I am blessed to have a husband who easily forgives and forgets. He doesn’t remember our difficult years as being quite as challenging as I remember them. Occasionally he says our situation wasn’t really that bad.
He may not remember his own anguish or the resignation in his voice when he said, “I guess I have to accept that I am going to spend the rest of my life in a sexless marriage.”
But I remember. And I remember what I did to add to his anguish.
Today I’d like to talk about something that isn’t easy to write. It won’t be easy for some of you to read, either.
It is, however, infinitely easier to live with because of my husband’s heart for forgiveness.
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Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Corinthians 13:4-7
I spent much of my marriage expecting Big Guy to love me according to 1 Corinthians 13. I didn’t think about the fact that the scripture was calling me to love my husband well.
I was impatient and unkind. I dishonored him. I was self-seeking in that I made many decisions based on protecting my own heart. I kept a mental spreadsheet of wrongs. I did not protect, trust, hope, or persevere.
I violated most of what is in this passage.
I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a couple years. I set it aside, not quite ready to think about it. I questioned the accuracy of my memory. When Sheila Gregoire wrote about emotionally abused husbands recently, God nudged me to share my experience. So here goes.
I have a confession to make: I was an emotionally abusive wife.
I didn’t mean to be abusive, and it isn’t like I was like that all the time. But I was like that sometimes. I was so, so wrong, every single time.
Big Guy doesn’t think I was emotionally abusive (I asked him about it after reading Sheila’s article). He says he didn’t think so at the time, either. But I know my heart, and I do remember one time when he raised the issue himself. One of the burdens I now carry is the knowledge that I treated my husband the way I did.
I said things that were very hurtful to him. Intentionally. To make him hurt so he would be turned off from wanting sex with me or would feel like he was undeserving of sex. I was starting to feel guilty about saying no to sex, and I was trying to get him to stop asking. I won’t share the words I spoke, but some of them were horrible. They were intended to wound.
When I saw that my words had the intended effect, mostly I felt pretty bad. But there was a part of me that was glad. I delighted in evil, in a Cruella de Vil kind of way
Even at the time, I understood that I was lashing out from a place of my own hurt. I brought heart issues into my marriage, and Big Guy unknowingly added to it with some words and actions of his own. Sometimes I planned and calculated what I would say or do in order to maximize the hurt he would feel—not because I wanted him to feel hurt, but because I wanted for me to not feel hurt.
The only way I knew to ensure emotional self-protection was to emotionally hurt my husband.
As I think back now about some of the things I said and the way I treated Big Guy, I am appalled. I wouldn’t wish that treatment on anyone, yet I did it to my own husband.
When I look at a list of characteristics of emotional abuse, I see too many of my past actions on that list. Even at the time, I would sometimes read articles with these kinds of lists and pause, thinking, Yikes. I do that. But it’s different for me. It isn’t abuse. It can’t be abuse, because I’m a good person. I have to say those things because I feel hurt. If I were doing it because I wanted to be mean, then it would be abuse.
In my mind, I wasn’t abusing my husband. I was simply trying to protect my heart.
My desire to protect my heart was not a sin.
The sin was in how I dealt with that desire.
What is emotional abuse?
I dealt with my desire for self-protection in a way that was hurtful and abusive, rather than one that invited unity and healing.
This article (Psychology Today, 2016)gives ten typical signs of emotional abuse.
- Constant criticism or attempts to manipulate and control.
- Shaming and blaming with hostile sarcasm or outright verbal assault.
- The use of shaming and belittling language.
- Verbal abuse—name-calling.
- Withholding affection.
- Punishment and threats of punishment.
- Refusal to accept her part in the dynamic.
- Mind games, such as Gaslighting, when it comes to accepting personal responsibility for her own happiness.
- Refusing to communicate at all.
- Isolating him from supportive friends and family.
Of the ten items on this list, I’ve been guilty of about half of them. Some things I recall doing only once, but others I did on a pretty constant basis—especially during the last year before I began to make some changes. Two items were things I thought about but never did.
The reasons don’t erase the bruises.
Because my purpose was protection, I justified my words as non-abusive. But here’s the thing: My husband suffered, no matter why I was treating him as I was.
The reasons for my treatment of him had absolutely no effect on whether he felt hurt as a result of my words. At no point was he able to think, My wife must be hurting, too. Therefore, I don’t feel emotional pain.
That just isn’t how this works. If a man has a bad day at work and goes home and beats his wife just so he feels a little less powerless in the world, we don’t expect her to think, Oh, poor guy. He must have had such a bad day at work, so I don’t mind that he is beating me. No, we don’t expect her to put up with his physical abuse just because he’s feeling rotten inside. Furthermore, understanding why he is beating her doesn’t make her body any less bruised and battered.
Refusing to engage in sexual intimacy is especially hurtful to many men. Because of the hormone surges that take place, sexual intimacy is the most effective and powerful way for a man to feel emotionally connected to his wife. When a wife withholds sexual intimacy, he experiences it as a withholding of affection. It bruises his heart. It can have the effect of emotional abuse, even if that isn’t at all her intention.
