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Is Marital Indifference Emotionally Abusive?

By Leslie Vernick

Have you ever heard the phrase, “If he doesn’t hit you it’s not abuse?” It’s not true. One of the most silent yet destructive forms of marital abuse is chronic indifference.

The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference. Indifference says I don’t care enough about you to give you my time, my energy or other resources to show interest, care, or love towards you. Indifference says how you feel or what you want doesn’t matter to me. Indifference says you are not a person to love, but an object to use. Indifference says I don’t need to change anything to make our relationship better for you if it’s okay for me. Indifference says that you exist for my benefit and when you don’t please me or benefit me anymore, you are replaceable or disposable.

One of the most horrific abuse Biblical stories is one of gross indifference. A Levite and his concubine wife were traveling home when they stopped in the town of Gibeah. Expecting the typical Jewish hospitality, they waited in the open square, hoping someone would invite them to spend the night. As evening descended, an old man spotted the couple and graciously took them to his house. While the two men were getting acquainted, vile men of the city surrounded the home, beat on the door, and demanded the old man bring his guest outside so they might ravish him.

The men of the town refused to listen to the old man so the Levite grabbed his own concubine wife and shoved her out the door. The men of the town raped her, taking turns until dawn.

The scriptures say, “When her husband opened the door to leave, there lay his concubine with her hands on the threshold. Coldly he said, “Get up! Let’s go! But there was no answer. So he tossed her lifeless body on his donkey and took her home” Later on he cut her up into twelve pieces and sent one piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel, portraying himself (not his poor wife) as the victim of a horrible injustice (Judges 19:1-30).

The rape and torture by those vile men was traumatic, but I often wonder if her greater suffering was that her own husband indifferently tossed her out the door like a piece of trash, knowing full well she would be used and abused.

Marriage is the one relationship where a man and a woman publicly make promises to not be indifferent. They promise to love, to cherish, to protect, and to honor one another. When a person regularly fails to keep his or her fundamental marital promise, the marriage is in deep trouble and to pretend otherwise is not healthy or biblical.

For example, Karen was a wife who loved her husband and wanted things to work between them but he had little time for her. He was too busy running a business and making money. When she tried to talk to him about her feelings, he became harsh and then gave her the silent treatment, sometimes ignoring her for months. When Karen pursued or pressured him to discuss their problems, he attacked. He accused her of being controlling and manipulative. The only personal connection he desired was sexual and this left Karen feeling empty and used.

Finally she decided to have a heart-to-heart talk about changes she needed in their relationship. Wiring up all her courage she said, “Steve, there is something that I need to share with you that’s really important. Do you have time tonight?”

“Okay, but I don’t have all night. There’s a football game starting in about 15 minutes.”

Karen took a deep breath and began. “I know you get very frustrated when I’m not responsive to your sexual needs. I know you want me to be more sexual with you and enjoy our physical relationship. But the way you treat me much of the time makes me feel angry and hurt. When you ignore me for long periods of time or accuse me of being things that I’m not, I just can’t manufacture warm and affectionate feelings towards you when I’m upset and hurt.”

Then she asked him the million-dollar question. She asked, “Wouldn’t you enjoy our sexual relationship much more if you knew I wanted to be with you and enjoyed that part of our relationship rather than me just doing my wifely duty?“

Steve’s answer floored her. “Of course I would,” he said, but added, “But if wifely duty is all I can get, I’ll settle for that.”

Steve’s response woke Karen up to his gross indifference toward her as his wife, as a woman, and as a person. Everything in their relationship revolved around him and his needs. As long as her body was available when he wanted sex, it mattered little to him how she felt.

Later, Karen told me, God never intended me to be a sexual object nor to sacrifice my body to enable my husband’s selfishness to continue unchallenged.”

Indifference can be one of the most unrecognized yet damaging forms of emotional abuse in marriage. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. If you’d like more information on how to help those in destructive and abusive marriages, visit my new website at: www.leslievernick.com/counselors.


The Emotionally Destructive Marriage

by Leslie Vernick

Something Has to Change… You can’t put it into words, but something is happening to you. Your stomach churns, your heart aches, and the tension in your marriage is making you feel weary and a little crazy. The constant criticism, disrespect, cruelty, deceit, and gross indifference are eroding your confidence and breaking your spirit.
For any woman caught in an emotionally destructive marriage, Leslie Vernick offers a personalized path forward. Based on decades of counseling experience, her intensely practical, biblical advice will show you how to establish boundaries and break free from emotional abuse.

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Does the Bible Allow Separation?

Question: I have been separated from my husband for over two years. God brought his infidelity to light and freed me from over 15 years of his pornography, deception, lack of maturity, responsibility, neglect, and manipulation, etc. Reading your book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage helped me understand more about what I had been living.

I don’t believe that God wants us to reconcile without real changes taking place. I have learned many things and am changing and growing. I am not seeing that as much in my spouse even though his words say he’s sorry and he loves me and wants everything to be different.

The most difficult question I get (from church leadership) is that Scripture doesn’t allow for “separation.” Therefore, they tell me that I am living in disobedience because I am not being submissive to my husband’s desires for reconciliation. In one of your video’s I heard you say God does not value the sanctity of marriage more than the safety or sanity of the people in it. That made so much sense to me.

And it’s not just me – I have two sons that are living through this as well. I believe it’s okay to have healthy boundaries (insisting on seeing change) and I feel like that is what I am working on in addition to my healing and learning to speak up for myself. But I can’t defend my actions with a verse of Scripture that gives me this right or excuses me from living with a difficult husband.

Do you have any advice on how I can answer this accusation and pressure from my church?

Answer: I think the way you phrase your question may lead to part of your problem. You asked where is there a Scripture verse that gives you the right to separate because your husband is difficult. I can’t think of one (nor can your church leaders) and therefore that’s where you (and they) get stuck.

But I don’t think that’s the question you really are asking. I think the question you’re asking is this: “Do you have justification from Scripture that gives you the right to be cautious about fully reconciling your marriage when your spouse has not demonstrated the fruits of repentance after serious and repetitive sin?”

I think the answer is clear. Yes you do, even more so because of infidelity. Most church leaders would not hesitate to accept adultery as Biblical grounds for divorce. However, you chose not to end your marriage right away.

Here is What People are Saying About Leslie's Empowered to Change.

“I Learned some valuable lessons. Knowing Core Values (who I am) is different than my fickle feelings and thoughts is huge for me. Avoiding ‘what if' thinking and ‘worse case scenario disease' will also be helpful to me. Difference between acknowledging and accepting is good for me to know. I acknowledged the problems 10 years ago, but have only moved closer to accepting in last year. Being responsible for my well-being is new to me. Giving up hope of change in my husband has come very slowly. Grieving currently as this is sinking in. Class helped me see a lot of things. Trusting God to work it all ‘into' me. I pray it will move me forward. I need hope for me and kids.”

~ Graduate of Empowered To Change


Leslie wants to help you grow in your personal and relational effectiveness. Please submit your questions by clicking here.

Then, visit Leslie's Blog as she posts her responses to one question per week.

Note: Due to the volume of questions that Leslie receives, she is unable to respond to every question.