By Emmanuel V. John
Abuses In Relationships
How sad it is that in the family, where love and peace should prevail, there is increasing violence. As frustrations become more intense and hostilities increase, spouses sometimes lose control of their emotions, and conflicts are escalated. Families need to turn to Jesus Christ to gain victory over their destructive reactions to conflict.
When one exhibits a low frustration tolerance, a simple conflict may cause an outburst. The husband or wife may go through phases of repressing anger, building tension and then exploding over an insignificant issue.
Many women are being abused by their husbands in reaction to family conflicts, and the probability of being abused is increasing rapidly. Chances for marital violence are heightened when the wife is alone with her husband, partly because of her vulnerability. Wrongly, some men perceive their spouses as their property and feel free to batter them when they feel threatened.
Along with physical abuse, there is often emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is defined as mistreating and controlling the other person, and it may include ridiculing, insulting, giving orders, demeaning, ignoring, controlling, threatening, and withholding privileges. It is internal, and the damaged emotions are often repressed. These feelings may later be displayed in the form of decreased self-esteem and in a perception of helplessness or hopelessness.
A person brought up in a dysfunctional family system, full of stress, conflict and abuse, does not necessarily become abusive in a relationship, but there is a high probability that he or she will be abusive because of the exposure to and tolerance of abuse. Since early exposure to violence plays a significant role in developing tolerance toward using violence, it is paramount for the sake of the children that conflicts in family relationships be resolved!
Men In An Abusive Relationship
Men from abusive families often have power struggles in relationships, feelings of insecurity, fear of rejection and frequent overreaction to unresolved conflicts. Other personality characteristics of abusive men include an inability to manage anger, poor impulse control, low frustration tolerance and weak coping mechanisms. Sometimes these men have difficulty identifying and expressing their emotions. As a result they tend to act out their feelings in a violent manner. Even though they may seem tough and strong, they are craving for acceptance, security, nurturing, comfort and constant reassurance.
Because of their low self-esteem and lack of assertiveness, these men may overreact to criticism and display jealousy, depression and sensitivity to rejection. They often have unrealistic expectations for their wives. Many of these men turn to substance abuse to avoid the responsibility for their own behavior.1
Women In An Abusive Relationship
Battered women may seek to repress their feelings of terror and turmoil by attempting to display tranquility. Their husbands’ verbal and physical abuse is often tolerated because of the women’s dependency on them for support and the wives’ own feelings of inadequacy – often a result of their being frequently criticized by their husbands.2
A wife may remain in an abusive relationship without any serious attempt to resolve conflicts. She is often paralyzed by the fear of being in more danger if she leaves because of her husband’s threats to find her wherever she goes. Hence, the abused spouse remains in the relationship because of fear rather than love. Other reasons that spouses remain in abusive relationships are cultural traditions, religious convictions, family structure and fear of abandonment. Sometimes the wife perceives her traditional role as being a wife and mother who should be submissive and forgiving of her husband’s painful actions.3 Thus, the abused wife often experiences love-hate episodes.
Negative Coping Patterns
Infidelity. A growing number of spouses are committing adultery. People today call it being “unfaithful” or “having extra-marital affairs.” As a result of unresolved conflicts in the marriage relationship, the spouse sometimes copes negatively by adulterous relationships and then attempts to justify his or her involvement as the need to feel loved and to release tension. But, instead of releasing tension, they often feel greater tension, hostility, guilt and anger.
Child Abuse. Parents frequently displace their feelings of anger and abuse on their children. Sometimes parents attack their children directly by degrading them with labels such as stupid, worthless, good for nothing, lazy and ugly – even stating their wish that the children were dead. They also may attack their children indirectly by teasing and belittling them.
Children in such a family system suffer significantly. However, there is hope for the restoration of joy in the relationship if sins are confessed and forsaken, and lives are committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Surely there is no wound that He cannot heal.
Many abused spouses, because of their own frustrations, high anxiety level and unhappiness, tend to overreact to their children’s behavior. Children certainly can test the extreme limits of their parents’ self-control, but children are to be loved, not abused.
