so, you’re married to a narcissist and you want to leave him?

“It’s like I was a frog in a slow-boiling kettle,” she says to me, shuttering from the trauma of having to re-tell her story again. “I had no idea what was happening to me. I didn’t like the person I was becoming – bitter, passive-aggressive, emotionally distant – but never before had I connected it to the fact that I felt unsafe, fearful, used.”

Through months of counseling, she had identified in her marriage patterns of emotional manipulation, sexual aggressiveness, mockery for her appearance, vacillations of reactive anger and lustful sweet talk, restricted freedom to work and travel, entitlement, over-spending, and porn addiction. In counseling, her husband’s fauxnerability played out in gestures of seeming repentance, but their therapist called him on his lack of specific repentance and incapacity to name long-term patterns instead of mere occasional behaviors. In time, he doubled-down, blaming her “sexual unavailability, bitter spirit, and failure to submit to his loving leadership in the home.” Resigned and eager to be free of his constant gaslighting, she filed for divorce. And that’s when he released hellfire.

I’ve told versions of this story in all of my books. Maybe you read parts of your story in it. This is because I’ve seen this, not once, not twice, but dozens of times in countless marriages, from Orlando, to San Francisco, to Holland, where I now reside.

I hear it in stories you send me through email and social media. I also hear the pain of being cast from your church families, ostracized by biological family members, ignored at work, and thrust into uncertainty. “I had to learn to use a mower and fix a garbage disposal,” one of my clients said. Even more, the scarlet letter of shame looms.

Image result for divorce

I’ve received one-too-many “you counseled my wife to divorce me” letters from spouses and “you’re counseling couples toward unfaithfulness” from pastors. I don’t cheer couples on to divorce. As a child of divorce, I felt the pain of it acutely and still deal with the implications and disruptions today. I do try to honor the Bible’s pattern of caring for the abused, the weak, the neglected, the betrayed, and those most vulnerable. My own study of Scripture was helped immensely by both of Dr. David Instone-Brewer’s works on Scripture and divorce. He emphasizes how conservative Jesus was in his re-affirmation of the sacredness of marriage. In that day, a man could divorce a woman for just about any cause. Don’t like her cooking? Don’t care for her new haircut? End the marriage. Jesus re-emphasized the sanctity of marriage, undermining shallow notions of faithfulness.

And yet, Instone-Brewer shows how lovingly pastoral and affirming of a woman’s dignity Jesus and his followers were. Even though the end of a marriage is a rupture in the shalom we’re made for, pastoral provisions were made for those who found themselves in marriages where fidelity was broken. He highlights through a careful study of Scripture three grounds for divorce:

  1. Adultery (in Deuteronomy 24:1, affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19)
  2. Emotional and physical neglect (in Exodus 21:10-11, affirmed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7)
  3. Abandonment and abuse (included in neglect, as affirmed in 1 Corinthians 7) (via David Instone-Brewer’s short article, including his response to an inevitable critique from John Piper, here)

Indeed, in a time when we’re discovering the depths of narcissistic abuse in the church, when we’re seeing major, trusted Christian leaders revealed to be duplicitous, when the supposed “good-guys” are discovered to be abusive and untrustworthy, we can re-discover afresh just how gracious Jesus was to provide a path to freedom and healing for wounded spouses. Making provisions for the vulnerable shows just how significant marital faithfulness is to God and just how important you are to God.

That said, for every spouse I counsel, whether male or female, who experiences the bite of a narcissist in a relationship, I always encourage seeing a wise and experienced therapist who gets the dynamics of narcissistic relationships, and who both honors the sacredness of marriage and employs pastoral wisdom and agility.

In the end, Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is crystal clear in its call for dignity for victims and its warnings to the powerful. In becoming the forgiving victim, Jesus demonstrates a love that provides a pathway for healing for both victims and abusers while not-at-all denying the evil of and justice for those who don’t surrender their power. Jesus provides a path of transformation for each-and-every one one of us ready and willing to give up trying to fix ourselves and ready and willing to surrender to a death-to-the-old process, which can be humbling, even humiliating. That transforming journey is available to anyone addicted to the self-justifying, self-protecting, self-admiring self-salvation project of narcissism. I personally love to work with those sincerely committed to this work, and can testify to the power of transformation.

