What Your Emotions Are Telling You

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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.

Cindy Burrell

Copyright, 2015

All Rights Reserved

19 thoughts on “What Your Emotions Are Telling You”

  1. Thank you for this beautifully written article, Cindy. One of the first things we seem to ignore when we become entrenched in an abusive situation is the way we feel. In the jigsaw puzzle of abuse, those feelings are important pieces to help us understand what we’re living in.

    I love that you mentioned anger as a natural response to abuse, not a “negative” one, like it is so often labeled in churches. I once heard it said that anger is often what pulls a victim of abuse out of her situation because it brings with it empowerment and self-protection.

    Thank you for your wise words. They always come at such a timely moment for me, and I truly believe you are inspired to write them.

    1. Thank you, Bellabee, for your kind words of affirmation. I appreciate them very much.

      I pray that you are receiving the kind of validation and strength you need as you move forward. You are always welcome to e-mail me privately with your questions or concerns.

      I know it takes a whole lot of courage to break free from the abuse – and our abuser. I’ll be happy to help if I can.

      All the best,

      Cindy

  2. And I concur: another excellent and timely post.

    When warring with abusers (spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and/or physically, the dangerous human embodiments of our real enemies: “principalities and powers”) a somewhat related topic comes to mind, a survival strategy called “Gray Rock.”

    (This is, however, a technique that, no doubt, Ms. Vernick and her colleagues would likely reject as well; nevertheless, it is very effective and undoubtedly saves many lives as well as hearts, minds, and spirits.)

    This strategy is, as readers may know, the survival mechanism that involves minimal involvement with the abuser until the situation is resolved for the safety and protection of the abused and any children also in the home.

    “Gray Rocking,” if you will, is reducing conversation and interactions to the essentials only, as many abusers look for any “hooks” of word or deed with which to begin their assaults on mind, heart, spirit, and/or body.

    This may help ease the abuse until the target can get the help she/he needs for self and any children. If it’s to leave, the Gray Rock technique helps buy time until arrangements can be made.

    Of course, there are times when the abuse target needs to leave as soon as possible. Hopefully, she will have made escape preparations ahead of time.

    With all due respect, I seriously doubt Ms. Vernick and others who “counsel” like her (victim-blame) have ever been in an abusive situation.
    P.

    1. Hello, P.

      I have to agree that those who teach or counsel utilizing this ideology must be unacquainted with the horror of legitimate abuse.

      I appreciate the information on “Gray Rock,” and have never heard of it labeled, but I used that technique at the tail end of my marriage. It was still very difficult to maintain. As you noted, the preferred course is to separate to put some distance between the victim-target and the abuser.

      I appreciate your input, as always.

      Cindy

  3. Cindy,

    I must also comment on the timeliness of this post of yours in my life. I just started reading this book of Leslie Vernick’s this past weekend, a few days before your post. “Part 1: Seeing Your Marriage Clearly” was actually quite helpful to me in assessing some of the characteristics of what I already know to be a very destructive marriage. I had high hopes for the book; however, as soon as I began “Part 2: Change Begins with You,” the red flags started popping up. Primarily, I picked up on some more of that guilt trip you mentioned – as though the husband has his responsibility for his part in the destruction and the wife has her responsibility for her part. I think it is a very dangerous thing to do this thinking it is safe just because one can fall back on the fact that all human beings are sinners so everybody shares the blame. Each situation is different, and it is entirely possible that many women have navigated the situation, even being harmed emotionally, without grievous sin on their part. I could get very riled up on this point because one of the hallmarks of my “marriage” has been scapegoating. I have been blamed and continue to be blamed for so much that was not my fault and is not my fault (and the destruction to my health is ongoing), that it is a serious trigger for anyone to assume my guilt in any area when they do not know me or my pseudo-husband (sorry, but I just can’t use the word “husband” to describe him). I doubt that I am alone in this. It was such a support to read your post before I started to doubt my gut and ignore my intuition like I used to in the past. God protected me through you.

    If I could underline and quote the parts of your post that hit home with me, I would have to mark the whole thing, so consider the whole post highlighted, underlined, and starred.

    By the way, I have read Leslie Vernick’s website a bit, and from what I have seen, her mother was the abusive person in her life. I do not know all the details, but I do not believe she has experienced an abusive marriage. I do not diminish the suffering of having a destructive mother (I happen to have one myself), but it is not the same as marriage. The expectations, the soul-sucking of the sexual relationship alone, the very real prospect of the life-long bondage of being married to someone like this, versus other destructive relationships makes it apples and oranges in my mind.