Am I saying that any wife who says no to sex is abusing her husband? Absolutely not! However, if there is a pattern of withholding sexual intimacy–especially when accompanied by some of the other items on the list–it might be emotionally abusive.
Is she a vindictive witch of a woman who enjoys hurting other people? He experiences it as emotional abuse. Is she a wounded woman who is just trying to protect her own heart? He might experience it as emotional abuse then, too. Whether she is Cruella de Vil or Cinderella, if she withholds her affection from him, it causes him to feel hurt.
What about you?
If your husband has ever indicated that you are controlling, vindictive, manipulative, or mean in your relationship, I implore you to take a good look at the list of characteristics above. Then take an honest look at yourself. How many of those things do you do?
Saying yes to even one item on the list is too much. If you find yourself responding to the items with something along the lines of but he . . . or I can’t help it if . . ., you are thinking of your own motivation. Your motivation doesn’t cancel your husband’s experience of hurt. It is self-seeking.
Think about what it is like for your husband to be married to you. Does he feel loved and honored most of the time? Or does he come away from your interactions feeling emotionally battered?
Do you honor Christ in the way you treat your husband? Do you love him in the way 1 Corinthians 13 calls you to do? I know I certainly didn’t.
What can you do if you suspect that you might be emotionally abusive?
- Stop. Pay attention to your interactions with your husband. Notice when you do anything on the list. When it happens, take a deep breath. Say or do something else instead. If you don’t realize it until later, go apologize to your husband for your words as soon as you recognize what you said.
- Figure out what is going on with you. Are you trying to control your husband because you grew up with a parent who was out of control? Are you trying to avoid situations that make you feel vulnerable? Are you trying to get your husband to be so unhappy in your marriage that he leaves because you feel overwhelmed? Are you too tired to think about how you are responding? The reasons for your abusive behavior don’t take the sting away from your husband’s heart, but they do help you make changes.
- Deal with the root issues. Seek counseling. Talk with a pastor. Read and apply a self-help book related to your issues. Do something! The choice to do nothing is not going to help you break your habit of hurting your husband.
- Learn other ways to express yourself or to cope with your difficult feelings. If you know certain things that trigger an emotionally abusive response from you, then make a plan for what to do instead of what you’ve been doing.
- Talk with your husband about what you’ve realized. If he feels emotionally unsafe with you, he may minimize whether he’s been hurt by your words. Just because you’ve stopped doesn’t mean he can trust you yet. So be gentle and cautious. Own your actions, no matter what your motivation was. Apologize. Repent. Ask him how you can help him heal from the hurt you’ve given him. Ask for him to pray for you as you work to change your habits. Ask for forgiveness.
I don’t recall a particular moment when I suddenly realized that some of what I’d been doing was abusive. It was a slow realization. Our marriage had grown to a pretty good place before the abusive aspect of my past words seeped into my awareness. By then, Big Guy had already forgiven me of so much. He had forgotten how hard it had been to be married to me. His forgiveness was freely given.
Despite being forgiven, I still have to carry the knowledge that my heart had so little compassion and so much selfishness in it. I bear the memory of the momentary delight in hurting my husband.
I can’t change what I said or did in the past, although I wish I could. As I finally addressed the issues that were behind my hurtful words and my long-time resistance to sexual intimacy, my husband was able to heal from my emotional battering
I was able to heal from being a person who was wounded and defensive of her own words. I carry the memory of the words I spoke and the feelings I had at the time, but I know that I am not that woman anymore. I still don’t love my husband perfectly, but I love him well and his heart feels loved.
Perhaps it is too extreme to say I was emotionally abusive. Big Guy thinks I wasn’t, and maybe my memory is exaggerating. But I can’t dismiss the memory of the emotional pain in my husband’s eyes, nor can I dismiss the fact that part of me was sometimes glad to see it there.
I now walk in true repentance, given both forgiveness and grace that I don’t deserve.
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If you have seen yourself in these words, I am sorry. I know how dreadful it can be to realize that what you have been doing could be seen as abusive. It is heart-wrenching.
Fortunately, there is hope. You can make a better choice, starting right now. Stop hurting your husband. Seek healing and wholeness for whatever issues you have inside you. Pray for God’s peace and for the strength to change.
And know that I am praying for you.
Your husband deserves better—and so do you.
The following resources can help you understand emotional abuse. Some are for those who are abusive, and others are for those who are abused. Read them prayerfully, open to what you learn.
- Are You Emotionally Abusive?
- ‘But He Never Hit Me’: A Christian Primer on Emotional Abuse
- Elizabeth Klein
- Emotional Abuse in Marriage
- FAQs About Emotional Abuse
- How Can We Talk About Male Victims of Emotional Abuse?
- Is Emotional Abuse Grounds for Biblical Separation?
- Responding to Emotional Abuse in Marriage
- Show RESPECT! And STOP Emotionally Abusing Your Partner!
- Signs Of Emotional Abuse
- Words that bruise: Are you emotionally abusive?
- Words that bruise: How to know you’re in an emotionally abusive marriage
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