Leslie Vernick is a Christian counselor, speaker, and author.
In this video, Leslie speaks about the 5 common mistakes people helpers make when working with destructive marriages: I have summarized these below. As abuse is more commonly experienced by wives than husbands, I will write from this perspective.
Your counselors, pastors, friends, and family - the people you trust to help you - will make mistakes along the way. I have personally made each of these mistakes in my work with people in destructive marriages. I did not know what I did not know.
Please feel free to share this information with the people who care about you and are trying to give the support that you need.
Wrong Diagnosis - Wrong Treatment Plan
"The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds."
- Daniel Goleman
Missing the abuse of power in a relationship will lead a helper down the wrong path to the wrong type of help. As Leslie says, it's like treating lung cancer as if it's bronchitis. And when this happens, these marriages get sicker and sicker. When abuse is not detected, named, and treated accordingly, couples can spend years, even decades, getting more deeply entrenched in abusive patterns often due to the wrong help they are getting.
Telling a Woman to Try Harder
A woman often goes to a pastor or counselor on her own for marital issues because her husband is not willing to seek help. Or, when an abuser meets with a pastor or counselor, he can present himself in the best light, while his actual abusive attitudes remain hidden. He can also present himself as the victim, and blame his wife for his behaviors. So the guidance that helpers often give these women is: Try harder. Try harder to meet his needs, be more loving, more affirming, and less demanding.
For relatively healthy marriages, trying harder is often helpful. But for destructive relationships, this is the wrong guidance to give. This is because trying harder in this way will make things worse - for the wife, husband, and the marriage. It feeds a big lie that the husband believes - that it is all about him. Men in destructive marriages do not behave as if they want to be married to a real wife - someone who has her own needs, feels negative emotions related to him, and is a person separate from him. A woman who tries harder to be what her husband wants her to be in a destructive relationship only feeds the lie that the husband is entitled to a 'fantasy wife.'
What then, would be better? A wife who seeks her husband's best interest by not continuing to enable his destructive ways. She can learn to speak to what is true in the spirit of love. She can implement or allow the natural consequences of the husband's choices to fall on him. Sometimes the pain of natural consequences can begin to wake him up to his destructiveness. A woman who loves her husband in these ways chooses a hard path. She will have to face a lot of unknowns and opposition - both from her husband and from concerned others who do not see the hidden abuse. When she begins to set limits and use her voice, the husband commonly increases his abuse. Often, women lose touch with her own personhood while in such marriages. She can become healthy when she regains her sense of herself and uses her voice without losing contact with the person she ultimately wants to be.
Insisting on Marriage Counseling with Destructive Couples
When faced with a couple in distress, a common thought helpers have is, "How can you fix a marriage when you don't have two people in the room?" First, you cannot do marriage counseling when one person is afraid to be honest. Fear of the other person's destructive reaction, whether or not it involves physical violence, can keep someone from telling the truth of her experience.
But also, with destructive marriages, one person is not really there for counseling. If the husband is the destructive partner, he is there to observe what his wife is saying, to make sure that the helper gets the full story on what is wrong with his wife. And often, because the wife is so thankful that her husband is attending with her, she is eager to work on herself. A dynamic evolves where the wife is the client and the husband is the observer. The counselor or pastor works with the wife because she is willing to work on herself. This further supports the narrative in the husband's head that it's the wife's behavior that causes him to react abusively. His belief is that the counselor needs to fix his wife and make her into a fantasy wife who never disappoints, upsets, frustrates, or angers him. He does not take ownership for how he processes and handles his emotions, and therefore he continues to believe the abuse is her fault. Learn more here.
In destructive relationships, Emotionally Focused Therapy and other couples counseling approaches open the abused partner up to further harm.
Instead, couples need to each seek individual counseling first. The wife needs to reconnect to her voice and her personhood. Instead of trying to change or appease her husband, she needs to learn to respond to destructiveness in a healthy way. The destructive husband needs to learn to take full responsibility for his beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and choices. And instead of trying to change his wife, he needs to learn to be married to a real person. Also, the abusive spouse needs to give consent for his helper to be in regular contact with his spouse and others who can hold him accountable. Because he blames his wife for his abuse, a counselor is in danger of offering ineffective guidance or strengthening his abusive stance by staying cut off from others in his life.
Trying to be a Benevolent Rescuer
Trying to rescue someone in a destructive relationship is a huge temptation, especially when you see her suffering so deeply, and sometimes in physical danger. But this is a mistake. When a woman has been so torn down so that she has lost her voice and sense of self, she does not need a rescuer. She needs to be empowered to get strong enough to make choices that are the best for her.
When we take a rescuing stance, we end up benevolently controlling the very person who has been malevolently controlled in her relationship. Rather, she needs to be built up so that she can get safe and sane, and become God-centered (if she is Christian) instead of husband-centered. If she is not a Christian, she can still learn to put marriage in its proper place - which is not at the center of her life.
Initiating Reconciliation or Marriage Counseling Before Seeing Real and Lasting Change
"They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace."
- Jeremiah 6:14
Leslie shares this verse as one that has been a "guiding force" in her ministry with destructive couples. Moving too quickly towards reconciliation or marriage counseling risks the acceptance of superficial change. Abuse commonly increases when reunification occurs too quickly after consequences are implemented.
Leslie also references the two types of sorrow mentioned in Scripture. One is sorrow at one's own pain. The other leads to real heart change. How can you know which is which? A destructive person on the path to real change accepts full responsibility for his attitudes and actions - with no blaming, excusing, minimizing, or rationalizing. He demonstrates remorse about the hurt he has caused and compassion toward whom he has hurt. He accepts consequences - whether it's separation, financial losses, or abiding by an order of protection - without demanding, complaining or making excuses. He willingly makes amends and commits to learning healthy ways of relating and being held accountable in the long-term.
If you are in a destructive relationship, you will need the support of people who can help you find your voice and make good choices. In order for your marriage to heal, you must make certain that the real issues are first thoroughly addressed. I can help you see clearly and get strong enough to keep yourself safe and work towards emotional and relational health.
To start your growing and healing process, call or text (312) 313-3236
For confidential, anonymous help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now.
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