, your husband will need to accept responsibility for his problem first and do the work he needs to do to change these things BEFORE you can attempt to work together on your marriage problems (whatever they may be).
Why is this sequence important? Because in his mind he abused you because you did something wrong; you made him unhappy or angry. All along he has justified his behavior to himself because of your failures and your sins. Because of his hurt he’s told himself it’s acceptable to hurt you back. Therefore if you start with marital counseling, it will become about you changing so that he doesn’t feel hurt, disappointed, or angry. That’s the same merry-go-round you’ve been on for years, only now with a counselor “helping you change.”
Your husband’s entitlement attitude (I’m entitled to a wife who never hurts me, never upsets me, never angers me, never disappointments me) doesn’t get addressed, nor does his rationalization or self-justification. It becomes about you dancing harder to make sure you become what he needs you to become so he doesn't get upset.
In the marital counseling your counselor may also encourage him to care about your needs. However, the basic issue of wrong thinking and entitlement is usually never confronted or healed.
In every long-term healthy marriage there are disappointments, expectations that never happen, some needs that are unmet, and times when one spouse feels angry at the other. However, in all that messiness, abusive behavior is not the response. Instead there is constructive communication, discussion, forgiveness, and reconciliation (tweet this).
Your husband must come to understand the truth. He didn’t abuse you because you disappointed him or hurt him or angered him. He abused you because he chose to and felt entitled to. This is what he must work on before joint marital counseling will really make a difference. He must learn to handle his own anger, disappointment, and hurt in ways that are non-abusive. When he has learned do that, then there is hope for true reconciliation.
How will you know if that’s happening? For starters, it might be that you tell him that before you’re willing to consider joint counseling, he needs to get help for himself as to why he felt justified in treating you this way all these years. See how that goes over and whether he actually does it. Does he still want reconciliation if that’s what you need for him to do first? Or does he want it his way and on his terms?
How will you know change is happening? Here’s what the rough roadmap looks like. Ask yourself, “Is he growing in self-awareness” – does he look at why does he do the things he does or does he still blame you or others? When he sees he repeats behaviors or attitudes that are hurtful, is he developing self-control so he can stop them?
Is he growing in humility – a willingness to get help, listen to wise others, submit himself to accountability, and receive feedback from you when you see him falling back into his old ways? Does he self-correct or is he excusing and justifying?
Is he grateful that you are willing to give him time to work on these changes or is he demanding that you forgive, trust him and reconcile without seeing enough evidence of lasting change?
Is he willing to hear how he has hurt you, ways that his behaviors have been smothering and toxic to you and does he show some remorse and empathy for the pain he’s caused?”
These things show he is growing to be a healthier, godly man, which may give you renewed feelings of love and energy to work on your relationship with him. Without these changes however, there cannot be any real or lasting changes to the marriage.
Meanwhile, you have your own work to do. You said, “he changed me.” While understandable that you feel that way the truth is the only one who can change you is you. Therefore, if you don’t like the person you are right now, it’s a perfect time for you to work on yourself.
You can say to your husband something like, “I’m thrilled that you’re wanting to follow God and be a better man. And, I believe it would honor God if we were able to reconcile our marriage. However, right now I need time. I have my own work to do. I don’t like the person I’ve become in this marriage and I know I don’t want to return to the marriage the way it was. I don’t think marital counseling is the right choice for me because I don’t think either one of us is at a good place do sustain that kind of work. I’m going to work on me and I hope you work on you.”
You’ll see if “change” is really happening in him if he hears you, allows you to have a voice and gives you the space you need right now without pressure. Otherwise, it’s still manipulation, albeit a nicer version of it, but still manipulation.
Friends, how did you know change was real and how were you able to keep your heart open in the meantime?