Can the Relationship Be Saved?

hurting heartFrom time to time, an abuse victim will ask me, “Do you believe our relationship can be saved?”  Instantly, I feel the weight of it, for the question is filled with untold emotion and self-doubt.

I have a pretty good idea where she is coming from.  If she is anything like I was, the abuse victim has staked her future on a hope that she can somehow hold things together while helping the abuser to work through his issues, believing she might possess some intangible quality that will ultimately move him to address not only his unhealthy behaviors, but his very nature.  So for the victim, it is the investment of herself she seeks to redeem, as surely it would be a terrible waste to forfeit that which has consumed so much of her life’s energy if, by some miracle, a favorable outcome may be imminent. 

But, what if it becomes apparent that all of her efforts have amounted to nothing?  Submitting to such a hard truth will inflict pain enough.  The admission will add another layer of uncertainty to her already stressful life, and she will face the judgment of many who will hastily conclude that it was she who failed. 

In most instances, the abuse victim is weighing the price her heart, mind and soul have paid to accommodate her abuser’s moods and demands up until now.  She realizes that her ongoing efforts to survive and even help her abuser amid the chaos he churns up have borne little fruit. 

Adding to the conflict within her, I can almost hear the voice of her abuser in the background – the man who, finally facing some painful consequences, suddenly declares that he has seen the light.  Together with his allies’ endorsement of his impressive transformation, the victim feels the pressure.  She has probably heard the guilt-laden words from more than one friend or family member:

Don’t you want to save your marriage?”

The words sting like salt in a wound.  The victim is utterly exhausted, but should she refuse to trust in her abuser’s dramatic change and instead decline his overtures, blame for the relationship’s failure will surely fall on her.  She is at a crossroads, desperate to know whether she is obligated to fan the withering flame of hope she used to have for the relationship, or whether someone like me might provide a dousing of hard truth that might at last extinguish it. 

So, in an effort to help the enabler-victim find her footing, I will tell her that she needn’t concern herself with saving the relationship, but rather she should commit to taking care of herself.  She is powerless to save her abuser or the relationship, and I will emphasize that it is not her responsibility to do so.  If the abuser had fulfilled his marital responsibilities from the beginning, there would be nothing to debate. 

In the end, whether the abuser decides to seek whatever help he needs to address his issues is his business alone.  And let him figure it out over whatever period of time is necessary while living elsewhere – away from the people who have served as his ready targets.  Although virtually every victim feels an obligation to ease the abuser’s discomfort, he deserves no explanation and no apology for any inconvenience to which he might be subject.  Even pity gives him power. 

I will also remind the victim that abusers are really good at making promises, but lousy at keeping them.  I will urge her to keep a safe emotional distance from him for a good, long while, learn to say ‘no’ to his self-serving propositions, and see whether his goodwill quickly evaporates when he does not get the response he expects, adding,  “Then you will know that he has not really changed.”  A genuinely repentant man would fully comprehend that trust must be re-earned over time.

I don’t give a rip about the abuser or whether a separation or divorce is hard on him.  No, my concern is reserved for his primary victim and any children who have been held hostage to his unpredictable tirades and shaming games.  What needs to be restored is the sense of safety and security that have been sacrificed to the abuser’s unreasonable demands. 

There is no time like the present to reclaim sound priorities, begin the work of bringing healing to the hearts and minds of victims and their children, and weave love, respect, affection and truth in and through a recovering family structure.  The victims need to know that their home will now be a place where they can live in safety. 

I will not encourage an abuse victim to waste another breath attempting to “save” a harmful, dysfunctional union.  Most assuredly, the ultimate objective is not to save the relationship, but to save those who have been harmed by it.

So, as to whether or not the relationship can be saved, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask:  Should it be saved?  At the end of the day, that is a question only the victim can answer.

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2014

All Rights Reserved

43 thoughts on “Can the Relationship Be Saved?”

  1. I just wanted to thank you with all my heart for this website. It has truly opened my eyes and offered so much relief. You write in a way that reaches deep, and I’ve felt it, and learned from it, and now am trying to process what I’m learning.

    I’ve been married over 10 years to an abusive man, and we have children. We are part of a very tight-knit religious community that condemns divorce and encourages women in these situations to pray harder and discover their own tools to fix their broken marriages. In my situation, the abuse started immediately, on the day we were married. While he never physically abused me or the kids, he yelled and demeaned, condescended and punished, gave the silent treatment and (worst of all) emotionally abandoned. I was made to feel stupid, selfish, unthinking, and never good enough. He hated my family and caused a rift between me and my parents. He was jealous of time I spent with my babies. He put me down every single day by showing apathy, refusing to eat meals I made, scoffing at any attempts I made to share an opinion, and letting me cry and suffer in silence while he immersed himself into electronics. Over time, and many years of anxiety and depression, I went to therapy and learned to stand up for myself. Slowly, over many years, he stopped demeaning me, at least out loud. He stopped yelling at me except on very singular occasions that I felt I had provoked. In the last year, he stopped the silent treatment when I started pointing out that it was hurtful. But, he still targets anger toward my son and still, though not very often, has outbursts of rage that terrify me and my children. In the beginning, there was sexual coercion as well that I now do not allow to happen, because I no longer feel safe in that setting. He has never apologized, but in the last year, he has made some changes in his behavior and the abuse happens less and less frequently. He is giving me time and space and does not expect me to trust or heal overnight. But the problem is, I don’t know if I can ever trust him again. I don’t know if I can believe that our marriage is still redeemable. At this point, I am so tired and depressed from years and years of trying that I have essentially given up hope. I feel that he sees this in me and uses it in conjunction with the advice from our church community in phrases like, “never give up on a marriage” and “if you resort to divorce, you are selfish and not thinking about the children.”