But isn’t it kind, loving, and so in-character that Jesus would make a way for you, you the “frog in the boiling kettle,” you the one who thought her years were lost, you who endured humiliation, you who felt so guilty and ashamed, you whose God paves pathways of freedom for wholeness, healing, and transformation? God may hate divorce, but God sure does love you.


18 responses

  1. Thanks for this – I wonder, though, if you might adjust it to include husbands of narcissists? There’s an implication here that only men are narcissistic and abusive.

    • (You do identify ‘whether male or female’ so I think I’m more reacting to the title and examples. The power dynamic is tilted towards men in the church so that makes some sense. I think I’m partially reacting from my parents’ situation, which wasn’t really one-way abuse because my mom’s NPD made her far more emotionally abusive than my dad. Because we didn’t have a category for women being emotionally abusive, my mom would use my dad’s abusive behavior to justify her own and get a lot of sympathy while choosing to both stay with him and emotionally abuse us as well. )

  2. As a former counselor at a large church, I saw a lot of what you described and ultimately was let go, for being soft on divorce. I commend you for your exposure of this destructive relational issue that is so prevalent in the church………resulting in much debilitating, decisiveness. It is a challenge not for the faint-hearted. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this Chuck, I see this confusion all of the time in my work with women who have been sexually betrayed in marriage. The decision to divorce (or not) is never a “no brainer” but victims usually get oversimplified advice on both sides (“you need to divorce him”,or, “you need to stick with him”). When I say to them, “God’s allowance for divorce is not an “escape clause” in the “Rule Book for Marriage”, but a demonstration of his Justice (“I love marriage, and this is a mockery of it”), and his deep care, (“It is NOT OK with me that you keep being abused, I am providing for your safety”), women feel relief, comfort and clarity as followers of Christ.

  4. Thanks so much Chuck. In my work with women who’ve been betrayed in marriage, they get so discouraged hearing oversimplified advice on both sides: “You just need to divorce him”, and “You need to forgive (stay with) him”. When I say, “God’s allowance for divorce is not an ‘escape clause’ in the ‘Rule Book on Marriage’, but his heart of justice (“BECAUSE I love marriage it may no longer be mocked in this way), and compassion (“I am NOT OK with the way you are being treated, my desire is for you to be safe now”), they feel relief from false guilt, deep re-connection with God, and mental clarity for complex decision-making. There is tremendous pressure in some churches for women to reconcile with unrepentant men, even when adultery has occurred. There is, actually, also growing pressure in some corners of the church for betrayed women to slam dunk the guy with divorce.

  5. Thanks Chuck. In working with a lot of Christian women who have been sexually betrayed in marriage, they are often discouraged by 2 opposing, oversimplified exhortations: “You need to divorce him”, and “You need to forgive and stay with him”. When I tell them, “God’s allowance for divorce is not an ‘escape clause’ in his “Marriage Rule Book”, but an expression of his deep heart for Justice (“BECAUSE I love marriage, it may no longer be mocked in this way”), Compassion (“It is NOT O.K. with me that you keep getting abused; I am providing a path to safety for you”), they feel relief from false guilt, re-connection with God, and restored clarity with complex decision-making.

  6. Thank you, Chuck, for this. Narcissism seems to be an endemic part of our culture these days, creating unsuspecting victims in homes, work, schools, and social circles. Many still have long-term post-divorce effects from narcissism–on themselves and their family. There has been very little help or literature on the subject, and most are left to struggle trying to piece together how they could have done things better (usually a fallacy). Often times, the narcissist puts on a great face to the world, but is a different person when the door closes. This can create a very painful and lonely situation after the divorce as friends and family look for ‘vaIid’ reasons why a marriage fails. I sometimes wonder if this is why so many women choose not to get married again. Who would want to take the risk of getting into that trap again. The answer is self growth to know a healthy relationship and not get into another narcissistic/enabler relationship. Forgiveness and recognizing the cause are the first steps, of course, but it’s a lot to forget and deal with alone. Do you have any recommendations for someone still recovering from being from being married to a narcissist and wants to move beyond it all and heal emotionally? Thank you, again.

    • Hi Carol, I know your question was put to Chuck, but may I offer you an answer?

      A Cry For Justice (the blog I lead) is a very supportive place for all victim-survivors of domestic abuse. You will find lots of help there, I think.

