I just returned from a long weekend in Florida. The good news is I got out of Pennsylvania’s blistery weather and enjoyed some great Florida sunshine even though I was indoors most of the time for the conference.
The bad news is I’m back in the cold. More and more I prefer the warm weather. Glad I’ll be headed to California once again for winter.
Last week I wrote a blog for Christian counselors on a topic I think you’ll find interesting. I invited them to think outside the box on what it might look like to help a woman become more like Christ. Check it out and let me know what you think. You can find it at here.
Also, there will be a two-session class introduction to “Building CORE Strength Group” on Wednesday, December 9th and 16th from 7:30 PM ET -9 PM ET. For more information click here.
Over the past few weeks I’ve appreciated the lively discussion we’ve had around boundaries and today’s question is a follow up application question.
How does a wife go about setting boundaries around her husband’s control of her? I’ve offered her a few suggestions and I’d love you to give her your input as well.
Question: I’m confused on what constitutes emotional abuse. My husband is a well-respected man in our church and community. He doesn’t call me names or curse at me but he thinks he knows best about everything and he believes he should control absolutely everything as the head of the house. I have no say in our finances, what I can buy, how I decorate the house or even what groceries to purchase each week. He tells me what clothes I should wear and when I resist, he says that if I loved him, I’d want to please him in the way I dress.
I’ve told him I want to be free to make my own choices, but he tells me God has called him to be the head over me. When I disagree, or refuse to listen to him he tells me I am being un-submissive and disrespectful and that I must not love him.
I feel like I’m being slowly smothered and I can’t breathe. I wanted to go to work and he said I couldn’t because I am needed at home even though our children are in school all day long. If I do not have his meals cooked the way he wants when he wants, he withdraws, sulks and won’t talk to me.
There are times when I feel so angry I blow up and say terrible things. I feel bad for getting angry and sometimes I wonder if I’m not the abusive person because of what I say when I get upset. I find myself sneaking things behind his back and I know that’s wrong. Bottom line is I want to leave him but I’m afraid God will punish me if I do. Am I being rebellious and ungrateful or is there something wrong here?
Answer: Although we may not be able to articulate exactly what’s wrong, one of the ways we know that we are in an abusive and destructive relationship is that we feel it. Our spirit is crushed and we cannot thrive in the environment that we’re in. We’re slowly shriveling up and dying inside.
From what you describe, although your husband isn’t verbally abusive, his domineering and controlling behaviors are slowly suffocating you. They keep you afraid of making choices for yourself or when you try, you have a price to pay in his criticism and withdrawal. As a result you function like a child, not a grown up woman. This is not healthy for you or for him. This is also not what God intended for marriage.
God did not give husbands freedom to demand their own way all the time and call that headship. Rather, God calls that behavior selfishness. Biblical headship, as described by Jesus, involves sacrificial servant-hood. As the head, your husband gets to initiate that kind of service toward you. To learn more on the whole issue of Biblical headship and submission issues watch my free video here.
You can’t change your husband’s controlling behavior or his belief that he’s entitled to do so. However, the problem you must work on is your response. Right now you cave into his demands and allow yourself to be coerced into doing it his way, or you have a temper tantrum and say horrible things that you later regret. Either way you are not only being treated as a child, you’re responding like one. You’re functioning as a complaint child, a helpless child, or a rebellious child.
If you want to change this destructive pattern in your marriage, the change starts with you. First, you need strong boundaries. Remember boundaries help you define who you are and how you want to be treated. They help you take responsibility for you and steward your life and choices in the way you believe God calls you to. Right now your husband is attempting to take responsibility for you, believing that is his God-given role and right to do so. That’s not true. Only you are responsible for you. He is responsible to you but not for you.
First, it’s imperative that you stop and ask yourself why you’ve permitted yourself to be treated like a child instead of an adult woman throughout your marriage? This is a very important step.