    I know that was an incredibly long and detailed story, sorry! What I wonder, is if other women feel pressure from religion and their own husbands to make the marriage work because they are expected to do so, especially when their husbands are showing slow but steady improvement?

    1. Hello, “Bella.” I am glad that you found the website, that you are seeing the dynamic more clearly and growing stronger.

      I’m glad you shared your story. Your very “tight-knit, religious community” is grounded in legalism (very common) and fails to understand God’s heart for marriage (godly marriage, not merely “Christian” marriage). God does not condone abuse, nor does he hate divorce. For more on that, I urge you to read my three-part series, “A Redemptive Look at Three of the Most Commonly Misappropriated Scriptures Regarding Divorce.”

      I will tell you honestly based on what you shared that I share your doubt regarding the possibility of redeeming your marriage. The fact that your husband does not seem genuinely repentant is a bad sign. That tells me that he doesn’t see that his behaviors have really been a problem. The fact that you don’t trust him… your instincts are telling you something. Those feelings do not occur in a vacuum. Your church’s guilt messages about divorce are also appalling and fail to recognize why the law provided divorce – to protect women from men who had no intention of taking care of them. I also urge you to read a piece on the site called, “What About the Children?” The bottom line: It is better to be from a broken home than to live in one.

      I think you can tell that, should you come to a place where you know it is the right thing to divorce your husband, you may find yourself condemned by a legalistic church, shunned, the subject of gossip – but affirmed by the Holy Spirit who lives within you and safe in the knowledge of the truth. Should that day come, you will just know.

      You are welcome to write to me, whether here or at my private e-mail and let me know what is going on, and I will do what I can to encourage and direct you. I also have phone consultations available for a fee if you are ever interested.

      Pray for wisdom and strength. God will give it. And know that you are not alone.


    2. One more thing – I failed to answer your last question. Yes, we all feel pressure from the church, but my question is whether that slow and steady improvement is improvement at all. I urge you to look for two pieces I’ve written called “Understanding the Difference Between Compliance and Change” and “Checklist Blackmail.” The reality is that most abusers really don’t see themselves as the problem and will do as little a humanly possible to “prove” by way of mere perception that they are trying. It’s just a game they play until they can recover their power base. There is no legitimate change there. It is just a way to keep you off balance and feeling an obligation to remain. If you don’t he will pain you as the unreasonable one.

      I hope that helps.


  2. Hello Cindy, I had sent a question in the past and you had commented that you could be sent a direct email. What is your email address please?
    Thanks. Kathy

    1. Hello, Kathy.

      There is a “Contact Cindy” link on the “About Me” tab on the site. Your message will find me through that link. I try not to post it here because the spammers pick it up.

      I will look forward to hearing from you.


    1. Hello, Kathy.

      Your question kind of breaks my heart. I will tell you, “Yes, some abusers change.” There have been instances where an abuser has wholly repented and turned his life around and become the man and husband God intended. Marriages have been restored and families have found healing.

      But I must also note that those instances (from my experience here) seem to be quite rare. The issue is not whether it is possible, but whether the abuser has a willing heart. The narcissistic traits that characterize abusers are not necessarily inborn, but willful. It is a choice they make every day – to pursue their own ends and gratify their own needs and desires rather than putting their wives and children in their proper place where love, honor and emotional and physical care for those under his headship are the highest priorities. When the heart is right, those priorities will be obvious and those qualities of care will flow naturally. My husband never has to “work” at loving me.

      Every day each one of us has the opportunity to choose the kind of person we will be, how we will respond to those we profess to love. The abuser must choose, and what he chooses may determine how we must respond to protect ourselves and our children.

      “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit.” Matthew 12:33

      Of course there is always hope. There is also free will.


      It is up to each one of us to determine what kind of tree we are dealing with.


  3. Thanks Cindy for your response. It is so hard for me to understand how when someone often tells you that they love you so much and want marriage with you why they wont change. Why they continually seem to dodge responsibility and try to say just the right things to keep you thinking that they are really trying to understand and change. Is narcissism a personality disorder where they really cant understand fully what is going on. How do they not reason properly? Underneath are they really just pretending and being totally deceitful waiting for the spouse to “give in”? My husband is an intelligent man and it bewilders me how he can think that he is really changing, yet at the same time say that it is just a misunderstanding. Are they really that afraid to look at themselves and their pain from the past? When a naricissist says I Love You is it translated in a different language?
    Thanks for listening and responding to my frustration.
    I know I am in a crazy situation when I feel crazy.


