(This post is an excerpt from my upcoming book on spiritual abuse in the Christian marriage.)
What does forgiveness mean in an abusive marriage, and how can true forgiveness actually set a battered wife free (instead of keeping her hostage like false forgiveness, or enabling, does?)
Let’s dive into some light psychology for a minute, okay? In the abuse cycle, spouses circle through specific phases. In the beginning is the “Love-Bombing” phase, where it feels like a honeymoon. He is perfect. He thinks SHE is perfect. He absolutely adores her and shows her in a million ways how much he wants to win her heart.
Then comes the “Devaluation” phase. This is where he begins to find fault in everything she does. It starts small, and escalates over the course of months or years until when he looks at her, she sees only contempt on his face. These two phases cycle back and forth. He devalues, then realizes she is pulling away, and he love-bombs again. Then as soon as she’s hooked on his love, he withdraws again and devalues. When she has had enough and he fears losing her, he love-bombs again. And back and forth it goes. In the beginning the devalue phases are brief. As time goes by the devaluation gets longer and more severe, and the love bombing is ever more rare, until it disappears altogether.
Let’s talk about what this does to her brain.
He becomes both the source of her pain, and her comfort, or rescuer. This creates a conflict that is impossible for her to reconcile. This is the same thing that makes children so attached to their abusive parents. It’s the same reason captives fall in love with their captors. It’s the reason the famous hostages in the Stockholm bank became fiercely loyal and protective of their kidnappers, resulting in the coining of “Stockholm Syndrome.”
The more the wife looks at her abusive husband, longing for him to rescue her from the damage he has inflicted on her, the more she remains stuck in an ever strengthening trauma bond.
How many times have you talked, argued, pleaded, cried, screamed trying to get your husband to “understand” how wrong what he just did was? Pouring all your energy into desperately hoping to convince him of your hurt? See your pain? Acknowledge the damage he just did? He stands there, acting like you’re crazy, and you throw yourself into the mission of “making him see” that insulting you was hurtful. That swearing at you was hurtful. That cheating on you was hurtful. That draining the bank account was hurtful. That raping you was hurtful.
Can you tell I’ve been right there with you?
He knows it was wrong. We know he knows it was wrong. So why do we so desperately need to hear him say it? We are perfectly sane, reasonable women in other circumstances. Why do we act so crazy trying to plead a hint of apology from his lips?
Because we are addicts.
A trauma bond is one of the most addictive substances known to man. Our brains and bodies have been conditioned, through repeating cycles of this mess, to look to HIM as the “fix.” He is the source of our pain. He is also our rescuer from the pain.
Have you ever noticed at what point he finally does offer comfort? At what point he finally does offer a half apology? Or even say “I don’t understand, but I’m sorry you’re upset. Can I hold you?”
It’s not when he actually inflicts the hurt. It’s not during our passionate insistence that we are RIGHT to feel hurt… It’s also not the next week, when we have managed to self-soothe or find other sources to rescue us from the pain. Nope. It’s at the exact moment we are about to give up on him rescuing. He watches and waits for us to pour everything we have into trying to win his comfort (from the hurt he caused, mind you) and the second our emotional pockets have been squeezed empty, he is there to rescue.
And do you know what? The more desperate we felt for the comfort, the higher the price we paid for it… the more we become addicted to it. It’s our drug of choice. It feels soooooo deliciously exquisit, after the hurt and the pleading and fighting and crying, to sink into the long-awaited comfort. Sooo good. And the demonic cycle of abuse can continue. The chains are stronger than ever.
But God has the cure to the trauma bond.
I believe Christ calls us to forgive SPECIFICALLY as an antidote to our own damaged psyche. Forgiveness (true forgiveness not the counterfeit of ENABLING that the church likes to baptize as forgiveness) breaks the cycle. Forgiveness says ”Yes I am hurt, but I am not looking for you to heal me, thank you.” Forgiveness relieves the abusive husband of the debt of paying her back. It acknowledges the loss as very real, stands up, dusts itself off, and says yes, you broke me. But I don’t look to you to fix me.
When he damages us, and we feel that desperate need to “make” him make it better, but instead we force ourselves to release him and take full responsibility for our own healing, that is the first step to forgiveness.
Why is this important? When we stop looking to our husband, who tore us apart with his cuel words, to fix us, we look instead to God. We look to ourselves. We look to others. We look to a counselor. We look to YouTube videos. We look to books like this one… And HE stops being the savior. We free him of the burden of being the savior, and allow him the free will to just be the abuser.
And the trauma bond begins to heal.
Every single time a husband damages his wife, and after the abuse she turns to him for comfort, weeping into his strong arms as he strokes her hair and kisses her cheek… The trauma bond is strengthened.
Every single time a husband damages his wife, and after the abuse she ignores her urge to turn to him, and finds comfort in healthy ways… the trauma bond is weakened. Making it easier to make wise, Spirit-filled choices for ourselves.
God’s true plan for forgiveness frees us from abuse.