FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Diagnosing an Emotionally Destructive Re

with Leslie Vernick | April 7, 2010
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Are you in an emotionally destructive relationship? Would you know if you were? Today licensed clinical social worker Leslie Vernick talks about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and lists some of the tell-tale signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Are you in an emotionally destructive relationship? Would you know if you were? Today licensed clinical social worker Leslie Vernick talks about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother and lists some of the tell-tale signs of an emotionally abusive relationship.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Are you in an emotionally destructive relationship? Would you know if you were?

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Diagnosing an Emotionally Destructive Re

With Leslie Vernick
April 07, 2010
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Bob:  You know that the Bible calls us as Christians to unconditionally love for others.  That’s easy when somebody is loving you back.  But what do you do when a relationship becomes emotionally destructive?  That’s what Leslie Vernick had to ultimately confront in her relationship with her mom.


Leslie:  I remember writing her a letter talking to her about my childhood and asking her to take some responsibility for that.  I thought that if I confronted her in a godly way she would somehow say she was sorry, I wish I had been a better mother.  I never got that.  In fact I got another hateful letter back.  So that really was the sealing for me that I was not going to contact her again.  Because any contact I did have was negative and destructive.


Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, April 7th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey and I'm Bob Lepine.  We’ll talk today about what our responsibility is as Christians when we’re involved in emotionally destructive relationships. 


And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I have to be honest here, okay.  You have had people, I’ve had people who have come up to me and they will say, “I am in an emotionally abusive relationship.”

Dennis:  Right.

Bob:  When I hear that, there’s part of me wondering just how bad is it really?  You know?  Is this somebody who is just overly sensitive to their environment and what they’re describing as emotional abuse, you just want to say “Just buck up and grow up.” 

Or, is it really something where they’re experiencing some kind of cruel emotional abuse, manipulation, all of that on a regular basis?  It’s hard to know when all somebody says to you is, “I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship.”

Dennis:  It’s even more difficult to know what to say to that person.  We want to provide hope and help and provide a way of escape, not from the relationship, but from the abuse.  In times like that you really need the help of a wise counselor, someone to come alongside you and give some coaching.  I think we’ve got the person here who can provide that kind of wise counsel for you.  Leslie Vernick joins us on FamilyLife Today.  Leslie, welcome back.

Leslie:  I am really glad to be here, especially on this topic.

Dennis:  I know you are.  Leslie is an author of a number of books.  She is a licensed clinical social worker, and has counseled families for more than 25 years.  She has been married to her husband Howard for more than 32 years, has two grown children and has written a book that I really want to commend to you called, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.  It’s subtitled, Seeing it, Stopping it, Surviving it.  Leslie I was curious as I read your book, to find that this really came out of a relationship, a close family relationship that you endured for more than 15 years.

Leslie:  Well, I did.  When I was a child my mother was not stable and she divorced my father when I was eight years old.  I was oldest.  She took us to live in a small apartment in Chicago.  I got the couch, and my brother and sister got to sleep on the floor.  My mother was an alcoholic and she was bipolar.  Her bipolar swings would go into the manic, not the depression side.  So she would be cruel, angry, unreasonable, irrational, and sometimes psychotic.  Of course we were children and we didn’t understand that.  We didn’t really know what was going on.  We just knew it was scary to live at home.

I tended to have the biggest buck and the biggest mouth.  I’d buck her some, I’d come back at her, which got me in more trouble with her than my other siblings.  I think I reminded her most of my father, and she was very angry with him.  So, I got the brunt of her abuse.  But it was very difficult.  Finally when I was fourteen-years-old, my father won custody.  I didn’t realize, but for years he had been petitioning the courts for years to get custody of us due to my mom’s behavior.


Dennis:  I want you to continue your story but just to give our listeners a little bit of insight into what a young person feels and experiences in a family setting like that.  What one word would you use to best describe what you felt in that relationship with your mom?


Leslie:  I think two words would best describe it.  One is “confusion,” because, there were days when she was really great.  So, was I with a mom who loved me, or was I with a mom who hated me?  Both—both and, it wasn’t either or.


Bob:  You didn’t understand bipolar or any of that.


Leslie:  No.  I didn’t even know the diagnosis.  No.


Bob:  Did you know she was drinking?


