The first section of the book is to help the woman see her marriage clearly--is it in fact emotionally destructive? Vernick has a checklist of standard questions to ask. In her definition, "emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused." It is like psychological warfare involving not merely a single instance of sinful behavior, but rather "repetitive attitudes and behaviors that result in tearing someone down or inhibiting her growth. This behavior is usually accompanied by a lack of awareness, a lack of responsibility, and a lack of change." (pg. 11) The abuser is seeking to control his wife and exercise broad decision-making powers over her.
Vernick then discusses three essential ingredients in a healthy relationship--mutuality, reciprocity, and freedom--and five patterns that destroy a relationship and damage people--reactive abuse, controlling abuse, deceit, dependence, and indifference. In each of these areas, Vernick gives specific examples and uses lots of Scripture on which to base her statements.
Before a woman can know what steps she can take in her marriage, she needs to examine herself, seeing what sinful patterns may have developed especially in response to martial suffering and disappointment. Since our hearts are deceitful, Vernick says the woman needs the help of God's word as well as feedback from wise friends, not just relying on her feelings. Relying on the truth of scripture will help the abused woman see that her husband is not the final word on her personhood and worth. Her core value rests on God's love for her.
One really interesting point Vernick makes is that marriage can be an idol. When a woman becomes so absorbed in preserving her marriage, then she begins living by fear, not by faith, allowing sinful behavior in her husband to go unchallenged, which hurts not only the woman, but the husband too, since it prevents him from becoming the man God wants him to be. Vernick writes, "How can you tell whether or not your marriage has become and idol (too important)? The biggest red flag is when you fall into deep despair or panic when your husband fails to love you well. For example, what happens to you and in you when your husband disappoints you over and over again? when he doesn't treat you like you want him to? when he won't stay present and work things out during a conflict? when he lies or cheats on you or mistreats you? Any wife would feel disappointed, hurt, and angry. But if you find yourself becoming increasingly despairing, fearful, controlling, or resentful, it's time to pay attention. Those negative emotions are a good indicator that your desire for a good marriage has become too important." (pg. 87) The woman needs to center herself in God, with knowing and glorifying him being her primary purpose. Then she will have the strength to forgive--but also to set appropriate boundaries and consequences. She will be able to love without being enabling. She is trusting God for the outcome of her marriage.
The next chapter, chapter 6, is called "When Trying Harder Becomes Destructive". Most Christian women in difficult and abusive marriages are counseled to "try harder"--be more caring, submissive, respectful, encouraging, positive, attentive to their husbands' needs, and so on. But in emotionally destructive marriages, this kind of behavior does not bring about a reciprocal response in the husband. Instead, it "feeds the fantasy that the sole purpose of your life is to serve your husband, make him happy, and meet his every need. It feeds his belief of entitlement and his selfishness, and it solidifies his self-deception that it is indeed all about him. When destructive behaviors are a regular pattern in your marriage, understand this important truth: Your husband doesn't want a real wife who will reflect to him her pain when he hurts her or God's wisdom when she sees him making a foolish decision . . . Trying harder to become the fantasy wife is not helpful to your husband or your marriage. . . The more you collude with his idea that he's entitled to a fantasy wife, the more firmly entrenched this lie becomes. You will never measure up to his fantasy wife because you, too, are a sinner. You will fail him (as every partner does in a marriage) and won't always meet his needs (or wants). In addition, you are created by God as your own unique, separate person. Therefore you will have feelings of your own and won't always agree with everything he says or wants. Trying to be his fantasy wife not only hurts him, but it hurts you too. It diminishes the person God made you to be because your husband has now become your god. He dictates who you are to be and what you are to do. And when you bow to this god, you soon become ruled by fear, not God's love. Your spirit becomes deformed, and you will never grow to be the woman God created you to be." (pg. 91-93)
Vernick brings up the Hebrew word for helpmate, "ezer", which is a military word denoting a warrior. She concludes, "Your husband doesn't need you to indulge his fantasy or collude with his internal lie that says he is entitled to the perks of a good marriage while sowing the seeds of destruction and selfishness. What he needs most (for his welfare) is a real wife who is a godly woman. He needs a wife who will love him enough to tell the truth and to respectfully challenge his selfishness, his self-absorption, and his self-deception. That indeed is risky love and redemptive love, and it's difficult to do with the right heart and actions. It's the laying-down-your-life kind of love because you do not know how he will respond or what will happen to you or your marriage once you do it." (pg. 94)
The next thing for the woman to do is to strengthen her inner mental, spiritual, and emotional core. I love this quote from page 104: "Sacrificing yourself by allowing someone to sin against you to keep peace in your marriage is never a wise choice--not for you, not for your husband, not for your marriage. God calls us to be biblical peacemakers, not peacekeepers or peace fakers." Vernick goes on to list out and expand on four core strengths that are essential in building this inner health.
