Women of faith are often caught in the painful trap of navigating faulty but deeply internalized toxic beliefs about relationships, betrayal, and their own worth – while trying to set boundaries and seek safety from abusive, unfaithful men.
Leslie Vernick joins Anne on the free BTR podcast to take a deep dive into Biblical truths about abuse, boundary-setting, and betrayal. Leslie’s personal and professional background and her powerful Christian testimony are a guiding light to women of faith seeking truth and solace from the devastation of betrayal and abuse. Read the full transcript below and listen to the free BTR podcast for more.
What Does God Say About Verbal Abuse?
The Bible is really clear about certain kinds of abuse. Obviously, you know, if you’re being degrading and verbally abusive, sometimes some pastors would say, “Well, that’s nowhere in the Bible,” but that’s not true. It’s in Colossians and Ephesians, for example. Paul talks about abusive speech. Let no abusive speech come out of your mouth. James talks about abusive speech, it talks about reckless words pierce like a sword in Proverbs. It talks about the damage of a relational betrayal in Psalms. The Psalmist for example in Psalm 69 says, “Your insults have broken my heart and I am distraught.”Leslie Vernick
Abusive men condition victims to “scale” abuse. Women may begin to believe that forms of abuse that do not include physical battering are somehow less egregious than other, more covert forms. Abusers condition victims to conform to this belief when they say things like:
- At least I don’t hit you.
- Come on, it wasn’t that serious.
- You’re overreacting.
- I’m so much better than I used to be.
- I never raise my voice.
- You’re just as bad as me.
- You yell more than I do.
- I’ve never seriously hurt you.
- It could be a lot worse.
- I know plenty of guys who are way worse than me.
- Lots of women would be grateful to be with me.
- Everyone argues.
- This is what married people do.
But from a Biblical perspective, it’s clear. Verbal abuse is a serious offense – just as serious as physical battering.
What Does God Say About Safety?
At BTR, we believe that every woman deserves a foundation of safety in her life. Biblically, Leslie Vernick explains that this is God’s plan as well.
The Bible actually talks about the importance of safety especially in a marriage relationship. The verse in Proverbs 31 where it talks about the Proverbs 31 woman, for example. It says her husband trusts her to do him good not harm, all the days of his life. That is safety. That’s the rock bottom foundation of any relationship. You can’t be in a relationship with somebody, even if you really love them, if you don’t feel safe with that person. And so safety is an important quality to God in relationships and he’s created our bodies to react in a negative way if we’re unsafe so that we go to safety.Leslie Vernick
How do our bodies “react in a negative way” when we feel unsafe?
Every woman is different, but traumatic responses can include:
- Sleep disturbances/disorders
- Chronic illness and infection
- Chronic pain
Choosing to prioritize your safety above all else is the greatest act of self-care and the wisest and most profound legacy you can leave for your children.
What Does God Say About Divorce?
Many victims wrestle with the concept of divorce. Leslie helps clear it up from a Biblical perspective:
When we think about Malachi where it says, “I hate divorce,” really what it says is, “I hate certain kinds of divorce.” I hate when a man trades his wife in for a younger model, I hate when you treat your wife treacherously. God hates certain ways that marriage is done, especially in that patriarchal culture of those days, but I think God is very aware that you can’t make a relationship work with everybody. Even Jesus, who was perfect, couldn’t make his relationship with Judas work. Judas went and did what he wanted to do.Leslie Vernick
Women of faith may struggle with the idea of divorce because they are worried that God does not approve of divorce. However, it is important to remember that your safety is God’s priority and if your partner has chosen to harm you, he has already broken the marriage covenant. God values your healthy and safety and peace. You deserve to be surrounded by people who love and respect you. No one feels this more strongly than God.
BTR Is Here For You
The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is here to help you as you wrestle with difficult concepts whether they relate to your faith or not. Join BTRG and find a supporting, accepting, and loving group of women who will validate you as you begin your journey to healing today.
Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
Before we get to today’s episode, BTRG is our daily online support group. We have 21+ sessions per week for you to choose from. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home. We are here for you.
