The Emotionally Destructive Marriage: An Interview with Author, Counselor, and Speaker Leslie Vernick
You can’t put it into words, but something is happening to you. Your stomach churns, your heart aches, and the tension in your marriage is making you feel weary and a little crazy. The constant criticism, disrespect, cruelty, deceit, and gross indifference are eroding your confidence and breaking your spirit and you don’t know who to talk to or where to turn.
Today our guest on Mental Health News Radio is Leslie Vernick, a clinical social worker, relationship coach, speaker and author. Her best-selling book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage is what we take a deep dive into today. If you’re feeling voiceless, hopeless, or powerless in your marriage, Leslie will show you a path forward, helping you find your voice and reclaim your hope.
Many of our listeners are counselors. When we reached out to our audience announcing Leslie as a guest the response was overwhelming. We are certainly honored to have her as our guest and to share her invaluable wisdom with our listeners.
We asked Leslie to share with the questions that are most often asked of her. Get ready to take notes because we cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
Questions and Answers from Leslie:
1. How would you define or describe an emotionally destructive marriage?
An emotionally destructive marriage is one in which the other person is regularly dominated, deceived, diminished, dismissed, degraded, and demeaned.
There is a lack of mutual effort at maintaining or repairing relationship wounds. There is a lack accountability for one’s wrongs and no responsibility accepted for harm caused to the relationship
Often relationship wounds are denied, minimized or blamed on the other person. In a destructive marriage you don’t just feel it’s hard, you feel like you’re dying inside.
Sometimes there is no “you” in the relationship at all. You exist solely to meet his needs and make him happy.
2. We all do things that are hurtful sometimes, when is the line crossed? When does it become emotional abuse?
All relationships, even healthy relationships contain some elements of sin and suffering. The difference between a healthy marriage and a destructive one is huge. When a healthy person hurts someone they love, they don’t make excuses or blame the other person for it. They take responsibility for their poor behavior, apologize, and make amends to repair the relationship. They also do what it takes to not repeat that behavior in the future.
The line is crossed into a destructive relationship when these sinful behaviors and attitudes are repetitive and are meant to control, dismiss, degrade or destroy someone’s personhood, credibility, and dignity.
3. What are the three important components to a healthy marriage?
Mutuality, reciprocity and freedom.
Mutuality means that both partners in the relationship contribute to the care and maintenance of the relationship. Both partners bring to the relationship care, respect, and honesty. Both partners show remorse and repent when one or the other or both have done things that have harmed the other.
Reciprocity: A healthy relationship is one in which both partners give and both receive. Power and responsibility are shared and the rules of the marriage are mutually made and adhered to. There is not a double standard where one person gets to have all the power and the other has to take all the responsibility.
Freedom: All healthy adult relationships need freedom to be who God made them to be, freedom to have their own feelings, speak their own thoughts and disagree with one another without the fear or retaliation or danger.
4. There are different types of destructive marriages. Besides physical and/or verbal abuse, what are the other characteristics of a destructive marriage?
Obviously, whenever there is any kind of abuse, physical, verbal, emotional, economic, sexual and spiritual the marriage is destructive.
But here are four other kinds of patterns that are destructive in the marriage;
1. Controlling behavior. A spouse doesn’t have to use physical force to get her to do what he wants her to do. He may assert himself as the Biblical head, which in his mind gives him the right to make all decisions. A controlling spouse requires his wife to do things she may not want to do like quit her job or stop seeing her family or wear certain types of clothing she feels uncomfortable wearing. This dynamic relegates her to the status of a slave or a child, which demean her as an adult woman and deny her the opportunity to grow and function as the full person God intended her to be. A controlling spouse wants to be god – the absolute center of his or her spouse’s existence.
2. The dependent spouse is one in which often is attracted to the controlling spouse. When both stay unhealthy the relationship is destructive but works for a time. It’s true that God intended us to have relationship with people and a healthy marriage has some degree of interdependence. However, the only person who should be totally dependent on someone else to meet all his or her needs is an infant. A dependent person puts a fallible human being in the god position in his or her life. They believe, I need you to love me in order for me to be okay. That is destructive to you, to him and to the marriage.
3. Chronic deceit erodes trust in a marriage and it’s impossible to have a long term healthy relationship with someone who lies, misleads, withholds information or twists things to look one way when it’s another. Crazy-making is the result of living with a chronically deceptive person because you are living with internal cognitive dissonance where you are told not to trust your own sense of things and believe the words of someone who is a very good liar.
4. Chronic indifference conveys the message “you don’t exist” or “you don’t’ matter”. An indifference spouse says I don’t care enough about you to give you any of my time, my money or my energy to care for you and your needs. You are an object to use, not a person to love and it’s probably one of the most unrecognized, yet subtle and serious forms of emotional abuse.
