This week I met with a female client whose husband is incredibly self-focused and verbally abusive to her and their two sons.
I have been listening to her struggle with her anger and frustration with her husband for months now. At first, she wanted to know what she was doing wrong, thinking that she was the problem. Then she began to wonder if she was perceiving him and his behavior incorrectly, or if she was judging him too harshly. She repeatedly blamed herself for her inability to stop her husband’s behavior from impacting her sons, swearing that if she didn’t become upset when her husband was being verbally abusive she would somehow be able to stop him from verbally abusing their boys. Then she started asking if there were techniques to help her ‘deal’ with his constant anger and demeaning words.
Lately, though, she has been asking me if he is doing this on purpose or if this is simply how God made him. She calls her husband a narcissist (and I agree with her) and she wants to know if his narcissism is a choice that he is making or if he can’t live any other way—in other words, was he born like this and if so, does this mean that it’s not his fault that he behaves poorly?
That is a difficult question to answer.
You might wonder how we even know for sure that he is a narcissist. Well, his behavior speaks volumes, but it always helps to rely on greater knowledge. The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (version 5) helps me in my practice quite a bit, and it provides a list of diagnostic criteria. Mayo Clinic provides a simplified version for the public here.
While all that is very useful knowledge, diagnosing my client’s husband won’t change anything for my client. Also, because he’s not the one seeking counseling, any conjecturing we might do about what causes his behavior is only that: conjecture. It neither gives us a path to helping the situation nor does it give my client any real tactics for dealing with her abusive, self-focused husband.
So back to the question at hand: what if he can’t help it? What if this is just how God made him? Isn’t it wrong to be angry at him for things he has no control over?
I have a couple of thoughts on that.
First, I don’t know that I believe that God created a narcissist. I can, however, accept that the perfect spirit that God created happens to exist inside a fleshy body that developed incorrectly, growing a brain that lacks empathy and expects total obedience to every demand and whim. Lots of us live with bodies that don’t quite function correctly. Lots of us suffer with brain injuries after strokes or with dementia or with mental illness…and I don’t believe that God enjoys watching us struggle with our broken flesh. I also don’t believe that God creates broken flesh. I do, however, believe that God created a perfect spirit to reside in that flesh, and that God forgives us for the failings that our broken flesh causes. And yes…that means that God forgives this man for being abusive, even though God didn’t create him to an abusive husband and father.
Having said all that, I offered my client an allegory:
What if her husband was born with a right arm that suddenly would strike out and punch? What if her husband had no control over the violence that his right arm would suddenly commit? Imagine him, sitting there in a movie theater, enjoying the show when he suddenly his right arm threw a punch, striking the man next to him in the face. “Oh, I’m so sorry sir! I didn’t mean to punch you like that. It’s just that my arm…I can’t control it. It just does that. I’ve been like that since birth. I’m so sorry.” A few moments later, his right arm strikes out again, punching the gentleman next to him a second time. And then a third punch. And a fourth.
How long do you think this could go on before my client’s husband would be forced to leave the movie theater? How long before someone said “If you can’t control your arm, then at least be responsible enough to sit where you can’t punch anyone!”
In other words, if you are an adult** you are responsible for the impact of your behaviors on others even when you “can’t control yourself.” Just because you “can’t control yourself” doesn’t mean that you are unaware of the impact of your behavior on others. You do not have the right to expect others to ignore the impact of your behavior on them simply because you can’t help yourself. You do not have the right to expect accommodation at the expense of the well-being of others. You do not have the right to expect a consequence free life because of your twisted flesh.
Not sure about that? Ask yourself…do you think that God leaned in to his sons when they were born and said “I made your Daddy in such a way that he’ll always be abusive and hateful. Too bad for you! He can’t help it so you just have to deal with it! It’s not his fault, so it’s your burden FOREVER!”
I don’t believe God is like that. I believe that God forgives us for the failures of our flesh, but I also believe that God desires for us to realize our responsibility to protect and respect others.
The saddest part?
My client looked at me and said “I know this is sick and wrong, but I wish that he’d hit me. Then I’d have no excuse to stay. I could leave him.”
My heart breaks.
All I can do is pray that she hears God whispering “Leave him. Don’t worry…I’ll take care of him. Please…for your sake, for the sake of your boys…leave him before he destroys you.”
Pray with me, please. There are way too many women and men staying in abusive relationships, worried that God will somehow judge them for leaving a relationship where the bruises aren’t physical and obvious.
As a woman who believes in a Christ who suffered a great deal before he died, trust me…words bruise and inflict wounds far greater than you can imagine. That’s why the Romans, who had already beaten Jesus bloody and were about to execute him, hung the words “King of the Jews” above his cross. They knew that whips and torture weren’t enough…they needed words to finish the destruction.
Through God’s grace alone, those who sought to kill Jesus won the battle but lost the war. Let us pray that all those who seek to destroy with words lose in the long run…and please God, sooner rather than later.
From my words to God’s ears!
** Adult in terms of mental development as well as chronological age. One of my colleagues has a son who is in his 30s and has the mental development of a 4 year-old child. In my opinion, his disability makes it so that he should never have to be fully responsible for the impact of his behaviors on others.