“When is enough, enough?” the woman sitting across from me asked, appearing tired and drawn. “I’ve been treated badly for years. I’ve watched my husband be mean-spirited and angry, talk sarcastic with me and even call me names. How long do I have to take this kind of treatment?”
I listened to Megan’s pain as she recounted years of being treated nicely some times, and very poorly at other times. She sounded weak and bitter. I listened as she shared how she had attempted to cope with this situation.
“I keep praying that he will change, but he doesn’t,” she said. “I keep hoping that some sermon will touch his heart and he’ll see the light. But, it doesn’t happen.”
“Do you do anything else?” I ask pointedly. “Do you ever set any boundaries on his behavior?”
“Like what?” Megan asked, appearing perplexed. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“What have you thought about doing?” I asked.
Again, Megan looked at me in puzzlement. She looked around the room before offering another response.
“I haven’t really thought about doing anything. I’m always off-guard. He makes everything out to be my fault. I’ve never really considered that I could set consequences on him. It sounds a little childish.”
“Actually, Megan,” I continued. “The world is filled with consequences. The Bible is filled with examples of ‘sowing and reaping” and consequences are part of God’s economy.
“I need to learn more about that,” she said.
Having heard thousands of men and women express similar sentiments, I knew she was genuinely confused. Years of being told the problems were all hers had found fertile soil, the seeds of self-doubt growing into a middle-aged woman who wondered what she had done to deserve such treatment.
The issue of emotional abuse is epidemic, and that is why I write about it so often. Living with Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde or a wife who lives on an emotional rollercoaster of blame and anger is a huge problem in marriages today. Listen to the words of another woman who emailed me recently.
Dear Dr. David,
I just read your article on emotional abuse and wanted to say thank you for outlining the steps to recovery. I have definitely identified my husband as an emotional abuser/manipulator and we have started counseling. He does not see what he is doing by twisting the truth on me and always making relationship problems my fault. He withholds good things from me on purpose and has even sold my things to "punish" me for not cleaning up dishes after supper. I feel for him and want Christ to heal him. He doesn't see the need to go to counseling, but is willing to go for a while. It's up and down, good and bad. I feel stuck. My question to you is this: When is enough, enough? How do I know when to leave and when to just wait on him to get help? If there were no improvements, I wouldn't still be in the relationship.
While there are times when we must ask the incredibly difficult question, “When is enough, enough?” Before we ask that question, I have other questions I’d like those in abusive relationships to consider:
1. Have you learned all you can about emotional abuse, being able to identify abusive behavior?
2. Have you explored how you may be enabling this destructive behavior?
3. Have you set healthy boundaries, with appropriate consequences?
4. Have you insisted on depth counseling?
Let’s take these questions one at a time, carefully considering your answer to each.
First, have you learned all you can about abusive behavior so you are able to identify it when it occurs in your life? It is critical that you read about emotional abuse so you can identify it, name it, and insist on eliminating it from your relationship. If you cannot identify it, you cannot change it. Find good books on the topic, starting with my book, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life.
Second, have you explored how you may be enabling destructive behavior? You may not want to look at your contribution to destructive, emotionally abusive behavior. However, you must be aware of some powerful truths: anything you fail to do to stop abusive behavior is likely enabling that destructive behavior to continue. Ignoring a behavior, for example, enables it. Minimizing a behavior also enables it. How are you enabling abuse to continue?
Third, have you set healthy boundaries, with appropriate consequences? One couple I worked with recently agreed that if he lost his temper again, he would enroll in an Anger Management program. Another couple agreed that if, when talking about his behavior, he turned the topic onto her, she would call an immediate time out. She would continue talking to him only when he agreed to stay on the topic of his behavior, and they would talk about her behavior at another time. Do you set healthy boundaries?
Finally, have you insisted on depth counseling? Many attend weekly counseling for an hour and then discontinue after six weeks. They are then disappointed at the meager results. Depth problems call for depth counseling, which often consists of extended sessions and continues on for months. Couples intent upon real change recognize that limited counseling brings limited results.
If you believe you are in an emotionally abusive relationship, begin the change process. You will be uncomfortable at first, as you will be “rocking the boat.” Change, however, begins with discomfort. Then, seek support and information. Insist on change, adding consequences to unhealthy behavior.
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Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at email@example.com and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my Web site, www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency, rejection by your mate, and affair-proofing your marriage.