Carrying the Wounds of Emotional Abuse

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This post originally appeared on Biblical Counseling for Women.

by Marie Notcheva

“Brenda” was married for 22 years to a man who constantly criticized her. “Are you sure you should be eating that? You are too fat!” He would over-control every aspect of her day, to the point she felt like his slave. Finally, one night in a drunken stupor, he told her “Get out! I cannot live with such a fat, ugly wife anymore.”

“Donna” never remembers her parents hugging her, or telling her that they loved her growing up. Her father and brother started calling her a cruel nickname to taunt her: “hopeless, helpless and useless.” For years, she walked with her head down – ashamed to make eye contact with anyone.

“Anna” was in love with a young man – who was in love with himself. Angry outbursts; threats to “leave” and erratic, self-centered behavior came to be the norm for Ana. “He’s just a ‘complicated’ person,” she would rationalize. “I know that he loves me!”

Although they were never hit or beaten, these three women shared something in common: they were emotionally abused. This kind of pain lasts much longer than the bruises of being hit, and can only be forgiven and healed with the help and hope of Christ.

What does the Bible say about abuse?

Abuse literally means to mistreat someone, although we often think of ‘abuse’ as being merely physical. Mistreatment or abuse of other people is sinful for two reasons: firstly, because humans are created in the image of God; and secondly, because abuse is always motivated by selfishness and results in damage and destruction. People abuse others for a variety of reasons, but selfishness underlies all abuse. When we mishandle anger, it leads to an abusive, sinful response. The heart issue is rooted in pride: putting one’s self above another; disregarding his or her feelings; and ignoring the command of God to love one another (John 13:34; Luke 6:31). The Bible strongly condemns abusing or cheating others (Exodus 22:22; Isaiah 10:2; 1 Thessalonians 4:6), and in fact, 1 John 4:20 calls a person who claims to love God but abuses (hates) another a “liar”.

Examples of emotional abuse include verbal attacks, destructive criticism, manipulation, lying, threats, and withholding affection. These toxic relationships affect the victim’s ability to trust others and enjoy healthy relationships in the future.

Within the Family

The most common form of emotional abuse is verbal – and the effects of hurtful words linger for years. Parents sometimes underestimate the destructive power of words spoken in anger, or the ability of children to remember destructive criticism for decades. The Bible warns fathers (and by implication, mothers) against embittering their children by the way they treat them (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:21). Being repeatedly shamed by their parents or being held to an impossibly-high standard often causes children to view God as a distant or cruel task-master. Biblical counselor David Powlinson quotes a woman he counseled in “Life Beyond Your Parents’ Mistakes”:

“For years I thought I could never know God as my Father because I had such a rotten relationship with my dad. But then I came to realize that my biggest problem was me, not God or my father. My belief system was all messed up. I was projecting lies onto God and not believing what was true about him!” Sally began to feed her faith with the truth that God the Father is faithful, merciful, and consistent. He patiently worked with her, disciplining her and teaching her to know the merciful, generous truth about him. Sally saw that her view of God was not caused by her life experience but by what her own heart had done with her experience of being wronged.”

The Silent Marriage-Killer

God’s plan for a happy married life that honors Him is best laid out in Ephesians 5, where husbands are instructed to love their wives sacrificially – and wives are to submit to their husbands out of respect for their spiritual authority. Sadly, many spouses – even Christian ones – are living in a reality far different. When a woman is beaten, her plight is less likely to go unnoticed and the Church (as well as police) may become involved. Emotional abuse, while just as painful, is much harder to detect. Even her closest friends may not know, because the victim is conditioned into believing it is deserved or is somehow her (or his) fault. Shame is a crippling effect of abuse of all types.

What makes verbal abuse so damaging is that it is intentional. The power of one’s words over another must not be minimized. The Bible tells us “the power of life and death is in the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21) and that the tongue, while small, can “set a forest on fire” (James 3:5). Instead of encouraging and building up, abusive spouses humiliate and tear down with their words. Constant and personal criticism; power plays; and intimidation destroys trust and intimacy.

There are several types of emotional abusers in marriage and romantic relationships. Let’s look briefly at three.

The Tyrant

Tyrants hold power over their subjects by fear and intimidation. The most common form of emotional abuse they use is verbal – a constant stream of insults, put-down, threats and even false accusations to achieve their ends. A tyrant is usually a very angry person, believing he/she deserves more than what God has sovereignly provided. A woman married to a tyrannical husband often lives in fear, as his temper may be volatile and unpredictable.

