On the surface, they looked like a perfect Christian couple. Always together, with his arm around her waist. Her friends would admit to feeling a bit jealous. Abby never goes anywhere without Jake; he’s so attentive. I can barely get my husband to notice that I’m in the room!
Even as a trained counselor, I’ve sometimes been surprised to discover that people I know are in an abusive relationship. When we think “abuse,” we picture the classic signs of domestic violence—sunglasses to hide a swollen face and long sleeves to conceal bruises. While this type of domestic violence is certainly a real issue, we also need to recognize that abusive relationships take many different forms. In fact, even those in abusive relationships often wouldn’t identify the relationship as such.
A partner can be abusive emotionally, financially, verbally, physically, spiritually, or sexually. Unfortunately, unbalanced religious teaching around submission, a wife’s “duty” to give her husband sex, or the permanence of marriage can reinforce or normalize an abusive dynamic in marriage. I want to communicate with the strongest of terms, God did not design intimate relationships (including marriage) to ever be abusive or coercive! Any seemingly biblical teaching that appears to encourage such dynamics is taken out of context.
In this blog, I want to share with you four warning signs that you may be in an abusive relationship: fear, secrets, control, and blame.
The Bible says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Of course none of us loves perfectly, so there will always be elements of fear in close relationships. What if I disappoint him? What if she leaves me? What if he rejects me once he knows the truth?
Marriages sometimes go through rough patches when conflict makes the relationship feel emotionally tenuous. But in an abusive relationship, fear becomes a learned response, sometimes evidenced physiologically.
Every time my husband pulls into the driveway, my stomach is tied into knots. I quickly scan the home to make sure everything is in order.
I literally broke out in a cold sweat standing at the bakery counter for thirty minutes afraid that I would get my wife the wrong kind of cake for her dinner party.
We learn to fear when we erratically or predictably experience pain or danger. Whether the threat is physical or emotional, interactions with an abusive partner train your body to prepare for the worst. “I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells.” “I have to measure my words very carefully…” “The only time I can truly relax is when I am away from her.”
Intimacy implies secrets. Lovers have a history they carry together: memories of sexual fun, inside jokes, and the promise to lovingly guard each other’s faults from a critical world. Marriage becomes destructive when either husband or wife publicly flaunts the other’s vulnerabilities and foibles. Indeed, love covers a multitude of sins.
The secrets in an abusive relationship do not emanate from such love, but from fear. In an abusive relationship, there is a spoken or unspoken rule that no one can know what happens behind closed doors. One of the reasons it’s so difficult for people to recognize abusive patterns in a relationship is because there is no opportunity for a reality check on what’s normal. How does a normal couple fight? Do they ever swear at each other? Throw things? How do normal couples navigate differences in sexual desire or finances? Is it normal for one person to insist on always getting his or her way?
You need “eyes” on your marriage. This is not about sharing secrets but about the accountability and wisdom that keeps us healthy. If you or your spouse have colluded to keep certain things private, even forbidding help from a pastor, counselor, or friend, that is a serious red flag.
The opposite of freedom is control. God Himself knows that love is true only when it is chosen. This is why He allows us to wander away from Him and even reject Him.
In an abusive relationship, gestures of love are not freely given but demanded. Friends and family become a threat, and so there are rules around how often you can see them. In a facade of “unity,” everything you own belongs to your spouse, and you have no voice in how to steward your life. You don’t have the freedom to decide how to spend your time or money. You work or don’t work according to his desires. You spend or don’t spend to avoid her rages.
Control can be subtle. Often no demands are made up front, but there is a cost to be paid on the back end if you make the wrong choice.
My wife wouldn’t even make eye contact with me for a month when I made a decision she didn’t like.
When I don’t meet my husband’s expectations, he makes a big show of expressing affection towards the kids but in the same moment, tears me to shreds.
It might be said that every close relationship probably has moments that could be classified as abusive. In the heat of an argument, you may have spoken cruel words to one another. You’ve probably withheld affection, manipulated to get your way, and lost your temper at some point in your marriage. These interactions are unhealthy and harmful to intimacy. But an abusive relationship has a pattern of such interactions with no awareness or effort to seek genuine change.
When a normal couple gets in a fight, they work toward “repairing the breach.” Even if they may not know the words to say, they are both able to take responsibility for being irrational, losing their temper, or being demanding. A hallmark of dysfunctional relationships is when one person will never acknowledge or own up to his or her failings. Even a move towards an apology ends up being a backhanded accusation. “I wouldn’t have screamed at you if you had cleaned the kitchen like you were supposed to!”
If a couple like this finds themselves in counseling, the abusive spouse may charmingly and effectively convince the therapist that the problem is really the other person’s fault. As soon as the counselor begins suggesting otherwise, the abusive partner will bail on counseling by discrediting the therapist.
What should I do?
If you have identified your relationship by one of these red flags, please reach out for help! This is not something that you can address on your own. Whether you identify that you are the one who is controlling and demanding or the one who is on the receiving end, you need help. You need wisdom and support from those who care about you as well as from people who are trained to identify abusive patterns. You are not doing your spouse or your children any favors by avoiding the issue.
I also want to encourage you, friend. God loves you. The Bible tells us that He is close to the brokenhearted and comes to our aid when we call on Him. Addressing abusive patterns in a relationship is not an easy process. You might feel alone and overwhelmed. All you need to do today is take the first step of reaching out for help.
Here are what some first steps might look like:
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