“The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, whether through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
A person who is constantly verbally abused in childhood often marries someone who will continue the abuse. Why? Well, because she believes it’s true, and that she deserves it. This is true of any form of abuse. One of the biggest lies we learn as children is that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Of course they do.
I could fill this whole post with pictures of this nature. I hope you’re getting the point. Words do hurt. Sometimes, they can even kill. More than one person has taken his own life because he believed he was worthless; that there was no hope of his ever improving; that everyone who knew him hated him.
As a teacher, I observed the pain that words and body language created for the children who weren’t quite acceptable. You know, the little girl from the poor family, who didn’t have the right clothes. The other little girls would turn their shoulders to her and whisper and giggle while she stood outside the circle, knowing she was being talked about. And I’m talking about very young kids here, kindergarten and first grade. It got a lot worse as they grew older!
Fat. Skinny.Stupid. Ugly. Dumb. Clumsy. Retard. Dirty. Ragbag. Thunder thighs. Tank. The list is endless. What other children say is hurtful and ugly; what family members say is devastating.
Here’s a short list of Bible verses that address the issue. There are hundreds more:
Matthew 12:36-37. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Col. 3:19. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.
Psalm 34:18. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
Eph. 4:29. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
Eph. 4:31. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
(All verses from the ESV)
So how do you know, in marriage, if you’re being verbally abused or if negative comments are truly meant to help you?
Verbal abuse can be loud rants, quiet comments, obvious put-downs, or not-so-obvious remarks that undermine the partner. They can be said so that the offender can say, “Why are you being so touchy? I was just teasing!” Or, even more difficult to deal with, the ever-popular “Well, I didn’t mean it that way. You’re too sensitive.” What all the methods have in common is the need to control, to be superior, to avoid taking personal responsibility, and to mask or deny failures.
Abusers of all sorts are incredibly expert at blame-shifting, making every offense the fault of the victim. Here’s a good barometer to know if what you’re experiencing is truly verbal abuse: You feel you just can’t win. You’re always wrong, he’s always right. He embarrasses you in public as well as private, and claims he was joking. He “doesn’t remember” saying anything hurtful. And finally, even if it has never happened, you worry that his verbal abuse will escalate into something physical.
So. What can you do to help yourself?
First, understand and accept that you cannot change him. It’s not your job to change him. If he isn’t violent, calmly inform him that you will no longer tolerate his abuse. Tell him that disrespect is abuse, and that you have felt abused since Day One, right after the “I now pronounce you husband and wife” part. Tell him you want him to get some counseling–pastoral, professional, peer, whatever you think he will agree to.
Second, never try to match him verbally. His sarcasm is well-honed. He will win simply because he won’t quit until he does. You will leave that battle feeling worse than ever. It would be much wiser to tell him that you love him too much to hurt him with words, and then walk away.
Third, it’s time to draw some boundaries and set some consequences.Next time he starts on you, calmly hold up your hand and say something like this: “John, I will no longer listen to your hurtful words. If you don’t stop, I will leave the conversation. If I have to, I will leave the room. If you push me to it, I will leave the house. Please treat me as your equal, which I am.” Note here that telling him you will walk away could be dangerous if he is also physically violent. In that case, don’t tell him. Just do it. Have your keys where you can grab them in a hurry. Make sure you are much closer to a door than he is. If there are children in the house, and he is escalating to physical violence, you may need to call the police from the safety of your car. Lock yourself in. Sit tight until help arrives.
Fourth, there are other safety measures. If the verbal abuse becomes unbearable, it would be helpful for you to have a network of support from friends, family, church or coworkers that you can rely upon if you need a place to go. One tool all abusers use is to isolate their victims from everyone else, including and especially from their own families. Don’t let this happen to you. Make sure you have a cell phone (a cheap one is all you need). Also, start a bank account in your own name only so that you are not caught without finances if you have to leave.
Finally, get counseling. If he won’t go, then go by yourself to learn how to cope with his abuse. And please, if he escalates to physical violence, get out of there RIGHT NOW!
I am aware that there are some well-meaning religious leaders who will tell you that you just need to submit to your husband and pray, and everything will turn up sunshine and roses. I know about the passage in I Peter 3 that teaches women that they can win their unbelieving husbands by their pure and humble behavior without ever speaking a word to him. I believe that passage. However, I have a little trouble with the “just submit and pray” thing. Such a position seems to me to assume that the husband is all that he should be–and often, these abusive men are absolute charmers when they are not within the confines of their own homes. They save their ugly side just for you, and sometimes they will even taunt you that no one will believe you if you try to get help.
The most troubling and confounding thing about all this is that so often the wife feels guilty and responsible, and that if she can just do better, he’ll be nicer.
Nope. Won’t happen. Remember, this is all about power and control. Boundaries, consequences you can and will follow through on, and a deep realization that you are, as a believer, a daughter of the King of Kings! As such, behave like the princess you are and refuse to tolerate abuse for one more minute!
Next Friday: Mental abuse.