When the Thing That Protects You Becomes Your Prison

When the Thing That Protects You Becomes Your Prison

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Some relationships can become so painful that you must retreat while implementing self-protective measures to prevent being hurt again. The unintended consequence is that the strategies for protection can imprison you, which is what happened to Mable. Her husband was harming her, so she did what any of us would do. In time, her fortress became her prison.

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Drastic Measures

Mable is married to an angry man. The dream she dreamed during their dating season turned into a decade-long nightmare. Biff is nothing like what he presented himself to be. And Mable is not sure if he was ever a good guy. It was so long ago, and he has hurt her so often that his anger regularly displaces the good she tries to hold onto when thinking about their marriage.

At her wit’s end and disconnected from her local church, Mable made the gut-wrenching decision to take their three children and move in with her parents. Biff was devastated! From every perspective, Biff seemed like a distant, cold, and uncaring man.

Most of their friends assumed he would continue drinking, flirting, and life would move on for him. He did the exact opposite. He fell apart. When Biff came to counseling, he appeared to be your average broken, crying man who wanted his wife back. When Mable later came with him, the real truth came out.

Caught in a Trap

Biff wept and pleaded for Mable to come back home with him. She scowled at him in contempt and disgust. She had no intention of coming back with him. I’m sure that some of you who are reading this are thinking that Biff was not sincere and that he had not fully repented. I’d also imagine that you think he was more about himself rather than his wife. And you’re probably right.

But let’s suppose just for this article that Biff had a genuine encounter with God, and the Lord has miraculously changed his heart. Let’s assume that he is genuinely humble and has come completely clean about his life and wants God to restore him, and then he makes things right with his wife and children. Let’s further suppose that Mable is unwilling to get a divorce and her being in counseling with him indicates that there is a fraction of hope in her soul.

But she has a hard time believing that Biff is genuine. The hurt was too deep, and the fear of him went on for too long. Mable is in a trap, and she cannot get out of it. She does not want to leave the marriage, but she does not want to stay in it either. She is choosing to wait it out for the children. Her thought is that having a dad for the kids, even an angry one like Biff, is better than no dad at all.

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The Abused Cynic

To help Mable, the counselor drew a picture for her. (See below) It is in four quadrants, which reads from the top left to the top right and the bottom left to the bottom right.

Top Left – During the dating relationship, Mable was foot-loose and fancy-free. All things were going her way as she was having fun and in love. She and Biff were happy, hoping, and planning for a beautiful life together.

Top Right – Shortly after their marriage, the real Biff began to manifest. Fear replaced the fun. Mable had the uneasy feeling that she was not free any longer. Biff’s anger, neglect, blame, bouts with porn, and long hours at work were like flaming arrows into her soul. Initially, the arrows were not consistent, but they came with more force and regularity as time went on. Each shaft had a stinging effect. Mable was confused and in disbelief.

Bottom Left – After many disappointments and a growing fear of Biff, Mable began to take action; she protected herself. Mable became more guarded and distant around Biff. Rather than being vulnerable, spontaneous, and hopeful, she battened down the hatches. The unintended consequence was a form of “emotional incarceration.”

Because of Biff’s preoccupation with his self-centeredness, he never knew how he was demotivating his wife. He never figured it out until she left. And sadly, Mable did not realize what she had done to her soul. The actions she took to save herself from the pain in her marriage imprisoned her.

The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secured your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed. Frederick Buechner

She became a prisoner of her own devices and never saw it coming. Today, she lives in the weird dual world of the hurt cynic: Her husband has legitimately sinned against her, and she has become a cynic as a measure to protect herself from being hurt again. Her struggle is complex: on the outside are relentless arrows from a mean man. On the inside, she has become a shell of what she used to be.

Storyboard Marriage

A Sinful Way of Protection

Cynicism is distant criticism. The cynic is never intimate but rather always observing from a distance. The cynic offers their observations about a matter but does not engage what they are critiquing. The reason the cynic cannot see the issue is because of a fear of being hurt again; it’s a presuppositional problem.

Her critique demonstrates that she not only knows what is going on in her marriage but is not involved. It is merely an appearance. Mable is choosing the best of two horrible options:

  • Let Biff hurt her.
  • Live the bitter life of a cynic.

She chooses cynicism. Neither of these options is an exercise of faith in God. These are exercises of self-reliance in Mable. Mable is the one who is deciding how to respond to the sin in her world.

A Divine Rescue

Bottom Right – Regardless of whether the arrows ever cease, Mable needs rescuing from her self-imposed incarceration. Initially, she trusted in Biff, but he failed her. Next, she believed in her strategies to protect herself, but that has fallen short, too. Now it is time to trust God. Currently, Biff controls her. God does not.

What Biff may do to her far outweighs her willingness to trust God to pull her out of her prison. She is choosing her self-imposed “penalty box” over the freedom found in the gospel. She needs to be under the control of God rather than the sinful actions of her husband or her fear-based measures to protect herself.

God provides incredible grace that can sustain any person through any trial. Our goal in life must not be to remove all disappointment from our lives. If we attempt this, we all will become incarcerated cynics, trapped by our hopes for peace. Our goal must be to learn how to trust God even when life hurts and does not make sense.

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Call to Action

  1. If your marriage is like Biff and Mable’s, I want you to talk to a leader at your church to find help. If your church is unwilling to help you, please look at the “Need More Help” section below and take advantage of our resources, including our forums.
  2. Also, watch these two webinars while taking copious notes. If you have a competent friend, watch these seminars with them or share your notes and discuss the content with them: Overcoming Self-Reliance and The Fear of Man. You’ll find both on our webinar page.
  3. What are your initial thoughts about this piece?
  4. Describe a time when you reacted to adversity by incarcerating yourself? Are you still imprisoned? If not, what measure did you take to free yourself?
  5. Escaping her prison does not imply that she will go back to Biff. Describe what freedom for Mable should be like even if there is no restoration of her marriage.

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