When working with husbands who have been abusive, you will find that most all of them have a stubborn blindness to what they are doing that is destructive to their wife. Their habit patterns are to blame and to accuse rather than take the time to reflect upon their own attitudes and behaviors. When they are asked the question, “Why did you behave that way?” their answer is always externally referenced rather than internally referenced.
Twisted logic in a fallen world
For example, an abusive husband may say, “My wife isn’t supportive, the kids are overwhelming, my job doesn’t pay enough, the traffic moves too slow. That’s why I act the way I do.” The problem is never in him. He won’t admit that he doesn’t know how to handle life’s problems, stressors, or frustrations in a godly way. Therefore in his mind, the only solution is that the other person must stop doing things that make him mad. Then everything would be fine, and he wouldn’t act that way.
There’s a smidgen of truth in his logic, but you must not get caught in it. Yes, it would be easier to be loving, patient, and gracious if his spouse, kids, employers, employees, and everyone else did exactly what he wanted at all times, but that is not living in truth or reality. It’s fantasy thinking.
We live in a broken-down world. We live with sinful people who do not always cooperate with our agendas. We live with people who have their own feelings, dreams, and desires that may be the opposite of our own. We don’t always get our way, nor should we. But for a man who believes that he should because he is the head of his home (meaning he is the “king of his castle” and that those around him should always bow to his needs, his feelings, and his agenda), this belief becomes destructive to those around him.
A misdirected strategy in a lot of counseling
Sometimes when seeing a couple together, pastors and other counselors recognize areas where a wife could make some changes so that her husband would not get so frustrated. They often turn to her to help her figure out ways not to push his buttons.
This is the wrong approach. This strategy only feeds his delusion that his wife is the cause of his problem. It also puts the onus on her to somehow manage his mood and his behaviors. In addition to feeding his delusion, we also give her false hope that, “If only I do it right and try harder, then he will treat me in the right way.”
But it never works. As soon as she fixes one thing, he will find ten other things to complain about. She can never be a perfect wife, so he continues to have excuses to act out destructively toward her.
A destructive person has a prideful heart. He is always right. He is entitled to perfect treatment at all times. We know he isn’t open to feedback or correction because if he were, then he wouldn’t be in this place to begin with. Instead he would have learned from his mistakes and from the feedback of his spouse about how his behaviors have harmed her and their marriage. There would not be this repetitive pattern of destructive behaviors that has permeated their relationship.
Self-awareness comes before real change
Therefore, the first counseling goal becomes safety for her and greater self-awareness for him. Before someone can genuinely change or repent, he needs to see that he has a need, and that is only possible if he begins to humble himself and realize that perhaps the problem isn’t always outside of him, but rather, inside of him.
Instead of trying to fix outside circumstances so he won’t feel angry, it is crucial that you focus on helping him take responsibility for his own feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, regardless of what’s happening outside of him. Journaling is an important tool for a person to become more self-aware and self-reflective so that, in time, he becomes capable of being self-corrective when his behaviors or attitudes are destructive.
Journaling can foster self-awareness
Here is an example of some journal questions to assign your counselee to answer each night as he learns to reflect upon his day and how he handled himself.
- How did my body feel today?
Did I feel tense? Relaxed? Stressed? Tired? Irritable? Hungry? Anxious? What are my body’s signals that I am getting worked up? Headache? Irritable bowel? Pain in my neck? Clenched fists?
Is he able to put into words the sensations he is having in his body? If not, take note of that. You will need to help him learn how to understand his body’s internal warning system as well as how to express his feelings in a constructive way.
- How did I treat people today?
How did I treat my spouse, children, or those closest to me today? Was I respectful? Detached? Engaged? Loving? Deceitful? Abusive? Rude? Manipulative? Sarcastic? Shaming? If I treated someone sinfully, did I take responsibility or blame-shift? Did I apologize? Make amends? If not, why not?
Structuring reflective questions helps ferret out the lies he believes and the lies he tells himself, which become grist for the counseling session instead of focusing on how bad he has it.
Were my actions today in line with the person I say I want to be?
It’s crucial that you ask him what kind of husband and father (person) he wants to be. For example, if he says he wants to be a loving husband or a godly man, does he behave that way? If he indicates he wants to be a man of integrity, was he honest today? If he wants to be a man with a pure heart, was he lustful today? If he wants to learn to be a good listener, did he listen well? If he wants to be a good steward of his body, did he stick to his diet? Or did he drink too much alcohol? Did he do other things with his body that he doesn’t want people to know?
It’s important that he learns to live from the person he is and wants to be rather than reacting from his strong emotions or negative thoughts. This takes time and practice to learn not to allow strong emotions or negative thoughts to have the upper hand. Destructive people need a lot of help in learning how to do that.
Remind him that it’s not a bad thing to ask for help and support. For example, if he wanted to learn how to golf better or wanted to run a marathon, he’d give himself time to learn. He’d practice, and if he got stuck and it was important to him, he’d seek help from a coach or a person who knows how to help him get where he wants to go. If he wants to change, it’s important that he invest in his growth and marriage in the same way.
- In what ways did I show my wife or children that they are important to me and I care about them today?
Even if he is currently separated from his wife, he can answer this question. Did he help her with the children? Pay the bills on time? Be generous with finances? Call or text her from work to let her know he was thinking about her? Stop and pick up something at the grocery store without complaining? Give her a hug or kiss with no expectations for sex later? Bring home flowers?
Asking himself these four questions and answering them on a daily basis will help him (and you) start to notice unhealthy patterns and ways he is triggered to react in negative ways. Writing his thoughts and feelings out helps him find words to express what’s going on inside, and it helps him (and you as his pastor) see where his thinking may be unrealistic, entitled, and self-centered.
Learning to examine himself and reflect upon his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors keeps him mindful that he is not all better yet and that things are not fine just because his wife is acting nice again. It helps him see that he still has a long way to go if he wants his marriage to truly heal.
Remind him that it’s good to see where he still falls short so he doesn’t think he has it all together, stops growing, and reverts back to his old ways. Remind him that the Holy Spirit is here to help him, but he has to slow down, to reflect and listen to what the Spirit is trying to teach him. Help him rely on God’s grace when he falls short. This is the precursor for him to learn to be compassionate toward others when they, too, fall short.
And, if he refuses to do this important work, he needs to understand that there is no hope he will change or stop his destructive behaviors despite his words to the contrary.
This article Four Questions that Help Destructive Clients Self Examine and Self-Reflect first appeared on christiancounseling.com, April 12, 2016. Adapted for CareLeader.org with permission by author.