A husband stands over his wife while they argue, backing her into a corner of the room until she agrees to do what he wants. A wife’s teasing chips away at her husband’s confidence, making him feel as if he has to do what she wants in order to please her. After arguing about money or sex, one spouse tries to control the other spouse’s spending or uses sex as a bargaining tool.
Power struggles like these happen in marriages where spouses are in pain. Often, the pain that surfaces in marriages has its roots in spouses’ negative childhood experiences, such as bullying.
The negative effects of childhood bullying can linger for many years afterward, a 2014 research study from Kings College London showed. Adults in the study who were bullied while they were growing up still suffered the consequences about 40 years later, both in terms of their health (mentally and physically) and their social lives. Even if they had just been bullied occasionally, they experienced worse health and relationships than those who had never been victims of childhood bullying. The adults who had frequently been bullied as children reported struggling with anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts – decades after they had been victimized.
It’s not just bullying victims who carry their pain over to their marriages. Spouses who were bullies as children also carry pain into their adult relationships. A 2013 research study from Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina found that adults who had bullied others while growing up had a higher risk as adults for problems such as panic disorders, depression, and antisocial behavior than those who hadn’t bullied others in childhood.
If either you or your spouse ever experienced bullying as children – as either a victim or a perpetrator – you all may be stuck in unhealthy relationship patterns that cause bullying to occur in your marriage. Maybe you’ve never thought of your marriage difficulties in terms of bullying before, since you and your spouse aren’t stealing each other’s lunch money or knocking each other down on a playground. But whenever you all hurt each other by trying to control each other, bullying is happening in your marriage.
The good news is that God will empower you both to put a stop to marital bullying if you all turn to him for healing. Here’s how you can stop bullying in your marriage:
Admit what’s really going on your marriage. Although it may be uncomfortable and embarrassing to acknowledge that bullying is happening in your relationship, being honest about it opens the door for the healing process to begin. Ask God to show you the truth about any bullying attitudes or behaviors that are lurking in your marriage.
Confess your pain and sin to God and each other. If you’re being bullied, pray about the pain you feel as a result in your marriage. Be specific about the ways the bullying hurts you and ask God to give you the comfort of being able to sense his presence with you. Then, at a time when your spouse isn’t angry, tell him or her honestly how you feel about the way he or she has been treating you. Rather than blaming your spouse, focus on the facts of how the bullying makes you feel so your spouse can better understand you. If you’re bullying your spouse, confess that sin to God and ask him to forgive you and help you change. Admit that what you’ve been doing is wrong, and ask God to help you understand why you’re doing it and show you how to stop. Apologize sincerely to your spouse for the specific ways you’ve been guilty of bullying him or her, and commit to doing the work you need to do to heal and learn better ways of relating to your spouse.
Pursue healing from childhood bullying wounds. Talk together about the childhood bullying experiences that each of you had – times when you bullied others, or when others bullied you. Ask God to shed new light on what happened years ago so you all can better understand it. Pray for each other’s healing. Seek help processing your pain from a counselor, clergy person, a support group, or a few trusted friends.
Fight fear with love. Fear fuels both sides of the bullying issue: Bullies are afraid of not getting what they want, so they try to control others. Victims are afraid of asserting themselves, so they allow themselves to be controlled. But God’s complete and unconditional love is more powerful than fear. 1 John 4:18-19 assures you: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love, because he first loved us.” Remind yourself regularly of God’s love for you, and derive confidence from that powerful reality. Whenever you feel fear creeping up on you, pray about whatever is making you feel afraid, inviting God to help you deal with it and trusting that he will do so because he loves you. Ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind every day so you can think about your spouse from a loving perspective.
Identify what triggers your insecurities. When bullies feel insecure, they may try to assert their power through bullying. When victims feel insecure, they become especially vulnerable to bullying because they don’t believe that they deserve to be treated better. What are the factors that are making you and your spouse feel insecure? Realize the insecurity you all feel may have nothing to do with your marriage; it may come from disappointment or frustration with other parts of your lives, such as a stressful work situation or a health crisis. Once you figure out the specific triggers of each of your insecurities, you can pray about them, asking the Holy Spirit to replace insecure thoughts in your minds with reminders of God’s love (such as Bible verses that you’ve memorized) that will build your confidence.
Reflect on what thoughts go through your mind when bullying happens in your marriage. If you’re the one who has been bullying your spouse, consider what thought patterns you experience while you’re in the process of trying to control him or her. Do you recognize a trait in your spouse that you dislike in yourself? Are you trying to get your spouse’s attention to communicate something to him or her that would best be communicated in another way? If you’re the one who has been bullied by your spouse, consider the patterns of your thoughts while you’re suffering bullying. Are you hoping to please your spouse by taking his or her mistreatment? Do you have opinions you want to express, but feel as if you must suppress instead because your spouse would get angry if you voiced them? After you’ve figured out the patterns of how you’re thinking when bullying is happening, you can work on changing those patterns with the help of the Holy Spirit, who has the power to renew your mind. As you change your attitudes, your behaviors will change, as well.
If you’ve been bullying your spouse, ask God to help you understand and appreciate your spouse’s different perspectives. Remind yourself often that your spouse’s viewpoints are just as valid as your own, even when they differ from yours. Pray for the humility, love, respect, and wisdom you need to get to know and appreciate your spouse’s opinions. Keep in mind the advice in Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Aim to learn from your spouse rather than trying to control him or her.
If you’ve been bullied by your spouse, ask God to help you voice your own opinions with confidence. Realize that it’s not rude but actually wise to express your opinions on any issue. 2 Timothy 1:7 declares, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” Ask the Holy Spirit to help you develop a habit of confidently speaking up in your marriage about what you think and how you feel. The more you practice doing so, the easier it will become for you.
Plan how you’ll respond the next time a bullying episode begins between you. During peaceful times, figure out a strategy to use the next time you’re tempted to start bullying your spouse or your spouse starts bullying you. Know in advance what you can say and do at stressful moments to stop bullying in its tracks.
Whitney Hopler, who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years, is author of the Christian novel Dream Factory, which is set during Hollywood's golden age. Her Twitter handle is @WhitneyHopler.
Publication date: May 5, 2014