Nobody likes a bully. Not in a casual fling. Not in a friendship. Not in a budding romantic relationship. Not in an illicit I-don’t-know-what-that-was-but-I-hope-it-never-happens-again-ship. And certainly not in a marriage.
Unfortunately, bullying tactics are just so darn effective. Psychologically, they work at manipulating another person to push him or her down and get one’s own way. Of course, they’re also destructive and damaging and downright cruel, reserved only for the sub-human.
But there’s a psychological principle at work that is powerful. And here’s the interesting thing — it’s why it’s powerful that’s compelling. Bullying works because God created the reverse to be the secret to a healthy, vibrant marriage. The manipulation is a distortion of the beauty, like the murky reflection in pondwater of an enchanting vista above — and it reflects, even in its distortion, an image of the beauty.
The distortion holds the key to the mystery.
God created the world and everything in it to glorify him. A relationship principle is his principle, no matter how it’s used. A psychological truth is his truth, no matter how distorted it may be. And anything that has been manipulated or twisted can be made new.
In Christ all things will be.
So it’s time for us to learn.
In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s time we pay more attention to bullies. Because there are secrets packed into bullying techniques that will teach you how to have a better marriage.
Listen to the neighborhood bully. Hang out with him. And maybe, just maybe, it will change your marriage.
How Bullying Can Save Your Marriage
There are four techniques a bully uses to control a victim. Each hints at a deeper truth about God and marriage.
A bully isolates a victim to make him or her feel alone and helpless. If the bully can do this in a marriage, it will increase his or her control over that person. This could occur by subtly criticizing the spouse’s family ’til seeds of dissension are sown in the spouse’s mind, or by more overtly not allowing a spouse outside the house to develop friendships. Humans are relational people, so isolation creates untold effects on a person’s psyche. God originally said…
It is not good for man to be alone. Genesis 2.18
That’s why solitary confinement is so brutal. Imagine being in solitary confinement with someone determined to manipulate you. I’d take a dripping faucet, Chinese water torture, anything over that.
The Christian Secret Here: Relational Intimacy
Your new purpose should be encouraging your husband’s or wife’s sense of community. Make your marriage about more than you. Paul reveals this in a familiar Bible verse,
Consider how [you] may spur [your spouse] on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10.24-25
This verse isn’t about going to church on Sunday for a God-fix (although that’s a great idea). It’s about you needing relationships with Christians to encourage you, to point you to hope, to fix your eyes on Christ in his glory.
So strategically think of ways to encourage your spouse in friendships and community (this is so psychologically powerful it helps you live longer!), even if you have to rearrange your life. Go to a couple’s Bible study because she needs camaraderie. Encourage your husband to take a guy’s night with Christian friends instead of guilting him to stay home. Take the kids for a day so your wife can get coffee with a friend. Change your work schedule so you can go to church together.
Strategize this trick of community in your spouse’s life as a love-gift for your husband or wife.
Bullies also try to manipulate a victim into feeling worthless. A bully does this to make the victim lose self-respect so the cycle of abuse becomes inescapable. Once a person’s broken down, the bully is in control. Think you never do this? Do you ever resort to name-calling or insults during a fight instead of calmly responding with your spouse’s first name?
Insulting or labeling is a subconscious dehumanization technique to re-characterize your spouse under the new negative quality of the insult (out of anger) rather than highlight their worth in God. Notice the derogatory focus not on what they’ve done, but WHO they are.
“YOU B**ch.” “YOU are such an A****le.”
James says in response,
If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. James 1.26
James knows how crippling a reckless tongue can be to the human heart.
So he warns,
Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. James 1.19-20
But there’s another secret revealed here.
The Christian Secret: Validation
You have a secret weapon with incredible power when you seek to increase your spouse’s validation and empathize with his or her feelings during a fight. This is key:
At the moment you’re angry and want with everything in you to trump your spouse with your anger, energy, or opinion — choose to lose the fight.
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12.10
Be the anti-bully. Increase the value of your spouse’s worth at the expense of your position in a fight. That’s godliness — real self-denial, picking up a cross and following Jesus into a marriage. Listen, and validate instead.
A bully’s main goal is to decrease the other person’s power. That is the point of dehumanization, and the purpose is increasing one’s own control.
And it can creep its way into a marriage by mistake.
I’ve learned whenever I raise my voice in an argument or steamroll my wife with the power of my personality rather than calmly communicate in a balanced way, she clams up. This is a subtle form of disempowerment. If she walks away from a conversation with me less confident and assertive, no matter what the argument, I’ve lost everything that matters. I want to grow my wife in Christ, not convince her to passively applaud as my ego parade passes by. I’m loving a Bride. My goal is to blossom her to be the most confident, assertive, and alive person she can be. I can’t weaken her to achieve this. I’d rather lose that fight than ever begin.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility value others above yourselves. Philippians 2.3
The Christian Secret: Empowerment
My goal is to put my wife in position to WIN the argument with me. Yes, I said that right. That’s what the anti-bully would do. So I encourage and teach positive communication skills and assertive conflict resolution so she is set up for success in a debate, even against me. Peter wisely recommends, in this way,
Not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 1 Peter 5.3
I set my wife up to win and prepare her for victory as my ultimate goal. Empowering her to shine as a light on a hill, not covering her with a petty relationship bushel.
Ultimately, she’s as important to me as I am (Ephesians 5.28) and I’m going to show it in every conflict. By building her up, not holding her down.
The bully’s weapons of isolation, dehumanization, and disempowerment can cause a sense of inevitability in a victim — the feeling that nothing will ever change so there’s no hope in trying. This traps the victim in the cycle of abuse. However, hopelessness or inevitability can be a temptation in a healthy marriage, as well.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life. Proverbs 13:12
Early in our relationship my wife would sometimes shut down during difficult conversations, feeling that since we were fighting our relationship must be bad, so working it out was hopeless.
My job at that moment was to be a tree of life.
The Christian Secret Weapon: Hope
Proverbs 147 says,
The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. 147.11
The bully may have inevitability. So does the evil one. The Christian husband or wife has hope. It is far more powerful.
But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5.2-6
Give your spouse this incredible power, right in the midst of your most difficult conflict. Inspire and encourage. In marriage, winning only occurs together.
So set up your wife or husband for success against yourself in every conflict. Be the anti-bully — lay your life down as Christ did. Take up instead a cross of intimacy, validation, empowerment, and hope. What you’ll find in place of your selfishness is a radiant, glowing bride, full of life and promise; a strong, valiant husband, full of confidence and love.
And this does not disappoint.