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Why the Marriage Books Don’t Work When You Are in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Why the Marriage Books Don't Work When You Are in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

This is written by Rachel, my sweet friend and Flying Free Podcast sidekick.

I remember looking down at the book clutched in my hands as if it were a life-preserver. The words “Love and Respect” embossed with bold red type. I drank the opening paragraphs with thirst from a parched, confused mind.

This was my new hope. These words were going to be the answer. Everyone at church said so. It revealed a code for the secret to a happy marriage, found from the very pages of scripture! This formula was going to work. This time–I determined with gritted teeth–this would be what fulfilled my dreams for a happy, thriving marriage. 

As the author set the stage to unveil his revelatory finding, he gave a small disclaimer in the opening pages. His formula would work, provided that you believe your spouse has goodwill toward you. (I’m recalling this from memory as I no longer own a copy of the book.) 

The question of whether my spouse had goodwill toward me gave me pause. He was my husband. Wasn’t goodwill an automatic sentiment that came with “I do?” 

I didn’t dare spend time questioning it, because that would lead to a path fraught with problems I wasn’t prepared to encounter. I was incapable of seeing the truth of how my husband treated me with clear eyes. 

Instead, I substituted well-known cliches about marriage (“men just don’t do feelings well!”); together with excuses for him (He’s a strong-willed leader who has very specific ideas about the way things should be. What a blessing!”); and projections of my own mindset on to him (“I definitely have goodwill for him! I love him and want to give him everything he needs. He surely feels the same.)

I plunged ahead into the book, casting aside the rotten fruit of my husband’s behavior that indicated everything but goodwill. Behavior that included callous “jokes” about my body and my teeth. The fact that he never once apologized or took responsibility for anything. Ever. His inability to even look me in the eyes. Much more. 

I will allow Sheila Gregoire’s diligent work exposing Love and Respect’s flaws to speak for itself here. Suffice to share I’m one of the countless casualties of the book’s faulty reasoning. But it’s simply one in a long series of Christian marriage books that didn’t contain the answers for which I thirsted.  

Why the Marriage Books Don’t Work When You Are in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship

That’s because abusive marriages operate on a different plane. Normal, difficult marriages have two sinful, but self-reflective humans involved. Abusive marriages involve one sinful, but self-reflective human, and one hardened, accusatory human. 

That dichotomy of a soft heart subjected to a hard heart– goodwill exploited by ill will–is what makes marital abuse so gruesome. 

As a fallible, yet soft-hearted spouse, I did everything I could to show love to my husband the way he told me he needed. Meanwhile, his hard-heartedness subversively exploited that tenderness. 

As I implemented new ideas to fix our relationship, I made myself more vulnerable to his desires because that is what both he and the marriage advice told me to do. (“Give more of yourself!”  “Marriage is hard, try harder!” “Go on more dates! Have more sex! Cater to his every wish!”) 

The hard-heartedness of my husband snatched up these unguarded offerings and demanded more without turning an inch toward the needs that make me human. Instead, he communicated I was always asking too much and I needed to do more and do it better. 

The hard-heartedness of my husband mined deeper and deeper into the soft soil of my heart, ruthlessly bent on gaining control of my precious resources for his own gratification. 

The juxtaposition is breathtakingly shocking to consider. 

My natural optimism pushed me to keep trying harder to do more for him. His manipulative selfishness took it all and scorned my pleas for care. 

My Spirit given joy pulled me toward happy expression and light. His calloused contempt shut me down with words of malicious mockery. 

My earnest love for him fueled my frantic desperation to make it all work. His self-seeking idolatry ratcheted up his cold-hearted demands. 

 In exchange for the sincerity and hope that inspired me to give him my best, he gave me ruins. Less than nothing. The dust of countless shattered dreams. Floods of anguished tears. 

This was not a relationship. That is why the marriage books didn’t work. Reading those books was like scrutinizing a first aid manual hoping it would teach me to impart life to a rock. 

The body of Christ has to wake up to the fact that goodwill is not a guarantee simply because there is a legal marriage contract in place. Hard-hearted abusers do not possess goodwill toward their spouse. They know only their own will, and that is the god they serve. This god coerces sacrifice after exploited offering from the very treasure entrusting herself to his care. 

Thankfully, this is not where my story ends. I serve a different God now. He was always waiting, going before me, ready for me to turn my eyes from the false idol that demanded my devotion onto His loving face. 

The words I cling to now are about God’s Word made flesh. I read with newly opened eyes from this book that contains strong language about hard-heartedness and oppression of the vulnerable. This book demonstrates how humble service and shrewd awareness of bad fruit is the key to being rightly related to one another. 

