When we think of bullying, we often think of it in the school system—kids picking on and beating up other kids. And I would agree that is a definite problem. However, bullying doesn’t just happen with children; it also happens within marriages.
I have met many broken women and a few men who have been living silently for many years with bullying. They have learned to believe this is normal married life and they have been convinced that much of what goes on at home is their fault and their problem. They have learned that if they are quiet and always the one to say “sorry” then things go much better. Sooner or later they begin to wonder if something is wrong with them and they try to become better partners certain that if they just “do better” things will improve.
But they don’t.
They work harder at household duties, they workout more, they practice smiling when inside tears are welling up. Somehow they must have done something to deserve this is often a thought.
Subtle Forms of Marital Bullying
Bullying can be very subtle and hardly noticed at first, but over the years of marriage it becomes increasingly more felt if you are the bullied spouse. It can be correction constantly. It can be correction constantly lovingly spoken.
It can be not giving you a voice to share or speak what you think, implying that your opinion really has no merit and doesn’t matter at all. Over the long haul, you begin to believe you don’t know anything about anything.
It can be words like, “you should…” or “why don’t you…” or “why wouldn’t you do…” or “if you wore this it would be more flattering…” or “when will you get the house clean.” All of these are subtle messages telling you that what you are doing isn’t good enough or right.
It can be spiritual subduing communicating to you that you have no idea how to interpret biblical truth or to understand it, let alone share it. And so the bullying spouse brings their interpretation to the passage and it often will be demeaning or condemning or correction of the bullied spouse.
You are told you aren’t submissive enough if you are the bullied wife, or you might be the bullied husband who is told that he has no idea how to manage the house or to lead or isn’t making enough, or working hard enough.
More Direct Bullying
It can be more direct and just outright mean. Name-calling and attacking character are often a big part of the bullying.
It can be threats of divorce or leaving or closing off their cash flow. It can be tracking every movement by keeping track of kilometers or miles put on the vehicle, or calling frequently throughout the day to find out what is going on. It can be over-protective by not allowing you to have outside friendships. It can be lying to you about what is going on with them. It can be manipulative. All of it is destructive and unhealthy.
The bully must have control and the bullied must yield to that control or World War III will take place. The one bullied soon learns that saying “sorry” or being quiet settles things down more quickly than trying to speak what you are thinking. Even your silence can sometimes be attacked, it seems the bully wants a fight and wants you to lose because they must win and be right.
Jesus Confronts Bullies
It’s important to know that we are all sinful people and live in sinful relationships, and so we all have the ability to hurt each other. The difference with bullying is that it continues and is a pattern for daily living. The difference would be that when the bully is confronted, they see no need to change because they are right and their spouse is wrong. It’s about winning. Bullies are not being Christ to others; it’s about their preferences, their rights, their wants and desires.
Leslie Vernick writes in her book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship, “Many people suffer in relationships where offensive words and threatening gestures are the weapons of choice, used to manipulate, control, punish, and wound without leaving any physical evidence.” But that is not what Jesus says. He is very clear that words that hurt and wound another are likened to murder (Matthew 5:21-22).
What to Do If You Find Yourself in a Bullying Marriage
If you are living with a bully, please reach out for help. You are not alone; you need not feel alone. You have more than likely been sold a bag full of lies, but know that you are not the cause of the bully’s hostility and poison. You are responsible for what you say and do. Please know there is help for you. You can learn how to speak and confront your spouse who is bullying. God desires to transform you through this experience as you find more and more an identity in Christ and not in the words of your spouse.
Proverbs 2:12 reminds us, “Wisdom will save you from evil people from those whose words are twisted.” God desires to bring help and healing into your life. He created us with a voice, with feelings, desires, and longings. He created us to interact with one another and when you are bullied you are prevented from giving voice to those things.
Join the Conversation
What are other subtle and not-so-subtle marks of a marital bully?
What biblical counseling wisdom do you share with a spouse who is being bullied? With a spouse who is being a bully?