    1. Hello, Louise.

      I am so glad you found the website and that you took the time to write and share your experience here.

      You are not alone. As abuse victims, we tend to diminish our own experience, especially when people around us impose upon us some mysterious expectation to equalize responsibility or fault. There is a profound difference between a believer who strives to please God and fails as a result of our inert human nature and a person who claims to be a believer and overtly, deliberately harms or trespasses against another, particularly their spouse. It is in the heart that we must acknowledge that the two are not at all the same – apples and oranges, for sure.

      I’m glad this piece validated your understanding. Please let me know if there other issues or concerns you have, and I will try to direct you to other resources that might be helpful, as well. The one that came to mind was “Sleeping With An Abuser.” It is available on the Blog Articles page. You are also welcome to e-mail me privately from the Contact Cindy page.

      Knowledge is power, so keep on educating yourself!

      Again, thank you so much for taking the time to write and share. I look forward to hearing from you in the future.

      In Him,

      Cindy

  4. Cindy,

    Thank you for writing this. I have read Leslie’s book and have glean some good points, but some like this one: “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” is just a punch in the stomach. It is blaming the victim for the natural and expected effects of abuse and that makes me *rightfully* angry.

    When I keep trying to show empathy and compassion to my anti-husband he just takes advantage of it and I wind up getting pulled back into the old patterns. He is already a full blown drama queen and often feels sorry for himself. He lacks genuine empathy towards others; I have watched him eek out a fake and weak response to others pain or out right ignores them.

    Cindy you wrote: “Clearly, our spouses are never to be perceived as an enemy.” When someone deliberately harms their spouse through any form of abuse their behavior is like that of enemy. An enemy is out to destroy their victim; abusers do that. If this against God then how should we view them?

    Your articles have provided a lot of light for my situation. They seem to come just as I am struggling or feeling uncomfortable with some advice. Thank you.

    Lisa

    1. Hello, Lisa.

      I’m glad to hear from you and to know that you are gaining some clarity about the abuse dynamic as it applies to your relationship.

      I agree with your comment regarding “a punch in the stomach.” Such comments from Bible teachers, pastors and counselors betray a severe lack of understanding with regard to abuse. Those messages are guilt-laden and absolutely wrong.

      As to your question: “When someone deliberately harms their spouse through any form of abuse their behavior is like that of an enemy. An enemy is out to destroy their victim; abusers do that. If this is against God then how should we view them?”

      Of course, if someone is out to destroy us, then that person would accurately be described as an enemy. But Scripture does not ever describe a marital relationship as one where spouses would be considered enemies. Marriage is sacred and is to be dignified and honored as the highest relationship we would ever enter into in this life. Our homes are places where we should be assured of safety and security, emotional support and encouragement, acceptance, affection and love. So, if our spouse is our enemy, such a relationship denies and violates God’s intent for marriage. It should not be enabled or tolerated.

      Keep on reading, Lisa. I provide a lot of information here. And I have been where you are. I remember how it felt, how my abuser made everything about him and his needs. I remember feeling so incredibly inadequate and lonely and unlovable and wondering what I was doing wrong, why he didn’t take care of me.

      Just know that it’s not you, it’s him.

      You are welcome to post here or to e-mail me privately from the Contact Cindy page. I’ll be happy to help or direct you as I can.

      Cindy

  5. i am crying so hard right now. I was not allowed to do anything & I tried to be perfect. One day the basement flooded & he called my mom & sis and kicked me out. He kept our dogs that were like my babies & I ended up with no job. No dogs and sat here for two years letting alcohol take my pain away. He ended up with everything in the house. Since I stopped drinking I am now feeling all the pain and cry all the time. I have been a recluse & cannot even think of my dogs.

    1. Hello, Tammie.

      I am honored that you took the time to share some of your story here. Your tears are valid, and the pain must be processed. But I also want to encourage you, to help you to see the truth, to accept that your husband did not deserve you and was abusive. Now that you are out of that situation, I pray that you can lift up your eyes and see that you have the rest of your life to choose differently, to find a new life for yourself. Yes, there are things, including your dogs, that need to be grieved, but allow that grief to do its work, which is to bring clarity and healing into your life.

