Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to: TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tom said angrily to his wife, Kari. “You’re crazy and everyone knows it. Even your friends think you’re nuts.”
“I can’t believe you’re talking to me this way,” Kari said, still trying to gather her wits. She stood in her kitchen stunned.
“You’re ridiculous,” he shouted.
“Please don’t talk to me like this,” she said weakly.
“I can and I will,” Tom asserted. “You need a good shrink, but I doubt even he could help you.”
Kari started to cry.
“Oh, and now you’re going to cry, trying to make me feel bad,” Tom said, hovering over her and pointing his finger. “You’re pathetic.”
With that Tom walked out of the house, slamming the door.
Kari crumpled to the floor, oblivious to the fact that their two children were quietly sitting in their rooms, praying the fighting would stop.
Kari wouldn’t talk about scenes like this for years, partly because of shame and partly because of fear. It’s never easy to share facts about verbal abuse in marriage. It’s never easy to admit your husband, or wife, has shameful aspects to their personality.
You may be tempted to believe a scene like this happens infrequently. You might think it could never happen in a Christian home. Yet, neither of these facts are true—verbal abuse occurs frequently and in Christian homes. Verbal abuse is part of far too many relationships, with 98% of victims being female, and is characterized by the following:
- Attacks on personal character
- Blame and accusations
- Shame and judging
- Sarcasm and twisting what you say
- Rewriting history
- Playing the victim
- Manipulation, control and coercion
- Unpredictable explosions
- Criticism that is harsh and undeserved
- Escalating situations
Certainly we can see several of these symptoms in the above situation. Tom degrades Kari, as well as using shame in an attempt to make her feel bad and conform to his expectations. He taunts her for crying, and calls her names. He tries to undermine her esteem by telling her she needs professional help. His actions are deplorable.
In a world where Dr. Jekyl can turn into the harsh, abusive Mr. Hyde in an instant, it is common to tiptoe, walking on eggshells. You don’t know what will set him off, or when. You are afraid of him, and are never sure what he is capable of doing. You apologize unnecessarily, and are compliant to his wishes and control. Deep inside you know his actions are wrong, but you’ve been hurt so many times and your self-esteem has suffered. You try again and again to make the verbal abuse seem “normal.” You rationalize that the abuse will end and he’ll improve, tomorrow—but tomorrow never comes. How can we better understand Tom? We must be careful to see that he is complex, with different sides to his personality—some quite horrific.
Tom is not simply a ‘bad man.’ He does many good, virtuous things: He sings in the choir, coaches his children’s soccer, and serves on the Elder board at his church. He is dedicated to his family, and believes in the sanctity of his marriage. He has never cheated on his wife and would never consider divorce.
Tom has a hidden side to his personality, a side that he doesn’t like to admit. Behind the pleasant and responsible exterior, there is another Tom. He is abusive and controlling. He hates it when Kari insists that he change and tries to manipulate her into thinking it’s all her fault. While he is always sorry for his outbursts, he never truly makes efforts to change. In addition to being Dr. Jekyl, he is Mr. Hyde. As long as he denies these character traits, they will not go away.
Tolerating Tom’s behavior only reinforces and enables it. Men, and women, have rage issues partially because someone in their world tolerates and enables them. The victim is often tempted to hide these problems because of feeling embarrassed, ashamed and even frightened. When rage reactions and verbal abuse are no longer tolerated, however, they cease. Thus, it is critical that every couple expose any form of violence in their relationship, and determine to eradicate it.
The Scriptures speak strongly against verbal abuse. Proverbs 22:24 says, “Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man.” Ephesians 4:21 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” Other Scriptures implore us to be even-minded, kind, considerate and caring. The fruits of the Spirit include self-control—not a characteristic of the verbally abusive individual.
Tom will not change without intervention. After confrontation, and in moments of apparent remorse, Tom may say he will change. As much as he insists that he can change, in all likelihood he won’t change until he must change. Being sorry for his actions isn’t enough. Promising to change isn’t enough. Changing for a short time isn’t enough. Rather, taking decisive actions that lead to true and lasting character change are necessary.
Tell Tom his verbal abuse will not be tolerated. When you set this boundary, you must be prepared to follow through. If he is verbally abusive again, insist that either he or you will leave temporarily until therapeutic change has been initiated.
If you are married to a man, or woman, who has a hidden problem with verbal violence, name it for what it is: abuse. Become informed about the symptoms of verbal abuse, and agree to end it. Then, after being clear about the destructive element in your marriage, agree on action that will lead to change—treatment. Insist that your husband, or wife, receive specific treatment that ensures change. Set a clear boundary that says violence won’t be tolerated. Not one ounce. Never.
If you are the victim of verbal abuse, seek safety. Find someone you can trust to share your information with and take steps to put an end to the violence.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center, where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.