Leslie:  I didn’t.


Bob:  So, her erratic behavior was something you didn’t have any framework or context for.

Leslie:  None.

Bob:  So, one word is “confusing,” what’s the other one.


Leslie:  “Scared.”  Feeling constantly scared.  You don’t know what you’re coming into.  I remember walking in the door one day, we had a puppy.  Her name was Chocolate, and she had chewed up the couch cushions.  We had seen that probably weeks before but we just turned them over on the other side because we didn’t want our mom to know.  Because she would have been mad.  When we walked in the door the cushions were turned up on the other side, so we knew she knew.  So we all, just closed the door and went out.  Because you didn’t know what was going to happen. 

When you went in and she was in one of those moods, you were really scared.  So you felt scared a lot.  There were a lot of times when she didn’t come home all night.  I was the oldest and I felt really scared.


Dennis:  Wow.


Bob:  What might have happened?  What were some of the things you saw your mom do or experience that you look back on and say, “That was really emotionally destructive and abusive.”


Leslie:  I’ll give you two examples.  They were the same thing that I did.  I was polishing my shoes and I spilled shoe polish on the linoleum floor, twice.  One of the times, I did it; I was told I was worthless and stupid.  I was beaten.  Another time I did it, it was like, “I can’t believe you did this again, clean it up,” maybe more of a normal parent reaction.  So it was that kind of thing. If you wash the dishes the same way one night, it was fine.  If you wash the dishes the same way the next night, I remember one time her slapping my face and my face went through the window of the back door.  That’s how hard she slapped it.  You just never knew what was going to really happen.  So it was very frightening.


Bob:  It might have been easier for you if the behavior had been more consistent.  Do you think?


Leslie:  I don’t know if it would have been easier, maybe I wouldn’t have felt as confused.  But I think—at least my experience as a person, and also my experience working with lots of people who have been abused as a child, they’re still confused because they really do see some good in their parent, and it’s not all bad all the time.  And true in an emotionally destructive relationship, whether it’s a parent or a husband or wife.  Or, you’re with somebody, in church ministry that’s destructive.  They’re not all bad.  There are some good things to that.  So it does get confusing.


Dennis:  Let’s get back to the story then.  Your father was able to get custody?


Leslie:  Yes, so when I was fourteen-years-old my father called us and said, “I’m coming to pick you.  I’ve won custody.”  Now, we weren’t—at least for me, my brother and sister were happy to go—but for me, by this time I was fourteen years old.  I did whatever I wanted because my mother was often not home.  So, although I endured her abuse, I had a lot of freedom as a fourteen-year-old, and I liked that.  My father was now a Christian.  He was going to church.  He lived in the suburbs.  I didn’t have transportation.  I had lived in the city of Chicago I could go wherever I wanted whenever I wanted. 

So, I did not want to move in with him.  I didn’t take to this change very gracefully.  But, my father’s consistent love and my new stepmother’s love for me really began to soften my heart.  But I wasn’t “Oh yes, now I’m going to a stable home.”  I was like, “This is boring.  I don’t want to go there.  I like where I’m at.” 


Bob:  When could you look back on your relationship with your mother and say, that was what it was: destructive, abusive?  When did you begin to realize some perspective to say, “I see what that was now.”?


Leslie:  Well, I think I always knew that she was scary and out of control.  I don’t know that I would have used the word “abusive.”  I think I just would have used the word “scary” or “bad mother,” those kind of things. 

I remember one time, she threw me down the stairs and broke my front teeth, and didn’t really get them fixed until I went to live with my dad.  I had temporary caps that looked horrible—those silver caps that you’d wear, it was very humiliating as a girl growing up with ugly teeth. 

But I remember when I was in college trying to talk to her about that.  She made it out to be my fault.  That she didn’t really do anything.  That I tripped, and she was just disciplining me as any normal parent.  That was worse than anything.  I think if she had admitted it, and she had been able to own it and take responsibility for it and say, “You know I was really sorry.  I’m drinking. I wasn’t being a good mom at the time.”  I think the damage wouldn’t have been so severe. 

But, I think when you confront someone on what they do—there were several times in our life she would give me money at college.  I hadn’t seen her much but she would send me money, and then she would say I stole it from her.  So, you never knew.  I was afraid to take anything from her because I didn‘t know what it would cost me in the end.  So, we began to have a lot of distance in our relationship, and she eventually moved away and we didn’t have any contact at all.


