I was encouraged to see John and Lisa Bevere address the issue of abusive relationships in their recent podcast. If you’d like to hear more you can listen to it at HERE
Please pray. I believe (hope) the church is beginning to wake up to ways it has not only been silent but actually enabled domestic abuse to be excused and minimized for years under the value of keeping the family together. Let’s continue to speak up and speak out for those who need to see this issue more clearly.
Question: I just finished The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. It's a wonderful resource. I was especially interested in the concept of reactive abuse, but wanted to know if this can occur without other abusive behavior? I see my husband exhibiting this quite a bit in his interactions with me, but his threshold for a response seems incredibly low.
He reacts poorly when I am legitimately stressed by work deadlines, frustrated, or when I try to talk about marital issues. When my dad was dying of cancer, he became cold and intractable because he thought I was overly stressed and not handling my family correctly. He did eventually apologize and mostly has not repeated this degree of poor behavior.
Of course, this makes discussing relationship problems almost impossible, because even with a gentle start-up on my part, he becomes defensive and begins lashing out with very hurtful words.
In other areas of life, my husband is a very good partner. He supports my career, is an engaged father with our kids and does more than his fair share around the house.
He grew up with a very volatile father, who would yell and rage when he was in a bad mood, which I think explains his hair-trigger response. My husband does not think that is the issue and says that this is just “who he is.”
I want a marriage where I can feel emotionally safe, even when I struggle or am not perfectly happy, and I'm frankly exhausted from trying to sidestep around his sensitivity.
What else can I do to help him and our relationship?
Answer: This is an excellent question because it is important to differentiate reactive abuse from controlling abuse.
It’s also important to note that even someone who displays abusive behaviors can be kind and helpful in other areas. – Click To Tweet
You indicate that your husband reacts negatively to you when you are stressed and in his opinion not handling yourself the way he thinks you should in those situations (work, your dad’s death). He also reacts negatively when you try to discuss touchy marital issues.
Does he react to other people this way too or just you? Most people who are “reactively” abusive have trouble with other people too. If it’s just you, then his “reactions” would seem a bit targeted to a purpose.
It does sound like he gets triggered because of his own background but that doesn’t mean that he’s not abusive when he gets triggered. Two key characteristics that I’d like you to think through are the fear factor and the amount of control exerted. I see that he tries to control how you handle your stress, and he tries to control what you say to him regarding your level of marital distress or problems that you want to talk about. By “reacting negatively” it puts you on notice. This topic is off limits. Or “you better get your act together right now.”
It may be true that he feels very threatened when you criticize him or are feeling overwhelmed yourself and he doesn’t know how to talk about it. But instead of admitting that to himself or to you, he tries to shut you down or get you to stop feeling stress or instead make it about you doing something wrong.
Does it work? Do his negative or explosive reactions make you feel like you have to stop bringing up issues or get your act together pretty quick when you’re feeling stressed or out of sorts? Do his reactions make you believe that there is something wrong with you?
And, if you don’t get yourself together or do what he wants, like when your dad died, what happens next? Is there more escalation? Threats? Punishment? Any danger to you? Are you afraid?
Your husband is comfortable with you working, he’s helpful and a good dad, but he’s uncomfortable with you not being okay or in any kind of distress. Instead of being a supportive partner for you when you struggle, he tries to shut you down and silence you. Again, this may be due to his inability to handle his own feelings about your distress, and instead of owning them as his issues, he tries to silence you. And from your question, it sounds like it is taking a toll on your own emotional well being.
So there is good news and bad news here. It sounds like your husband cares about you and your family. When he realized that he behaved poorly around your father’s death, he did own that and you say he has not repeated his negative reactions to the same degree. He is responsible financially, generally helpful and a good parent. Those are all good things. But you’re right, you don’t want to continually walk around on eggshells, fearing if you don’t do things exactly the way he thinks you “should” you’re in for another explosion.
So to answer your first question, from the limited information you gave me, I see a degree of control here. Not as much as in other marriages, but I see it. Second, reactive abuse can be just as toxic and lethal as controlling abuse so don’t minimize it. Reactive abuse just has a different treatment plan. It’s more about immaturity and perhaps PTSD or addiction issues. It usually is also displayed in other settings and with other people.
Your second question is what else can you do? Stop pretending. Stop tiptoeing around the issues. Don’t get provoked into being reactive yourself or harsh with your words, but speak honestly with him about how you feel and where you see your marriage.
You might say something like,
“I’d like to talk to you about a problem I’m having. (When you start a conversation with a defensive and/or reactive person, it’s less likely that they will immediately shut it down when you talk about your problem rather than their problem).
I feel exhausted in our marriage trying to tiptoe around your anger. When I get stressed or upset about something, there doesn’t seem to be any room for me to express my own negative feelings without you getting really upset. I feel I’m only allowed to have one channel and that is “GOOD” all the time. I’m not allowed to be crabby or angry or stressed, or discouraged, frustrated, or irritated.
I’m tired of having to pretend I’m GOOD all the time so that you don’t get upset. I don’t want to have that kind of relationship. I want to be able to be myself, good and yucky sometimes without being afraid that’s going to trigger you.
I know you hate when I get stressed out, but I’m not perfect and I do feel stressed sometimes. I do feel yucky sometimes and I want a partner who can give me a hug, and not put me down or get furious with me. I don’t want to feel I have to wear an emotional straightjacket when I’m around you.”
Then stop and let him respond. If it feels safer to you, you may want to put this in writing or e-mail or text so that he has a chance to think about it on his own before seeing you. I don’t think you will help him or your marriage by continuing the same dance. It will only reinforce his strategy that his anger is effective in keeping you under wraps. In addition, he never has to face whatever uncomfortable feelings your distress brings up in him. I don't think that’s best for his growth either.
Friends, how might you encourage this woman to take good care of herself or speak up with her spouse?