      I ask you: What do you want your life to look and feel like? Consider the answer to that question and then begin walking toward that new life. One day at a time, one step at a time. You need to go find it. You can have a life of peace and contentment and joy and love. Become the woman that you want to be, remember how it feels to have friends and begin the hard work to a blessed recovery. It will not likely be an easy journey, but it is well worth every bit of toil and sweat to get there.

      Don’t let your abuser have the last word on you. You can be a victor rather than a victim.

      Don’t give up! Begin today.

      Keep on reading and educating yourself. Ask your friends and family for help. You can reclaim your life.

      Thank you for writing, Tammie. You can write any time.

      Cindy

  6. Hello, I, too, have read Leslie Vernick’s book ‘The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” and just finished a 6 month group coaching session with her called ‘Empowerment to Change.” I am in an emotionally abusive marriage, currently separated and filed for divorce. Based on my experience with Leslie, I believe her heart is in the right place. She loves the Lord and desires to be obedient. She focuses on empowering women to get healthy again which is what I continue to need. We have to walk (take action) in faith and she walks along side of us. Does she make mistakes? Of course. I don’t believe she intends to hurt us though. She is on our team. I understand the negative comments and emotions because Ive lived in lies for 20 years- it hurts a lot but I know God heals. If you have issues with Leslie’s book why not talk to her directly? Isn’t that what God asks us to do? Cindy, your blog has been a voice that I didn’t have for many, many years. Thank you for sharing your experience, wisdom and heart. It is such a blessing!

    1. Hello, Tanya. It’s very nice to hear from you. I’m glad to know you have received comfort through Mrs. Vernick’s ministry and that you have been able to break free from the abuse (and the abuser) in your life.

      You specifically inquired as to whether I might consider contacting Mrs. Vernick to convey my concerns about the teachings in her book. I want to assure you that I have done just that. Last year Mrs. Vernick contacted me personally and offered to forward me a complimentary copy of her book, presumably for a recommendation or potential referrals by abuse victims. I accepted her offer and also offered to reciprocate and send her a copy of my book(s), (an offer she did not acknowledge). After reading her book in its entirety, I sent her an in-depth e-mail clearly explaining my concerns about what I found to be a heavy burden of obligation laid on abuse victims to dismiss or accommodate abusive behavior or to anticipate that the victim might accept responsibility for addressing it. I was certainly open to a dialogue on these matters but did not receive a response.

      I am also certain that Mrs. Vernick’s heart is in the right place; however, I also believe that some of the ideology and methodology she espouses in her book are not merely benign, but unnecessarily guilt-laden and potentially harmful for victims who simply need permission to leave their abusers – to get out, step back and see the dynamic for what it is, and take it from there. It does grieve me that so many prominent authors and teachers place the onus on the victim to “fix it” rather than calling attention to the abuser’s selfish and evil intent – and act to protect victims from such men.

      I have read more recent works by Mrs. Vernick and am inclined to believe that some of her suggested methodologies in that book may have changed. If that is the case, I would love to see her pull this particular book from the shelves, re-write it and come out with a revised edition. As far as “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage” goes, as written I cannot recommend it.

      With regard to where you find yourself, I am glad you are growing and beginning the process of healing. I can You are also welcome to write me here (or privately if you’d like from the Contact Cindy page) and share more of your story and converse further.

      Thank you for your kind words of support of this ministry. You have blessed my work today, and I wish you all the best.

      In Him,

      Cindy

  7. Leslie’s most recent blog post called, “Does My Husband Always Have The Final Say?” is an example of some very good advice with some misinformation. She posts this: “Sin messed everything up and did impact their marriage. God said to Eve, “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). This power struggle between husband and wife was not God’s original plan, but a result of the curse of sin.”

    I searched over 20 versions and they were all without the word “control” like this one:
    “Yet your desire will be for your husband,
    And he will rule over you.”

    Let’s not forget the beginning of that verse, ” To the woman He said,
    “I will greatly multiply
    Your pain in childbirth,
    In pain you will bring forth children;”

    It is inspite of the curse of pain in childbirth a woman will desire her husband–still wanting closeness and companionship (maybe desiring too much), BUT he will want to dominate her.

    Now how many women will walk away after reading the take that women want to control their husbands and walk away with false guilt. UGH!

    1. Hello, Lisa. Thank you for taking the time to share on this subject. I found the article you referenced and continue to struggle with its premise and conclusion. Personally, I do not see the question submitted by the reader (and Mrs. Vernick’s response) as much as a relational misunderstanding from a biblical perspective, but rather the writer clearly identifies behavior consistent with an entitlement mindset that the dominant husband (abuser?) has claimed with the aid of Scripture.

