Living With an Angry, Abusive, or Violent Spouse
No matter how bad your situation is, remember that you are not alone.
Edward T. Welch
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
It shouldn't happen.
You married someone you trusted, and you gave yourself to that person. How could it be that the person you once trusted with your life now acts like the person who could take your life? Whether you are facing unpredictable anger or outright physical abuse, this is betrayal at its worst.
It just shouldn't happen.
A quick scan of the Internet reveals that you are certainly not alone. Twenty-five percent of adult women say they have experienced violence at the hands of their spouse or partner in a dating relationship. Men, too, can be victims of spousal violence. Eight percent report at least one such incident. But since men are more often violent against women, and since women are typically weaker than angry or violent men, this article is written especially for women.
If you have experienced violence, and you are living scared, statistics are little comfort. Women who live in identical conditions don't protect you or give you hope for peace and reconciliation. But the numbers do remind you that others know the pain of such a living situation, and that resources are available to help you.
You are not alone: There are people who want to help
Where can you turn for help? Where can you find a wise friend to guide you?
If you attend a church, talk to your pastor. If you don't attend a church, find one in your area. Look for a church that is centered on Jesus Christ and believes what the Bible says about Him—that He is the Son of God who came to earth, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and is the living and powerful head of His church today. Find a community of people who worship this Jesus and who express their worship in love for one another. There you will find hope and direction.
You are really not alone: Listen to the God who hears
Your long-term goal should be to know the personal God. This won't magically change your situation, but you will find that knowing God does change everything. Think about it for a moment. What would it be like to know you are not alone, you are heard, and the One who hears is acting on your behalf? It would make a difference. It would especially make a difference if you knew that this person was the holy King of the universe.
The challenge, of course, is that, at this time in history, you cannot see God with your eyes. When you want real hands and feet to help you, the knowledge of God's presence might seem to provide very little consolation, but don't let your senses mislead you. God's presence is a real spiritual presence. The Spirit will confirm this, and "Blessed are those who have not yet seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29, ESV).
How do you know that the invisible God of the universe is with you? Look at the evidence from the past. The Bible is full of stories about God hearing the cries of His people and coming to their rescue.
In Genesis, the first book in the Bible, a woman named Hagar and her young son, were unfairly sent from their home and left in the wilderness to die. She turned her back on her son so she wouldn't have to watch him die, and they both wept. They thought they were utterly alone, but "God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation'" (Genesis 21:17, 18).
This is a pattern. God's ears are finely tuned to tears. Like a mother who wakes at the sound of her child, God hears the cries of the oppressed.
We see this again when God's people, the Israelites, cried out because of their slavery in Egypt (Exodus 2:23, 24). Like Hagar, the people were not even crying out to God; they were simply crying, and God heard. While some people can hear and do nothing, when the God of heaven and earth hears, He acts. He gave Hagar and her son water and made her son the father of a great nation. He responded to the cries of the Israelites by delivering them from their slavery in Egypt.
So don't think that God merely listens. His listening always includes action. We may not see all of what He is doing, but, make no mistake, He is acting.
You are not alone: The God who hears wants to listen to you
God wants you to direct your cries and fears to Him. Does that seem impossible? If so, He will help you to find the words. Psalm 55 can get you started.
"My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me. And I say, "Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest; yes, I would wander far away; I would lodge in the wilderness; I would hurry to find a shelter from the raging wind and tempest…For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God's house we walked in the throng." (Psalm 55:4-8; 12-14)
Psalm 55 has given a voice to human betrayal for centuries. If the words fit your experience, then you are now part of a much larger body of people who have sung this psalm and made it their own. One person in particular leads the singing. Yes, King David wrote this psalm, but he wrote it on behalf of the perfect King who was to come after him. It is Jesus' psalm, and you are sharing in His Words (read Mark 14). He was the innocent victim of evil people. He was tortured and suffered a terrible death at their hands. To be part of His chorus, all you have to do is follow Him.
Indeed, you are not alone.
You are not alone: The God who hears is against injustice
The God who came to this world as Jesus and experienced oppression and injustice also stands against it. When people are oppressed by those who have authority or physical power, God pronounces grief and judgment on the oppressors.
"Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!" declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: "You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply." (Jeremiah 23:1-3)
This doesn't mean you should silently gloat, "Yeah, go ahead. You'll get yours some day." As you probably know, women who are victimized usually don't think like that. It's more likely that you feel guilty, as if somehow you are the cause of judgment on your spouse. But neither response is what God intends. He wants you to respond by depending on Him to be your defender. He wants you to trust that He is hearing your cries and is going to act on your behalf.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO
Most likely, you are numb, scared, confused, and paralyzed. If this describes you, then you might know some action steps, but taking one will seem impossible. There is no trick to taking a first step; you just have to do it.
Start by making a phone call to your pastor or a friend. You need help, and God's hands and feet often are the friends He raises up to help you. Look for God's help to arrive from God's people.
You have many reasons why you don't ask for help. One is that you don't know exactly what kind of help you need. For example, you aren't eager for someone to confront your husband because you are afraid he will get even angrier at you. You don't want to leave. So what's left to do? Your path isn't clearly marked, and you're not sure what to do next. That makes it even more important for you to ask for help from someone else.
Don't let your sense of guilt of shame paralyze you. Another reason you might not ask for help is because you are experiencing something shameful. The truth is that you are not to blame for the cruel anger of another person. Even if you incite anger (and that is rarely the case), there is never any excuse for cruelty.
Put it this way: You cannot make someone else sin. Sin comes from our own selfish hearts. Your spouse, when he is sinfully angry, is caring only about himself and his own desires (James 1:13-15). He will try to make it sound like it's your fault—there isn't a victimized woman in the world who doesn't feel like she is somehow at fault—but his sin is his alone.
If necessary, find refuge.If you've been physically hurt by your spouse, and he continues to threaten you, then you should get protection. If children are threatened, this is essential. Every county in the United States has domestic abuse hotlines that will provide you with resources. Protection from abuse orders are available though your local courthouse. Friends may have an extra room or two. As you think about how to keep youself and your children safe, please find someone to discuss this with you and guide you. God's wisdom says that the more important the decision, the more critical it is to receive counsel from wise people.
The reality is that most women who are suffering like you don't take these steps. Some who do quickly renege on them and go back to the abusive situation. Why? Fear of retaliation, fear of aloneness, love for the perpetrator, hope that things at home will change, and the lingering guilt that says, "It's your fault." These are powerful tugs that make decisive action very difficult.
With this in mind, you can see how important it is to listen for the consensus among the wise people around you. If you have fears and doubts about their counsel, voice them.
Distinguish between loving your spouse and wanting to be loved by your spouse. Here's a hard distinction, but it can go a long way toward bringing you sanity. Have you noticed that in all relationships we balance our commitment to love with our desire to be loved? Usually the scales are tipped in favor of wanting to be loved. Your goal is to tip the scales towards a commitment to love.
This is the way to avoid the twin contaminants of most relationships—anger and fear. When you need someone more than you love that person, you will be prone to anger, because you don't get the love that feels so critical to you. You will also be prone to fear, because the other person has the power to give or withhold what you think you need.
When you set your sights on your commitment to love, the possibilities are limitless. Love gives you the clarity to make difficult decisions on the fly. Should you speak out or be quiet? Love can guide you more than you realize. Even going to someone else and asking for advice and help with your difficult relationship can be an expression of love. You need help because you care about your spouse. His foolish, selfish lifestyle is not only hurting you, but it's also hurting him because it's spiritually self-destructive. Love wants to warn the fool. It wants to rescue, if possible, the self-destructive person from the wrath of God.
Love can be patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13). It can rebuke (Leviticus 19:17). It can stand against injustice and confront another person in their sin (Matthew 18:15-17). The challenge is to keep the scales tipped in love's favor.
You can only do this when you remember that God always tips the scales in love's favor in His relationship with you. No matter how moral you have been, you have not been perfectly faithful to the one who created you. But instead of withdrawing in anger, God pursues you even when you don't want to be pursued.
Find the book of Hosea in your Bible (it's in the Old Testament), and read the first three chapters. You will get a picture of God as the relentless lover of His people. Although His people repeatedly reject Him, He will not give them up or let them go.
As you know and experience God's pursuing love, your love for others will become stronger than your desire to be loved. Trusting in God's love will free you to love others the way you have been loved. After all, when we were God's enemies, He extended His call of love to us (Romans 5:10). Since God loved us like this, we should expect that we will have the opportunity to love others in the same way. The Bible calls this overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:20).
