Destructive Relationships: Speaking with Strength & Love

Shaun Lotter, MA, LPC

Our therapists regularly read books and various writings aimed at helping people tackle difficult situations.  Once in a while, we come across those that stand head and shoulders above the others.  These are written by authors who clearly communicate a solid Biblical theology with a powerful clinical approach to relationship issues.  The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Christian author and counselor Leslie Vernick is one such book.  The following are some guidelines in learning to speak with strength, love, and clarity with your husband.  If you are concerned about being in toxic marriage, we would recommend you purchase a copy of this book:

“Men who are destructive refuse to take time to reflect on their actions or reactions.  Their default mode is to blame, accuse, and attack.  Everyone else is at fault for what they do, feel, and think.  If he is ever going to change he must learn to look within.” – Leslie Vernick

If you are in a destructive relationship you know first-hand the reality of this statement.  Instead of the abusive individual looking in the mirror they look at you, the children, work, and those around them as justification for their actions.  They are unwilling to consider the reality that a man acts out of the condition of his heart, not simply as a result of the behavior of others.  Many women are so used to this constant blame that without realizing it they have accepted responsibility for their husband’s emotions and actions.  I have sat with countless women who have told me about the destructive behaviors of their husbands, and, in the same conversation, offer justification for it.

Sara- He just gets so angry sometimes and it scares me.  The children are frightened too.  I tell him but it only makes him more upset.  He starts yelling and soon I’m in tears and so are the children. 

Me- When he sees how upset you and the children are, how does he respond?

Sara- He yells at me, saying I am turning them against him.  Then he tells them to go to their rooms.

Me- It sounds like your husband hurts and frightens everyone in the family when he is upset.  Not only that, but he believes he is justified in his actions.

Sara- Well, he has been working a lot of hours and his boss is asking him to take on more projects.  Plus, I haven’t been keeping the house as clean.  He expects since he works that I take care of my end at home and that makes sense.  I am not innocent in all of this.

Me- Sara, it’s probably true you are not the perfect wife, but this has nothing to do with your husband’s destructive behaviors.  He is responsible for his actions and their impact.  When did you start believing the lie that you are responsible for his emotions and behavior?

Sara- (Crying & silent for a minute) I didn’t even realize I was doing this, and I’ve been doing it for years.  I am the first to be knocked over by him and the first to bounce back with a smile offering him excuses.  He doesn’t change or appreciate me, he just knocks me down again the next time he is upset. 

Sara, like many women, has come to believe a lie.  She carries the weight of her own emotions and those of her husband’s.  She is a necessary and unappreciated source of comfort for her husband, while also being blamed as the cause of his pain.  It is a prison of fear and guilt.

Freedom starts with learning to speak with love and strength.  However, you may not know what to say.  Simply going to your husband and telling him to stop will not work.  Issuing a drastic ultimatum you do not have the strength or support to enforce will only embolden him further.  Instead, we need to be wise in how we progress.  Christian Counselor Leslie Vernick asks women to consider asking three powerful questions to begin this journey.

We are going to ask our husband the following questions while operating within our C.O.R.E. and gaining needed information (Remembering Your Core).  You will focus on listening reflectively (not reacting) and responding with undeserved grace and compassion.  This does not mean you will take responsibility for his behavior or allow his destructive actions to go on unchecked.  You will approach humbly with as much respect and compassion as you can possibly muster.  Your spouse will see a new strength in you and be placed in a position to look in the mirror.  This will only be accomplished if you refrain from arguing, reacting, rolling eyes, saying you feel the same way, etc…  If he is suspicious, tell him these are not trick questions and will not be used against him.  Instead, you just know that the marriage is not going so well and you want to understand him better.

1. Are you happy?

  • It’s not a secret the marriage is not going well, and it is very valuable to know his perception of this, even if it is very different from your own.
  • Listen empathically and don’t react.  Even if he responds that he could be happy if you would just (fill in the blank).  Ask yourself if this is valuable feedback for you.  After all, you want him to hear what you think at some point, as well.
  • If his destructive behaviors were not present at the beginning of the marriage, he may have built up a wall of resentment over time for reasons you are unaware of.  Again, this would be valuable for you to know.
  • If he starts to verbally attack you, stop the conversation and say, “I am sorry, I cannot listen to you very well when you yell at me.”  If he continues, tell him, “I want to hear what you have to say, but I don’t want to get defensive and retaliate.  I hope we can have this conversation at a later time.”
  • If he says he is happy, you can reply with surprise, letting him know he does not appear happy much of the time.  Wait and listen for his response.

2. What do you see as our most important goal or challenge as a couple if we are going to improve our relationship?

  • It’s time to get his perspective on what needs to change in the relationship.
  • One of the most common complaints for men is seeing their wife as constantly pointing out their faults and shortcomings.  These men eventually stop trying to please their wives and have a wall of resentment up.  Imagine how you would feel if he did the same.  If he does do this, you already know how much this hurts, so why would you want to perpetrate it.
  • It may be you have made many adjustments over the years.  If you have already changed many things and he has not gotten better you could respond, “I don’t think me changing one more thing is going to make a difference.  As soon as I change in one area there will always be ten other areas you think I am falling short in.  I don’t think I can ever be the woman you want.”  You are letting him know you cannot and will not attempt any longer to be his fantasy wife.
  • If your husband comes up with a good list, you may be angry.  Wives sometimes respond by saying he is suggesting good things to make himself look like the “good guy”, but he is not going to follow through.  Don’t fret.  You now have a reference point to refer back to when things are not going this way.  If, for example, you are talking and he gets belligerent you can say, “I am confused, I thought you said if we were going to improve the marriage we would need to speak calmly and respectfully with one another.”  Or “I thought we had agreed that in order to move forward in the marriage we needed to have the freedom to question one another’s behavior without calling into question our commitment to the relationship.”

3. What kind of husband and father do you most desire to be?

  • No husband or father has ever responded that he wants to be an abusive tyrant who terrorizes those around him.
  • When a man harms his family he damages himself.  God has hard-wired men to protect their families and when they fall short they do great harm to themselves.  He feels guilt and shame, regardless of whether or not he chooses to acknowledge it.  The problem is, rather than becoming self-reflective, he looks for someone to blame, and much of the time that is you.
  • You might be very surprised at his answers.
  • Listening with compassion and empathy is soothing balm to a hurting marriage, leaving you feeling closer and cared for.

The conversation we have just had is critically important for us moving forward.  We have engaged our husband as a man made in God’s image and not as D- husbands.  Along the way, we have also gained valuable insight and information.  We are angry they are not the husbands we desire or need, but speaking in love and strength has given us a powerful voice.  We are speaking to them as the man God has called them to be, offering them a challenge from a position that is no longer totally dependent on their approval.

Take the first step towards a better tomorrow, today.

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