This book tells of the safest Savior anyone can ever entrust her heart to. It gives me living water that satisfies my thirst for love and rest. No formulas or desperation needed. 

Love, Rachel


Flying Free Sisterhood

An online coaching, education, and support community for women of faith in destructive relationships.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    September 4, 2019

    Thank you for expressing so eloquently what I have observed and experienced with many ‘good Christian’ men. It is hard-heartedness, pure and simple.. Trying to get love, care and compassion from someone like that is a futile battle. I am trying to tell myself that no, I am not suuposed to ‘win’ such a battle, where the other person is dead set against any genuine connection and interaction… and only seeking to dominate, to have the upper hand, to have control…

    How very true:
    “My Spirit given joy pulled me toward happy expression and light. His calloused contempt shut me down with words of malicious mockery. ”
    yes, yes and yes…
    Thank you for reminding me that I have value and I worth, no matter what some man tells me…

  • Avatar
    August 18, 2019

    Oh my goodness, the amount of books I read…..

    Then my ex-husband would use even my reading those books in an effort and desire to change and grow and become a better wife against me (wow, hadn’t even thought of that until I typed the first sentence which was all I was going to write at first).

    Lol – (somehow God’s grace allows me to laugh about it now even while feeling the familiar pain of memories)
    …thankful for freedom.

  • Avatar
    August 4, 2019

    This book literally almost drove me to suicide. The depth of pain and abandonment I experienced when doing my damnedest to be respectful (and being told over and over that I was disrespectful) and receiving nothing in return is something I never want to feel again.

    Hopefully there will be someone like me who reads this blog and realizes that books like that are for normal marriages that are going through hard times and that theirs is not a normal marriage.

    Side note, I’ve never heard a husband say he’s read this book and learned how to love better. My husband never read the “men’s” chapters and I promised only to read my own.

  • Avatar
    August 2, 2019

    My narcissistic husband is divorcing me after a weapon related event at our home. I received a 7 year order of protection, and so there is no contact and the divorce will be final in days. All of this took only one month. I am 62 and only with him 6 years, but I feel completely broken and abandoned. I gave him the best in every way and I can’t seem to begin the healing. I have no retirement now, but most importantly, my faith in love seems as destroyed as if 9/11 happened in my very soul.
    Will this book bring me any of the clarity and forward direction since he is already gone?

    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → Nancy
      August 2, 2019

      What book are you referring to?

    • Avatar
      Monica Manning
      → Nancy
      August 4, 2019

      I could have written this article. I too followed all the advice and formula books on “how to be a better christian wife”, how to make your husband feel loved and respected and the Proverbs 31 woman train. Writing this I see that I can still become very angry at the shame and responsibility laid upon christian women to fix everything. I stayed married for 29 and 1/2 years bcz every time I was at the point to give up I heard another sermon on how I was going to literally be tearing flesh by divorcing and Satan would have direct line to my kids or I’d hear another “wonderful christian woman spewing sugar sap and sweet righteous humility” about supporting and understanding and being blah blah blah. I sound bitter. Yes I know. Actually my anger and fight is very healthy for me right now. I’m making rainbows with it ❤️ I’m with you. I’m flying free. 4 years divorced now. And finally pushing my wings out of my cocoon. I’m on vacation with my son. No drama, lots of fun, carefree adventure. Love you all at flying free. M

  • Avatar
    Waleen Johnson
    August 2, 2019

    WOW, That sentence above about the “Character disorder” is so interesting to me. How can I find out what that means and what disorders there are? Is there a lot? Thank you very much, Waleen Johnson

    • Avatar
      → Waleen Johnson
      August 9, 2019

      Rachel, you have a gift for writing! This part: The hard-heartedness of my husband snatched up these unguarded offerings and demanded more without turning an inch toward the needs that make me human. Beautifully expressed soul ache. And thank you for ending with the hope of the gospel and the love of the Savior.

  • Avatar
    August 2, 2019

    Natalie and Rachel, how I praise God for your ministry! You too are a word-picture of God making beauty out of ashes! Thank you for allowing the Lord to use your stories to encourage those of us who have experienced or are experiencing the life-sucking situation of being married to a self-centered abuser.
    Rachel, your describe so eloquently in this article the depth of my emotions as I have endured 22 years of being the tender-hearted one who read all the books, tried harder, etc to no avail. It is such a breath of fresh air to be understood by sisters like you and Natalie who know how to extend hope to us who are still stuck….

  • Avatar
    August 2, 2019

    This is why marriage counseling also does not work for an abusive situation. And often the abuser probably has a character disorder that is well-hidden, behind the charm of the wolf.