Dealing with Verbal Abuse

Question: My husband is verbally abusive and very negative. I know I have no Biblical basis for divorce, but I’m feeling depressed and suicidal. He refuses counseling and blames it all on me. I desire to serve God and am praying for my husband’s salvation. What else can I do? I don’t know how to handle this situation anymore. Obviously, I am either not praying correctly or sincerely enough, or I’m not patient enough.

Answer: You mention that your husband is “verbally abusive and very negative.” There are two levels of verbal and emotional abuse. The first level is problematic and somewhat painful. Every marriage experiences some level of pain because of our insensitivity and ignorance of one another. With this level of abuse, we simply speak the truth to one another in love, keep loving each other, keep praying for each other, and keep believing that positive behavior and prayer will work. I Peter chapter three gives a powerful promise for the spouse who will remain godly and prayerful in times of difficulty.

The second level of abuse is damage. This is where I believe you are. It’s one thing for your spouse to be imperfect and frustrating. But it becomes a serious matter when you are suicidal and depressed. The damage level of abuse must be met with decisive action, or at some point the damage becomes the destruction of the individual and the marriage. I have seen this so many times that I have become convinced that problems such as you are experiencing must have a timely solution to stop the damage, even though the overall problem may take a while to completely work out. Here are some steps for you or any other man or woman in your situation to consider.

1. Get help and support for yourself.

Even though it is inexcusable that your husband is verbally abusive and negative, your depression and suicidal thoughts may go beyond your husband. In other words, you may have other issues from your past or present that require ministry. It’s something you can’t decide for yourself when you are in a situation like this. It’s something you need help with.

The beginning point in a situation like you are in (except in cases of serious physical threat) is to find someone you trust who can tell you the truth about yourself and help you deal with your husband. It is a mistake to let your wounded and confused emotions lead you. Even your question indicates the level of your hurt and confusion. A good pastor or Christian counselor will help you deal with your own problems as he or she prepares you to confront your husband properly.

2. Confront your abusive spouse.

Every abuser has to have an enabler who allows his or her behavior. People who enable abusers often have low self-esteem and feel as though they somehow deserve to be abused. They also often take a disproportionate level of responsibility to solve the problem and to absorb the emotional fallout in the home. This is a mistake.

After having enabled an abuser for a long period of time, many enablers reach a point of rage, depression and/or suicidal thoughts. The cumulative effects of the abuse and the emotional exhaustion from anxiety and trying to make everything right catch up with them. This is a dangerous point in a relationship. Had the enabler stood up to the abuser in the beginning, the dangerous point in the relationship would not have been reached, and the abuser would not have been able to build a pattern of dominance and abuse.

You must realize that no one deserves to be abused. Without threatening divorce or being unrighteous, you must stand up to your husband and tell him that you simply won’t allow him to talk to you abusively or treat you with disrespect. If you recognize that you have done something wrong, you should acknowledge it to your husband and ask his forgiveness. However, regardless of your behavior, nothing justifies his abuse.

Once you have confronted your husband, be consistent. Every time he is abusive, either leave the room, graciously rebut his statement, or do something to let him know that his abuse is not being successful. It is also very important during the confrontation process to make sure you are praying for God to change your husband’s heart and to lead you in what you say and do. That point cannot be emphasized enough.

Also, in some cases of abuse, the spouse who is confronting may have to be accompanied by someone. This is called intervention. When we have spouses who are abusive or self-destructive and we cannot communicate with them or we fear them, it is sometimes necessary to get a healthy, loving person to join us in the initial confrontation of an abuser.

3. Consider constructive separation as an alternative to destruction or divorce.

I wish I could offer every person a guarantee that prayer and loving confrontation would immediately repair every abuser. Even though it has a powerful and immediate effect on many, there are too many occasions when the abuse continues or even gets worse. For a spouse who has gotten counsel, prayer, confronted in love and consistently stood his or her ground, and still the abuser refuses to change, there is an alternative short of destruction or divorce. It is called constructive separation.

I don’t recommend this unless a situation is severe. By that I mean that the spouse and/or children in a home are undergoing real damage that the abuser will not stop. Separation is a serious step, and if done flippantly, it can create significant damage to the marriage by itself. An example of this is a woman I spoke with recently who left her husband because he was sloppy and “didn’t make her happy.” After hearing her story, I felt sorry for her husband, not for her.

In the case of physical abuse, separation must take place immediately if the abuser isn’t deeply repentant, involved in ongoing counseling, and willing to be accountable for his or her action without resentment. Verbal and emotional abuse is a little more difficult to define, but the damage factor is the main issue. Again, if the abused spouse was a significantly immature or damaged person before marriage, then almost anything could be interpreted as damaging. This is why it is important to seek help before you confront and especially before you consider separation.

However, if a healthy, objective person outside of your marriage who cares for your spouse agrees that his or her behavior is abusive and damaging, this is helpful in determining the need for separation. If verbal threats, serious emotional abuse and damaging behavior continue, it is sometimes necessary to deliver an ultimatum to an abuser. The ultimatum isn’t divorce; it is constructive separation. If you initiate a constructive separation, it is imperative to communicate to your spouse that you love him or her and are committed to the marriage.

You also need (hopefully with the help of a counselor or pastor) to make a specific demand that would lead to reconciliation. An example is to say that you are willing to return once he or she recognizes the problem and commits to get counseling until the issue is resolved. This type of separation is a last resort and is meant to be constructive and conciliatory. It has a twofold benefit: it stops the damage to the abused and it holds the abuser to a higher level of accountability and penalty for his or her actions.

I have made this answer long, not just for the sake of the woman who wrote the question, but also for the sake of anyone who might be in an abusive marriage or who knows someone who is. I hope what I have said will offer help and hope.

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