5. How do misunderstandings of headship and submission contribute to abuse in marriage?
The issue of headship and submission is a crossroads where Christian’s often get muddled because controlling abuse can often be mislabeled as Biblical headship.
The New Testament never describes godly headship or leadership by using an authoritarian, power/over model. Jesus demonstrated headship for his disciples so that they would be crystal clear what he meant. He donned a towel and basin and personally washed each of their dirty feet.
They were the future leaders of his Church and Jesus wanted to show them that biblical headship meant sacrificial servant-hood. Jesus, nor the Scriptures never describe biblical headship or leadership as entitlement to do what you want, demand that others do you want you want or to get your own way. The correct biblical terms for those characteristics are selfishness and misuse of one’s power and authority.
There are numerous examples of these behaviors throughout scripture but they are never depicted as God’s example of leadership but rather as sin.
6. You tell women that trying harder to be a good wife in the traditional way will make their destructive marriage worse. What do you mean by that?
It shocks most women when I tell them to stop trying harder because all the traditional marriage books tell her to do just that. Try harder to love him more, or try harder to be more respectful or submissive. Be more sexually available or less demanding, or more fun. And, in some cases of regular marital distress, that might be good counsel but not when there is a destructive marriage pattern.
The reason trying harder will actually make a destructive marriage worse is because it feeds 3 lies.
1. It gives the woman false hope that if only she can do it right, her husband will change his destructive ways and love her. Yet we see from Jesus’ example, he always did it right and yet the Pharisee’s, never changed their destructive ways or loved him back. In fact they wanted to kill him.
2. Trying harder feeds the lie that he’s entitled to be catered to no matter how sinful, how ungodly and how destructive he behaves. That’s not living in reality. Trying harder fuels his selfish attitude that he’s entitled to all the perks of a great marriage without having to do any work. That’s not true. God’s word says we reap what we sow. When a husband reaps negative consequences when he sows destructive behaviors, he might actually wake up to his destructive ways.
3. When a woman is given this counsel to try harder, it feeds a lie that it’s her fault that her husband acts this way. If only she was a better wife, if only she didn’t demand so much, if only she never aggravated him he wouldn’t behave destructively towards her. That’s not true. There is no perfect wife who will never will aggravate, disappoint or frustrate her spouse. When a woman is given this counsel she is given an impossible task and it fuels his anger when she fails.
7. You teach women how to build four CORE strengths. What are they and why are they important?
When you allow another human being to determine your worth and value – you’ve now given them the power to destroy you.
And often that’s exactly what’s happening to a wife in a destructive marriage. The Bible warns us that bad company corrupts good morals. When you continuously live with a contentious, reviler, it’s pretty tough not to start lobbing a few verbal bombs back of your own. Yet we are told that we are not to be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21. But how?
That’s why I teach women to build four CORE strengths so she becomes healthier and then wisely initiate and invite healthy change in the marriage
A woman in an Emotionally Destructive Marriage is not a perfect woman. She’s a sinner too and in her pain, she can become toxic either towards herself by imploding inwards – with depression, shame and self-hatred… or towards others by exploding when she’s had enough. I want to empower her to choose another path. Here are the four steps to building CORE.
C I will be committed to truth, both internally in my own heart and mind and externally. I refuse to pretend or live in denial or fantasy.
O I will be open to the Holy Spirit and wise others, teaching me, maturing me, and guiding me into his way of living my life.
R I will be responsible for my own responses to destructive behavior and commit to being respectful without dishonoring myself.
E I will be empathic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me.
8. You talk about implementing consequences. Why is this so crucial in a destructive marriage?
When someone doesn’t respect words like stop, ouch, please don’t, that hurts me, and he continues in his destructive behaviors, the next step is implementing strategic and potent consequences. Doing so is the most effective thing a woman can do to wake her husband up to his destructive ways.
9. Describe the difference between unconditional love and unconditional relationship.
The Bible says that we are to love unconditionally, we’re even to love our enemy (Matthew 5:44), but unconditional love, does not mean unconditional relationship (Isaiah 59:2-5)
Here’s a good example. In John 3:16 God loves us unconditionally. Yet in John 3:36 the Bible says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
God does not offer unconditional relationship with people even though he loves them unconditionally. In order to have a relationship with
God we must humble ourselves, admit our sin, ask for forgiveness and surrender our lives to Him.
Marriage is a covenant relationship but it’s not an unconditional covenant made only by one person, but a covenant between two persons, based on mutual promises made by both parties to Love, protect, honor, and be faithful.
When one person breaks those promises repeatedly, you do not have a healthy or a biblical marriage.
10. You have a chapter called Necessary Changes. What are necessary changes if the marriage is going to be healed?
Here are five things that must happen:
1. Clarity: He accepts responsibility – stops blaming. He begins making amends instead of expecting amnesty
2. Commitment: He’s committed to becoming a better man not just stopping the destructive behavior.
3. Confession: No one changes overnight or instantly. He takes responsibility when he messes up. He confesses it and continues to work to change.