Second and just as important, ask yourself what is going on in you that makes you unable to tolerate both your husband’s disapproval as well as his withdrawal when you refuse to comply? He uses both of these tactics to manipulate you into doing what he wants. If you want to make a significant change and become healthy, you’ll have to learn to tolerate his disapproval and withdrawal, at least for a season.
Next, you need to face whatever fears you have that keeps you from learning to speak up for yourself in a calm, firm, adult way. You have a typical pattern of putting up with inappropriate behavior until you can’t stand it anymore and then you blow up. When that happens, you feel ashamed and guilty so you go back to putting up with it until you can’t bear to. Now you want to run away and leave the relationship. But I’d encourage you to stick it out for now but this time from a position of strength, not fear.
God wants you to function as an adult woman, not a passive, fearful, or rebellious child. Gaining strength and courage is something He wants to give you and your marriage is the context in which you can start to learn (tweet that).
Pray and ask him for His wisdom and strength to begin to have a crucial but calm and controlled conversation with your spouse.
Last, it seems like your husband believes certain lies that hinder his ability to allow you to function independently of him. I’m not sure of all of them but here are a few that I’ve discerned in your question:
Lie # 1: If someone says she loves you, she should always want to please you, do what you want her to, and make you happy.
Lie # 2: If you say you love someone that means you should always do what the other person wants you to do and always want to please him.
Lie #3: God has given men total decision-making power in a family and over their wives.
Lie # 4: When my wife disagrees or doesn’t want to do what I want her to do, that means she doesn’t love me or love God enough to submit to my leadership.
Lie # 5: A wife’s sole purpose is to revolve herself around the needs and interests of her family. If she wants anything independent of those things, she is not loving her family or loving God first.
Your husband may mean well but if he’s attached to these lies, he’s blind to the truth. He may not be able to see clearly but you must. However, when you begin to assert yourself it will not only make him angry, it will be painful to him because your independence scares him. He also tells himself the lie that your quest to be “yourself” means that you don’t love him or God enough.
In order to break this pattern, you must begin to refute the lies your husband believes in your conversations with him. In addition, you must not allow his sulking behavior or withdrawal to intimidate you to do what you do not want to do.
As you implement these changes, I’d encourage you to have a “speak up” dialogue with him where you address not only what you do or don’t want to do, but you address the lie in order to expose it to the light of truth. It might go something like this:
“Honey I know you mean well and you are trying to do what you think is best for me and our family but I’m a grown up woman and need to make my own choices. If I choose an outfit for myself, it’s not because I don’t love you, but I want to wear clothes that make me feel comfortable and attractive and I think I can best decide how I feel in certain clothes.”
When he withdraws and sulks because you haven’t done something he wanted you might say something like this:
“I know you’re disappointed that I’ve decided to take that part time job but I need some outside stimulation and am bored at home all day. I know you think that the household chores will suffer but I think that I can still cover the basics with working these hours. The kids can help out more and I think I will feel happier as a person. I need you to respect my decision, even if you disagree.”
This change will feel very awkward at first for both of you. He won’t like your new found strength to stand up to him and you will feel uncomfortable asserting yourself without using your anger as a shield. But I promise you that if you stick with being respectful toward him, yet assertive in what you need for yourself, this path will have the best shot at helping him to see his controlling behavior as unhealthy and hopefully he will begin to change it.
If you refuse to give into his sulking and just go about your business, then it no longer works for him to do it. Pay attention. He will probably respond in one of two ways. He will either escalate into more controlling abusive behavior, or will adapt to the changes you are trying to make in the marriage. If he adapts then you have given your relationship a better shot at building more mutuality and reciprocity. If he escalates to scarier controlling or abusive behaviors, then you have greater grounds to consider separating from him.
Friends, when you realize that you are being controlled or manipulated through someone’s emotional withdrawal or hurtful words, how have you gained the strength to respond and set healthy boundaries for yourself in a godly way?