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Here’s a five-star review we received: I stumbled across BTR in the chaos and fog after discovery. I was hesitant at first, unsure online support was for me. When I finally booked a session with Coach Joi, it was life-changing. In one session she gave me resources and helped put words to what I had been experiencing. Abuse. I later met with Coach Deborah once I knew I was preparing for divorce, she helped me make sense of the financials and legal jargon. Anne’s podcasts and BTR posts have kept me going, keeping me grounded in reality.
Leslie Vernick on the BTR Podcast
I am so excited and honored to have Leslie Vernick on today’s episode. She is incredible and we appreciate all the work she does. Leslie Vernick was a licensed clinical social worker in private practice for over 35 years counseling individuals and couples in destructive and abusive relationships. She is the author of seven books and is currently a national speaker, blogger, and relationship coach. You can find out more about her at leslievernick.com, welcome Leslie.
Leslie: Thanks, Anne, for having me. I’m so excited to be a part of your podcast today.
Anne: Listeners to this podcast absolutely adore you and the work that you do, it is so meaningful. So, in advance thank you for all of the hard work you have done, advocating for victims over the years, it’s been incredible.
Leslie: Well, thank you. I think, you know it’s been a personal journey of mine to figure out what God’s word really says about healthy relationships and when you have a conflict with someone how to handle it, and if they don’t want to handle it well, what do you do? Can you have boundaries as a Christian and can you break up with somebody who’s a Christian? Or are you obligated to be in a relationship the rest of your life with a destructive person? So I’ve really had to personally struggle with those questions and professionally have really worked with a lot of women to get rid of the guilt trip, and really learn to do what God says in being healthy in their relationships.
Anne: Let’s talk about why so many Christian women don’t recognize abuse. Can you start there?
What Does God Say About Healthy Relationships?
Leslie: Yeah, because I think, you know as Christian women we’re taught the truth. In James 3:2 we all struggle in many ways, we’re all broken, we all fail, and so who am I to say your sin is worse than mine? Who am I to judge your actions as abusive, and traditionally in the church we have not even allowed the categories of sexual abuse or emotional abuse to pertain in marriage? It’s only if he hits you, maybe it can be considered abuse, but probably you deserved it. And you were aggravating him and pushing his buttons or triggering him and so maybe you should just stop doing that and he wouldn’t hit you.
So, it’s been a lot of half-truths, misstruths, untruths about the whole understanding of what a healthy relationship is. And then what does an unhealthy relationship look like because it’s true you’re going to marry someone who’s imperfect, who’s going to mess up, who’s going to make mistakes, and you’re going to do them too, so it’s not that you’re going to have this perfect relationship. But when healthy people, and people who want to follow God, recognize that they’ve crossed the line and they’ve lied to their partner or they’ve said ugly things or they’ve done something that really has broken trust in the relationship they take ownership of that, and they begin to recognize I need help, I need to do some work of my own, I’m sorry I need to repent, I need to change. And that begins to rebuild the trust but when that doesn’t happen, and then the unhealthy part happens again and again and again and again and again, it just begins a real destructive pattern in that relationship.
Anne: So, what are the lies women take on, and how can we shore ourselves up against these lies to empower us and our decisions to get to safety? And when I say safety, I’m also talking about emotional safety. So many people think when we say the word safety that we’re just talking about like so he doesn’t punch you in the face, but we’re also talking about emotional safety.
What Does God Say About Safety?
Leslie: You know, that’s such a laden word but I love that the Bible actually talks about the importance of safety especially in a marriage relationship. The verse in Proverbs 31 where it talks about the Proverbs 31 woman for example. It says her husband trusts her to do him good not harm, all the days of his life. That is safety. That’s the rock bottom foundation of any relationship. You can’t be in a relationship with somebody, even if you really love them if you don’t feel safe with that person. And so, safety is an important quality to God in relationships and he’s created our bodies to react in a negative way if we’re unsafe so that we go to safety, but I think a lot of women have believed some lies and I have a lot of them, but I’ll just give you some of the most common ones.
