When a marriage is marked by verbal and emotional abuse, can the abusive spouse be the wife?
Much has been written in recent decades about husbands abusing their wives, as it should. In more cases than we care to admit, husbands from a variety of backgrounds are physically and emotionally battering their wives with their fists and their words. This is a serious problem no one should take lightly (SEE When Violence Comes Home.).
Abuse in marriage, whatever form it takes, is ultimately about a pattern of exerting power and control over one one’s own way. When a marriage is marked by a one-sided pattern of control, the abusive spouse is not always the husband. Sometimes the abusive spouse is the wife.
While most wives are not able to control their husbands through physical threats and violence, some dominate their husbands through their words, looks, and other threatening actions. Similar to an abusive husband, an abusive wife may boss her husband around, talk down to him, call him humiliating names, and treat him in a very emasculating way. Generally speaking, her style of communication doesn’t invite open and free conversation. It tends to be intimidating or manipulative and is intended to shut her husband down. Whether it’s through a dirty look or a lecture, the point is unmistakable: He’s not there to think or share an opinion. He’s there to do not only what she tells him to do, but also how and when she wants it done.
Just as abusive men demand sexual intimacy without regard for their wives’ needs, abusive women can withhold affection or intimacy as a way of controlling their husbands. An abusive wife may also exert control by imposing arbitrary or erratic expectations. For instance, she may badger her husband to do something, but then get upset with him for doing it because he not’s doing something else for her instead. Imposing and then randomly shifting her demands keeps him off-balance. It leaves him second-guessing himself and her feeling superior. Other abusive women constantly harass their husbands for their recreational interests and even their deeper aspirations for life. If what he enjoys and feels passionate about doesn’t fit into what she deems important, she may ridicule him or look for reasons for him not to do it. If that doesn’t work, she can always find some way to make him feel guilty.
The bottom line is this: most things in the marital relationship have to be her way. She demands that her husband revolve most, if not all, of what he does completely around what is important to her, even though her demands are often unreasonable, inconsiderate, and constantly shifting. And when it doesn’t go her way, she feels “free” to let her husband know it. Whether she relentlessly grumbles and criticizes, threatens to leave, or turns cold and withholds attention and affection, the clear message to her husband is “things had better go my way or else.” It’s a message meant to intimidate her husband and wear him down to the point where he feels it’s not worth doing anything that would risk upsetting her again.
Of course, every marriage experiences painful moments of unreasonableness and control from both partners. But when those moments become the norm rather than the exception, it becomes abusive and denies a spouse the freedom to be who he or she is both within and outside of the marital relationship. Not unlike an abused wife, an abused husband feels coerced into being who his wife thinks he should be. Perhaps this is why the Bible doesn’t pull any punches when it states that “a quarrelsome wife is like a constant dripping on a rainy day” (Proverbs 27:15) and that it is “better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife” (Proverbs 21:19).
Any marital relationship that is characterized by such patterns of control is not really a relationship. It is more like a dictatorship, where one partner rules over the other. Unfortunately, because of their own insecurities, most husbands in this situation let themselves get walked on and are afraid to stand up to the patterns of control with courage and love. Others try to ignore the way they are mistreated, only to blow up and turn mean or abusive. Neither is a godly response and is nearly always a sign of a man who has lost his heart.
To read some general ideas about a better way that doesn’t take the abuse lightly yet still offers the opportunity for forgiveness, healing, and restoration both in the marriage and in each spouse’s heart, read When Words Hurt .