Dennis:  Ultimately your relationship went dark. 


Leslie:  Our relationship went dark.  She moved to Florida.  Over that time from age 14 to about 22, we had sporadic contact.  She would visit us sporadically with my brother and sister.  But, she really didn’t get involved.  She didn’t attend any of our weddings.  She never saw any of her grandchildren being born.  We adopted a little girl from Korea, she never saw that.  She knew about it for a long time.  She moved away, and just chose not to stay in touch with any of us.  Not just me, but my brother or sister.

As a Christian, and as a Christian counselor, I really struggle with that.  Because how do I navigate that in a biblical way?  How do I honor my parent, how do I love my mother?  How do I forgive her?  And how do I send her a Mother’s Day Card?  All those things were very hard when we had no relationship.

We tried at times, I’d go down to Florida with my brother and sister and she was always mean and scary.  I remember we took an alarm.  One of those hotel alarms that we put on our bedroom door.  Because one time she stabbed her husband in the middle of the night and we didn’t know what was going to happen to us.  So it was just a frightening thing.  She would say very cruel things like “I wish you were never born.”  Or “I wish you were dead.”  Those things aren’t fun to hear.  Reckless words do hurt us. 

Bob:  Leslie, in your relationship with your mom, she was both physically abusive and emotionally abusive.


Leslie:  Anyone who is physically abusive is also emotionally abusive.


Bob:  OK.  But aren’t there case where there are some people who are strictly emotionally abusive.


Leslie:  Absolutely.  There are times when there is no physical touch going on that wounds someone.  But words are used as weapons.  And they can be used to control, they can be used to punish, they can be used to manipulate, intimidate, and threaten someone.  They can be injurious, every bit as much as the physical injury can be.


Dennis:  Ultimately it was the absence of words that your mom used with you.  You write in your book that for 15 years you didn’t see her or hear from her.


Leslie:  No, didn’t hear from her or see her for 15 years.


Dennis:  Fifteen.  Meanwhile you’re raising a family.


Leslie:  Meanwhile I’m raising a family.  I’m enjoying my family I’m having a good relationship with my dad and my stepmother so there’s been a lot of healing that’s taking place.  I’m also working on figuring out what my responsibility is as a Christian woman to this mother of mine that is somewhere else.  I remember writing her a letter talking to her about my childhood and asking her to take some responsibility for that. 

I thought that if I confronted her in a godly way, she would—again—somehow say she was sorry I wish I had been a better mother.  I never got that, in fact I got another hateful letter back.  So that really was the ceiling for me that I was not going to contact her again.  Because any contact I did have was negative and destructive.


Dennis:  Leslie you said just a moment ago that people’s lack of understanding of what a destructive relationship looks like and feels like and what the experience is like really keeps many people from understanding what they’re going through.  Give us a very simple working definition for what you would characterize as a destructive relationship. 


Leslie:  It’s not characterized by one single incident, but rather it’s a repetitive pattern of behaviors or attitudes that result in either tearing someone down or inhibiting someone’s growth.  So you’re tearing them down with your attitudes or your words.  Or you’re hindering their growth.  That can be done in a variety of different ways.  But it’s also accompanied by a lack of responsibility.  You’re not taking responsibility for it, a lack of awareness, a lack of remorse and a lack of change.

So, it’s not just the action or the attitude, but it’s also the response when someone says, “Ouch!  Don’t!  I don’t like that!”  The other person says, “What are you talking about?  You’re too sensitive.  It’s your problem.  I didn’t do that.”  So they don’t have any personal responsibility or accountability for what they did, so therefore there is no working it through.


Dennis:  I would imagine there might be mom or a dad who may be listening right now and they may have missed the phrase, the little statement you made, it’s not a one-time event or even a sporadic event.  It’s a pattern.  It’s a habit.  It’s an ongoing problem.  The reason I say that is, what parent hasn’t lost control at some point and gotten angry at their child, and maybe said some things or looked at the child or done something? 

At that point, that doesn’t necessarily indicate they’re in a destructive relationship with their child and doing them harm.  Now, it doesn’t do them any good obviously.  But we’re talking about something that is really habitual and it’s the pattern of relating.  Right?


