How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong
The Emotionally Destructive Relationship
by Leslie Vernick
At our MPC schools, we work on removing the barrier of unforgiveness so that we can grow in wholeness in Christ. In the teaching on forgiving others, we deal with “petty offenses” and the contempt that can poison close relationships when we fail to forgive. We also recognize forgiveness and reconciliation as related but distinct processes. These teachings may be most relevant to the challenges that many Christians face in their marriages. When I teach, I draw heavily on the work of Leslie Vernick and am profoundly grateful for her prophetic voice calling the Church to wisely support those who feel stuck in damaging marital dynamics. I enthusiastically recommend her books, and as you read you’ll hear familiar themes and principles – Vernick credits Leanne Payne’s writings as key influences in her own healing journey.
In How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong, Vernick takes us beyond both pride and counterfeit forgiveness and into the territory of union with Christ. How to Act Right invites readers to come out of the prison house of hard-heartedness towards one’s spouse and into the fruitfulness of Christ’s ways of loving. As Vernick describes in the introduction, “You will learn how God uses the imperfections, differences, and sins of your spouse to help you grow to be more like Christ. This book will help you learn how to love and to keep your promises when it is hard. And probably most important, this book will show you why this is good for you to learn” (2). The book is full of practical wisdom that is Christ-centered and spiritually grounded and I believe it’s a good read for every married person, not just those who would describe their marriage as challenging. One of my favorite sections is when she highlights the blessings of spiritual maturity and growth that come through “acting right” in marriage. I hear the virtue of hope being highlighted as she describes the rewards of looking to our own transformation rather than a preoccupation with changing our spouse: “If we can focus on birthing the character of Christ in us, then we can labor with joy, even in the midst of hardship. We can know that this sanctification process shall birth the lovely image of Christ in us” (p. 190).
In The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, Vernick tackles the too-seldom-acknowledged reality of emotionally abusive marriages. As we know, it is possible to be a Christian and yet remain psychologically immature, even diseased, and there are many believers who are yoked with such a spouse. As I said earlier, I find Vernick’s voice to be that of a prophet, speaking for those vulnerable ones who are being abused in ways that leave no visible bruise. Her book empowers readers in three key steps. The first key is discernment and she teaches how to identify destructive relationships and validate the harm they cause. She offers a biblical model for the heart-attitudes that lead to destructive relationships. The second section empowers readers to initiate a change process, including how to confront and discern appropriate boundaries. The third section is all about finding the healing made available in God’s love, rebuilding one’s true identity after the battering of abuse, and resuming the process of becoming in Christ. I’ll quote one of my favorite passages, one I’ve often shared when counseling those in destructive relationships: “Allowing someone to sin against us without protest or consequence isn’t biblical love, it’s foolishness. It is never in anyone’s long-term best interest to allow them to keep on sinning.” (p. 174) These are important words of truth and empowerment that call us out of a distorted picture of forgiveness and into our full stature as Christ’s own.
by Sarah Colyn