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How to Find Hope in an Emotionally Destructive Marriage

  • Whitney Hopler Contributing Writer
  • 2013 13 Sep
How to Find Hope in an Emotionally Destructive Marriage

Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Leslie Vernick's upcoming book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope (WaterBrook Press, 2013).

God intends marriages to be emotionally safe relationships of love and respect, in which both spouses can experience a life of peace and joy together. But in this fallen world, too many marriages have become damaged by sinful attitudes of cruelty, disrespect, deceit, and indifference.

If your marriage has become emotionally destructive, you don’t have to suffer passively in it. God will give you the courage and strength to find your voice in your marriage and stand up to abuse or neglect. Here’s how you can find hope in an emotionally destructive marriage:

Take an honest look at the state of your marriage. Reflect on what your relationship with your spouse is currently like and ask God to help you discern whether it’s simply disappointing (as all marriages are from time to time) or truly destructive to your emotional wellbeing. An emotionally destructive marriage includes an ongoing pattern of abusive or neglectful attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing you down or inhibiting your growth. In a destructive marriage, your spouse will usually not be aware of how much his or her destructiveness is affecting you, fail to take responsibility for it, and fail to change. Consider various aspects of your marriage, such as: your friendship, your sexual relationship, how you handle differences and conflict, how you make up after a fight, your finances, how you make decisions together, and your spiritual journey. In any of these areas, does your spouse regularly deny, criticize, or crush your personhood, dignity, or freedom of choice? If so, your marriage has become emotionally destructive.

Keep in mind that all healthy marriages contain three essential ingredients. One of those ingredients is mutuality, which means that both spouses are contributing qualities of honesty, caring, respect, responsibility, and repentance to the marriage so that it can keep growing stronger. Another is reciprocity, which involves sharing both power and responsibility in the marriage as both people give and receive. Finally, freedom is another essential component of a healthy marriage. That means that both spouses are free to be themselves, make choices, give input, and express feelings without fear of being badgered, manipulated, or punished.

Express your feelings about your marriage to God in prayer. God already knows how you feel in your marriage, but He wants you to pray about your feelings so you can sense His great love for you while you communicate with Him, and so you can listen to the guidance that He’ll give you through His Holy Spirit about what you can do to move toward safety and sanity.

Center yourself in God, not your spouse. It’s dangerous to let the opinions of your spouse – an imperfect human being – determine what you believe about yourself. You should only look to God to define your identity and determine your worth. Make a frequent habit of reading and meditating on the Bible to absorb its truths about what God says about you. Put your marriage in its proper place by making God your first love. Then when your spouse disappoints you or devalues you, it won’t crush you because you’ll be centered in what matters most: your relationship with God.

Build a strong core. Ask God to help you develop four core qualities that will help you be strong while dealing with an emotionally destructive marriage. Commit yourself to truth and reality by not giving in to wishful thinking and seeking real evidence of change in your marriage. Open yourself up to growth, instruction, and feedback about your marriage from caring and trustworthy people. Be responsible for yourself and respectful toward your spouse without dishonoring yourself. Finally, be empathic and compassionate toward your spouse as a suffering sinner just like you, without enabling him or her to continue to disrespect or abuse you.

Start a dialogue with your spouse about your marriage by asking three key questions. During a time when you and your spouse can relax and focus on a good conversation, ask: “Are you happy?” “What do you see as our most important goal or challenge as a couple if we’re going to improve our relationship?” and “What kind of spouse and parent do you most desire to be?” Then listen without criticizing, to encourage your spouse to think more deeply about these issues.

Prepare yourself to confront your spouse. Before you confront your spouse about abusive or neglectful behavior in your marriage, prepare wisely. Develop a safety plan that details how you’ll escape and where you’ll stay if your spouse tries to hurt you. Document when, where, and how your spouse says or does something emotionally destructive to you. Copy financial records, phone records, and other documentation that proves your spouse has engaged in deceitful or illegal behaviors. If your spouse physically harms or you or your children, file a record with the police, get medical attention right away, and make sure that official photos are taken of the injuries. If your spouse damages your property, take photos to show the damage. Tell some wise and trustworthy friends or family members what has been going on in your marriage and ask them to support you when you confront your spouse. Consult with a lawyer to learn about your legal rights and liabilities should you decide to leave your spouse. Open your own bank account and credit card without your spouse, so you’ll have to access to money that your spouse can’t take away.

Confront your spouse about specific destructive behaviors you want stopped. Travel separately to meet your spouse in a public place (so you can escape to a safe place if your spouse becomes destructively angry) and clearly spell out the changes you’d like to see happen in your marriage. Don’t allow your spouse to distract you from what you’ve planned to say by pulling you into an argument. Simply tell your spouse what specific changes you want to see, as well as what specific consequences you will enforce if he or she refuses to make those changes.

Ask God to guide you as you decide whether to stay or leave. After you determine whether or not your spouse is willing to make the changes you’ve requested, stay in close contact with God through prayer as you figure out how to proceed. If your spouse is abusive and simply will not repent and change, you should leave your marriage in order to protect yourself and your children. Holding onto your marriage at all costs is dangerous and not God’s will for you; while God does hate divorce, He also hates seeing one of his beloved children (you) be destroyed by abuse. If your spouse is willing to do the hard work of making genuine changes to his or her attitudes and actions (backed up by solid evidence), pursuing healing and growth, and being accountable to others (such as a counselor and a support group), then reconciliation is possible at the right time, as God leads you.

Adapted from The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: How to Find Your Voice and Reclaim Your Hope, copyright 2013 by Leslie Vernick. Published by WaterBrook Press, Colorado Springs, Co.,      

Leslie Vernick is a licensed clinical social worker and relationship coach. For more than 30 years, she has helped individuals, couples, and families heal, rebuild, or grow their relationships. A popular author and speaker, she has written several books, including How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong and the bestseller The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.

Whitney Hopler, who has served as a contributing writer for many years, is author of the new Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Visit her website at: 

Publication date: September 13, 2013