What should a wife do when her husband has a pattern of abusing her emotionally and verbally (but not physically)?
Abuse is not the occasional burst of anger, selfishness or criticism. Genuine abuse equals the Biblical term “oppression”. Abuse is a pattern of toxic behaviour (see chart) intended to maintain control over the woman whom he vowed before God and witnesses to love, cherish and protect. Our post defining emotional abuse further clarifies.
A husband-wife relationship is “a covenant of mutual commitment that is designed to survive normal and even serious marital conflicts. . . however, verbal and physical abuse do to a marriage what murder and rape do to a life.”1
Leslie Vernick has an eye-opening article listing 5 indicators to determine from the Bible if a husband has an abusive wicked heart.
Emotional pain leaves scars and is more damaging than physical wounds that heal. Words are sword thrusts, Proverbs 12:18, and full of deadly poison James 3:8.
What should a wife do who is repeatedly mauled emotionally, is threatened and has a price to pay whenever she is honest?
1 – Get Counselling
The abuser has trained his wife to believe the abuse is her fault and if she would only do or be different, the abuse wouldn’t be necessary. It takes a neutral perspective to help her understand that she is seeing her husband for what she wants him to be, rather than what he is. God loves truth, not lies.
It is important for her to seek out her pastor who has the theological framework from which to view her situation.
Unfortunately, however, too many pastors have not researched the unique abuse paradigm, so wives are told to work harder at being submissive and to trust God more. This counsel unintentionally drains all hope and further enables her abuser.
Therefore, it is vital to also see a therapist who is trained in the scientific study of the mind and works daily with victims like her. Abuse organisations offer free counselling and support.
She urgently needs encouragement and validation that she is not insane, as well as evaluation of her own actions that she will receive from both types of advisors.
2 – Lovingly Confront Him
Matthew 18 says to make an “official” attempt to help a sinner understand his offences. James 5:19 encourages her to try to turn him from his error, not to enable him.
Suggestion: list on paper, concisely, two or three main areas of the abuser’s sinful behaviour patterns which are destroying the relationship. Under each main point, list three undeniable examples of that behaviour.
Next, she should hide a small bag of clothes outside, have the car and house keys in her pocket and secure a temporary place to stay, just in case things get ugly.
With the genuine goal of seeing her marriage repaired, she needs to pick a good time during the “honeymoon phase” of the abuse cycle to hand him her list. See if he is open to discussion and suggest he get counselling, as she has been, to help save the marriage. (Not marriage counselling together.)
The idea is not to nag him to change but to determine how SHE will change, judging by his response.
3 – Take it to the Church
If he is unrepentant after a couple of godly men approach him, this is God’s next step in the attempt to restore him to spiritual health and to warn those in the church family about behaviour that God hates. Ephesians 5:11 says to expose and reprove works of darkness.
4 – Leave
Though we strive to imitate God by offering repeated mercy, a temporary separation is the only statement that offers the possibility of waking up the abuser to the seriousness of his actions. Temporary may need to become permanent, based on his reaction. True love does not continue enabling him to sin by allowing herself to remain the object of his sinful addiction.
He has broken the marriage vows and habitually shattered the woman he vowed to cherish, thus forfeiting the perks of the relationship he destroyed.
Leaving is also a step to protect her children and others from the effects of abuse and generational perpetuation.
Emotional abuse statistically escalates to physical violence over time. Over 70% of women are injured after separation, so if she feels unsafe, she should appeal to the legal authorities to hold him accountable for his actions. . . just as Paul did when he was being mistreated. Acts 22:25
Separation is a natural consequence and he is reaping what he sowed. Galatians 6:7 She is getting out of the way so God can work. The future is his decision – the present is hers.
Refer to the last post as to places of refuge and resources available.
It’s natural to want to stay and hope things will be different, but her hope is misplaced. Proverbs 13:12 says “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” and continual striving to change or do whatever to soothe his un-soothable internal storm will make her sick emotionally, spiritually and physically. David’s answer was “put your hope in God.” Not in what God will do, but in God Himself.2
”Marriage is honourable but sometimes we honour it best by ending that caricature of it that makes it a mockery.”3
Biblical proof that God allows separation? Ironically, in I Corinthians 7:10,11 – “Let not the wife depart” – we see there is the possibility of an exception. The wife departs then she is told to remain unmarried or be reconciled.
I Peter 3:1 tells wives to use actions, not words. Will she “win” her husband by bowing to his pattern of cruelty and lies which God hates?2 This is the practical application of “do him good”. Proverbs 31
The InFocus series “When You’ve Been Hurt” is highly recommended.
Stay tuned for the next post discussing genuine apologies and reconciliation.
1 Martin DeHaan II in God’s Protection of Women
2 Leslie Vernick at leslievernick.com
3 Jason Harris