One is, it’s my fault he acts this way. So if only I were more sexual, if only I were more adventurous, if only I were quieter, if they were more submissive, if only I were more beautiful, if only I had bigger boobs. Whatever it is, it’s somehow her fault that he acts out. That’s one big lie. And another big lie is, I just need to try harder, probably I’m not loving Him enough, I’m not submitting enough, I’m not doing enough to make this relationship work. A third lie that I see happen a lot is that you know, God hates all divorce, I’m married to him for better or worse, and suffering and sacrifice are Christian virtues that I must embrace in order to keep my family together. And that’s a whole lot of theology, but I think that’s very common in women of faith, whether it’s the Catholic faith, the Mormon faith, the Evangelical Christian faith. That we just believe that it’s somehow our duty and virtuous, to sacrifice ourselves in order to keep our family together, even if it’s an unhealthy toxic environment.
When Abusers Claim They Feel “Unsafe”
Anne: One of the things that you mentioned kind of triggered something in my mind. So many abusers accuse their victim of being unsafe for them, and so that confuses the victim because she’s like am I unsafe? Like if you were safe enough, I would tell you the truth, but you shame me and you do this and that, and all it is manipulation. What would you say to victims who are experiencing that type of abuse that is so confusing and they’re thinking, am I the one, am I not safe enough? How can I be more “safe” from my abuser? And they might not even have the word abuser there, but how can I become safer for this man who says that it’s my fault he is not treating me well?
Leslie: Well, this is the fuzziness of language. And so, he’s going to use this language that he’s going to hear in the therapeutic environment of safety, which is really important, but he’s twisting the meaning. So, what he’s saying is if you have a negative reaction to what I tell you, whether it’s negative like shaming me and humiliating me or just negative like, ouch, that hurts. If you have a negative reaction or you hold me accountable for what I’ve done, or have a consequence for what I’ve done, well then, it’s not safe for me to tell you, it hurts me to tell you because it’s then not safe because I don’t have a Get Out of Jail Free card.
I don’t have a carte blanche thing that says I can tell you, you know, I’ve killed three people, I’ve sexually abused our children, I’ve cheated on you 20 times, but you’re supposed to just say, oh, thank you for telling me. Life doesn’t work that way, but that’s kind of the mindset of abusers. It’s not safe for me to tell you the truth because I’m going to get in trouble and I’m going to have consequences and there’s going to be accountability here.
Understanding The Difference Between Hurt And Harm
What we’re talking about safety, what we’re saying is you do me harm. It’s not harmful to hold someone accountable or to ask them to tell you the truth, or even to say what you did was really hurtful to me, and you harmed me. That’s good for them to hear that, but they will twist that word because it makes them feel bad, or it makes them uncomfortable with you holding them accountable. So, it’s a twisting of language.
So, I think it’s really important for our listeners here to differentiate between hurt and harm. So, the truth hurts us. When the doctor says I have bad news for you, you have lung cancer, or you have liver cancer. That hurts, that hurts. We don’t want to hear that bad news, but he’s not telling us that to harm us. He’s telling us that, to help us. And when you tell your husband, you know, your pornography use is ruining my attraction to you or your pornography use is just not okay with me, I don’t want to be married to a man who prefers, you know women on the internet to his own wife. That’s going to hurt his feelings because you’re wounding his ego and you’re exposing his sin, but you’re not doing it to harm him. You’re doing it to help him. When he cheats on you, and he lies to you, that’s harming you and him and your marriage. It’s a big difference.
How The Pornography Addiction Recovery Movement Is Harming Victims
Anne: Another work for harm is abuse in that context.
Leslie: Yes, it’s abusive to continually purposely harm someone. You know, you might do it accidentally one time but when someone says ouch, don’t. I don’t like this; this is really hurtful. Most healthy people will stop that behavior.
Anne: I think the pornography addiction recovery movement is really interesting because they have this whole thing around, don’t shame him, be safe for him to tell you, you know, that kind of stuff instead I wish they would say, just know that because your behavior has been harmful when you want to repent or actually tell the truth, it’s not going to feel good. And that’s okay, that’s part of the consequences of your action. They’re putting all the pressure for him to feel good about himself on her when the reason he doesn’t feel good about himself is because of what he’s done and the choices that he’s made.