The Manipulator

“Manipulators suck time and energy out of your life under the façade of friendship. They can be tricky to deal with because they treat you like a friend, but have a hidden agenda. Manipulators always want something from you, and if you look back on your relationships with them, it’s all take, take, take, with little or no giving. They’ll do anything to win you over just so they can work you over.” (Dr. Travis Bradberry, Ph.d)

Manipulation is often more obvious to people outside the relationship than it is to the person being abused in this way. The person being manipulated wants desperately to believe she is loved, but the manipulator uses others only so long as he can gain something from the relationship.

The Narcissist

The narcissist is incapable of loving anyone but herself. She has a delusional, inflated view of her own achievements and character; a legend in her own mind who deserves the adulation of others. In 2 Timothy 3, Paul warns Timothy of those within the Church who act out of an attitude of “self-love”. He describes narcissists as “lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

Narcissists do not form healthy relationships, because they are utterly self-absorbed and lack empathy (or interest) in other people.

Christ’s Response to Abusers

All types of emotional abuse are rooted in pride and selfish desires (James 4:1), and create shame in their victims. Christians who have been hurt (whether by parents; dating relationships; or in marriage) feel the sting of harsh words and betrayal just as strongly as anyone, but if we turn to the Bible, we see that Christ Himself was no stranger to verbal abuse and harassment. We have in Him a Divine Friend Who truly understands. A quick read of the Gospel of John, in particular, demonstrates the extreme patience and perseverance of our Lord under unrelenting verbal attacks and criticism.
Long before Calvary, Jesus bore hateful attacks, sneers, and unjust criticism. Literally no good deed was left unpunished, and Scripture records at least two other attempts on His life (by stoning; for alleged blasphemy). After one such attack, Jesus heals a blind beggar – unasked – on His way out of town. The man is then excommunicated from the Synagogue for bearing witness to Christ, and Jesus then goes out of His way to find him.

Think on THAT the next time you’re tempted to slide into self-pity!

John records one verbal barrage after another against the One Who came to save His attackers. My jaw drops at the amount of hostility Jesus put up with… including a barely-veiled insult implying that He was illegitimate (John 8:41b). And how does He respond? Righteously, by calling out the sin and hypocrisy of His critics – but also graciously, by calling them to repentance. Right up until Wednesday of Passion Week, two days before His humiliating execution, we see Jesus in the temple courts – preaching, persuading, imploring those who despised Him to come unto Him.

While we know that Christ was, and is, fully human as well as fully divine, I can’t help but wonder if the rejection and attacks hurt Him in the same way we would experience emotional pain. Usually, when our feelings are hurt, it is a personal slight – not God’s honor and glory – that has been wounded. Yet the only time we see Jesus getting angry in the Gospels is when His Father’s honor has been compromised. The personal attacks seem to roll off His shoulders, and He is consistently willing, ready and able to overlook the offense and forgive. His continual call to repentance is just that – an invitation to lavish grace and undeserved forgiveness.

The Role of the Church

We certainly see the model of quiet submission and forgiveness Christ gives us in the Bible, and turn to Him for comfort in all afflictions – including abuse. However, the “one-another” care and correction we humans need happens in community, which is His Church. The local church has been entrusted with elders, deacons, and godly women serving one another and speaking into one another’s lives. Here is where healing can begin.

While a woman enduring marital abuse may be encouraged by reading 1 Peter’s instruction to “endure suffering patiently”, if she does not lovingly confront her husband’s abuse, she is enabling him to continue in sin. Speaking up can be frightening, but abuse, whether physical or emotional, is a sin which affects the Body of Christ. If the husband is a Christian, the Elders of the local church are in the best position to speak to him privately about how to love his wife “as Christ loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25) and help him deal with his anger in a God-honoring way. The same is true for other abusive scenarios – the discipleship and accountability provided by small groups (or private pastoral counseling) can help break the cycle of abuse, and allow all persons involved to forgive, grow spiritually, and heal.

Jesus cares for His followers and has laid down His life to demonstrate His love for them (1 Peter 5:7). He will most assuredly comfort, vindicate, and heal them; both through the power of the Holy Spirit, and by the Church family He has created to be His hands and feet.

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