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Why the Term Emotional Abuse Is Unhelpful and Misleading

Why the Term Emotional Abuse Is Unhelpful and Misleading

Emotional abuse is real and painful. If ongoing, it can have a detrimental effect on your body and soul. Understanding emotional trauma biblically is vital, which is why the term “emotional abuse” is misleading, unhelpful, and sub-biblical. The Bible has a better way of thinking about what is happening.

Theological Precision

Mable lives with a mean man. His name is Biff. At times, he will curse her for no reason at all. Other times, he will lock her out of the house. A typical day is Biff coming home drunk and threatening her. Mable lives in fear. She’s afraid to leave, and she’s afraid to stay. During counseling, she asked what I thought about “emotional abuse” and if what she was feeling was legitimate. The second part of her question was easy to answer. Yes, it is legitimate! Absolutely! It is real, painful, and sinful. Her husband is abusing her. It’s objective and not arguable.

Mable needs help because her husband is a mean man. Identifying “emotional abuse” is the uncomplicated part. Still, the more challenging aspect is precisely understanding what it is from a biblical perspective, which is why I’m addressing the term “emotional abuse” in this article. Mable needs more clarity and theological precision about the term, which will help her combat what is happening in her marriage.

The term emotional abuse is not the best way to describe what is going on with them. Though what is happening is confirmed, the way she is thinking about it needs more biblical scrutiny. The actions of an emotional abuser and the effects on the abused cannot be understood or resolved if our primary descriptor of the problem is incorrect. The solution for our problem begins by going through the right door. Emotional abuse is not the right door if you want to solve this real, painful, and agonizing problem, like what I have described with Biff and Mable.

Naming Rights

Presuppositional apologetics is the theological discipline that teaches how our starting point determines our ending point. If you begin thinking about a problem wrongly, it is impossible to come to an accurate conclusion. For the Christian, our presupposition for all things must be biblio-centric. Though at times, Christians can come across as the “word police” or nitpicky, we must understand psychology, which is the “study of the soul.”

Nobody can do that better than the biblio-centric Christian because God created the soul (Genesis 2:7), and then He gave us the Word concerning the soul (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12-13). When I was in grade school, my teachers told me about skeletons, monkeys, and men. They went on to show me a pictorial of short monkeys that grew to be taller monkeys. As these monkeys grew taller in time, they began to take on features different from their shorter predecessors.

In the beginning, they had full-blown hairy bodies. As they evolved, their bodies had less hair.  At the end of this long line of monkeys, there was a man. They called this process of change evolution. But when I went to Sunday school, I was told that the man at the end of the line came from a different place. They called it creationism. There were two groups of individuals vying for the right to name what they were observing. We now know that those two names represent antithetical, competing, and sometimes hostile worldviews.

The “S” Word

The creationist sees a man and a monkey walking and calls it God’s creative wisdom, and the Christian gives glory to God. An evolutionist looks at the same monkey and man and says that one evolved from the other somehow, and he worships the creature instead of the Lord (Romans 1:25). The secularist and the Christian observe the devastating effects of what most people call emotional abuse and, for the most part, agree on what they are seeing. The secularist coined the expression emotional abuse to hope that by naming it, they will have a leg-up on how to think about and respond to it.

Suppose the Christian allows the term emotional abuse to stand without challenge. In that case, it is but a short step to follow the world’s solutions, which rarely includes reconciliation, restoration, repentance, or redemption. Emotional abuse is a misdirection term in that it leads you to the wrong place in your search for answers. What we need is a better descriptor for what is happening to Mable. The most fundamental term for what has been called emotional abuse is a sin.

Biff is sinning against his wife. I realize the “s” word does not sound as sophisticated to our psychologized ears (Jeremiah 2:13), but it is a much better starting point to think about what is going on in Biff and Mable’s home. The term “sin” wrestles the argument away from the psychobabble lexicon that is put forth by our anti-Christian world so they can be in charge of the problem. This proper term—sin—also gives us a biblical framework to understand what is going on while allowing us to bring God-centered care to those in the middle of such dysfunctional marriages.

You Have Normal Emotions

Still, sin is an extensive, broad, and general category encompassing all kinds of evil behavior, including abuse. Sin is a “basket word” that collects all wrong actions. That little word is too big and too wide if you want to understand the specifics of emotional abuse. To understand emotional abuse correctly, you have to unpack the specific sins associated with the actions that Biff is doing and the effects of his behaviors on Mable.

A fundamental key for Mable is to understand that Biff is not abusing her emotions; they are healthy and in good working order. Her feelings are functioning according to God’s design, and because they are, she can accurately discern what is happening to her. Normal functioning emotions are emotions that are consistent with the thinking of a person who is emoting. Mable’s feelings are the by-product of her thoughts. Mable is a normal person.

Her emotions send signals to her mind, letting her know that her experience is real and she must cry for help. Biff is not abusing her feelings, but he is abusing Mable, and the primary target is her mind that is under attack. For example, when Biff is yelling at her, Mable’s mind (thoughts) is telling her to fear. To know to respond in fear is a mercy from the Lord. An “emotive fear response” is precisely what should be coming out of her when she is in a situation like this.

