I’ve been a reading a book entitled, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, by Beverly Engel. This has led to me ask to what degree I have experienced abuse in my marriage. It has also made me question whether women (and men) have the insight they need to determine both the level of abuse in their relationships and the appropriate response.
I’ve also been doing some reading up on gaslighting and narcissism. Gaslighting is when one person makes accusations and insinuations that cause the other person to question their own sanity. A narcissist refers to someone who lives for attention. Life revolves around them and they do not have the normal feelings of empathy for others.
These kinds of deranged ways of thinking and behaving are the result of neglect and abuse in childhood, something I won’t get into here.
The question is, should you stay with someone who makes you doubt your own mental capacity? Should you stay with someone who repeatedly ignores your needs and is perhaps abusive in other ways?
How do you decide whether to leave or stay?
If a man physically abuses a woman, there is a clear line he has crossed. I, for one, would not tolerate physical abuse. I draw the line there. I would leave if my husband harmed me physically.
But mental and emotional abuse is not so easy to detect and to know when it has gone too far. Things get said in the heat of an argument. You get put down for something and you think, yeah, he’s right. I failed him. I should do better. Sometimes it is true. But when it becomes a pattern and starts to wear you down, that may be a sign that change is needed.
Habitual emotional abuse can go both ways. Women and men can both be narcissists. Either one can be gaslighting.
One way to determine if you are suffering from abuse is by comparing the person you are now with who you were before you were married. A couple of simple questions you can ask yourself are, has your confidence level changed, or have you become isolated and stopped seeing people, because of your spouse? If the answer is yes to either one or both, this reason for concern.
There are other indicators. Are things always your fault? Are you always the one expected to change? Are you made to feel inferior because of something you did or said, or the way you look, or the level of your education, or for any other reason?
In a healthy marriage one partner will be supportive and encouraging of the other partner. They will be willing to change when they recognize they are doing something that is potentially harmful to the relationship. They will also agree to be held accountable.
There ought to be a willingness both to see and admit the need for change and a willingness to change. But if one person has experienced abuse or neglect as a child they may feel very insecure and easily threatened by a request for change. Maybe they fear their partner no longer loves them, or will leave. For this reason it is important to preface a conversation about change with the reassurance that you want to stay in this relationship and this change is something you see as improving your marriage.
The goal is to have a great marriage. You can agree on that. Can you also agree on the importance of addressing what is hindering you from having this kind of marriage?
Any discussion of this nature has to come from a place of personal humility, not superiority. It is also necessary to recognize that you cannot make your partner change. The best you can do is paint a better picture and hope he or she will buy into it.
In our marriage, my husband has in the past tended to lose control of his temper. After a long time I finally confronted him and said this was not helping us to have a better marriage. He needed to control his anger. He saw that it was true and he agreed to work on it. From that point on there was an awareness on his part that he could do better and he did. Not only did he control his anger, but together we looked at possible triggers and we worked on those too.
It is important to spend some time and think through what needs to change. You may want to preface a conversation with something like, “I really need to talk to you about something that’s been on my mind for awhile. I love you, and I want to have the best marriage we can have. When you get angry, it makes me afraid and anxious. I don’t think that’s good for our marriage.” Or, “When you keep forgetting to take out the garbage, I feel like my needs aren’t important to you, like you don’t really care.” Or, “Sometimes I feel like other men care more about how I am feeling than you do. I feel like we are not really connecting emotionally a lot of the time.”
In a healthy relationship the other partner will see and admit a need for change. Because they are invested in making the marriage better they will also express a willingness to change. And remember, it is not a matter of who is right and who is wrong, but, what is best. Either of you can bring up the problem, but together you need to come up with a better plan.
Early in our marriage, when I brought up an area that needed change, my husband would immediately shift the conversation to something I needed to change. Tit for tat. This was not helpful. It brought confusion and meant the issue could not be fully dealt with. When we recognized that we could only deal with one issue at a time, we began to move forward and gain insight. We focused on the one issue, and, out of respect, we focused on the first issue that was brought up. The others could be dealt with at a later time.
A husband and wife will both have areas where change is needed. The all important question is, can we talk about this?
If one partner is always tiptoeing around the other, not wanting to rile them, or to hurt them, this is not a good indication. It might be necessary to say, “I feel like I can’t talk to you about things that are really important to me, because you will get hurt or angry. But, if we want to have a good marriage, there are things that I have spent a long time thinking about that I see as needing to change and we need to talk about these, or we will grow distant. I think that’s already started to happen and I don’t want us to be that way. Can we talk? Is this a good time? If not, then let’s do it another time. But let’s not put this off too long.”
Remember when we learned to do speeches in school? Well, here is a real life application of that lesson. You may need to think through and prepare a speech, actually plan the right words to use. You will find that some approaches are much more effective than others.
One more thing. Conversations like this should be rare. Too much time spent on fixing can drag a marriage down. The focus of the majority of your time together is to be on creating pleasant memories that will serve kind of like bank deposits, building a cushion, that will have a shock absorption affect in rougher times.
Do you talk together as a couple about the goal for your marriage? Do you paint verbal pictures of want your marriage to look like? Are you feeling better about your marriage this year than you did last year? Are you more relaxed, more content? Do you feel more loved?
Although some marriages need to end because of abuse, I think many times marriages could thrive if partners are able to get to the root of their problems and learn ways of working through things with the goal of an improved relationship.
Target the specific problem. Hold each other accountable and expect change. Your marriage is worth the effort.
But, if there is an unwillingness or inability to change in essential areas, you may be living in an abusive situation and you need to seek help or even consider leaving your partner. This is especially true if you fear for your own safety. In extreme cases you need to have a support group to help with a strategy.
Is he or she abusive? If you are being hurt over and over again, yes. If promises are made and repeatedly broken, yes. If you cannot trust your partner, yes. If you feel like you have diminished to a person you no longer recognize, yes. You need to seek help.