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This week’s question: I've read some of your books, and I wholeheartedly believe that I deserve to be treated better than I am. This crazy cycle isn't ok, and it must stop one way or another. I'm on-board with that much.
My trouble is that I need some help thinking creatively about what natural consequences might be. It's easy when it's a little kid. For example: "You know the rules; until you can respect the furniture and sit on it properly (rather than jumping), you may not use it. Here...sit on the floor to have your lunch and maybe tomorrow you can use the furniture again properly."
What do you do with a husband and that crazy cycle? I can go toe-to-toe when I have to, but really what I want to do is run far, far away. In these times, I want nothing but out of this relationship.
I desire to be treated properly, but don't know another reaction other than fight it out (which gets sooooo old) or flee. Those are my two stand-by's. However, I don't like it (actually it angers me) that I don't know any other reaction. What actions could I take instead? Can you give some practical examples of how to dance differently?
Answer: First of all let me commend you that you even want to dance differently and you’re not happy with your own “reactions”. Let’s take the metaphor of the dance. If you were dancing with someone and they repeatedly stepped on your toes, what would a “natural” consequence be, especially after you kindly asked them to be more careful or to stop dancing that way? If they would not change their behavior, then you would have to dance differently yourself if you wanted your toes to stop hurting.
That might mean you stop slow dancing with that person or you let go of his hands and step back and dance separately. If he pulls you back into the embrace of a slow dance, then you stop dancing once again and say, “I won’t close dance with you because you’re stepping on my toes. That hurts me, and I’ve asked you to stop and you haven’t. Until you learn to dance with me without stepping on my toes, I am not able to slow dance with you.
Now it’s his turn to make a choice. Either he will stop dancing altogether with you, dance separately, or learn how to dance without stepping on your toes. Meanwhile, he may scream and blame you that you’re being too sensitive, unreasonable, unsubmissive, mean spirited, and sinful because you won’t dance with him like he wants.
This is where we get fuzzy headed and manipulated. We do want to dance with our spouse, and we do want to dance closely. We also believe that it is God’s will and what we promised when we got married. Therefore, we feel guilty pulling away or putting boundaries down. We look inside and think maybe we were too sensitive or selfish.
It doesn’t help when he screams and accuses and blames until we can’t think straight. So we try harder and go back to dancing close, but when he steps on our toes again and we can’t take it anymore, we blow up or run away. This pattern repeats itself again and again as a person gets lured in or dragged back into the same old dance where your toes keep getting stepped on.
So, you asked for some practical ways to implement consequences when your husband is abusive toward you. You don’t mention specifically what is happening so I can’t coach you in specific strategies but here are some general principles about consequences.
It’s important that we understand that we are not punishing our spouse (as a parent might punish a child). That is not our role and it is inappropriate. Consequences are meant to wake us up and help us to see more clearly. The pain of our sin is meant to teach us not to repeat the same things over and over again. The scriptures are clear, what a man sows he reaps (Galatians 6:7). When a man sows discord, abuse, enmity, strife, and pain in a marital relationship, there is a natural consequence. He doesn’t reap the benefits of a good marriage relationship.
If he didn’t experience that painful consequence, it would enable him to stay deceived into thinking that he can act sinfully and not suffer any consequences. That is not the truth. So painful consequences have a way of helping a person change his sinful ways because he doesn’t like or want that PAIN of the consequences.
I think this is where many Christian women have been misadvised and foolish. They have put up with terrible treatment and still tried to provide the relational closeness of a healthy, loving marriage. That enables the husband to deceive himself into thinking that it is “her problem” and “she makes me act this way”. The lie is that it doesn’t matter how I behave or treat her, she’s my wife for life, God hates divorce, and therefore I’m entitled to the perks of a good marriage. That is not biblical wisdom, nor healthy reality testing.
So here are some natural consequences for an abusive relationship:
1. Call the police and press charges if he is physically abusive. The longer you make excuses or put up with it, the more aggressive he will become. A night or time in jail helps someone see that what they are doing is not only wrong, it is illegal and you will not allow yourself or your children to be physically abused.
2. When he becomes verbally aggressive, end the conversation. Simply walk away when he begins his screaming or verbal assault. Remind him that you will not allow yourself to be spoken to that way. Do not argue with those boundaries. If he follows you, go to a bedroom and lock the door. If he breaks it down, call the police. Always make sure you carry a cell phone with you and have it preprogrammed to 911.
3. If he verbally assaults you in a closed area such as a car, refuse to drive with him. Drive yourself separately because he can’t control himself. He loses the privilege of your company when he mistreats you.
4. Exit the situation if it is escalating. If you need to leave the house because you feel in danger, whether emotionally, physically or sexually, you need to have a safety plan in place. That might mean putting a spare car key in the garage or under a planter, packing a suitcase and hiding it in the trunk or garage, or making sure your children know that when you say a certain phrase, they all exit the house and get into the car. If you’ve been through the cycle, you can tell when he’s getting himself worked up. You don’t have to stay for the blow-up stage. Leave. The consequences for his inability to control his temper and his tongue (or his hands) is the loss of your company (for a hour, for an evening, for a season).
5. Separation. If someone repeatedly refuses to listen and you are in a position to do so, separation can be a very effective consequence for this kind of behavior. It has the potency to “wake him up” and let him know that he cannot continually act abusively towards someone and expect that they will still want to be in a loving relationship with him. Separating often begins to open the abusers eyes for the first time that you are a separate individual with your own thoughts, your own feelings and your own needs. Before you return back into the relationship, however, it’s important that he not only “see” what he’s done wrong, but that he’s gotten help in respecting your “no” and with the ability to tolerate and manage his own negative emotions.
6. End the relationship. Some Biblical scholars disagree on whether or not abuse is a biblical reason to dissolve a marriage. Certainly, it would be a last resort after all other steps have been taken. But it is a natural consequence of this kind of behavior. When someone repeatedly abuses someone else without repentance, without remorse, and without change, what are the alternatives? The choices are continued separation, continued abuse, or ending the relationship. Sometimes the abuse continues throughout the separation and end of a marriage through legal harassment, child custody disputes, and withholding of finances.
In addition, although these are not technically consequences, I want to give you some things you can say when your husband is starting his tirade. You say your pattern typically is to either “fight it out or flee”. Instead, try saying one of these phrases and then walk away: “Just because you think that way doesn’t make it true” or “I’m not going to argue about that” or “That wasn’t appropriate or a nice thing to say” or “I don’t deserve to be spoken to that way.” Again those statements will not transform your spouse, but it will open his eyes a bit to you as a separate person who is not going to allow herself to be bullied, badgered, manipulated and mistreated. As you gain respect for yourself and handle yourself in godly ways, you will exert a powerful influence on your husband and children. And, those are good things.
Hear me. You can make a bad relationship better all by yourself by not escalating the conflict, not retaliating, not repaying evil for evil and not engaging when someone is pushing your buttons, but as much as you desire a good marriage, you cannot make a bad marriage a good marriage all by yourself.
In closing, here just a few verses from Proverbs that tell us the results and consequences of living with a difficult person:
22:3 A prudent man forsees evil and hides himself, but the simple pass on and are punished.
22:8 He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow.
23:9 Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words.
23:10 Cast out the scoffer, and contention will leave; yes, strive and reproach will cease.
24:25 Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.