The Battle Over Naming Our Problems

Emotions Provide Clues

Mable is afraid of her husband; she is scared of what he may do next, and her emotions respond correctly to her logical and accurate thinking. It’s the person who does not know how to emote fear when fear is the right emotion that is in trouble. Let’s suppose that I am happy. If I am glad, I will be emoting some form of happiness, e.g., smiling, laughing, gratitude.

My emotions are not experiencing abuse, but they are a sign or clue telling you what is going on inside of my mind (Luke 6:45). In Mable’s case, what needs addressing are not her emotions but a biblical way to think about what her feelings are signaling and doing to her mind. Her feelings are putting off an infallible sign that there is something wrong. If her friends have this kind of discernment, they will mobilize to help her in at least two areas.

  • Help Mable to persevere in a horrible marriage
  • Confront Biff for what he is doing to Mable

The Cause

After you re-categorize the problem with biblical typology (sin), you will gain a more accurate understanding of what is going on in the home. For example, here is a standard “progression to dysfunction” in Mable’s house.

  1. Biff approaches Mable with the intent to be mean to her.
  2. Biff says something unkind or uses the silent treatment or another manipulative sin (Ephesians 4:29).
  3. Mable thinks about what he did (Philippians 4:8).
  4. Biff does not own his sin; he does not repent.
  5. Mable continues to rehearse his meanness in her mind (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
  6. Biff continues his sinning ways.
  7. Mable spirals into fear as she continues to think about and experiences his sin.
  8. Biff persists in his pattern of sinning for weeks, months, and years.
  9. Mable becomes despondent and loses God-centered hope.

The Cure

To help Mable will require a mammoth effort from the body of Christ. There will be some things that she can take control of, but there are other things that need the community of God and a biblical response from Biff.

  1. Somebody must confront Biff for his sinful behavior toward her.
  2. The church must remain alongside Mable to help her stay close to God.
  3. She needs assurances of God’s sovereignty and how she can respond to Him through suffering.
  4. A competent Christian should show her how to keep in step with the Spirit.
  5. She needs help and motivation for a consistent prayer life.
  6. A close friend needs to encourage her daily with God’s Word.

While the body of Christ is coming alongside Mable to care for her, they must be mobilizing as they cooperate with God to bring Biff to repentance (Matthew 18:15-17). As you can see, most of the action items have to do with Mable because she is the one seeking help. You can only help those who want it. Biff is not looking to change, making it imperative to fortify Mable while mobilizing the community to confront Biff.

This perspective on their problems does not center the help within an “emotion framework,” but on clear and objective things that are going on in their marriage. Whether her emotions cause her to feel bad or feel right, they are not the primary thing that needs addressing. Her emotions are perfect, though they serve a vital role: to inform her and the church that she needs their care, and Biff needs confrontation and correction.

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A Personal Testimony

Several years ago, I was in a relationship with a mentor. I rank this experience as one of the top three worst experiences of my life. If the mental health community were assessing the situation, they would fit my trouble within its paradigm of emotional abuse. They would further tease out their solutions and conclusions from that starting point. They would not teach me how to understand my thinking, how to confront (and possibly reconcile with) a mean individual, how to persevere with God in suffering, or how to make His name great in a horrible situation.

What I learned through this experience is that my emotions were working fine. They signaled that my thinking understood the problem well: this man had sinful power over me. This individual was a verbally abusing person who found pleasure in manipulating and hurting people. My typical responses to him varied from (1) appropriating God’s grace to an unchangeable situation to (2) sinning profoundly.

Some days I was okay, and other days I could not take it any longer. It was emotionally gut-wrenching. Mable is in a similar situation. On some days, she can respond in God-glorifying ways to Biff’s meanness, and on other days she is at her wit’s end, as she does not know what to do. Her emotions aren’t experiencing abuse, but her mind is, and it’s harming her soul.

Sanctify Them with Truth

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth (John 17:17).

Many people like Mable are married to spouses who have no desire to love them well. Mable does not have grounds for divorce now, which only exacerbates the frustration of living with Biff. Her abuse is one of the primary reasons I have committed my life to help people in these relationships. I do not take what is happening to Mable lightly because I can sympathize with her. The best thing that could happen to her is to have a courageous, stout, and compassionate friend who would be willing to come alongside her for the long haul.

Her husband is hurting her. He is a mean-spirited man who needs the redemptive force of Christ in his life. Mable must guard her mind against many things, i.e., not to confuse biblical submission (Ephesians 5:22-24) with being a neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Her husband needs help, and she needs a better man leading her. She should not be silent about what is happening to her. A trap has caught Biff, and he needs individuals sounding the alarms. If possible, Mable needs to be one of those people.

This trap is of Biff’s own making (Galatians 6:1). Mable can love him well if she chooses to bring others into their marriage problems. This response from her can be dicey, especially if the church is inept at helping victims like Mable. If you are in a marriage that looks like Mable’s, I appeal to you to reach out for help. Let us serve you. Do not be silent. If your emotions tell you that things are not right in your marriage, listen to what they are signaling to your mind, and learn how to keep your thoughts from captivating you.

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