Leslie:  Yes, it’s the pattern of relating but it also—all you have to do is shoot a gun one time at someone and they’re dead.  So, sometimes there are some incidents of abuse that’s just as lethal one time.  So when we’re talking about physical abuse, I don’t think we can say.  “Well, it’s only sporadic so we’re not going to take it as a serious thing.”

I had a client once who, the first time her husband abused her he pushed her, and then he didn’t do anything else.  He was mean and surly in lots of other ways.  But the second time he abused her, she’d told him not to salt his meat because she’d already put salt in it, and he didn’t like that.  So he got up and threw his food at her face and choked her by the sink. 

That was a few years later.  The third time he abused her he held a loaded gun to her head in front of her children.  So that was three times in fifteen years.  But each of those times it was getting progressively serious and more progressively dangerous.  The first time was too many times.  The second time was too many times.  So I don’t want to minimize the consequences of a physically abusive relationship.

Another destructive type of relationship is one in which there is a lot of deceit going on.  Oftentimes, when there’s a lot of deceit going on in a relationship and someone’s not willing to own it, it doesn’t matter if it only happens three times in five years.  It breaks trust down and if they can’t own it and work on it and do it, it’s hard to rebuild that relationship.  So, it may not be very frequent, but it is this pattern that someone will not own, will not take responsibility for and will not change that makes it destructive.


Bob:  You mention lying and deceit as one of the characteristics of an unhealthy relationship.  In fact, you list I think five of them in the book.


Leslie:  Five of them, yes.  And abuse is one of them.  So any time there’s any kind of physical, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, and sexual abuse, any kind of that in a relationship, it’s destructive, hands down.  But there are some other kinds of relationships that aren’t so obvious as that.  The abusive ones are obvious.  But one is when someone’s controlling over another person, and they may not use verbal abuse to be controlling. 

Oftentimes spiritual abuse is under this category.  They’re not cursing at someone they’re not calling them names.  They’re just, sort of, having his superior attitude, that somehow “I have a hotline to God and I know better than you what’s good for you, and you’d better do it my way or you’re going to be a sinner and you’ll be disobeying God and some bad things are going to happen to you.”  Parents can do that to their adult children, husbands can do that to their wives under the guise of headship, pastors can do that to their parishioners under the guise of “I’m the pastor and I get my way.”  That can inhibit someone’s growth or tear someone down. 

A relationship that is repetitively deceitful, I’m not just talking about blatant lying.  I’m also talking about misleading pretending, making things look one way when it’s really another, making yourself appear that you’re one person and you’re really not.  So someone believes that you’re saying this, but you’re really not.  You’re not giving the whole story and that undermines trust.  When that happens repeatedly in a relationship it becomes destructive. 

Another kind is when someone is overly dependent this becomes destructive because I’m depending on you to fill up my entire tank, to define me, to make me a whole person, and to make me happy.  When I lean on you so hard, that it makes you want to push me back and say, “Grow up, get off of me.”  I’m asking you to be my god, and that can be destructive to me and to the relationship. 

The last kind of destructive relationship is when there is indifference.  We don’t talk about this much in the Christian community, but when you marry someone there’s an actual commitment to love.  So when there’s indifference, “I don’t care, do what you want.  I don’t care how you feel.”  You tell me something that bothers you and “Too bad, that’s your problem.”

Dennis:  Abandonment?

Leslie:  Abandonment emotionally, abandonment physically, there’s this indifference to the other person’s feelings, thoughts or needs.  That can be very destructive because I thought you promised to love me, and when you act as if I don’t even exist, and that I’m not important to you, it’s very hurtful and it can be destructive to some people.


Dennis:  In your book you actually have a series of questions.  With your permission what I’d like to do is take these 31 questions and put them on the internet and allow people to take this diagnostic test.  Because you give people a chance to circle whether this never happens, seldom happens, sometimes, frequently or almost always.  You’ve got different categories for how people can answer them.  But they really touch on all five of these destructive relationships, and it helps people.  I really like the questions because it’ll help them identify if they are perpetrating a destructive relationship upon a child or a spouse.


Bob:  So, for example there’s a question like: “Does the person control family money, giving you little or no say?”  And you say, “Well, no she never does that” or “He never does that...” sometimes, seldom, frequently, and almost always.