    1. Hi, Kathy. I think your last sentence is powerful. You know you are in a crazy situation when you feel crazy.

      In terms of addressing his past pain, that is a poor excuse. Each one of us has pain from the past. We also choose whether to learn from it and become a better person in spite of it, or allow it to define us and take our pain out on others. In reality, our past pain is no excuse at all, especially when faced with the prospect of a new future. In reality, it is not the sweet relationship an abuser craves, but domination and control.

      Furthermore, abusers understand the need to say the things they know we want to hear. Words cannot be trusted. An abuser will say whatever he must to shore up his weaknesses. It creates confusion, a conflict in our perception, and he knows that. It is all part of his game.

      I can see your desire to understand him, his reasoning. But more importantly is understanding that his behavior is harmful and it is by choice. No one compels him to behave that way.

      The narcissism questions are not easy to answer in this small space. I will surely not do the subject justice here.

      There are varying degrees of narcissism, generally believed to be a personality disorder. Narcissists are basically self-absorbed. The people in the narcissist’s life are sources of “supply.” They are there to be used for the narcissist’s benefit – and his only. If a person catches on to him or exposes him, he will disown and likely disparage the one who isn’t going along with his game. Furthermore, as insensitive as narcissists are to other people, if you hurt their feelings or otherwise expose their shortcomings, they will either attack or fall apart. They have no real character foundation. It is a strange dynamic.

      Narcissists may also operate on the assumption that others are like them, since that is their “normal.” Therefore, if they feel like you are trying to get them to do something, they become angry and assert that you are using (or even abusing) them. The narcissist’s lifestyle, wants and needs come first. Narcissists also have an exalted view of themselves that others don’t seem to appreciate. Such a one may seem to be perpetually dissatisfied with where he is in life – unappreciated and unrewarded. He can make friends as easily as he can dispose of them. His persona is the centerpiece of the home. Everyone is expected to capitulate to him. He governs by manipulation, fear and force. It becomes easier to give in than to fight, and that becomes the lifestyle.

      I have attached a link to a powerful post that appeared on an A Cry For Justice blog that appeared in 2012. Credit is given to the original author and her ministry on the blog. This is pretty much how narcissists/psychopaths operate. If it feels familiar, there’s probably a reason. And, I can recommend the book, “The Sociopath Next Door” if you are interested in more information on these kinds of relational disorders. I’m sorry if this is familiar. If it is, it may come as a shock to you.

      It was to me. I thought we wanted the same things. I was wrong. It hurt like heck when I finally figured that out.

      I cannot answer for your husband, for whatever reasons he might use to justify his behavior toward you. As I have shared before, truth is made evident. If words and actions are in conflict, believe his actions rather than his words.

      I hope this provides you with some of the insight you are seeking.


      1. This is a great list. Thanks for sharing the link. I have been getting heaps of compliments since I made a decision to get a divorce. I guess when 182 pounds of grief is gone it really shows on your face. 🙂

        1. Well, Katherine, you are blessed to have the support of others, and that the terrible weight has been lifted from your heart. I am happy for you and pray you find the peace and contentment for which you have so patiently waited.


  4. Cindy,
    I too, am at a place I never thought I’d be. Ten years of an emotionally and verbally abusive second marriage I finally managed to be strong enough to get him to leave. I really thought it would be enough to be a catalyst for needed change. Change had been promised many times but never followed through. Three months did show he was willing to get some counseling but time and money ran out. Job instability and a rocky year and a half, along with pressure to have him come back and want to show me he has changed is all I really see. I have simply tried to sit back and watch, but also continued to help with some of the bills. the words seem sincere but then are also mixed in with things like he is so tired, this isn’t right, and what would God want? Job instability has been a big part of the history on his part and I am exhausted from a high stress job. Help!

    1. Hello, Kelly.

      You shared a lot in a small space, and perhaps more than I can help you with here. From what you shared, this is what I am getting: you have been able to identify the abuse, got him to leave, he makes promises and makes a few half-hearted efforts to prove he has changed, and he pressures you to take him back because he is weary of the situation. You aren’t seeing changes in his behavior sufficient for you to trust him, and he pressures you in the name of God and marriage and for the sake of logistics and finances to get over it and take you back…

      It seems you’re not buying in, but his unstable employment history keeps you hooked and obligated to bail him out. And while his words seem sincere, his actions don’t measure up. Is that about right?

      So I sense you feel kind of stuck, unsure of where to go from here.

      What do you see as your obligations and options? What is your heart telling you? What do you know to be true about your relationship?

      If you’d like to e-mail me on my website, that would allow you the opportunity to elaborate a little more.

      I hope to hear from you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *