When the Thing that Protects You Becomes Your Prison

Some relationships can become so painful that you must retreat while implementing self-protective measures to keep from being hurt again. The unintended consequence is that the strategies for protection can imprison you, which is what happened to Mable.

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Mable is married to an angry man. The dream she dreamed during their dating season has turned into a decade long nightmare. Biff is nothing like what he presented himself to be. And Mable is not sure if he was ever a good guy.

It was so long ago, and he has hurt her so often, that his anger regularly displaces the good she tries to hold onto when thinking about their marriage. At her wit’s end and disconnected from her local church, Mable made the gut-wrenching decision to take her three kids and move in with her parents.

Biff was devastated!

From every perspective, Biff seemed like a distant, cold, and uncaring man. Most of their friends assumed he would continue drinking, flirting, and life would move on for him. He did the exact opposite. He fell apart.

When Biff came to counseling, he appeared to be your average broken, crying man who wanted his wife back. When Mable later came with him, the real truth came out.

Caught In a Trap

Biff wept and pleaded for Mable to come back home with him. She scowled at him in contempt and disgust. She had no intention of coming back with him.

I’m sure that some of you who are reading this are thinking that Biff was not sincere and that he had not fully repented. I’d also imagine that you think he was more about himself rather than his wife. And you’re probably right.

But let’s suppose just for this article that Biff had a genuine encounter with God, and the Lord has miraculously changed his heart. Let’s assume that he is genuinely humble and has come completely clean about his life and wants God to restore him first, and then he makes things right with his wife and children.

Let’s further suppose that Mable is not willing to get a divorce and by her being in counseling with him is an indication that there is a fraction of hope in her soul. But she has a hard time believing that Biff is genuine. The hurt was too deep, and the fear of him went on for too long.

Mable is in a trap, and she cannot get out of it. She does not want to leave the marriage, but she does not want to stay in it either. She is choosing to wait it out for the children. Her thought is that having a dad for the kids, even an angry one like Biff, is better than no dad at all.

The Abused Cynic

The counselor drew a picture for Mable. It is in four quadrants, that reads from the top left to the top right and from the bottom left to the bottom right.

Top Left – During the dating relationship, Mable was foot-loose and fancy-free. All things were going her way as she was having fun and in love. She and Biff were happy, hoping, and planning for a beautiful life together.

Top Right – Shortly after their marriage, the real Biff began to manifest. Fear replaced the fun in their relationship. Mable had the uneasy feeling that she was not free any longer. Biff’s anger, abuse, neglect, blame, bouts with porn, and long hours at work were like flaming arrows into her soul.

In the beginning, the arrows were not as consistent, but as time went on, they came with more force and regularity. Each shaft had a stinging effect on her. Initially, she was confused and in disbelief.

Bottom Left – In time, after many disappointments and a growing fear of Biff, Mable began to take action. She did what any person would do when “incoming arrows” were piercing her life: she protected herself.

Mable became more guarded and distant around Biff. Rather than being vulnerable, spontaneous, and hopeful, she began to batten down the hatches. Though she did not intend to do this, it was a form of “emotional incarceration.”

Because Biff was so preoccupied with his self-centeredness, he never knew how he was demotivating his wife. He never figured it out until she left. And sadly, Mable did not realize what she had done to her soul. The actions she took to save herself from the pain in her marriage imprisoned her.

The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secured your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed. – Frederick Buechner

She became a prisoner of her own devices and never saw it coming. Today, she lives in the weird dual world of the abused cynic:

  • Her husband has legitimately abused her.
  • She has become a cynic, as a measure to protect herself from being hurt again.

Her struggle is complex: on the outside are relentless arrows from a mean man. On the inside, she has become a shell of what she used to be.

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Storyboard of Marriage 

A Sinful Way of Protection

Cynicism is distant criticism. The cynic is never intimate, but always observing from a distance. The cynic offers their observations about a matter but does not engage what they are critiquing. The reason the cynic cannot see the issue is because of a fear of being hurt again.

Her critique gives the appearance that she not only knows what is going on in her marriage but is involved in what is happening. It is merely an appearance. All she is doing is critiquing, but never involving herself. Mable is choosing the best of two horrible options:

  • Let Biff hurt her.
  • Live the bitter life of a cynic.

She chooses cynicism. Neither of these options is an exercise of faith in God. These are exercises of self-reliance in Mable. Mable is the one who is deciding how to respond to the sin in her world.

A Divine Rescue

Bottom Right – Regardless of whether the arrows ever cease from her life, Mable needs rescuing from her self-imposed incarceration. Initially, she trusted in Biff, but he failed her. Next, she believed in her strategies to protect herself, but that has fallen short too. Now it is time to trust God.

Right now Biff controls her, and God does not. What Biff may do to her far outweighs her willingness to trust God to pull her out of her prison. She is choosing her self-imposed “penalty box” over the freedom found in the gospel.

Careful biblical counseling will help Mable to put her trust in God entirely. She needs to be controlled by God rather than the sinful actions of her husband or her fear-based measures to protect herself. God provides incredible grace that can sustain any person through any trial.

Our goal in life must not be to remove the disappointment of our lives. If we try this, we all will become incarcerated cynics, trapped by our hopes for peace. Our goal must be to trust God even when life hurts and does not make sense.

Call to Action

If you’re in a situation like Mable’s, please find help. If you can’t find it in your church, you’re welcome to reach out to us. We would love to serve you. In the meantime, you can read the articles in this one, and read all our work on abuse.

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