When Words Hurt
Verbal abuse in a marriage
by Pastor Vickie Shaull-Groth
Today I want to touch on a subject that at one time, was near and dear to my heart... spousal abuse. How to identify it, some of the causes and what steps we all need to take for healing. I pray that this teaching blesses you in some way and those you love and those who love you.
Using words as weapons is as old as human language, but we don't give it the attention that it deseves. In the past few decades we have come a long way in recognizing and understanding the damage that physical and sexual abuse can do, but there are still many who don't realize that words can be at times, more powerful then using our fists to talk for us. We all need to think about the impact of our words on others.
The New Testament writer James said that even though the human tongue is a small part of the body, it has the power to make a tremendous impact. The book of Proverbs reminds us that the tongue has the power of life and death (18:21). The language we use to communicate with one another is like a knife. In the hands of a skillfull surgeon, a knife can do good. But in the hands of a careless or ignorant person it can cause a great deal of harm.
The Bible teaches that a kind word can uplift, nourish, and mend a broken heart. Proverbs 16:24 says "Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." Words can restore confidence, hope and purpose to a spouse who felt dejected, lost or confused. We all are familiar with the tauntings in the schoolyard when we were children, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." I wish that were true saints of God... the fact is... unkind words do injure our spirits and sometimes deeply. Being yelled at or called "stupid", "idiot", etc especially by a spouse, can inflict a wound that will take years to heal.
We often fail to take seriously the power of the tongue to asault and its ability to devastate entire lives. A few inconsiderate words can kill the spirit of a spouse, child, or parent. Proverbs 12:18 states that "reckless words pierce like a sword." James also went on to describe the tongue as being "full of deadly poison."
Does this mean that we should never cease to cause pain with our words? No. There is a time for that when situations require the compassionate and skillful use of incisive words that may cause pain initially but we all need correction, constructive criticism and admonition at times. Even though they are necessary... the words can still hurt but this is not the kind of pain that harms. It is intended to make us grow as Christians and warriors for Christ.
Unfortunately in many cases, a loving motive is missing in the pain we cause with our words. It's far more likely that we use certain words to attack one another. Verbal warfare is much too common in many marriages. Conflict is unavoidable in marrige. Because each partner brings his or her own perspective (and sometimes emotional baggage) to the union. In healthy relationships, most of these disagreements are resolved in a nondestructive manner.
Although married couples may strongly disagree, many learn how to work through their conflicts in a positive way that allows them to disagree with each other in a controlled and respectful manner. However, many couples go through a season where they misuse their words in the midst of conflict. Saints, we know where that comes from...The devil will use any door he can to enter into a harmonious relationship. Sadly, all of us have been guilty to some extend of fighting unfairly and not trying to resolve differences as much as we are trying to manipulate, win or get even.
How are words used to control and attack? Knowlingly or unknowingly, all of us who are married have used our words to control and hurt our mates. Although the ways we do this can vary in intensity from one relationship to the next, the following is a brief description of the most common tactics couples use to control and attack each other.
And of course there is blaming and putdowns which are an attempt to make their spouses feel foolish and small.
What does God have to say in this? The Bible doesn't take any kind of selfish domination lightly. Seeing the tears of the oppressed and observing that power was on the side of their oppressors, the writer of Ecclesiastes concluded that it can seem better to be dead than to be alive and oppressed(Eccl,4:1-2). Oppression (depression) is not the mutual love and respect that God intended between a husband and a wife. Instead, it's more like a dictatorship, one spouse lording authority over the other. To reinforce control, spouses with the most power, may try to isolate their mates from family and friends.
To love is to seek the best interests of our spouses. Love means we care deeply for our spouses even though they have lost our trust. Second, love confronts and addresses sinful patterns in the lives of our partner, even if that upsets them or makes them uncomfortable.
Jesus, who loved perfectly, was at times confrontational. He aggressively confronted and chased the money lenders out of the temple who were cheating people with their inflated prices. There were moments when He made sharp remarks to others.