Learn to disarm an angry person. Outfitted with love, you have more power than you think. Love comes from the Spirit of the living God, the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Whenever you encounter the Spirit in the Bible, you encounter power. The power, of course, is the power of wisdom and love, and there are times when it can disarm an angry man.
Because of the limitless possibilities of love, let wise friends brainstorm and pray with you. Here are some things that the Spirit of power can help you do when you are faced with an angry spouse:
- Ask him why he thinks you are the enemy.
- Leave the house when he is sinfully angry.
- Go and get help instead of being silenced by your shame and his threats.
- Accept responsibility for your own sinful responses, and not accept responsibility for his.
- Tell him what it is like to be the recipient of his anger and hatred. Angry people are blind to how they hurt others.
- Ask him if he thinks that he has a problem.
- Speak with a humility that's more powerful than anger. When in doubt, you could ask what he thinks you did that was wrong. You don't have to defend your reputation before him.
- If he claims to want to change, ask him what steps he is taking to change.
- Keep James 4:1-2 in mind. You are witnessing his selfish desires running amok. Be careful that you don't become an imitator of such behavior.
- Don't minimize his destructive behavior. Sinful anger is called hatred and murder (Matthew 5:21, 22).
- Read through the book of Proverbs underlining all the sayings about anger. Proverbs like "reckless words pierce like a sword" will validate your experiences (Proverbs 12:18).
- Remember, it is possible to overcome evil with good.
This is only a sketchy list. The details will have to be worked out within your community of counselors. What guarantees do you have? God doesn't guarantee the momentary peace and quiet you might be longing for; instead He promises you something much more lasting. He promises that as you turn and trust Jesus Christ you will become more like Him; that His Spirit will help you love more than you need to be loved; that God will be with you, He will hear and act on your behalf; and that although the Spirit of God is the one who changes hearts, you have more power than you know—the power to both know and promote peace.
Is it wrong to leave, even if my husband is violent? Isn't marriage a permanent commitment?
The Bible does emphasize that marriage is a covenant that should not be broken unless we have God's permission (Matthew 19:6). Do you have permission when there is domestic violence? Know this for certain: God opposes such evil and intends care for the oppressed (Jeremiah 23:1-3). Such care can sometimes be found in finding a place for refuge and protection. If you need to leave and seek safety, that is not necessarily a first step toward divorce. It is better understood as a statement of hope and a desire to see change in the marriage relationship.
You are right that these decisions are difficult. Therefore, ask for help. Ask your pastor to guide you in the knowledge of what God says.
Can angry men change?
This question can be heard two ways. First, "I want a relationship. Can my spouse change?" The answer is yes, absolutely! God changes all kinds of people. If He can change us, when we see that our hearts are prone to selfishness and quickly stray from trusting Him, then He can certainly change people who are like us.
You probably already believe that God has the power to change anyone. Your biggest struggle will be to put your hope in God more than you put your hope in your husband changing. When you put your hope in God, you live on a rock. When you put your hope in a person, you will feel like a life raft let loose on the open sea.
Second, this question might be about the process of change. You might be really saying something like this, "My husband has promised to change so many times, but we end up at the same place. Can he change, or is there a deeper problem?" Sin is hard to leave, in part, because we like it. In the case of abusive anger, the angry person might like the sense of power and control. If your husband says he wants to change, then he should have a plan. This plan should include at least the following things:
- Accountability: He must be willing and able to speak openly about his sinful behavior to others who can help
- Confession: He must be able to understand and confess that his anger has been destructive, recognize that his behavior is ultimately against God, and learn to hate his sin.
- Growth in the knowledge of the true God: All the best intentions are not enough to bring about deep change. The real problem with angry men is their arrogance and "hatred toward God" (read James 4:1-10), in which case they must both confess their sin against God and set out on a course of knowing and fearing Him.
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©Copyright 2010 by the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For more information on this topic, read the minibook, Living with an Angry Spouse, from New Growth Press.
More information about the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation is available at its website. To look at all available CCEF resources, visit New Growth Press.
Edward T. Welch, M.Div., Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). He has counseled for over twenty-five years and has written many books, including When People Are Big and God Is Small; Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave; Blame It on the Brain?; Depression: A Stubborn Darkness; Crossroads: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Addiction; Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest; and When I Am Afraid: A Step-by-Step Guide Away from Fear and Anxiety; and the minibooks Bipolar Disorder; Eating Disorders; and Living with an Angry Spouse.