Leslie:  I was speaking, last week and I had just had a woman who came up to me and she had been a former client of mine.  Her husband is very, very controlling—never physically abusive, but very controlling especially around money.  I said to her, “How are you doing?”  And she said, “Well, he gave me an allowance of $50 a week, that’s all I’m allowed to have.” 

What happens in that kind of relationship it becomes a parent-child relationship and it’s not healthy for a woman to be treated as a child in a marriage.  He’s controlling all the money; he’s deciding who gets what.  It’s not like they’re deciding that together.  If they were deciding that together “this is how much money we have, and this is all we can spend this week…”  Then that’s a mutual adult-adult decision.  But when someone has all the power in the relationship and controls another person in terms of their time or their space or their money, then it becomes controlling and destructive.  So these questions will illustrate different areas of destructiveness.


Bob:  We’ve put this on our website at, so if our listeners are interested in taking this inventory and really checking and saying, is the relationship I’m in, would it qualify as an emotionally destructive relationship?  There’s a good way to tell by working your way through these questions.


Dennis:  I guess I’d just like to apply a scripture here, because I think one of the most important ingredients of any healthy relationship is really found in Ephesians 5:21, it says “Submitting to one another out of reverence to Christ.”  What it’s talking about there is really looking out for the other person’s interests and submitting yourself to them and their needs and if need be, take a step back, look in the mirror of scripture and do a little self-analysis of how you re relating to another person. 

Perhaps you have a blind spot and you need the Spirit of God to reveal to you that you have some unhealthy patterns in how you’re relating to a child, your spouse, perhaps a family member, and then begin to ask God to do some business.  Bob, I think Leslie’s book here is really going to be of great value to people who are serious about changing some habits and patterns in their relationships. 


Bob:  I think it’s going to help those who may recognize things are not right in this relationship and I think I know what the source of that is, only to find out that oftentimes we are co-contributors in this emotionally destructive relationship.  Whether it’s a marriage relationship, or a parent-child relationship.

We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center, and I’d just encourage you listeners, if this sounds like a relationship you’re in, go online at and get a copy of Leslie’s book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.  Again, our website, or call 1-800-FLTODAY.  1-800-358-6329, and you can request a copy of the book, we’ll send it out to you.  Again, the website, or call 1-800 F as in “family” L as in “life” and then the word TODAY.  Just contact us and we’ll be happy to get a copy of Leslie’s book to you.

You know, as we talk about this subject, it’s probably hardest to know what to do when the relationship we’re describing is a husband and wife relationship.  Yet, if husbands and wives aren’t taking proactive measures to try to strengthen and build a marriage, oftentimes this kind of isolation and toxicity is what shows up when the marriage has not been attended to the way it ought to be attended to.  For years we’ve been encouraging couples to be proactive in strengthening their marriage. 

One of the tools we’ve recommended is the HomeBuilders® Couples Series.  We’ve just recently revised and updated a number of the studies in the series.  This month if our listeners are able to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with a donation of any amount, we’d like to say thank you by sending you two copies of the new HomeBuilders® study guide called Building Your Marriage to Last.  As I said, it’s been recently revised and updated; this is something that would be great for the two of you to go through as a couple.  Of course our hope would be that you would invite some other couples to join with you and that together you would go through this material.  I think you’d find it helpful for every couple involved in the study.

Again when you make a donation of any amount to support FamilyLife Today, ask for the HomeBuilders® study guides, Building Your Marriage to Last.  All you have to do is type the word “BUILD” into the key code box on the online donation form if you’d like the studies.  Or you can call 1-800-FLTODAY and make your donation by phone, just ask for the study guides that were talked about on the radio. 

So, again go online, at, make your donation there and type the word “BUILD” into the key code box.  Or call, 1-800-FLTODAY, make your donation by phone and ask for the study guides.  And we hope you’ll find them helpful in your own marriage and as you try to reach out to others to help strengthen their marriage as well.  Thanks for your support of this ministry; we appreciate your partnership with us. 

Tomorrow Leslie Vernick is going to be back with us, we’re going to continue talking about some of the struggles she experienced in her relationship with her mom, as well as what we can do when we’re in an emotionally destructive relationship.  I hope you can be back with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today Keith Lynch and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.

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