Jesus, however, confronted not to get even with His enemies but to wake up those who didn't realize the damage they were doing. He confronted to give offenders the opportunity to acknowledge their sin, to repent, and to find the forgiveness of God. In the same way, husbands and wives should lovingly confront each other out of a desire to see their mates come to their senses and be reconciled to God and themselves.
While we know that verbal battles happen in every marriage, reasonable and fair-minded people realize that there is a line between normal martial conflict and severe verbal and emotional abuse. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that when a dominant spouse begins using words to habitually control and attack - a critical line has been crossed. The marriage has become a one-sided, verbally abusive relationship where love and respect have been replaced by self-centered power and control. When the line between normal martial conflict and severe verbal abuse is increasingly crossed, the relationship becomes oppressive. Partners stand less and less on equal ground. One spouse doesn't have the freedom to say no or to express his or her views and opinions. The other has most, if not all, of the power, and almost everything must happen on the controlling spouse's terms - or else.
Who are the abusive oppressors? Experience and research tell us that husbands are usually the ones who are verbally controlling, but many wives are guilty as well. While husbands commit most of the physical abuse that occurs in marriage, both husbands and wives have the potential to dominate their spouses with their words.
How do spouses use words to oppress? Spouses who regularly oppress and control their partners employ the same verbal tactics used by all spouses - they just use them more frequently and with greater intensity and malice. The sarcasm is more biting, and the blaming is more intense. They also use tactics such as threatening, demanding, and invalidating. An extremely controlling husband might say to his wife for example, "I don't know what's wrong with you. Do you really think that anyone will take you seriously?"
Verbally abusive words can hurt at any level. But we are left with damage that is more extensive when the abuse becomes extreme. You can't see the bruises, as you can with physical abuse but nevertheless... they are there on the inside. And there are often long term effects of living with an irrational, belittling spouse because they feel as if they are going crazy or there is no escape.
When this happens, the mistreatment smothers the glory and honor God has given each of us as His creatures made in His image. We can take some positive steps to turn this around. Recognize the problem. Your perceptions and opinions are legitimate. God made you and He doesn't make mistakes. He wants you to feel loved, safe, peaceful and in control of your emotions. Sometimes it helps to keep a journal of how and when your spouse verbally dominates or assaults you so you can understand the patterns of control and manipulation. Please understand though it is for your understanding, not revenge. Record keeping of offenses is what God does for us, "And no weapon formed against you shall prosper."
Conduct a careful self-examination and own up to your response to the abuse. You are, of course, in no way responsible for your spouse's verbal mistreatment. Owning your response helps to keep powerlessness and bitterness from taking root in your heart. Fear which accompanies such abuse reveals a hesitancy on our part to entrust our well-being to God. Painful events in our lives may have caused us to doubt the heart of God. Does He care? Will He protect us? These questions eat away at our faith when there is reason to wonder if He will be there for us when we need Him. Although we may have doubts, God does hear our cries for help. Our Father waits for us to return and put our trust in Him. It is here that we can truly learn the meaning of Proverbs 29:25 which says, "Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe."
In the assurance of His forgiveness, we can find the courage and desire to respond properly to a verbally controlling spouse-less out of fear and more out of love.
Jesus said, "If your brother sins against you, rebuke him and if he repents, forgive him." God forgives those who honestly confess their sin and entrust themselves to His mercy. He does not promise to remove all natural consequences of the wrong. Instead, He releases the offender from the guilt and the offended from the anger that would otherwise make mutual love impossible. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Loving those who hurt us doesn't come easy. We all need time to get to the place where we want to show love to those who have hurt us so much. Releasing the right of vengence to God is what gets the bitterness out of our hearts. Cancelling the unpayable debt of a repentant mate is what distinguishes us as a people who have been forgiven by God. We are all on common ground at the foot of the cross of Christ. It makes us aware that if we are not willing to love others as God loves us, we ourselves are in desperate need of the mercy and love of God in our lives. Let's be thankful that His offer of mercy is still available to us!