Good Monday Morning Friends,
I just returned from my annual girlfriend retreat. These wonderful women are such encouragers and truth tellers in my life. Do you have some real friends that you trust? People who know you well and you can be totally real with? God tells us that we need community and we need one another. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
For those of you in difficult and destructive marriages you are very vulnerable to being negatively impacted by your abusive husband. Please don’t isolate yourself. His words are much more potent when you don’t have other people who tell you different things about yourself. His cruelty, lack of respect and compassion not only beat you down but can infect you with its poison so that you start becoming like the very things you hate. This week’s blog will help you protect yourself.
This week’s question: My eyes are starting to be open to the fact that I am in an emotionally abusive marriage. I’m not sure what I’m going to do about that just yet but I’ve also seen myself acting abusively. I’m harsh with my children and I’m retaliating against my husband, mostly in subtle ways but it scares me. I’m so angry and resentful I don’t even know who I am anymore. What can I do heal my own heart before I ever figure out what I’m supposed to do about my marriage?
Answer: You are so wise to recognize that living with an abusive person has very negative effects on you. The Bible tells us when we are around angry people we can become just like them (Proverbs 22:24-25).
A person can’t help but feel angry and hurt when we are mistreated, but those emotions can quickly harden into bitterness and resentment if we’re not vigilant. It’s crucial that if you’re in a destructive marriage you not lose your empathy and compassion as a person.
The capacity for empathy and compassion are hardwired by God into the human heart and brain. They’re essential for all relationships to be maintained and healed. Jesus tells us that we are to treat people as we would want to be treated not as they deserve. (Luke 6:21). Perhaps one of the reasons your husband behaves the way he does with no remorse or change is he has lost his ability to feel your pain or is incapable of genuine empathy and compassion for others.
If that’s the case, do you want to be like that? When we’ve lost our empathy and compassion for others, or never had it, we are diminished as human beings and our darker selfish side will always rule us. When that happens it’s impossible to maintain loving connection with others. Also, when we behave as our worst selves toward those we are supposed to love, we do not and cannot feel good about ourselves.
Empathy and compassion are probably the last things you feel or want to feel toward your husband right now. But aren’t those the core emotions you wished your spouse felt toward you? Don’t you wish your husband felt, even for a minute, what it was like to be in your shoes when he screams at you, ignores you for weeks, berates you, sexually uses or abuses you, lies to you, terrifies you, cheats on you, rages at you, humiliates you, slaps you, and turns your own children against you? If he could feel compassion for you in your exhaustion, your discouragement, your confusion, your hurt, your sadness, your fear, and your hopelessness, maybe it might cause him to stop and think about what he’s doing and want to change.
One of the things that kills empathy and compassion for someone we once felt love towards is the build-up of negative emotions, especially resentment. Jesus knows that when we’re struggling with the effects of a person’s sin against us, we will feel angry, scared, and hurt. That is human and normal. But when the person who has hurt us is not sorry, or continues to hurt us again and again, our negative emotions grow and resentment builds, putting a choke hold on all our positive feelings. I believe that is one reason why the bible commands us to forgive when someone hurts us and why Jesus tells us to love our enemy by doing him or her good. It’s not only for their benefit but for ours, so that we don’t fill up with resentment and become toxic.
Doing good toward your enemy may not make any difference to him, but it will make a huge difference in you. Hear me. It’s not what your husband does to you that will wield the fatal blow to your personhood, but rather what you do with what he does to you. Do you allow it to destroy you? Do you allow it to embitter you? Do you allow its poison to suck all the goodness and love from your soul so that all that’s left is a shriveled up heart that snarls and shames and scoots to safety in order to not get hurt again?
It sounds crazy, opposite to what we would humanly think of as a smart thing to do but ask God to give you his heart of compassion for your spouse. Empathy for someone does not mean enabling him or trusting him or allowing him to hurt you. It means you recognize he’s a sinner just like you. You feel sad for the man he has become instead of mad that he is such a lousy husband. It means you will not treat him as he deserves but you will treat him as a human being who is created in God’s image. That does not mean you never communicate some hard truth or set boundaries with him, but learn to do it without contempt, shame or disrespect. Doing so will give you a much better chance at being heard.
You can choose to grow in Christ-like character through your difficult circumstances or you can succumb to the lies of your real enemy, Satan. The bible warns us, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) The devil may already be chomping away at your husband’s heart, but don’t let him get yours too. Maintaining your empathy and compassion not only protects you from staying a victim, it protects you from becoming an abuser.
Marital adversity not only reveals character, it shapes it. You have a choice about how that shaping is taking place right now. When you know and believe that you are a loved, valuable, worthwhile human being and live from that core place, toxic people lose their power to manipulate you. They can’t control and intimidate you as they once did when you felt worthless, dependent and needy. If you don’t strengthen your connection with God you will always live from your circumstances and your emotions. On the other hand, when you live from who God says you are, your abusive/destructive husband might permanently damage your marriage, but he cannot destroy you.
Friends, those of you living in toxic relationships share how you keep from losing your empathy and compassion, even toward your enemy.