Sunday, May 3, 2015

What to Do About Toxic Power in Marriage

Dear friends,

What can a woman do if she realizes that she is in a controlling, manipulative, intimidating, verbally aggressive, and/or physically violent marriage? 

Two months ago I wrote a post called Recognizing Pervasive, Poisonous Power in Marriage which gave an analysis of the problem. I based it on concepts found in The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. At the end, I promised a follow up post with suggestions on what she can do. Now that I've had time to do a little more research, here are my ideas. 

Stay as calm as you can, which may be quite difficult depending on the severity of your situation. You are going to need all your wits about you as you face the past, present, and future. When you panic, you can't think straight. Being fearful also puts you in a more vulnerable position, because you are perceived as powerless to stand up to mistreatment. You can learn to present yourself as assertive and confident. You can retrain your thought processes, tone of voice, body language, and vocabulary so it will be clear that you are in control of yourself. You can strengthen your spirit with faith, wisdom, courage and dignity. 

Educate yourself about the dynamics of interpersonal power, emotional manipulation, and abusive relationships. There is a wealth of information on-line, and I've given some links on my domestic violence resource page. Even if you think you understand a concept, keep reading about it to get more complete knowledge and to remind yourself to not give in. Be familiar with the power and control wheel, as well as psychological terms like the cycle of abuse, gas lighting, blame shifting, projection, and minimization. A man can abuse his wife without ever physically hurting her. (See More Than Just a Black Eye.) You might think you can ignore it if he hasn't been physically violent, but abusive behavior can quickly escalate if it is not firmly resisted. What may start out as simple verbal contempt may over time end up in serious injury.

Understand your own situation in light of what you have learned through your personal research. Try to identify what has happened, what tactics have been used against you, how you tend to react, anything that triggers outbursts, etc. Make a list of every abusive or intimidating incident that you can remember, and add as much detail as you can:

  • What was happening right before the incident occurred? 
  • What did he say or do to hurt you? 
  • How did it make you feel? 
  • How did he react to your reaction? 
  • How did all of this affect your children? 
  • What happened in the hours and days afterward? 
  • Did the same thing happen again? 
  • Were there any witnesses? 

Document it! What may have seemed less significant at the time can shock you when it is compiled together with other incidents. You may be stunned to see the recurring patterns, progression, and accumulation of abuse. It takes courage to acknowledge that you have been treated so poorly, but you don't have to succumb to denial and despair. Identifying your problems is a necessary step to solving them. You may need help with this process. Sometimes when we are in the middle of the situation, we "can't see the forest for the trees" as the saying goes. The perspective of someone else may be what you need to get a clear picture.

Seek out compassionate, capable, confidential counsel. Silence is not golden here. Start by talking to a friend or relative whom you can trust to understand you and who will not gossip or put you at extra risk. Then take the next step and find professional help. This can be tricky. If you are a Christian, this could possibly be a pastor or faith-based counselor. Unfortunately, in so many cases, they do not have adequate training to deal with abusive marriages, and they are likely to reiterate more rigid gender roles which can be particularly unsuited to the already imbalanced relationship. They may also be inclined to doubt your credibility if they only see your husband's upstanding outward persona. If the abuse has been physical or has endangered your safety or sanity, don't hesitate to call your local domestic violence center and go in for a consultation. They can refer you to other professionals who are skilled in recognizing and handling abusive relationships. If you can't afford to pay for counseling or legal help, ask how you can get free or discounted rates. Also keep in mind that couples counseling may not be at all appropriate for you, and may actually be very detrimental. Please read Why Couples Counseling is Not Recommended for Abusive Marriages.

Explore your options. What have you already tried? Did it work? Why or why not? What have you read about in books or heard from a counselor? What combination of alternatives might work for you? How would you implement them? What obstacles could hinder you? What can you do to prepare for a worst case result? This process may require stepping out of your comfort zone, especially if you are most accustomed to the life paradigm I described in The Bad Boy and the Angel. Do not let fear or shame hold you back. There are people in your circle of family and friends, and in the larger community, who are more than willing to help you. If you or your children are in danger, you need to know how to get to safety - preferably before another rage breaks out. Don't wait until someone is seriously hurt! Do you have a plan for where to go, what to take with you, and precautions for ensuring your continued personal security?

Set firm boundaries and specify consequences. You can insist on being treated with respect. You can insist on physical safety for yourself and your children. You can insist on the freedom to think, speak, and act according to your conscience. Decide what you want or don't want to see happen. Be specific. Here are some examples:

  • "When we are talking with each other, we should choose to speak with dignity and kindness. It is not acceptable to call me that name or scream at me. If you do that, the conversation will be over and I will walk away." 
  • "I expect that you will listen to me when I bring up a concern. It is not right to accuse me of being a rebellious wife when I object to your poor behavior. I will no longer allow you to silence me like that."
  • "If you try to coerce me with intimidation, I will not cooperate with you what you want." 
  • "It is not acceptable to destroy things when you are mad. If you damage any of my possessions or any part of our home, they will be repaired or replaced at your cost." 
  • "You must be gentle with our little boy, even when he upsets you. Shaking him like that hurts him and scares him, and could injure his spine or brain. I will report any child abuse to social services."
Follow through on your plans and then reevaluate. Is he respecting the boundaries you have set, and is he respecting you and your children as people? Then keep it up and see if he continues to cooperate. He may be using temporary compliance as a ploy to regain your trust and favor. If he is not making sufficient progress toward a healthy relationship, make sure you are being clear, consistent, and confident with your expectations. Ask your trusted and capable counselor for advice on what to do next. Step up the consequences as necessary. These may include:

  • much less emotional intimacy with you, since you no longer trust him with your deeper feelings, and you refuse to "throw pearls before swine"
  • other key people knowing about the problems he has caused; while appropriate discretion is always advised, telling the truth to those who can help you is not slander
  • on-going professional counseling, with him paying for it
  • marital separation, with all of the many financial and relational costs that this entails
  • a protective injunction from the court if he is threatening or harming you or your children
  • an arrest record if he chooses physical violence or other illegal behavior
  • a divorce in a case of severe or protracted abuse; the article God Hates Divorce? by a pastor and Bible scholar Sam Powell could enhance your understanding of the original meaning of Malachi 2:16 

If you can't seem to muster up the resolve to enforce boundaries and consequences for your own well-being, please remember your children! You are morally and legally obligated to protect them, not just from physical abuse, but from intimidation and emotional harm. This includes witnessing you get hurt, even if he doesn't touch them.

Plan and prepare for a healthy, life-giving future, not just the absence of abuse. Again, this means strengthening your own soul and body, no matter what else happens around you. You can expand your ability to set goals, solve problems, communicate effectively, train your children positively, manage your finances, take care of your health, learn an enriching hobby, and gain whatever other skills will put you on track for success. 

I hope this has given you some ideas and encouragement. Things can get better, but you have to take assertive action. You can do this. 

You will find more resources on my Domestic Violence page.

Grace and peace,

Virginia Knowles


  1. YES! I wish I had had this kind of advice many, many years ago. I will share this on my social media. Thanks for educating and encouraging women. Keep up the great work!

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