Trauma Mama Husband Drama
I’m going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. It’s a picture book for adults so it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it. It’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back. When you go to our books page and click on any of those books, it just takes you directly to Amazon and you can throw those books in your cart. After you have purchased the book, please remember to circle back around to Amazon and write a verified purchase review, along with a five-star rating. That helps isolated women find us. It bumps Trauma Mama Husband Drama up in the Amazon algorithm, and even if women don’t purchase the book, it helps them find this podcast, which is free to everyone. And now back to the interview.
When Victims “Muzzle” Their Emotional Reactions
Leslie: You’re absolutely right Anne, but not only that but part of his work to do is to learn to care about the impact he has had on someone else. And if she is muzzled and not allowed to share the impact of how that’s harmed her because it hurts his feelings or it upsets him, then he never learns to manage his own feelings of shame or his own understanding of shame and how that can lead us to good things. It can lead us to repentance of saying, I don’t want to ever feel that feeling again, I don’t want to ever look in your eyes again and see the pain I’ve caused. So, that helps me to not do this again, but instead, there’s sort of muzzling a wife’s emotional reaction, so that her husband doesn’t feel the normal pain he should feel when we harm someone we love.
Anne: Yeah. It’s almost scary. It’s like you’re taking away his ability to feel guilt, and you’re trying to manage his guilt for him, and he needs to feel the full impact of this in order to really understand the harm he’s caused in order to actually make restitution and in order to actually repair this.
Anne: There is no way to go around it. In fact, going around it, maybe he’ll be like that wasn’t that big of a deal. What’s the big deal?
You Cannot Do His Work For Him
Leslie: Well, that’s right and then what happens is the woman starts to feel like you know what’s wrong with me that I can’t get over this? What’s wrong with me that I don’t want to kiss him anymore? What’s wrong with me that he gives me the creeps? I’m a bad person, and so she starts to assume that shame, instead of him assuming the shame that he should assume. But we don’t stop him from experiencing it just because it’s painful.
Anne: Yeah, I think that’s really important for women to know. That managing his pain for him is not going to minimize or stop or keep him from looking porn or keep him from hurting you. That’s just not going to work. The only thing you can do is work towards safety through boundaries and then observed from a safe distance to see if he’s getting it or not. That’s basically the only thing you can do.
Leslie: And really understanding this is his work to do. You have your own work to do as the victim, but his work to do is to decide what kind of man he wants to be, and whether he wants to be a sober man, an honest man, a kind man, a faithful man, you know, a gentleman. And if he doesn’t want to be those things, no amount of your work is going to change that for him. He has to do his own work and you have to let him have that space and that space is usually very painful and uncomfortable for him to face. I don’t like the man I am, and I want to be different.
“Focus On Getting As Strong & Healthy As You Can”
Anne: Yes. Having been through that myself and observed from a safe distance, my ex-husband chose to be the one who does not take accountability, one who blames someone else. That was really painful for me to sit back and watch those decisions be made and think, wow, that is who he is and that’s who he’s choosing to be, and it was heartbreaking to watch. And that’s the risk, right, women think if I let go or if I start managing this, what if they do choose that? They don’t want him to choose that and it’s just horrific. It’s like a lose/lose situation,
Leslie: Well, it is because then you’re not getting healthy and he’s not getting healthy. So, what I tell my women to do is the most important thing is for you to not focus on the marriage right now. For you to focus on you getting as healthy and as strong as you can, so that if your marriage survives, if he wants that too, and he wants to get healthy, and he wants to be a good person and an honest person and a faithful person, then you can rebuild that broken trust. But if he doesn’t, you’re not clinging to him like a beggar and saying please love me and please don’t leave me and I’m too scared to be on my own. You’ve done your work so that you’re maturing through this crisis too, that you’re becoming the person that your kids need and that you’re going to like at the end of the day, even if your marriage doesn’t survive.
Anne: Let’s talk about that scenario of marriages not surviving for a minute. So many women of faith, just don’t want to see divorce as an option. They feel like it’s not an option for them but also even if it was an option they don’t want to go there. How can we begin to see divorce as an option of safety and self-care?
What Does God Say About Divorce?
