Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

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The Truth about Emotional Abuse

We had been married less than a year the first time I found myself curled in the fetal position, bawling my eyes out.

“Why, God?” I cried out. “Why have I been a success at everything in my life except the one thing I want most?”

The tears streamed down my face as I tried to recover from the huge fight my husband and I were having. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I do remember it was obviously my fault.

At least that’s what he told me.

As I poured out my heart to God from the safety of my bedroom, I heard the gentle whisper. “It’s not you.” In that moment, I knew God was telling me this fight—and so many after—were not my fault. It was not that I was a failure; instead, it was that my husband was using me as a scapegoat, to turn every argument into something I had done wrong.

A couple years later, we were outside with our then two-year-old son. He peddled around on his little tricycle as we stood talking. Then, Blake crashed.

“What were you doing?” came the angry outburst from my husband. After all, our son’s crash (which was nothing more than a few tears) was clearly my fault.

Just like everything else in our marriage.

Years later, the stakes were much higher. He had an affair. Eventually, when it became clear he was not turning from his affair, I drew the line and filed for divorce. During one conversation as we tried to work through the dividing of assets, the accusations came out yet again.

“It’s your fault we are in this situation,” he said. “You’re the one who kicked me out.”

Never mind the affair which was public knowledge. Ignore the online dating profile he had established and the numerous women he was dating. Forget the many lies he told me and that he lost his job.

It was my fault because I finally had the courage to stand up to him, to refuse to be abused any more.

Emotional abuse.

It’s real. It’s damaging. It is painful. It eats away at your self-esteem, your desire to live. It steals your life, your self-respect. It robs you of the opportunity to fulfill your God-given purpose.

You might think I’m being dramatic, exaggerating the impact.

I’m not. I never would have been allowed to write, to speak, to do the things God called me to do. My husband would have forbidden me from stepping out of the shadows and doing anything beyond being the faithful helpmate, the first lady of the church.

I was repeatedly told that “wives must submit” under all circumstances. Scriptures were twisted to keep me in my place, to support his agenda.

My job was to cook and clean, take care of the kids, serve him faithfully however he wanted. I was responsible for the yard work and the household repairs and the grocery shopping and everything else in our home. There was no partnership; my children and I were made into little more than his servants.

His job? To bring home a paycheck and rule his castle.

What if we didn’t do what he wanted when he wanted? The consequences were usually a fit of rage, a yelling, screaming, cursing tirade that left us running for safety. It was usually much easier—and safer—to simply go along with him.

I hear from men and women everyday who are living in a similar hell.

There’s the dear friend who took all the guns out of her house and slept in her car for fear of what her drunken husband might do.

Or the sweet lady who found herself scorned by the church because her husband went crying to the elders about how she just wasn’t willing to work on the marriage—after years of emotional abuse.

Or the precious pastor’s wife who put up with her husband’s ongoing affairs thinking she was doing what was best for her kids only to realize they wanted her to leave years earlier.

Or the husband whose narcissistic wife controls every aspect of their lives and belittles his attempts to be a leader.

Or the woman whose husband is addicted to pornography and only uses her to satisfy his lustful desires, repeatedly wanting to act out pornographic fantasies with no concern for her dignity.

Or the man who spends all of the family money on his addictions.

Emotional abuse is rampant in our culture, in our church. And sadly, the church rarely recognizes the damage it does to the victims.

When you think about emotional abuse, here’s a few things I hope you begin to understand:

Emotional abuse is an ongoing pattern of mistreatment. We’ve all fallen into the trap of emotional abuse. Maybe we attempted to manipulate our spouse to get our way. Maybe we wrongfully placed the blame on him/her. Maybe we’ve lost our temper and said things we later regretted.

But that’s not what I’m talking about when I refer to emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is an ongoing pattern, a regular way of relating to someone in an abusive manner. It’s about creating an atmosphere where our spouse must walk on eggshells, never knowing what’s going to trigger an outburst. It’s intentionally tearing down our spouse to build ourselves up, to make us feel better about ourselves. It’s a pattern of attempting to make our spouse the guilty partner while we never bear any portion of the blame. It’s a regular pattern of relegating our spouse to a lower position instead of an equal partner. It’s about using our spouse as an object to gratify our desires instead of selflessly putting our spouse’s needs ahead of our own.

Emotional abuse is worse than it seems to the outsider. If you’ve never been in an emotionally abusive relationship, you might be reading these examples and thinking they are no big deal. Everyone experiences these types of circumstances at some point. You might be thinking I’m just describing human nature. But those of us who have lived through emotionally abusive relationships? We are probably shuddering, experiencing flashbacks to those moments. We are questioning ourselves, wondering if it really was us or if it was even abuse. We find ourselves shrinking back into our shell, seeing the hollow reality of who we became in the midst of the pain. We are reliving the worst days of our lives.

If you have never lived our lives, I ask you not to judge. It doesn’t matter how we describe it, it doesn’t do the reality justice. And, many well-meaning souls will turn it on us and further victimize us by making us think we truly are the crazy ones.

Emotional abuse is basis for a biblical divorce. I know many will disagree with me on this point. Some will say there’s no biblical basis for divorce. Others will argue only adultery is a biblical basis for divorce. Some will make exceptions for abandonment or even physical abuse (even though that one is not explicitly stated in scripture).

What happened to husbands loving their wives and wives respecting their husbands? Are these not the vows we take before God?

Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.” Malachi 2:15-16

The infamous “God hates divorce” passage is actually about the husband who breaks his vows and mistreats his wife. It’s about elevating the wife to make her an equal partner, loving her the way Christ loves the church. Divorce was established in Deuteronomy 24 to protect the vulnerable women, to allow them to remarry so they had a way to support themselves and their children. And, I believe Jesus was continuing this elevation of women when he talked about divorce.

God has a daddy’s heart for us. He does not want to see us suffer, to see us locked in bondage in a sick, dysfunctional marriage where one spouse continually mistreats and abuses the other.

Emotional abuse leaves scars that take years to heal. Honestly, I refused to leave my marriage until he had an affair because I was going to stick it out until I had a biblical reason. I didn’t even recognize the dysfunctional patterns in our relationship as abuse until several years after our marriage ended. Sadly, I watched the emotional and mental abuse become worse as my husband sunk deeper into a lifestyle of sin in the years after our divorce.

Despite years of working on myself, I still find myself shrinking away from conflict for fear of an angry outburst. I have to watch myself as I relate to my sweet husband, and he has to be cautious to keep his passion in check. Now and then, he gets excited about something like football, and he can visually see my kids and I shrink back into our shells as we are reminded of our pasts.

Some people say victims of abuse just need to walk away; no one is keeping them in their prison. I so wish it was that easy. In reality, escaping the abuse is one of the most dangerous times for the victim. The abuser doesn’t like having his control challenged, and he/she can become very unpredictable and dangerous.

If you are/have been the victim of emotional abuse, please know you are not alone. And, even more importantly, know God can bring you healing. He can bring beauty from your broken life and put you back together and on your feet for good (1 Peter 5:10).

Lord Jesus, I know you look down on all the victims of emotional abuse with tears in your eyes as you weep with us over the pain inflicted on us. I know you hold us tight, loving us even in the midst of our pain. I know you are the God who sets prisoners free and I pray for those trapped in the bondage of an emotionally abusive marriage. I pray you would guide their steps as you set them free. I also know you are the healer of all wounds and I ask you to pour out your healing power on those who have walked this painful path. Give them a vision of the beauty you want to bring from their broken lives. Lead them to that beauty as only you can. In Jesus’ name I pray, amen.