4. Community: Hebrews 3:13 says, “Let us encourage one another day after day lest any one of us become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” We need community to help us grow and to keep us accountable.
5. Consequences: He understands that negative consequences will be the result of his failure to change and follow through on his commitment.
We are looking for a change of heart as well as a change of behaviors.
Let me give a your readers a check list of things that will show you he’s changing for the long haul:
1. He Accepts Responsibility
One of the first things I look for to determine whether or not someone has experienced a change of heart is their willingness to see what they have done and take full responsibility for it. No blaming, rationalizing, lying, minimizing or denying.
2. He Makes amends
In both the Old and New Testaments, making amends towards someone harmed by your sin was seen as evidence of true repentance. Sometimes destructive individuals expect amnesty once they say they’re sorry for what they’ve done. They believe that sorry means no more consequences, no extra effort, and that we shouldn’t have to talk about it anymore.
They believe their words of repentance automatically restore trust and repair relationship wounds.
But words are not enough. Words can be deceptive (Jeremiah 7:4). A heart that is changed shows as well as says.
3. There is a willingness verses willfulness
When a person’s heart is changed, there is evidence that he has humbled himself before God and others.
He can admit that he can’t do it on his own, he is not always right, and some of the things he has done have been foolish and destructive.
As a result he is now willing to be taught new ways of handling his temper and disappointment.
He is willing to surrender to God and submit to others in order to grow and become the man God calls him to be.
He is willing to have other’s speak into his life and hold him accountable for the changes he knows he needs to make.
Finally, he is willing to put in the necessary hard work to get there.
Jesus warned his disciples, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). Many of us are willing but not capable (yet) of doing what our mind and heart desires. God wants to help us change our destructive ways. He wants us to have a healthy marriage, but it takes effort, particularly when your normal way of relating with someone has been so damaging.
Stopping destructive, sinful attitudes and actions and acquiring godly character takes a lifetime so your husband isn’t all better yet. This maturity is a process. It’s an inner orientation of where we’re headed, not a once and done finished process.
So here are three (3) “evidences” that he’s not only willing, but now working on more permanent (not perfect) change.
1. Does he have self-awareness so that when he starts to slip back, he sees it, stops it or self-corrects?
2. Is he willing to receive feedback so that when you notice he’s slipping into some old behaviors, you can tell him and he’s grateful, rather than angry or resentful?
3. Is he willing to be accountable to a small group of trusted men to keep him moving forward toward becoming the man God calls him to?
We were never designed to mature or grow up all by ourselves. A small group of supportive individuals help us make those necessary changes. It’s much harder to hide and stay self-deceived when we’ve invited other people to give us feedback and hold us accountable to the goals we’ve set.
11. Why is safety a crucial component in healing a destructive marriage?
You cannot have a healthy conversation or be intimate with someone who you are afraid of – whether it’s friend or your spouse. So validating SAFETY NEEDS to be the first step of healing. If there is no safety, there can be no healing.
12. How would a couple know that they are on the right path toward healing? You give a general road map that shows whether or not progress is being made. Can you share more about that?
Step 1: Safety – Abuse has to be recognized, owned and stopped.
Step 2: Sanity – Each person in the marriage has to address the lies that they have believed that has kept them in this destructive pattern.
Step 3: Stability – Putting into practice the safety and sanity things both of them have learned. He’s respecting her boundaries. Allowing her to have her own voice. And when he slips into old patterns, he is catching himself and stopping, or listening to her feedback and stopping. She is speaking up, setting boundaries and he is respecting her boundaries and catching himself when he steps out of line.
Step 4: Security -Trust is being rebuilt. Although things are not perfect, things are changing and the progress is real and consistent.
13. What should a wife do if her husband refuses stop his destructive behaviors?
Changing a destructive relationship begins with her and when she builds her CORE, stops enabling, covering over, minimizing, keeping secrets, and starts implementing consequences for destructive behavior change will happen. That doesn’t always mean the marriage will be repaired, but the destructive behavior will no longer be tolerated. Pain is a very good teacher if we let it be.
Leslie Vernick is a popular speaker, author, and licensed clinical social worker and relationship coach. She is the author of seven books, including the best selling, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and her most recent The Emotionally Destructive Marriage.
Leslie has been a featured guest on Focus on the Family Radio, Family Life Today with Dennis Rainey, New Life Radio and Television with Steve Arterburn, and Moody Mid-Day Connection. She writes a regular column for WHOA Women’s Magazine on relationship issues. Leslie has spoken in Romania, Russia, the Philippines, Hungary and Iraq.
In 2013, she received the American Association of Christian Counselors Caregiver Award.
For more information, visit her web site at www.leslievernick.com.