- Committed to truth and reality
- Open to growth, instruction, and feedback
- Responsible for myself and respectful toward others without dishonoring myself
- Empathic and compassionate toward others without enabling people to continue to abuse and disrespect me
The next chapter continues the discussion of "When There is No Obvious Change". Vernick presents a choice: either stay well (not remaining bitter, spiteful, resentful, and angry), again using Abigail to flesh out her points, or separate well, and Vernick gives some basic rules for separation. The last 2 chapters describe necessary changes for a marriage to heal, which were basically the same ones that Bancroft describes in Why Does He Do That?, and what restoring the destructive marriage looks like. Vernick is blunt to say that safety always comes first when restoring a destructive marriage, because there can't be any constructive conversation about any other marriage issue if one person isn't safe to tell the truth or disagree without fear of some kind of retaliation (even "just" emotional). She also has a huge list of lies that the husband specifically must refute to have a healthy marriage (many of which again were listed in the Bancroft book). As Bancroft did, Vernick says these lies must be confronted in individual counseling, not in couples counseling. Couples counseling will be ineffective and destructive in itself if the husband will not take responsibility for his own wrong thinking, beliefs, or attitudes, because everything will be blamed on the woman. "Sanity for your husband means that he must take the time to examine his unrealistic expectations of marriage and of women, and expose his underlying attitudes of entitlement. He must come to understand the truth. There is no perfect wife or marriage. He must come to value his wife as a separate person, not an object. She has her own thoughts, feelings, dreams, and needs. She can't and won't meet his every need or always revolve herself around his wants. He needs to recognize the lie he tells himself that he's entitled to the perks of married life no matter how he treats you. Or that he shouldn't have to experience negative consequences as a result of his behavior, or that forgiveness means automatic restoration with no consequences, no amends, or no work. Sanity means he must learn to take responsibility for his own thoughts and his own behaviors without blaming others. He must also learn to handle his emotions, such as disappointment, frustration, anger, and hurt, in new ways that don't damage people, things, or relationships. If he wants to have a good relationship with his wife, sanity means that he now understands he needs to take responsibility for his part and do the work to make that happen." (pg. 200)
Vernick says that if the couple has separated, then there needs to be concrete evidence showing that safety and sanity are in place before the couple begins living together again. Otherwise, the same patterns of abuse and destruction will just be repeated , so no new history can be built together. Vernick says that if a husband is committed to change, then he will work to build new history with his wife BEFORE the separation ends, instead of not respecting the wife's boundaries, thinking only of his needs, blame-shifting, and so on. She gives example conversations demonstrating no change, and also demonstrating small moments of stopping old habits and creating new ones, even if they are just baby steps. "Creating stability in the aftermath of a destructive marriage is about rebuilding shattered trust. We want to see evidence of 'Do you hear me? Can you respect me? Do you follow through on your promises? Do you care about how I feel? Can you take responsibility for yourself when you mess up? Can I count on you to control your temper? Can I trust you to tell me the truth? Can I trust you to tell yourself the truth? Will you be accountable?'" (pg. 204)
Vernick offers a huge challenge to the woman as she considers making new history with her husband. "Your anger is valid, but be cautious. Feel it and use it wisely to help yourself get strong and protect yourself and your children. Use it to speak up for yourself and stand up to injustice, abuse, and misuse of power and privilege. But don't let it deceive you into thinking that you have no work to do if you want your marriage restored. Someone once said it takes two to make a marriage, but only one to destroy it. Sometimes when I see a husband get to the stage of being capable and willing to rebuild his marriage, his wife is unwilling. She's exhausted and has lost her compassion. She's allowed her anger to harden into resentment and believes it's now his responsibility to fix everything if their marriage is going to be healed. But that's not true. Just like it wasn't possible for you to fix everything when his heart was hard and he was unwilling, it's not possible for him to fix everything either. Each of you must ask God to open your eyes to see what's going on in your own heart and habits. Ask God to give you humility and wisdom so that he can take a marriage that was ugly and broken and create something beautiful for you, for your husband, children, and grandchildren, and ultimately, for his glory." (pg. 205)
Vernick closes the book with this: "It's clear from Scripture that God is on the side of the oppressed. He cares for the victim and the helpless and calls his church to do likewise. Don't be afraid to let the people of God into your messy marriage. They are called by God to model a loving family to those who never had such an example, as well as model justice and protection when one of its members is destructive and unrepentant, Just like you, they aren't perfect, but together we can work to bring hope and healing to hurting people and shattered families." (pg. 209)
I felt like this book offered a lot of practical, Biblical suggestions for women in destructive marriages. It gave realistic hope, but it also did not sugarcoat the unpleasant truth that change is difficult and may never happen. I think a woman who reads this books and put into practice the advice here will be a stronger, more confidant woman of God, even if her circumstances remain difficult.