Leslie: You know, no woman or probably any man gets married with the idea that I’m going to get divorced, especially people of faith. That for better or for worse, the covenant of marriage, the sanctity of marriage are all important values that we hold dear and so we don’t want to treat this divorcing lightly. However, divorce is kind of an acknowledgment, a public acknowledgment that the relationship has died. And it’s sort of like the patient has died, and you know as much CPR as you do on it, the patient is still dead. And it’s more honest to admit that and say the patient is dead and there is no resuscitation of this patient. And it’s sad, and it’s awful, but we need a death certificate so that we can move on.
And I think in marriage when trust has broken down and there’s no safety, and then there’s no interest or willingness to do the work to repair safety and trust, the marriage relationship is dead, even if you stay legally married. So, you can have a dead body at your house if you want for a long time, and people live in dead marriages for a long time, but they don’t have a safe relationship, and I think God acknowledges that in the scriptures. When we think about Malachi where it says, I hate divorce but really what it says is, I hate certain kinds of divorce. I hate when a man trades his wife in for a younger model, I hate when you treat your wife treacherously. God hates certain ways that marriage is done, especially in that patriarchal culture of those days, but I think God is very aware that you can’t make a relationship work with everybody. Even Jesus, who was perfect, couldn’t make his relationship with Judas work. Judas went and did what he wanted to do.
What Does God Say About Abuse?
Anne: I’m laughing because I really had an epiphany about the three temptations of Christ. When Satan’s like throw yourself off a building, and I think he was tempting him with contention. I don’t think he was actually tempting him with throwing himself off a building. And if I would have been in that scenario, I’d be like, Satan, you’re so stupid. Why would I throw myself off a building? And I would completely fall into the temptation of an argument.
Leslie: But the interesting thing about that whole temptation is that Satan used scripture, and I think this is really important for your audience, Anne, because people, pastors, others, your mother, your father, your husband will use scripture to try to get you confused, and Jesus used scripture right back to Satan. That’s why it’s so important for us to know what God says about these things because we can get spiritually confused or contentious in all of that and trying to argue our way out of the argument, and it’s not going to work but sometimes people do use scripture to manipulate you and confuse you.
Setting Boundaries & Christianity
Anne: Yeah, so that’s what I wanted to say there are so many other examples of Christ being bold and setting boundaries, that a lot of people don’t focus on. They more focus on the turn the other cheek and forgive and stuff but there are just as many boundary scriptures I think out there.
Leslie: And even the passages about turn the other cheek and the passage, I think it’s in 1st Peter or somewhere in there where he talks about slaves. You know if you’re a slave, and your master treats you harshly and this is sort of what pastors oftentimes use for women to be sacrificial and suffering. What he’s telling slaves in that culture, and even turning the other cheek, when you are forced by someone to do something, don’t lose your power. Don’t lose your personal choice. You have a choice to do something, you can be the better person, you can go the extra mile, you can keep your head up high. Don’t let someone treat you like an object; you take charge of yourself. And that’s the message that Jesus is giving people to empower them not to lose their dignity in the face of a humiliating situation where someone’s trying to destroy your dignity.
Verbal Abuse In The Bible
Anne: Yeah, that’s really good. So, in this situation, where women are being abused, how do you help women recognize patterns of abuse in a way that helps them recognize the lack of safety?
Leslie: The Bible is really clear about certain kinds of abuse. Obviously, you know, if you’re being degrading and verbally abusive, sometimes some pastors would say, “Well, that’s nowhere in the Bible,” but that’s not true. It’s in Colossians and Ephesians, for example. Paul talks about abusive speech. Let no abusive speech come out of your mouth. James talks about abusive speech, it talks about reckless words pierce like a sword in Proverbs, it talks about the damage of a relational betrayal in Psalms. The Psalmist for example in Psalm 69 says, “Your insults have broken my heart and I am distraught.”
So, there’s a huge impact of verbal abuse on someone’s soul, spirit, and body, but I think one of the biggest mistakes that women get caught into is abuse, any kind of abuse, addictions, any kind of addictions, and chronic adultery are not marriage problems. They cause marriage problems, but they’re individual issues within the heart of the person who’s acting those things out, and they can’t be solved by doing marriage counseling.
