Ask Dr. Merry: Husband in Abusive Marriage

» Posted in Ask Dr. Lin, Family Life, Marriage and Relationships, Trauma and Abuse | 1 comment

Husband in Abusive Marriage

I am a pastor and have been married for 14 years, have 3 children, and a deep secret. Abuse happens in my home. From the first year of marriage, my wife has been emotionally and physically abusive towards me. When I met my wife, she had a host of very serious struggles with mental illness. I had no idea that being what I thought was a godly and compassionate man would backfire with 14 years of abuse – 14 years of serial infidelities, emotional and physical abuse. After years of this, my-self-image is destroyed and I am horribly depressed. I also feel as if I have nowhere to turn. I’ve shared this with a pastor friend of mine and his response was “It’s the job of the man to be the head of the home. This is a sign that you are not in control of your house, hence you should have no place in the ministry of this church.” I’ve spoken to several men in my men’s bible study group. Their response is either to laugh it off or to tell me “be a man and take it.” I am very lonely in this marriage and feel that if I share this with any other member of my church I could lose my job. What am I to do? Do I divorce my wife, who for some reason I love very much? Do I stay and work it out even though past counselling attempts have seen my wife hurl accusations of the most wild and extreme sorts at me? Our marriage counselling sessions have never really gotten anywhere in the past. I’m lost, confused, tired, bitter and hurting. Help!

Ouch. It angers and grieves me to know that when you turned to your Christian brothers for advice and comfort, you instead got the message that you’re struggling because you’re messing up as a husband and a man. Why do we do that to each other? It sounds like the advice you’ve gotten has only kept you trapped and feeling hopeless that anything can change – which isn’t true by the way – I’ve witnessed countless marriages turn around with a lot of hard work and prayer.

One of the hidden and rarely talked about forms of abuse is when it’s the husband who is the recipient of the abuse – we traditionally think about spousal abuse as the man directing it towards the woman – but more and more, we’re seeing cases of this type of abuse. As society continues to deteriorate, we’re seeing more broken families and marriages resulting in poor emotional regulation and relationship skills; we’re seeing people giving in to their emotions and letting it all “hang out”. I watched a reality TV show once where one of the woman was extremely vile in how she treated the others but considered herself “real” while calling the other women who didn’t respond with anger and verbal tirades, “fake”. What has happened to our society that being “real” means letting loose with verbal bombs?

And so I’m seeing more and more people, including women, feeling entitled to let it all hang out and justify their actions because of how they feel (“I’m just being honest with how I feel”) – but because women traditionally are seen as victims (and statistically, they still are, more often than men are), we are quick to excuse or ignore it when women are abusive. And often, these women can be quite controlling and raise boys who are passive and afraid of conflict – so these boys grow up to be husbands who tolerate an incredible amount of emotional and verbal abuse because it’s just “normal” to them – and then when you layer on top of that the Christian mandate that we just have to put up with and forgive that type of abuse – that’s a recipe for disaster and hopelessness.

In my opinion, any form of abuse is destructive to the well-being of the marriage – and in the case where there are kids, very destructive to the emotional and psychological well-being of the children. Why we continue to tolerate abuse in Jesus’ name is unacceptable – not just for your sake, but especially for your kids’ sake (who have no choice in the matter). My friend, as gently as I can say this – you need to confront the issue and begin to set boundaries with your wife’s behaviour – and you need the help of a good counsellor to be on your side to help you. At this point, this isn’t so much about marriage counselling as it’s about helping you deal with your depression and low self-esteem so that you can be strengthened to do the difficult work of standing up to this abuse and saying “no more”. You will need healing and help to overcome the trauma of the last 14 years. You will also need help with strategies on how to set these boundaries and what resources you can access for help in times of crises if she loses control and is violent.

Now I need to say a difficult thing to you: unfortunately, in every relationship that is troubled, especially when one spouse has addictions or out of control behaviour, the other spouse who’s the “victim” also contributes significantly to the problems – this is often a hidden thing and is missed by many people. I know that you’re trying to do the “right” thing as a Christian and especially a leader of your flock, but in hiding the abuse and allowing yourself to tolerate her abusive behaviour, you have only allowed the behaviour to become more entrenched. That is why this type of relationship is called “co-dependent” as one spouse enables the other in their destructive patterns.

Often in adult abusive relationships (I’m not speaking of children who are abused as they are truly helpless victims and will often need a caring adult to step in to advocate for them), there is a lot of rescuing and enabling that happens; and all too often, the victim begins to play a martyr role which reinforces his anger and feelings of powerlessness and fear. You have given over to your wife the power to abuse you – as an adult, you ALWAYS have choices you can make. You don’t have to remain a passive victim of your wife’s misbehaviours. And that’s the good news, because you truly have the power to change things in your life. But you have to first take full responsibility for your part of the problem and stop being the victim in your marriage. Most importantly, you also have to take care of your kids and do what’s best for them, even if it means confronting really difficult things in your marriage. If you truly love your wife, you need to stop tolerating the abuse so that she can start to face the reality of her own issues – especially as she is in pain too. Often when old behaviours no longer work, our loved ones have to finally face the reality of their dysfunction and pain and begin to make changes to behaviours that are no longer tolerated by their family.

With respect to the whole divorce matter – I truly believe that to God, divorce is an issue of the heart and not a legal matter. A legal divorce only brings out into the open and exposes what’s really going on in the hearts of the couple. So those Christian couples who still live together but no longer have love for each other in their hearts are already divorced in God’s eyes and that grieves him. But before you can make any decisions either way, you need to make sure that you’ve done everything that you can to restore your marriage, set healthy boundaries and do what’s best for your children, yourself and your wife. I pray that you will lean on God to give you the courage and strength to do what you need to do – for your sake and your family’s.

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1 Comment

  1. It’s shocking how many times this happens. I personally know a family like this. I really like your point about how the husband is usually unintentionally enabling it. From what I’ve seen, that’s right on.

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