Relationship Connection: My husband tells me my body is repulsive

Question

My husband and I have six children 10 years and under. Our youngest is less than 6 months old. When our fifth child was only 3 months old, my husband told me point-blank that he didn’t find me attractive anymore because I was fat. Despite being extremely hurt, I worked hard and lost a lot of the baby weight over the course of a year and a half. I didn’t really start to lose weight until I stopped breastfeeding.

Almost two years ago we had a conversation about expanding our family further, and I expressed worry about gaining more weight and having to work it all off again and what it would do to our relationship. My husband assured me it would be fine. One baby later, things are not fine. I have been working for months to lose the weight to appease him, but he’s not acknowledging my effort.

He ignores me and puts in late hours at work. He’s really blunt and hurtful with his words. He’s said that I am “repulsive” to look at and that he hates my body. He assures me he does not have issues with pornography, and I have reason to believe him.

He doesn’t treat me with any respect or affection at all and has even indicated that I had no right to expect it if I wasn’t even attractive in his eyes. I have told him to stop, because what he’s doing constitutes verbal abuse. He sneered and said, “You don’t know what real abuse is.” I haven’t told my parents because I recognize this behavior is absolutely not acceptable, and if they knew they would insist I leave my husband and move in with them, which is something I’d prefer not to do.

My sisters-in-law (my husband’s sisters) are aware of this situation and also say I should leave. I don’t want a divorce because my marriage vows are important to me, and I don’t want my children to be without a father, but at the same time, I feel that I am worth more than this. I deserve better treatment. The respect I get from my husband shouldn’t be contingent on my appearance or attractiveness.

When I articulate these feelings to him he doesn’t think they’re important, or he’ll try to use logic to tell me this is all I deserve because I’m fat and ugly. I don’t want to live like this anymore, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to get him to stop treating me the way he’s treating me. 

Answer

You’re correct that this is verbal abuse, and it won’t stop until you do something more direct to protect yourself from his attacks on your worth and dignity. You have freely offered your body to him and your children in full confidence that together you could build and grow your marriage and family. Tragically, he’s trampled on this gift. While you alone are the only one who can ultimately decide what course to take, I want to offer support and clarity about your situation. 

Even though you’ve understood that his mistreatment of you is harmful, it’s clearly difficult to not take it personally and give in to his relentless demands and criticisms. It’s hard not to buy into the belief that your body is the problem and needs to be transformed into a fictional standard of beauty. Your husband may not be looking at pornography, but he’s internalized one of the most damaging elements of pornography: the objectification of women’s bodies. His insistence that your body exists to please him is pure objectification. As long as he maintains this distorted view, you will be reduced to a one-dimensional object that he will continue to manipulate with his disapproval. 

You are worried about breaking your marriage vows and ruining the lives of your children by leaving him. While I don’t know the specifics of your vows, my guess is that they don’t include allowance for abusive behaviors. Please recognize that your husband’s behaviors have already damaged the very bonds you’re trying to salvage. It’s his responsibility, not yours, to repair the damage he’s created with his verbal abuse.

Whether you stay with him or decide to leave for your safety and protection, it’s important for you to reclaim your body as your own and not allow him to influence how you feel about yourself. You can’t stop him from saying these horrible things, but you can prevent him from having direct access to you. You have to determine how you will arrange this based on your circumstances, but it’s important to get out of his line of fire.

I recognize you are going to encounter tremendous resistance and struggle as you do this, but your mental and physical health depend on you taking action to protect yourself from his verbal attacks. Your swift actions will also send a clear message to your children (now and later) about how people, especially a wife, should be treated.

Work closely with a therapist trained in treating abuse and betrayal trauma. Seek support from your local domestic violence shelter and see if they have support groups you can attend to help you gather strength and build some personal accountability as you commit to this difficult direction. And, if you attend a church, consult with someone in the church leadership who is educated about abuse and can offer supportive resources. It’s not easy to ask for this kind of support, but this isn’t something you want to do alone. The crazy-making messages from your husband are too destructive to process without someone on the outside helping you make sense of reality. 

Even when you create physical distance from these messages, you still need to address the damaging messages you’ve internalized over the years. You’ll have regular temptations to view your body through the internalized voice of your critical husband. You’ll notice these perceived flaws he so cruelly pointed out over the years and feel worse about yourself. This internal voice is the voice you’ll have to challenge and silence. Like a bully, when you stand up to it enough times it will eventually go away.

He has told you lies about your powerful body. He’s convinced you to see your body as an “ornament” instead of an “instrument.” You can reclaim the truth about your body and focus on what your body can do instead of what it looks like. I recommend you spend time reading all of the resources available on the Beauty Redefined blog to help you reprogram the way you see yourself and the gift of your body. As the founders of Beauty Redefined remind all women, “You are more than a body. See more. Be more.”

As you quiet down these messages from your husband through stark confrontation, separation, or other means, you will need to turn your focus to gently rebuilding a more accurate view of yourself so you don’t live the rest of your life believing you’re not enough. I’m terribly sorry your husband couldn’t see you accurately, but know that your worth and value isn’t determined by anyone else.

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