Recognizing Different Forms Of Destructive Abuse
So, when you have a husband who blames you for when he does those things and then you go to counseling and somehow you’re supposed to fix him and you’re supposed to keep them from acting out in those ways, whether they be abusive ways, addictive ways, or betrayal ways with another woman. You can’t fix his problem and that’s where it gets very murky, but I would say that women should understand that abuse goes deeper than just physical or emotional abuse. Whenever you are controlled by another person, where you are no longer free to say no, I don’t like this or this is what I want, or this is what I don’t want, or this is who I am and this isn’t who I am.
When someone’s trying to objectify you into someone in their image instead of helping you to become who you’re supposed to be, that can become very destructive to your growth and character as a person. But also, when someone’s very indifferent, I think we don’t talk about this a lot. When someone is totally indifferent to your needs, to your wants, to your cares, to your hurts, and they’re just living for themselves and whatever they’re doing. That can be very destructive because it’s saying to you, you don’t matter. You don’t matter at all. You’re married to someone who says you don’t matter, that’s pretty hard to take.
Anne: Yeah, it’s devastating, and many women are experiencing that on a daily basis from the ways their husbands are interacting with them.
Healthy Relationships Require Mutuality & Reciprocity
Leslie: Yeah, and somehow they’re supposed to keep this relationship going. When a healthy relationship requires mutuality and reciprocity, and there is no mutuality, there is no reciprocity, so then it becomes a relationship of object to person – like my cell phone. I love my cell phone as long as it does whatever I want. Right, but my cell phone should, you know, say I’m not going to work today because I’m tired or I want to go do something else. I’m like, get rid of this cell phone. I’ll find another cell phone because when you have an object of relationship with someone you might say you love it, as long as it completely meets your needs, but once it stops meeting your needs, you are very disposable.
And so many women are in these relationships with narcissistic men who are objectifying them. As long as you revolve your whole life around making me happy and making life easy and never cross me and never disagree with me and never bother me or never ask me for anything just give, give, give to me then I’ll be somewhat nice to you, but if you ever want something that I have to sacrifice for you forget it. It’s not going to happen.
Anne: Yeah, a lot of women are being treated as objects, but they don’t recognize it and that’s one of the things that you’re so good at helping women recognize. Is what does that look like, how does that feel, and how can I be empowered to express that?
“You Can’t Do This To Mommy”
Leslie: And I think you’re so right there. I think sometimes for women they’re so long and for their husband to value them, but what I say to them is the person who has to value you right now is you. Because if you don’t value yourself, then you’re much more willing to accept mistreatment from other people. And you know, it’s just like a mom wouldn’t accept if their baby bit them or their toddler bit them and hit them in the face because they were throwing a fit. You wouldn’t take that. Not because you’re going to beat your kid up, but because you know it’s not good for them to do that to their mother, it’s not good for their child to hit when they’re upset or hurt people when they’re angry.
So as a mom, you would say that’s not allowed. You can’t do this to Mommy, because you value yourself and because you love this other person, and in the same way if your husband is acting out to you and he’s acting like a toddler, you’re not to parent him, but for you to have good boundaries and say, this isn’t okay. Is not just because you’re so special, but it’s also important for him, it degrades him to act that way.
Use The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Boundary Log
Anne: We’re seeing the facts of their behavior when we can take a step back and look at the situation objectively. It can help us. We have a boundary log. It’s just a paper log where women can actually write down like the date, what happened, what type of abuse it was, what their response was, what their boundary was, and then at the very back, there is a calendar where women can write a plus or a negative on each day.
It’s just kind of like a graph, and then they can look at that objectively and be like, whoa, I had like seven negatives in a row, or I had all these pluses and then we can look at it objectively and be like, I didn’t realize I was being abused every single day, right. Some type of factual accounting because so many times they don’t recognize how often it happens. Or when the episode is over, they feel good and they think, oh, okay, everything’s fine, I was just overreacting, everything will be better now, he’ll never do that again, you know something like that again. You know, something like that.
We’re pausing this conversation now, but we’ll continue it next week, so stay tuned for our continued conversation next week with Leslie Vernick.
If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.