      You might like to start by looking at our FAQ page.
      cryingoutforjustice DOT com/faq

      (you can convert that back into a link)

      • Barbara, thanks for the work you’ve done. It’s going to take some time to dig through your book and site, but now I’m in the know. Really grateful to get to know your work through this.

  7. Chuck, I have to challenge you on the last sentence in your post.

    The “God hates divorce” saying comes from a mistranslation of Malachi 2:16.

    David-Instone-Brewer does not pick this up in his book. But in my book I give a whole chapter and an appendix to it.

    And I’ve written a post summarizing the issue. You can read my post at A Cry For Justice.

    Just type into this a search engine and you’ll find my post:
    “God hates divorce? Not Always. Barbara Roberts”

    I beg you to not recycle the myth that God hates divorce. It is one of the myths that keeps victims of abuse entrapped in abusive relationships.

    • Barbara,
      Thanks for your post, I read your blog post and it was eye opening for me. Your exegesis confirms what I believe about God’s heart toward marital victims of abuse, even thought I believed the oft quoted translation of it, I will refer my clients to it. Notwithstanding, however, I have never used that verse to control female clients who have been abused and betrayed. I, also, have seen it misused so many times in what amounts to spiritual abuse (and I know Chuck well enough to know that he agrees).
      Having said that, may I also take this at another angle? Most women I’ve worked with who are in a position to receive God’s protection via divorce (see my *accidentally redundant* post above) still legitimately hate a lot of things about it. She hates the injustice of being put in a position to do it. She hates the realities that she must courageously confront in order to follow through. She hates the injustice of how she will be blamed for it. She hates the lies of the Evil One attacking her husband. She hates what it will do her children. She hates the way it will be used against her by Christ-followers. She hates so many things about the divorce that God is allowing, that it would be quite safe to say that she hates divorce, even though she must. And in this, she needs the comfort of knowing that God hates it too. There are many, many, many things about divorce that God hates. He hates the destruction of it. And this has nothing to do with God calling her a sinner for divorcing, or hating her for filing legal paper work, and for having the courage and integrity to call a spade a spade: that it is her husband who has done the real divorcing of her, time and time again, and has been too cowardly to publicly own up to his hatred and abuse of her. Which is why I love the NIV 2011 version. Woe be to that man if he does not confront the wrath of God before he can receive mercy.

      • Hi Scott

        I agree with you (and I’ve personal experience) about the fact that many victims of domestic abuse hate a great many things about the divorce process and they hate all the stigma and injustice that they usually suffer from getting divorced.

        The process in the secular justice system can be horrendous for the victim. And the stigma and shunning which family and church ‘friends’ often deal out to the victim is horrendous. And the kids are typically upset by the whole thing.

        But I maintain this:
        Because the “God hates divorce” saying is an aphorism in the Christian world, and it is NOT scriptural, then I think we all need to stop saying it. Even people like you and Chuck, who never say it in a way that would spiritually abuse your clients, would be better to not say that saying at all (unless you were pointing out to people that is is NOT a scriptural saying).

        And one more thing. There are plenty of survivors of domestic abuse who, like me, have divorced our abusers, who battled horrific stuff in the process of divorce and for some years after that, but who are now leading happy lives.
        People like us say that divorcing our abuser is one of the best things we ever did, and divorce eventually gave us the opportunity to live free, productive lives in kingdom service.

        So that’s another reason we rather bristle against the notion that “God hates divorce” — because divorce was God’s blessing to us.

    • The work you and others have done on this scripture makes me so curious as to what was going on for the translators who interpreted it wrongly…
      There must be 2 areas of accountability for helpers: 1, accurately dividing the Word of Truth, and 2, humbly, safely moving into the lives of broken people. They are intertwined. Thanks again!

      • Hi Scott, there are many problems with how the bible has been translated.

        I’ve had my eyes opened recently to the work of Ruth Magnusson Davis who has gently updated Tyndale’s New Testament and is working on the same process of gently updating the OT of the 1537 Matthew Bible.

        If you are interested in translation issues and how they have impacted the visible church, I suggest you look at her stuff. Put her name into search engine and you’ll find it. Or put her name into the search bar of the blog A Cry For Justice — I’ve published a post about her work.

      • Barbara – so grateful you’ve alerted me to these translations issues. I’m doing a deeper dive! Grateful.

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