Source: Adapted from an article by Leslie Vernick
Today’s Question: I have fully read and been studying your book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Thank you for teaching and sharing and helping me feel that I am not alone and not “going insane.” Thank you for putting perspective on, and giving direction to, the need to rely on God and focus on my life with Him.
While I immediately began to follow your advice and work on developing my C.O.R.E. strength – it’s a process, for sure – I see that the complex situation with my husband is also going to require me to distance myself emotionally in order to survive. I am having trouble understanding how to do that. How to balance acts of love and kindness with distance in the same house is confusing me desperately. I need to get off of this emotional roller coaster and stop believing that every kind gesture he makes is a step toward healing and restoration.
I dearly love my husband, and separation is not an option for me. He says we cannot afford it financially and he also doesn’t want anyone to know there is a problem.
Answer: You ask the million dollar question – yes you realize that you must distance yourself emotionally from your destructive spouse but how do you do it while still being the person you want to be? Confusing indeed. It’s a tough tightrope to walk well but here are a few guidelines:
First, from your CORE – you are going to be Committed to truth – both internally (not lying to yourself) and externally (no more pretending everything is fine when it’s not fine). Therefore one of the first steps to emotionally distance yourself from him is to acknowledge and affirm you have a right to a self, independent of the marriage. Philippians 2:4 says “Do not merely look out for your own interests but also for the interests of others.” Note that it does not say, “do not have any of your own interests,” nor does it say you may NOT look out for your own interests.
If indeed things are that bad, then you cannot comply with his desire for no one to know what’s going on between the two of you. It is time that you get some support and that will require telling someone. I’m not advising that you blab to everyone, but I am saying that part of emotionally distancing yourself from a destructive person is that you don’t cater to their demands or delusions anymore. Instead, you decide what you are going to do and how you are going to respond. Your decisions are based on truth and the person you want to be (CORE) instead of based on what your husband says or your fear of rocking the boat or losing the relationship.
The second step in distancing yourself emotionally is to accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can and be wise enough to discern the difference. You cannot change him, but you can change you. In the R step of building CORE strength, you will be responsible for yourself (the person you want to be or want to become). One thing that means is you will “guard your heart, above all else, for it is the well-spring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
You said you must stop believing that every kind gesture he makes is a step toward healing and restoration. You’re right. His sporadic gestures of love and kindness are playing with your emotions. When his seemingly loving actions are not accompanied by sincere remorse and repentance for the hurt he’s caused don’t allow yourself to get sucked into the fantasy that “maybe he really does love me.” Or “Maybe now he gets it and is changing.”
My hunch is that he does these token gestures to confuse you and keep you hoping he’s changing when he has no intention to do so. This is a very common tactic seen in prisons as well as concentration camps in order to maintain control over prisoners. The term Stockholm Syndrome describes an emotional attachment to an abuser. It was named after hostages in a bank heist became emotionally attached to their captures during their confinement, because the kidnappers offered small gestures of kindness mixed in with abuse.
For you to guard your heart you will need to set boundaries on what you will listen to or engage in and what you will walk away from when your spouse is destructive. When he blames you or tries to draw you in, you will tell yourself the truth, “This is not my fault, I do not make him choose to act this way and I will NOT take responsibility for his behaviors or feelings.” When he’s charming and brings flowers, you will need to say to yourself , “Don’t be fooled. These token gestures of kindness are meaningless when I see no change in his heart.”
To continue to distance yourself will mean that you take responsibility for your safety and sanity. When you are feeling tense or irritable or scared you will do what you need to do to calm yourself down (like breathe deeply and leave the house) even if it upsets your spouse. Emotionally distancing yourself means that you will no longer allow your emotions to be tightly woven around his emotions or see your role as keeping him happy or calm. You are now taking care of yourself instead of expecting or hoping or waiting for him to care for you.
You will be respectful, and sometimes compassionate and empathetic (as appropriate to his suffering outside of the suffering caused by consequences of his own destructive behavior), because that’s the person you want to be.
However, living with a destructive person day in and day out takes its toll on your emotional, mental, spiritual and physical strength even when you put on the armor of God (Ephesians 6). You often don’t sleep well. Constant criticism or verbal assaults infect you with poison. It’s like entering a toxic environment with a gas mask on. You will still have limits of how much you can take without being overcome. So be cognizant of your limitations and when you see you are running low on internal resources, remove yourself from the environment, even if only temporarily.
Last, but not least, to emotionally distance yourself you will need to let go of your dreams, hopes, and wishes for your husband to change, grieve your losses and release your husband into God’s hands. In the Old Testament, Abigail was a woman in an emotionally destructive marriage. She had no expectations that Nabal would ever be different than he was – a surly and foolish man (1 Samuel 25). By accepting who he was, Abigail was freed to distance herself from him emotionally. She did what she needed to do as his wife but she held no fantasies that he would be pleased with her, thank her, approve of her, or love her. She did what she did because it was the person she wanted to be, not because she hoped he would repent and come to his senses or change.
You said you love your husband dearly but to emotionally detach, you have to let go of your craving for him to love you back.