Why Women Don’t Know If Their Marriages Are Harmful

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Many women in unsafe marriages don’t know their marriages are draining the life out of them.

And one of the reasons they don’t know their marriages are killing them is because, in the Christian world, most (if not all) problems in marriage are presented as “normal marriage issues everyone goes through.”

Even when a plain-to-see problem is called out, e.g., physical abuse, the focus is still on forgiveness, on prayer, on temporary separation, then reconciliation. 

In the Christian world and for the most part, the goal is to save the marriage, not protect the harmed and hold the offender accountable.

unsafe marriages

The process might look like this: (Trigger Warning: Discussions on abuse, betrayal, porn use, abandonment)

He watches porn and pouts and says more sex will fix it? She’s told to “help” her husband with his problem. “All men struggle with lust.” (All men don’t struggle with lust. Check out The Great Sex Rescue and The Good Guys Guide to Great Sex.)

He’s reckless with money and barely contributes financially to the family upkeep but demands access and control? She’s told to respect her husband, have joint accounts, trust God, and pray.

He gives her the silent treatment, abandons her emotionally, and refuses to address chronic problems? She’s told that men are not chatty, that she needs to watch her tone and approach him with respect. “Men are a little sensitive: they need respect. The need space to process.” (Not really the truth. See 18 Things Normal Guys Don’t Do in Marriage (And 12 Things They Pursue) and 40 Things Women Should Say “No” to in Marriage

He has an emotional or physical affair, and she hears, “Men have a high sex drive, and you need to be there for him this season. Being sexually and emotionally available will help him fight the temptation to go outside the marriage for sexual and emotional fulfillment. (Lies. All lies. Read the following series where we address this: Why Women Are Not To Blame For Men’s Sexual Sin.)

He represses her personhood through gaslighting and deceit, and control, and she’s rebuked, “You need to submit to and trust your husband. Your husband might not be perfect but God put him over you for a reason.” (Lies. Check out the following series for more: Are Husbands and Wives Equal? Exploring Evangelical Teachings on Submission in Marriage.)

He yells and throws tantrums, and they ask what she did to make him angry and how she can help him regain control when upset. “You are his helpmeet, you know. Women can get their men to do anything they want. (Lies. Read this post: Why Being a Good Wife Won’t Fix a Bad Husband)

He engages in rage and love cycles (where he’s sweet sometimes and ugly other times), and she’s told, “Look, everyone has their moments. Your husband is an amazing guy. He loves everybody. He’s nice and kind. It would help your marriage if you focused on the bright side. Nobody’s perfect, you know.” (Lies. Read this post: Are My Relationship Problems Normal? 11 Signs They Are Not.)

She’s on the brink of a mental and physical breakdown because of the chronic stress from her unsafe marriage, and she’s advised, “You need to rest more. Enjoy some hobbies. Also, consider helping with the kids at church: it will take your focus off of yourself and center it on serving Jesus.”

Unsafe Marriages: Going Back to The Beginning

When a system is broken, it sometimes helps to go back to the beginning and explore how things were before we got here. Sometimes the solutions we are looking for aren’t’ “out there” but right in front of us.

Consider the before-marriage relationship expectations: we have all these expectations before a couple gets married. Like

  • Don’t cheat.
  • Respect each other.
  • Have fun.
  • Pursue your dreams.
  • Grow your friendship.
  • Stay in love.

All the “duh” stuff.

Why is it then that once married, especially within evangelical and conservative circles, is it termed “lacking grace,” “lacking love,” or “disrespect,” to hold your partner answerable to the same standards you had before?

Why the shift, a loosening of expectations, once vows are exchanged?

So, for example, if a wife seeks help from the church because her husband controls the finances, leaving her and the children on the verge of destitution, instead of her report sending the alarm bells ringing as to the kind of man he is and how she can protect herself from his selfish controlling ways, there’s instead a long winding route to find a relationship-centered solution.

Compared to the individual-centered solution many people would have prescribed, pre-marriage. In the pre-marriage days, individuals mattered. What would happen if they continued counting in marriage?

My guess is we’d begin to accept that some people don’t really want to do the work of learning how to love well. They are not interested in being healthy or safe. No matter what they say, their actions and mindsets are always telling a different story. 

My guess is that when we hold a marriage relationship to the same standard as a dating relationship, we’ll adjust the words we speak to women in difficult and unsafe marriages. 

And as a result, women in harmful marriages will begin to have clarity about their experiences in their relationships; they’ll be affirmed, not double-harmed, as they try to make decisions about their next steps.

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