Neglect as a form of abuse
Jeff S, a male survivor who recently joined our blogging community, has thought a lot about neglect as a form of abuse. We invited him to write a guest post about it and here’s what he wrote:
I found this blog recently, and like many of you it has been a breath of fresh air – so much of the understanding and empathy I’ve needed was found outside of the body of Christ until now; here it is possible to have both!
Based on my experience as a neglected husband, Barbara and the “real” Jeff asked me if I could contribute some of my thoughts and experiences about neglect as a form of abuse. I am honored to contribute and hope that what I have to say will be edifying. Before I write anything else, I want to say that I am quite humbled to read the accounts of women (and men) who have been terrorized in their homes. While my experience was indeed painful and the most difficult thing in my life, several of the stories I’ve read are on a completely different level from what I went through. Nevertheless, neglect is very a painful and subtle form of abuse, and the effects on me as a person, as well as the response of the church, are all too familiar to many who frequent this blog. Also, I fear there are probably many out there who have been in similar situations and have no idea how to make sense of it – my hope is that this may help.
To be clear, when I talk about “neglect”, this is the word I have chosen that I think best relates what happened in my marriage. The only expertise I have on this subject is my experience, communication with other neglected husbands and wives, and a couple of books I’ve read. So with that in mind, my definition is of neglect is “an unrepentant and continued failure to participate in the basic functions of the family”. I am NOT talking about “she never does the dishes” or “he leaves his clothes all over the floor”, or even “he never takes the kids when he gets home from work”. We all have our issues and they can be extremely painful to deal with, but these things alone to not characterize neglect in the way I’m using it. The situation I’m talking about is when one half of a marriage completely relies on the other to the point that the neglector ceases to function and the neglected becomes responsible for all that must happen for the family to exist. Examples of this look more like “he doesn’t work or help with the children – he’s not even looking for a job and just sits in front of the TV all day” – and not just for a few weeks, but for an unreasonably extended length of time.
Sometimes we all get so beat down and worn out it is hard to function (say after the death of a beloved parent); in those cases we all know as loving partners we step up and take on whatever is necessary to help our loved ones get through it, but when someone’s lifestyle is characterized by non-involvement with his or her family, this is a real problem and very painful to the spouse and children.
When Jeff Crippen talks about the attributes of an abuser he mentions power, control, entitlement and justification. The “doesn’t do the dishes” guy isn’t necessarily someone exhibiting this. He is showing carelessness and irresponsibility, and maybe some other negative attributes. On the other hand, the guy who spends years doing nothing but watching TV while his wife struggles to keep the family alive is doing all of those things. He exerts power and control over her by relying on her faithfulness to sustain his entitled life of non-contribution. Maybe he justifies it by claiming it is “too hard to find work”, that he “was mistreated and fired unjustly”, or that he “suffers from depression”. Whatever the excuse, the situation ends up with his wife completely focused on doing everything she can to make his way of life possible. There are no threats, accusations, or even harsh words; he doesn’t need them. He controls her by knowing that she is bound up with him and will always take care of his needs. And it will crush her soul.
I won’t spend too much time on my story – the short version is that my ex-wife spent years in bed not involved with me (or our son after he was born) except on very limited terms; I learned by the end that a family dinner meant dinner in the bedroom. I felt unlovable, rejected, and I began to lose any sense of identity I had. My goal was to be like Christ, and I believed being Christ meant sacrificing me for her. That’s how I was supposed to love – as Christ loved the church, and He died for the church.
As things unraveled in our marriage she was diagnosed with depression. I started looking for resources to help (my church was against therapy) and found a forum for spouses of depressed people. It turns out many had a similar story to me – and it was both women AND men. While domestic violence appears to be largely (though not exclusively) a male form of abuse, neglect appears to be much more of an equal gender problem and, in my experience, is often linked to depression (and depression is diagnosed more often in women, though I met plenty of depressed individuals who did not neglect their families).
I learned a lot about depression over the last two years, both in the mental hospital where my wife stayed and through a book I read entitled Depression Fallout by Anne Sheffield – she suffers from depression but she wrote the book for the “fallout”, the name she gives loved ones hurt by those who suffer from depression. She emphasizes the hard road that it is for a depressed person and really evokes empathy and understanding from fallouters, but in the end she also gives guidance on when a fallouter has to make the decision to leave for his or her own protection and health.
I want to be VERY clear that I’m NOT saying depression (or any mental/emotional disorder) means a spouse is neglectful. Many times with the right treatment things do get better. It was with a mixture of joy and sadness that I listen to a woman at my new church stand up to give her testimony about God’s grace in her life: how she had been depressed and acted so horribly to all of her friends, but with medication and work God turned her around. Now she is happily married with children, is involved in their lives, and people enjoy being around her. I cried through her entire testimony because I wanted to know why she could make that choice and my ex-wife couldn’t.
In the end, neglect IS a choice, and it is a choice not to honor marriage vows. The scripture recognizes this in Exodus 21:10-11. Depression is not a cakewalk, but neither is it an excuse. A depressed person is not entitled to marriage without responsibility or participation.
On the inside of my wedding ring my ex-wife had inscribed “A Great Team”, but in the end we were not a team, and that broke my heart.