Many abusive parents were themselves battered children. They tend to transmit the same violent patterns to their next family system. Hence, abusive parents need to experience God’s unconditional love, which can result in healing damaged emotions. This process is not simply surrendering one’s will to a “Higher Power” or to a “Higher Self,” but rather to the “Highest Power” – the Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, the Savior of all who will confess Him as Lord (Rom. 10:9-10).
We reiterate that family violence, infidelity and abuse affect the parents and the children, who often become the victims for the displacement of the parental anger. Sometimes a child switches from a son or daughter relationship to that of an adult nature. The more intense the conflict is between the spouses, the more the children are at risk; and the related scars can last for a lifetime. In spite of all the abuses, there is real and full healing and hope in Jesus Christ. Many children are crying for help. But to whom can they turn? Since there are biblical answers for all displays of conflict, true Christian counseling can play a vital role in working with the parents and children to obtain healing and resolution.
Alcohol And Drugs. Instead of working through the conflicts in their family, many individuals turn to alcohol as a means of coping with a high stress level. Alcohol abuse can contribute to conflicts since it alters mood and behavior. It also can be a negative coping mechanism used to attempt to drown out or forget problems for the moment. However, instead of alcohol helping to reduce tension, it often escalates destructive behavior, resulting in more conflicts.
As the husband, wife or child continues to abuse alcohol, a dependency develops, and the continued drinking may lead to the abuse of drugs. In reaction to unresolved conflict, some parents perceive alcohol as a soothing and controlling agent for their feelings of anger. Later, they discover they were deceived: Alcohol was only an avoidance tactic that leads to terrifying and humiliating consequences. “Wine is a mocker, intoxicating drink arouses brawling, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Prov. 20:1 NKJV).
Drinking alcohol is frequently accepted by the children because it is the norm for their parents. The availability and accessibility to alcohol is a growing temptation. The product is advertised and displayed in many stores as something pleasurable and desirable. It is like Satan who always shows the immediate gratification and the “fun” side of things, but never the consequences. Hence, many children who join their parents in drinking alcohol for seeming pleasure only discover later its sting and pain. Solomon concluded concerning alcohol, “At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like a viper” (23:32).
Adolescents, having tried alcohol and drugs as an experiment, often become dependent on them. Some begin using these substances with the false confidence that they can quit at any time. However, they discover over a period of time that their tolerance for alcohol or drugs has increased and they are becoming progressively dependent on them. They then experience feelings of low self-esteem, isolation, rejection, insecurity, guilt, dependency and loss of control. Hence, there is no doubt that experimentation can lead to life-threatening addiction.
Many families are discovering that instead of substance abuse being a way out of their problems, it is a way down into more problems. The heart cry of many is not for a new bottle but for a new beginning. Thank God there is hope, there is deliverance through the Lord Jesus Christ. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God; through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25).
Compulsive Eating. It is not unusual for a spouse to internalize feelings of hurt. In order to cope with the high stress level, some resort to binge eating. Recently a woman told me that she felt psychologically divorced from her husband and used food to compensate for her feelings of loss. She added that the more anger she felt towards her husband, the more food she ate, which resulted in excessive weight gain. Her health, self-image and productivity all were affected.
Depression. In most cases of clinical depression there is a high level of pent-up anger in reaction to unresolved conflicts within the family relationship. Many families who have experienced violence and abuse in a relationship experience multiple symptoms of depression, including sleep disturbances, decreased concentration, decreased energy level, feelings of anger, guilt, nervousness, sadness, inadequacy, helplessness, worthlessness and hopelessness. A spouse may simply give up trying to work through the conflicts.
A depressed person experiences a weight of guilt or anger that keeps him or her down. Thank God, there is hope for guilt and depression in Jesus Christ. How comforting to know that when Christ died for our sins and was buried, the weight of the great stone placed at the door of the tomb could not shut Him in or keep Him down. The women who came to the sepulcher saw “the stone had been rolled away … Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here” (Mk. 16:4,6). There is no need for one to remain depressed because the Lord Jesus Christ, the mighty Conqueror over demons, disease, death and hell, can be trusted in every circumstance. In the darkest hour or the most difficult situation, His words to us are, “Do not be afraid; only believe” (5:36). Do you believe the Son of God?
