The Bible and Emotional Abuse

Relationships are not transactions. My friend yearns for a rewarding relationship in which she and her husband care for each other mutually and grow together. The shame of feeling unwanted gives way to this reality: Jesus calls her “daughter.”

Candice Lucey
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girl on her phone sitting alone on stairs

A friend of mine is married to an emotionally distant man. When she wants to talk to him about his behavior or ask how she can make him happy, he won’t engage.

She has tried to breach the gap in many ways; has tried to be gentle and loving; even begged him to see a doctor or counselor as he exhibits clear signs of depression.

He rejects everything she does or says. I’m so grateful that my friend knows the Lord as her Shepherd, her Rock, the Lover her soul, but she’s lonely in her marriage and wonders if God has said anything about this situation.

Bible-based marital advice is very clear about emotional or physical violence, but what about rejection and silence?

One-Sided Effort

What if one spouse won’t communicate? Not just for a day, but for months? It’s legitimate to call that “emotional neglect” or even “abandonment.” The opposite of neglect is “engagement,” which is active.

In the case of Jonathan towards David, proactive is an even better adjective. In 1 Samuel 19, David is hiding because Jonathan has warned him about Saul’s murderous intentions.

It’s obvious, a true friend would do such a thing, but Jonathan also initiates further communication, devising a plan so that he can get secret messages to David. “‘I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you. And if I learn anything I will tell you.’”

To soften Saul in the meantime, “Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father” (vv.2-4). He spoke up for his friend to promote his safety; he didn’t wait around for events to happen.

Marriage is a friendship — or should be — beyond anything else. Of course, friends help each other, but Jonathan acted intelligently and selflessly to rescue David and establish his safety going forward.

He was active. It didn’t work, but he tried. I think so often, one spouse lets everything happen around him or her and then deals with consequences instead of proactively promoting the well-being of the other and actively seeking ways to communicate through difficulty.

When things get tough, they give up. But the implication, in God’s model, is that the opposite — carelessness and reactivity — do not promote friendship or trust.

The Emotional Side of Tamar’s Abuse

Trust is exactly what a person loses, in others and in herself, when she (or he) doesn’t feel safe. One of the most terrible aspects of Tamar’s rape ordeal was Absalom’s response. He silenced her cry for justice and muted her deep need for comfort and safety: “Hold your peace, [...] do not take this to heart” (2 Samuel 13:20).

Absalom, and also her father David, denied her a chance for restoration of status and reputation as though pursuing justice was a burden, sending a message that she didn’t matter. Absalom didn’t weep with his sister or tell her “it’s not your fault.”

Their father didn’t make Amnon accountable. They turned their faces away, essentially. Tamar subsequently “lived, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house.”

Tamar might have recovered if these men had encouraged Tamar to remember her real identity — as a daughter of King David and of the King, beloved, cherished, her assurance of safety restored. They weren’t trustworthy or active on her behalf.

In a case of violent abuse, everyone can see the evidence: Cuts, bruises, sprains, blood, shock. They are less likely to recognize silent shame, deep-seated loneliness, fear, insecurity, and the desperate fight to hold onto a sense of worth in this world.

That’s why it’s so important for everyone in any emotional pain to know that their intrinsic worth comes from God, and that never changes.

He never turns his face away. “When they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God” (Leviticus 26:44).

Is Scripture Helpful?

Some grumpy behavior strikes onlookers as funny. My friend is not comfortable with her husband walking out of a room when she asks a question he doesn’t like or states an opinion that doesn’t suit him.

Another woman once compared his grumpiness to the amusing idiosyncrasies of her late father. I wonder what that guy’s wife thought about being at the other end of his amusing idiosyncrasies. This lady minimizes a bad attitude because what else is a wife and committed Christian supposed to do?

Paul says, “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11) but sometimes my friend is just tired of being ignored and dismissed; nameless and invisible.

There are several passages promoting submission from wives, but also gentleness from husbands. Meanwhile, Colossians 3:1 exhorts believers to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”

She tries to stay focused on Jesus, and on adjusting her own heart posture. “Soften my heart, Lord” is her prayer; “show me how to love him better.”

One counselor called it “death by a thousand cuts,” acknowledging her confusion. But most experts preach instead of helping her.

She wants so badly to respect the contract of marriage and she feels ashamed of even wondering sometimes “can I keep doing this?”

In Christ’s strength, she can do anything, whether or not it’s healthy is another matter. No one else has the right to judge. She is thankful, though, that numerous godly friends are there to uphold and love her.

Spiritual Fruit Is the Benchmark

Scripture often tells us what God doesn’t want by depicting what he does expect. Galatians 5 lays out the Fruit of the Spirit, which puts away pride and makes the other person more important. Both spouses win.

Love of this kind brings significant problems into the open so that, with objective help, a couple can address them effectively and grow closer. No person is ever getting 100% in the “Spiritual Fruit” test, but it’s a benchmark.

And it’s worth remembering that this kind of fruit is felt in the Spirit. Financial generosity is good, for example, but not a replacement for emotional generosity.

The key is mutuality: Each spouse (or friend, or co-worker) looking to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

God Cares about Us Emotionally

I’m convinced that God truly cares. He’s not clearly telling my friend to stick it out or to separate but assuring her of his presence. Remember how the woman with the twelve-year issue of blood was healed by Jesus?

That was the more obvious miracle, but our pastor pointed out how Jesus redeemed her identity and publicly restored her to a community. Her condition had made her ritually unclean all the time, isolating her.

Christ publicly affirmed and adopted her as “daughter” and everyone heard him do it. She belonged again; could be touched again; was able to share and laugh and contribute and have friends once more. There would be a place for her in society and also in his Kingdom.

Jesus showed that he heals both physical injury and emotional pain. He fixes us holistically because our emotions matter. They can be deceptive, but they are still real.

Jesus redeemed the woman with the twelve-year bleed into relationships, most importantly as a daughter of her Heavenly Father.

Relationships are not transactions. My friend yearns for a rewarding relationship in which she and her husband care for each other mutually and grow together. The shame of feeling unwanted gives way to this reality: Jesus calls her “daughter.”

He Is Always There

No one stayed up to pray with Jesus in the Garden, but as you pray in a lonely Gethsemane of your own, Jesus is interceding for you with the Father, proactively establishing a place of honor and safety for you, his bride.

Jonathan was a good example, but Jesus is the gold standard. My friend is fighting for her marriage, but also toiling against the lie that she is tainted or unwanted. Jesus, the bridegroom, says “you are beautiful, you are loved, and I will make you whole.”

For further reading:

How Can I Pray for My Husband?

How Can I Pray for My Wife?

Prayer for a Troubled Marriage

What Is the Biblical Definition of Marriage?

What Does it Mean to Be a Daughter of Christ?

How Can I Guard My Heart?

Can God Be the Love of My Life?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/DGLimages


Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.


Originally published February 23, 2021.