I’ve been away from Internet access for a few weeks so I didn’t have a chance to weigh in on the recent posts discussing the issue of abuse in marriage.
This post contains some of what nearly 20 years of counseling experience has taught me about the serious issue of marital abuse. It’s a bit on the long side, but I hope what I’ve learned will be of some help.
Martial abuse, whatever form it takes, is ultimately about a husband or a wife who makes it all about him/herself. The common thread that runs through just about every controlling, unreasonable, petty, hurtful, and frustrating thing they do is their demand to have everything revolve around them. We’re not talking about lower case selfishness that is in every last one of us. What I’m referring to here is capital letter SELFISHNESS.
Abusive spouses employ controlling tactics such as bullying, punishing, whining, belittling, complaining, accusing, and threatening to get their own way and keep their spouse from doing anything that unimportant or threatening to selfish agenda. They are not interested in being a mutually considerate partner. Whatever it is that is important to them—their pain, their needs, their wants, their opinions, their schedules, etc.,—that is what occupies their interest. Everything else, at least in their eyes, is irrelevant. And they are very persistent and clever at conditioning their spouses (and others) to see life exclusively through their self-absorbed lenses.
If you’re married to someone with a serious case of Me-ism you know first hand just how maddening, oppressive, and wearing it can be. No matter how accommodating you try to be, it’s never enough. And good luck trying to speak with your spouse about how he/she is treating you. Some may back down now and again, even say they are sorry, but mostly because they are afraid they have upset you too much. Most, however, will typically respond by going on the attack or playing the victim. Many abusive spouses are capable of attacking and playing the persecuted one at the same time. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are masters at twisting things around, blaming you for what their selfishness created and making you look bad and feel bad for “pressing” them too hard. They are never wrong. It’s never their fault. And they are typically full of excuses. They are generally victims of something, whether it be another “bad day” or your impatience or lack of understanding them.
Remember—it’s all about them.
Experience has also taught me that it’s pointless for anyone to try to reason or debate with an abusive spouse. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to. They are not interested in being reasonable or honestly evaluating why they act the way they do. They are not serious about taking a hard look at themselves and how their selfishness is tearing apart the marriage and family. They generally don’t care what they put their spouses or others through. Again, they are mostly interested in what’s important to them. And about the only way you can be right or have a valid thought or feeling is if you are accommodating their needs or requiring nothing of them. And if you do get frustrated and blow up at them, they get to play the victim of your anger.
Another thing I’ve learned about abuse in marriage is that it gets worse over time. Accommodating and cooperating with your spouse’s subtle and no so subtle demands may buy you some temporary peace and sanity, perhaps even some affection, but it doesn’t last. Because of the extreme levels of selfishness at work in the heart of your abusive spouse, marital abuse, if not confronted, will return and continue to escalate and slowly suck the life out of you.
I’ve also learned that most abusive spouses will not deal with their capital letter SELFISHNESS as long as they know they can get away with it. They need to experience serious and consistent consequences for making it all about them. Drawing lines and giving consequences are some of the most loving actions an abused spouse can take as it gives their spouse a chance to admit they have a serious problem and begin to deal with their heart. I don’t say this lightly, for this is hardly easy. It’s disruptive, messy, and can be potentially dangerous. That’s why addressing marital abuse requires outside help from those who understand the selfish and dangerous dynamics of abuse and can provide guidance, support, and protection for an abused spouse as the abuser is confronted and held accountable.
That brings me to another important point experience has shown me. Over the years I’ve seen well-meaning family members, friends, church leaders, and even other counselors attempt to step in and help, only to make things worse–especially for the abused spouse. Many lack the experience or reference point to recognize and confront the subtle yet extreme “all about me” dynamics in the abusive spouse that are destroying the relationship. They themselves are frequently manipulated and or intimidated by an abusive spouse, and they tend to offer counsel and advice that mistakenly assumes both spouses are willing to be mutually considerate. These are unfortunate errors that unintentionally enables the abuse to continue.
One last thing experience has taught me is this: while most abusive spouses will insist on joint-marital counseling once their pattern of control and making it all about them is exposed, this is the last place to begin addressing marital abuse. Neither spouse is typically ready for the level of honest vulnerability that is needed for marital counseling to beneficial. Until abusive spouses are able to become self-ware of how they make it all about them and own the extent and harm of their abusive behavior, they will try to make the counseling process all about them too, which will undermine it. Further, abused spouses will not feel free to openly share their thoughts and concerns in the presence of their abusive partners. They are understandably afraid that their spouse will later make them pay for saying what they truly think and feel.
Abusive spouses who are truly interested in dealing with their Me-ism will not only be willing to accept consequences for their selfish behavior, but they will agree to pursue a path of individual counseling (separate from their spouse) where they will take an honest and hard look at themselves and explore how and why they feel such a deep and pressing need to be so self-absorbed and controlling. Joint-marital counseling only becomes a possibility once abusive spouses have consistently demonstrated over a lengthy period time a genuine, no excuses repentance/sorrow over making it all about them and the nightmare that it has put their spouse and family through.