Suicide. I want to emphasize that if help is not sought, depression can lead to suicide. How sad that so many people perceive suicide as an escape or exit. Animals experience high stress level, but they do not deliberately kill themselves. Hence, even animals seem to recognize that suicide is not a solution. When human beings use suicide as “a way out,” they discover too late – on the other side of death, where they stand before an all-righteous God – that suicide by no means resolves conflicts or is a solution to anything.
Children become depressed when they blame themselves for the unresolved conflicts in the family system. Many young people become so angry with their parents that they refuse to listen to them, and then they seek out love, acceptance and security in the wrong places and from the wrong crowd. They sometimes turn to bars, nightclubs and lonely streets. Many of them become involved in drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity. Teenagers have a deep need for love and acceptance, but they are vulnerable.
Attempted suicide should be taken seriously, and it is often a cry for help. It is not a solution! We must recognize that the Lord gives life and takes life (Job 1:21). But both parents and children often become preoccupied with the giant problems rather than with God. In themselves they find no hope, and they don’t realize their problem can be solved. Remember, parents have a modeling effect on their children, who are likely to follow in their footsteps.
Separation. By separating, a family avoids dealing with the conflicts by not communicating or discussing the issues, or seeking help from a Christian counselor who gives biblical help. Even extremely minor conflicts can trigger major negative reactions leading to separation.
When husband and wife are angry with each other, one may abandon the family instead of confronting an issue. Then after a period of time, that one may return home, but with all the conflicts covered up rather than resolved. In the presence of others the couple often masks their emotions, but deep down in their hearts they are enraged and resentful of each other and retain feelings of separation, loneliness, rejection and aloofness. The home environment becomes full of stress, anxiety and emotional coldness. The family may recognize the need for help to work through these conflicts, but not seek it. Sadly, the peace which they once enjoyed is replaced with panic, and the love is turned into hate.
Divorce. Today’s response to unresolved conflicts is seen in the increased divorce rate. Some families perceive marriage as simply a contract. Hence, if the relationship does not remain healthy or fully satisfying the spouses simply quit, often with little effort to work through conflicts. Divorcing over simple problems seems to be the trend.
Divorce will likely continue to increase in our society, but the question is why do so many spouses give up and abandon the family instead of facing the problems in the relationship and seeking help? It is evident that there is a hunger for real, lasting love. But many abandon one relationship for another thinking the grass is greener on the other side, not realizing that he/she still has to mow the lawn. In other words, another marriage is not a cure for the unresolved conflicts in the previous one.
Many spouses are occupied with self-love. People should feel loved and have self-worth, but not become so selfish and self-absorbed that they are unable to demonstrate love for another. The deeper need is for genuine agape love which is divine, unconditional love. Love is the lever that lifts the loads of conflicts, opens the door to truthfulness and respect for each other, pockets pride, turns barriers into bridges, and heals and holds the marriage together. Divine love, when experienced in family relationships, will close the door of the divorce courts.
From man’s view there are multiple reasons for divorce, but it was never God’s design and desire. Divorce is never the result of genuine love and commitment. “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt. 19:6). However, when love is lacking and God is left out of the relationship, the door to divorce is always open as an option. But before the relationship reaches a desire for divorce, the couple should seek out counseling to work through their conflicts.
In exploring some of the reactions to unresolved conflicts in relationships we see that people are prone to avoid the pain of working through the problems in the family system. In these families the emotional, psychological and physical needs are not met because of a lack of love that lasts – unconditional love which comes only from a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Satan is a home wrecker, for he has come “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy.” But Jesus Christ is a homebuilder and has “come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).
1. Grant L. Martin, Counseling for Family Violence and Abuse, (Dallas: Word, 1987), 35-36.
2. Grant L. Martin, 38-39.
3. Ginny Ni Carthy and Sue Davidson, You Can Be Free, (Washington: Seal, 1989), 16-17.