In her book, “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage,” author Leslie Vernick writes, “It’s crucial that you not lose your empathy and compassion even in a destructive marriage…
One of the things that kills empathy and compassion for someone we once felt love is the buildup of negative emotions, especially resentment.”[i]
I must assert from the get-go my strong disagreement with Mrs. Vernick’s basic operating premise that our “positive” emotions are to be embraced while our “negative” emotions should essentially be squelched.
All of our emotions have been given to us by God. They are His gift to us, providing us with signposts and messages to enable us to discern right from wrong and harmful from healthy. Our emotions verify our experience, providing a base of knowledge designed to embolden us to make wise decisions and course corrections. Some emotions may be unpleasant, but even “negative” emotions serve a purpose, reminding us that something is occurring that is harmful or unjust, that we have been wounded or are unsafe.
Those of us who have survived abusive relationships are universally acquainted with fear, that overwhelming sense of ever-present and imminent danger. Fear operates as our physical and emotional defender, although it would probably be categorized as a “negative” emotion because it is unpleasant. Fear tells us in a powerful way that a viable threat to our being exists. When we are consistently afraid, that emotion should compel us to identify the source of our fear and set a determined course to rectify it, whether to fight it or flee, but dismissing it constitutes lying to ourselves, pretending that the danger does not really exist.
Gavin de Becker, the author of “The Gift of Fear,” writes, “Like every creature, you can know when you are in the presence of danger. You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” Only a fool would presuppose that our God-given harbinger of danger should be discounted or dismissed.[ii]
Lest you conclude that Mrs. Vernick was not intimating that abuse victims should ignore their emotions, later in the chapter, she writes, “It’s not what your husband does to you that will do the most damage to your personhood, but rather what you do with what he does to you. Do you allow it to destroy you? Do you allow it to embitter you? Do you allow its poison to suck all the goodness and love from your soul so that all that’s left is a shriveled-up heart that snarls and shames and scoots to safety in order to not get hurt again?”[iii]
This call to extend unmerited accommodation to an abuser represents a guilt trip of truly offensive proportions. Apparently, Mrs. Vernick sees it as a shameful thing for an abuse victim to be negatively affected by the “poison” of abuse. Why would a woman ever be expected to permit anything so toxic to permeate her household? Somehow such a victim is to remain virtually untouched, to rise above the callousness and oppression without shedding a single tear. Should an abuse victim really be ashamed for “scooting to safety” to avoid getting hurt again? Of course not. She should be encouraged to acknowledge the abuse and take steps to ensure her own physical and emotional safety!
What about other potentially negative emotions? Let’s take a look at a few of these from a very simplified perspective.
- Anger: our heart’s protest against cruelty or injustice.
- Confusion: evidence of unpredictability, deception and/or false guilt.
- Loneliness: the heart’s response to ongoing emotional neglect.
- Grief: the process of working through a profound and irreplaceable loss.
- Anxiety: our response to excessive mental and emotional stress.
- Depression: the physical and emotional response to severe despondency, or dejection.
- Resentment: an emotional buildup of unresolved anger.
These emotions and responses reflect the very real impact of painful experiences in our lives. They serve as valuable reminders that our lives – our hearts – are of immense value, and the violations of our spirit that we have endured are unwarranted and wrong.
Is a victim wrong to feel anger when she comes to the realization that a traitor has taken up residence in her home? No, that is righteous anger. That emotion is informing its bearer that unrighteousness has assumed ownership where it should have no claim. Anger is our heart’s admission that a wrong has been committed against us. There is nothing negative about that.
Jesus got angry. His anger was absolutely justified. He held nothing back, spoke the truth powerfully and with conviction and brooked no opposition. He did not cower in their presence, nor did He seek to understand how the legalists’ cold little hearts might have been wounded in the past. He unapologetically and powerfully told those men that their hearts and priorities were wrong, that their behaviors were self-serving. He refused to overlook their hypocrisy, the glaring contradiction between the lives they professed to lead and the lives they led.
Anger is a cry for justice and righteousness. Yet, abuse victims are too often admonished to ignore such “negative” emotions. Instead they are expected to tap into some mysterious source of apathy and compassion toward those who abuse them, to ignore their legitimate emotions and the powerful truth they are conveying.
Mrs. Vernick goes on to say, “…when the person who has hurt us is not sorry, or continues to hurt us again and again, our negative emotions grow and resentment builds, putting a choke hold on all our positive feelings. I believe that is one reason why the Bible commands us to forgive when someone hurts us and why Jesus tells us to love our enemy by doing him or her good.”[iv]
I find it disturbing that any Christian counselor would accept that our spouse could ever be relegated to the status of an enemy. The Scriptures intend that marriage serve as a sacred reflection of the love relationship between our loving Lord and His bride, the church, united in purpose and love, and zealous protectors of one another. Clearly, our spouses are never to be perceived as an enemy. Furthermore, exactly what positive feelings is an abuse victim supposed to have for this person who “is not sorry” and “continues to hurt us again and again?” Resentment is an intense and necessary emotion that warns us that the harm that has been inflicted upon us remains unaddressed, that we continue to be deliberately walked on, neglected or abused. There is no reasonable means of letting go of that kind of resentment while such offenses are allowed to continue.
What the abuse victim should be encouraged to do is tap into her emotions, to identify them for what they are and what they portend. Every emotion, whether fear, confusion, loneliness, heartache, grief, anger or resentment emanates from a wound that has not yet healed. It is up to each one of us to acknowledge what our emotions are saying. Anything less is simply denial, a lie – a conscious or unconscious decision to ignore or override the truth.
You must begin to acknowledge what those “negative” emotions are saying if you are to reclaim and enjoy the benefits of the positive ones – the full measure of love, joy, peace and contentment that may be rediscovered when you begin to act in defense of your inherent value. God does not expect you to pretend that you are not hurting when you are, that you have not been violated when you have, that your living situation is acceptable when it’s not. There comes a point when you must make a conscious decision to do something about it; to demand better or get away.
The Apostle Paul affirms the truth that we must respond in accordance with what we know to be true. In I Corinthians 5:11-12 (The Message), he writes:
“…I am saying that you shouldn’t act as if everything is just fine when one of your Christian companions is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory [abusive]. You can’t just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behavior. I’m not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don’t we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers?”
Of course we do.
[i] Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Waterbrook Press, 2013), Page 114.
[ii] Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear (Dell Publishing, 1997), Page 6.
[iii] Leslie Vernick, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Waterbrook Press, 2013), Page 115
[iv] Leslie Vernick The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Waterbrook Press, 2013), Page 114.
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