I remember the first time a friend took advantage of me. We were sitting in the theater, around age nine, and I had a box of Junior Mints. Because of the noise involved in opening and dumping the candy out, I had most of the box contents poured out onto my palm. As I sat there, I realized my friend might want one. She didn’t bring any money to the show, so I whispered, “Hey, do you want some?” I held my hand out, piled high with the little brown orbs of peppermint yumminess.
I thought she’d take a few and be thankful. She proceeded to scoop them off of my hand and into both of hers.
I was surprised. Shocked. Confused. Angry. I couldn’t believe she had done that. I wanted to say, “HEY. I meant a few of them! What’s wrong with you?” But I said nothing, because I was afraid I would upset her. And I didn’t have any experience with exercising my voice – I thought the only option I had was voicing my anger, which seemed mean, so I kept my mouth shut.
I didn’t realize at the time that I neither had a boundary of what she could take from me, nor had I communicated it to her. I was also missing a healthy way of dealing with her behavior.
I spent the rest of the movie feeling sad about my three leftover pieces in the box, and lied to myself that it was all fine. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what.
I know now what my negative feelings were that day – they were caused by a combination of being taken advantage of by another, and failing to speak the truth.
Feeling taken advantage of hurts because of two reasons:
- The person who is treating us poorly is failing to love well in that moment, and
- We betray ourselves by failing to communicate our injury
The residue of inaction damages our self-esteem. It’s important that we deal with these little situations as they occur – but do so in a way that doesn’t trample on the esteem of another person.
Many wives often feel as though they are taken advantage of by their husbands. They feel as though they are carrying the weight of the housework, the relationships, the kids’ activities, etc. They also may be working part-time or full-time and are physically exhausted. What’s interesting is that many men also feel the same way – burdened by providing for their families, responsible for the more strenuous and physical home care items, and then expected to participate in relationships at a level that often frustrates and confuses them. All too often, conflict ensues between husband and wife, voices raise, and unhealthy and even damaging behaviors start spilling out onto the family landscape as a result of stress and lack of self-control.
What we don’t easily acknowledge is that far too often, the behaviors of either spouse can fall into the categories of verbal or emotional abuse – even if neither spouse intends to do the other harm. Repeats of these behaviors often cause the damage that occurs in abusive relationships – regardless of the intent of either spouse.
There’s a trend in our culture to label everything – and to espouse answers from positions of the extremes. If you are in a marriage where you have some of the signs but know your spouse doesn’t intend to hurt or dominate you, some healthy changes and awareness can help a lot. I’m going to suggest today that we fear GOD, instead of fearing our spouse. It is the beginning of wisdom, and it is Biblical. We know He hates divorce, so we should keep that in mind as we deal with these issues. Check the following “signs” below – if you have those in addition to fear, if there is a sense of “walking on eggshells” in your relationship, keep reading to learn how you can help your marriage heal.
Sign #1 –
If you have emotional control, you go to her and say something like, “I know you love me, and I know you didn’t mean to, but when you did ‘A’ it made me feel ‘B’ and I’m really struggling with what to do about that,” and she responds by discounting your feelings, arguing with you, defending what she did, minimizing or mocking you. If she turns the discussion into how you’ve hurt her and suddenly you’re the one apologizing, and this is how it goes most of the time when you bring up an issue, then guess what? You have some REALLY unhealthy stuff going on – things that can damage a person’s soul, things that are labeled in the culture as “abusive.”
Sign #2 –
If you are excited about something good that happens to you, or you have an interest that feeds your soul and you are met with degrading, mocking, put downs, name-calling, or other remarks that make the clear point that there’s something wrong with you, what you like, or the success that you achieved – this is also unhealthy and harming to a person. Ideally, BOTH spouses should be enthusiastic and supportive of the other – regardless of how different or similar to the other they are.
Sign #3 –
When you are sad, sick, discouraged, etc., and you are demeaned or dismissed instead of being helped or treated kindly. When your spouse behaves in an unkind way toward you regardless of how you are feeling – the absence of kindness (If anyone knows the good he should do and does not do it, sins. James 4:17) or the presence of general unkindness is also damaging.
Much information exists in the realm of psychology about how these behaviors (and many more) damage the esteem of another. Tons of research and writing has been done on outcomes of abuse and what happens to victims. So we know what damage occurs, and we know how to help both the abuser and the victim – BUT – there’s a problem with the “labeling” of either.
The culture we live in recognizes “abusers” as people of heinous motives. The signs above assume he or she is trying to control, trying to coerce, trying to manipulate.
I don’t believe the majority of Christian “abusers” are doing these things with the intention to harm their spouses.
This would never fly in a marriage, but how often have you seen men work out their issues with each other by physically going after each other in basketball, etc.? I don’t get it, but it’s a thing. They don’t naturally do conflict the way we do. I’m not excusing their behavior in marriage, nor am I intending to discount abuse victims (I’ve been one, just so you know. This post barely skims the surface of the bullying of my school years, nor does it cover the rape…) but I’m asking us to be wise enough, afraid of God enough, to see the whole picture, not just see what things look like from only our own perspectives. To not label, which is a form of judgment. I think this is also mature, healthy behavior.
Esteem IS destroyed – as is the case in the traditionally labeled “abuse” case – and the behavior may be classified as “abusive” BUT – the motives of the abuser aren’t evil, and too often, the “victim” (and I’m using quotes out of respect for those women (and men) who truly are victims, ones who are being beaten on a daily basis and those women who are raped in their homes, etc.) the “victim” in these other situations is actually contributing to the high levels of conflict and abusive behavior by responding in kind, AND by lacking healthy boundaries.
In other words, if we will learn how to stop responding abusively back and consider that “silence” and “lack of affection” – natural responses to being screamed at – are also listed as abusive behaviors, and set healthy boundaries for ourselves, not as a parental and punitive response to our spouses, if we’ll do those things, we can change our marriages. I know this to be true.
Want more proof?
I personally know women who have been in these situations, some which classify as legitimate abuse, including some with husbands whose motives were even questionable – and they’ve overcome these situations and God has healed them and their marriages!
The other thing we need to remember is that Shaunti Feldhahn’s research in The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages shows that “thinking the best” and “giving the benefit of the doubt” are MAJORLY important.
So know this: if you label your spouse as an “abuser” and yourself as the “victim” you are adding an element of toxicity to your marriage that will infect it like a plague. Seriously. There are a number of ministries and authors who work to help women (and men) who recognize that their spouse is treating them in abusive ways – here’s the problem – I’ve talked to many of these authors and some of the ministry folks… and their success rate for restoring the marriages is very low. Less than 5% of the marriages are healed. Most end in divorce.
What we are suggesting instead, is an approach that combines Biblical truth of not accepting abusive behavior, protecting yourself and your kids, but also heals your marriage. It is not easy, but neither is the path walked by ascribing intent to your spouse and labeling him an abuser, which often results in divorce.
The choices become fairly clear when we look at things this way. We can:
- Judge our spouse’s intentions and label him/her an “abuser” and ourselves as a “victim” – which most of the time leads toward divorce
- Choose to label both of us as “sinners” then do the hard work of establishing healthy boundaries, while still loving and respecting our spouse
- Actively pursue healing for ourselves if we have been on the receiving end of unhealthy and damaging behaviors
I’m suggesting #’s 2 and 3.
Most of the men I talk to who have hurt their wives have done so unintentionally, however, if your spouse DOES intend to hurt you, control you, destroy you, then you are dealing with something completely different and you require the help of a licensed psychologist, preferably a Christian. Even with that, some of the second and especially the third options above will still help a lot.
What I’m saying is there’s actually something we can DO about unhealthy behaviors – including the ones from others that result in a destruction of our esteem.
Interactions with our spouse may leave you feeling worthless, suicidal, damaged – BUT he or she may or may not be intentionally “abusing you.” If your spouse claims to be a Christian, Matthew 18 is there to help – although most people will not do the hard work of walking through it, or do so with someone who is ill-equipped to help.
What solves these problems in marriage is both spouses establishing healthy boundaries, while treating themselves and their husband or wife with love and respect. When both of you get on the same side of the fence to protect the marriage, you can work in the same direction. Labeling your spouse an “abuser,” even if his or her behaviors fit in that category, do not help the marriage. Dealing with your own mental health to heal from these behaviors by joining Al-Anon, Celebrate Recovery, or our Strength & Dignity eCourse (for women) will help you find healing.
I started our free Strength & Dignity eCourse to deal with these issues in a meaningful and life-changing way. I see too many families being destroyed by good people who mean well who are missing some healthy alternatives to interaction AND are being coached in all the defensive ways to deal with being “abused” or “get control” of their families. These tactics “work” by getting the women to safety, BUT – the marriage is destroyed. I want better options than that for us all.
May we all love and respect better today.
Nina Roesner is the author of The Respect Dare: 40 Days to a deeper connection with God & your husband (Thomas Nelson, 2012), and leads the free Strength & Dignity eCourse for wives who are suffering in verbally and emotionally difficult marriages. You can read more of her work at www.NinaRoesner.com .