Words Have Meaning

Words Have Meaning

When we first joined our church in 2016, I asked the pastors for intervention and help in my marriage. For the past few years, the church leadership team (comprised of a few pastors and several elders) have been more than willing to listen to us, challenge us, fast with us – and while they and I have butted heads more than once, I trust their love for God and His Word, and I trust in their sincere affection for my family. (This mutual edification is – unfortunately – not the typical story I hear from other spouses who seek the Church’s aid in their marriages.)

In speaking with three of the families serving in our church’s leadership, I was both heartened and saddened to see how ‘normal’ Christian marriage relationships can work.

I saw honesty as each spouse admitted ways in which they’d failed the other. I saw both beautiful humility and sincere concern for the others’ heart, balanced with a realistic look at their own imperfections and deep need for the Holy Spirit’s work.

But a “generally healthy marriage with temporary low points” has not been my experience. My years of wedlock have been hovering at a consistent “low” of sadness, with positive seasons being the exception.

My uncle often says “Words have meaning,” and I’ve taken that advice to heart as someone who wants to choose her words intentionally.  After all, a word’s definition/usage evolves with time and culture – so, dialogue is absolutely essential to explain the speaker’s ‘meaning’ in order to rightly understand the conversation itself. 

One of these changing words is abuse, and focusing on its meaning has already seen very difficult, growing-pains-kind-of discussions between myself, counselors, and church leadership.

Christian counselor and author Leslie Vernick writes:

“Some people object to singling out certain behaviors or attitudes as abusive. They say things like, “sin is sin.” Or “We’re all sinners.” I don’t disagree – all abuse is sin, but I think it’s critical that we get more specific. 

For example, all cancer is illness, but lung cancer is a much different illness than a common cold and as such requires a much different treatment plan. When a doctor tells his patient, “You’re sick,” he’s correct but imprecise.  If the doctor doesn’t also tell his patient he’s sick with lung cancer, the doctor is not telling him the whole truth.

In the same way, when we tell someone “you’re a sinner” that’s true, but if we’re not truthful with the kind of sin patterns that he or she has been blind to, then he/she won’t get the help necessary in order to stop. Not all sin is the same, nor does all sin have the same consequences on other people that abusive action and attitudes have.”

// Abuse treats someone as if he/she were an object
to control and use rather than a person to love and value. //

Leslie Vernick

“Abuse.” Sigh. 

I don’t want to use the wrong word. 
But I need to use the right one. 

Been trying to look back over my marriage objectively, as one pastor asked me to do, to see if it has really been as “hellish” as I currently think. Has my marital sadness been a result of an emotionally abusive husband? Or has it just been… sad?

Leslie Vernick again:

“A disappointing relationship is one in which there are a letdown of expectations in a relationship. It’s not what you thought it would be. There isn’t obvious sin, disrespect or indifference, but there isn’t as much romance, talking, sex or connection as you wanted.

difficult relationship is one in which there are many stressors pressing in on the relationship that make it challenging. This may include blended family issues, in-law or ex-spouse issues, health challenges, difficult children, financial setbacks, job changes, frequent moves, as well as personality and cultural differences. If the couple handles these with mutual effort, compassion for one another, honesty and respect – usually difficult does not become destructive.

destructive relationship is one in which the personhood of the other is regularly diminished, dismissed, disrespected and demeaned.  There is a lack of mutual effort at maintaining and repairing relationship wounds. The is a lack of mutual accountability, but rather one has power over the other either physically, emotionally, financially, mentally, spiritually or all of the above. There is a lack of accountability or responsibility accepted for harm caused to the relationship, and relationship wounds are denied, minimized or blamed on the other.

In a destructive relationship, you don’t just feel it’s hard, you feel like you’re dying inside.”

Yes. I’ve increasingly felt like I’m dying inside. So does that mean my husband has been emotionally abusive? 

Some men hear me describe what happens, and their response is something along the lines of: “Well, I’ve done that. At my worst, I’ve acted that way – you know that’s normal, right?”

You at your worst is my husband at his best. Let that sink in.

I wonder if it’s difficult for godly people to call out another’s actions as “abuse” because they recognize aspects of themselves in the One abusing.

Bob Hamp of Think Differently: Counseling illustrates a point in his lesson on “Understanding and Responding to Abuse” – he states that the abuser/victim scenario is really one of misplaced responsibility. The abusive party won’t take responsibility for their action/inaction, and instead put that responsibility on ANYONE or ANYTHING else. Here is my rough transcription of Bob’s teaching:

// No abuser thinks of him/herself as an abuser. Somebody who is a control freak doesn’t think they’re a control freak – they just think they’re right.

In the same vein, no abuser looks in the mirror and says, “Ugh, I wish I could stop abusing the people that I love!”  

Usually what happens in their thought process is something more like this:  “If only [the victim] would stop that, then I wouldn’t have this problem – see, my problem is really a little problem, and everyone else provokes that problem to be bigger.” 

The [abuser] has a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ in their mind:

“Look, okay, I’ve got a struggle. But I could get over that struggle if YOU would just ________________’
… if you would just meet me at home with a kiss, if you would just give me more sex, if you would give me less criticism, if you would give me more support, etc.

I’m not an abuser, I just have a little problem that everyone misunderstands. In fact, the person I most want to understand DOESN’T understand – and you won’t give me what I need to not have a bigger problem. Therefore, it’s YOUR fault that I am the way I am!”

I can’t describe my marriage relationship as one whether either spouse occasionally is rude, or selfish, or shouts – once in a while, or maybe for a stressful season – then the offending spouse eventually realizes that they’ve hurt the one they care about, apologies are given, forgiveness is extended, and the couple ends up a bit stronger.

No, it’s quite different when there is a pattern of hurt that does not alter when confronted – a cycle of harm that doesn’t repent when called to account. There is a repetitive, habitual element to it. I think that is what abuse is — treating someone as if they were an object to control and use, rather than a person to love and value. 

I have deep grief when someone I love seems unable to grasp God’s unconditional love, extend it to others. While every Christ-follower must wrestle with that truth during their lifetime, it surely can’t be normal or acceptable for abuse — for regular mistreatment — to comfortably reside in a heart shared with God’s Holy Spirit.

Emotional abuse. Maybe those words still don’t sit quite well with you, and I understand. But:

No matter what we call it – conduct that is
chronically destructive, unrepentant, and self-centered
is NOT compatible with Christianity.

I encourage you to watch the full Facebook video from Think Differently: Counseling on ‘Understanding Abuse’. This video speaks specifically to those who are observing the dynamics between an abuser and a victim . An elder’s wife told me: “When I saw that the length of the video was actually an hour, I almost didn’t watch it. But I’m so glad I did take time for it. It’s really key to what we need to hear in your situation. This is the difference between a professional counselor who can discern — look at the underlying issues, and knows how to help — versus well-meaning lay people who look at a situation and call it for what it LOOKS like, and counsel accordingly.”

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