      Mrs. Vernick urges her readers to somehow stop enabling dominating husbands and to reclaim some right to decision-making; however, what I see throughout the online conversations still encourages wives to simply find a way to function while living with husbands who are not interested in mutuality, men who fail to “love their wives as Christ loved the church.” There is still a battle going on there. In truth, MUTUAL respect, honor and care should be readily evident in a godly, Christ-centered relationship – both parties looking out for the interests of the other. Pretending doesn’t really change anything.

      Furthermore, abuse may not always be overtly obvious, particularly in the Christian realm. Quite often the abuse is shrouded in biblical correctness, as you well know. Abuse is grounded in one person’s desire for domination and control, and all of the behaviors and rationalizations flow from that. My former husband’s primary belief was that he was the ultimate authority and decision-maker and that, as long as I didn’t catch him in the act of adultery, he could treat me any way he wanted. Even trying to hold my own, his mindset and the mental, spiritual battle that overshadowed our household made it a fearsome, toxic place. That is not of God. Yet, many women are being taught that they just need to find a way to manage it. I believe that is simply calling them to make it work, to pretend if they must, to live a lie.

      And I will just leave it there.

      Thank you for taking the time to come and share here. You are welcome to write any time!

      All the best,

      Cindy

  8. Hello Cindy,

    I agree that there is much about managing the situation in hopes of change from the abuser. Leslie also does say leaving may be a real possibility in other posts and comments.

    I believe Leslie’s view of marriage before the fall is correct (and that it should be lived after the fall), what I don’t agree with is presenting Genesis 3:16 as to say because of the fall women want to control their husbands. As if that is the overall mindset of the majority of women. If that was true the statistics on Domestic Violence would be reversed.

    Because so much of the article was sound on God’s view of marriage, for me it, stating Genesis 3:16 that way causes confusion & unnecessary guilt.

    1. Hello again, Lisa.

      I agree that there is some good information regarding what a healthy, godly marriage should look like and understand the gender issues that came with “the fall.” My primary concerns about some of Mrs. Vernick’s teachings are based on the standard Christian-ese manner in which the so-called guidance is presented and the lack of clarity with regard to how abuse should strongly be addressed. To me, the explanation of what marriage should look like is sound, but the presumption seems to be that what women are dealing with is most likely an innocent misunderstanding of biblical principles for marriage, and that once the truth is adequately understood by a wayward spouse, the dysfunction will likely be addressed.

      But what happens when the reality is that the man involved has an abusive/entitlement mentality, and his priorities are not centered on genuine relationship at all. (I see some hints of that in the responses to the piece by some women.) I fear that the way her article and further responses are presented, an abuse victim would be led to believe that she can somehow find a way to either manage or fix these serious marital issues by simply explaining truth to her husband – that she might readily expect heartfelt change. Her presentation does not, in my view, shine enough light on the possibility of abuse and the core mentality behind it or equip readers to identify abuse and to rise to defend themselves. Unfortunately,this kind of teaching keeps women who are striving to do the right thing in ungodly, abusive marriages. I can’t support that.

      Thank you for writing to share your concerns and views on this important subject.

      Cindy

  9. So many of Leslie’s posts have clarified my thinking and been a blessing as have yours. I must say that hearing those of you whose blogs are helping me be upset at one another is not fun. I hear enough upset in my own home. I come to these blogs to learn and be strengthened.

    1. Hello, Belle.

      I’m glad you have found encouragement through Leslie’s ministry and mine. I have no doubt that Mrs. Vernick’s intentions are good and that she has helped many woman like yourself.

      Nevertheless, I wrote this piece because I believe that, based on what she has written, I find her instruction in this regard to be potentially harmful to abuse victims. I feel strongly overriding our emotions does nothing to address the abuse but rather contributes to the dysfunction, and that is the material point of the piece. There is nothing wrong with expressing disparate viewpoints; they simply require us to decide what we believe is true and to live our lives according to that truth.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to share your views.

      Cindy

  10. Amen sister!! I couldn’t agree more. There is something to be said for a victim being responsible for how she responds to the abuse, (i.e. don’t be abusive to the abuser, and thus become an abuser yourself). But, allow the victim to acknowledge her feelings, and be honest about them! As you say, God gives us feelings so that we can DO something about situations that are clearly wrong, such as being abused by your husband.

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