Part 3: Basic Principles of Biblical Counseling with an Abusive Spouse
Summary: Marital abuse is one of the most traumatic issues an individual, couple, family, and church can face. Discussing it raises hotly defended convictions. How should God’s people respond to “abuse in marriage”?
*In Part 1 (http://tinyurl.com/mcr26y), we highlighted “safety first.”
*In Part 2 (http://tinyurl.com/qhrvhw), we overviewed introductory principles of biblical marital counseling.
*Now, in Part 3, we discuss basic principles of biblical counseling with an abusive spouse.
Labels and Our Identity in Christ
First, notice my language: “an abusive spouse.” I did not say, “an abuser” as if that is the sole or primary identity of the person. Nothing shouts “Hopeless, worthless loser!” like all-encompassing labels such as “abuser.”
In no way does this minimize the sin of the abuse nor the damage of the abuse. But it does communicate the biblical truth that the core identity of a Christian is a saint and son/daughter of God. So, we are counseling “a saint and child of God who is sinfully acting as an abusive spouse.”
Take a Comprehensive Community Approach: Not Just Counseling
It might surprise you coming from someone who has authored several books on biblical counseling (Soul Physicians, Spiritual Friends, Beyond the Suffering, Sacred Friendships) and who is Chairman of a Christian counseling program, that I would say “not just counseling.” Trust me, individual and marital counseling alone will not be enough to bring lasting change to an abusive spouse. Nor is it biblical to isolate biblical counseling from the Body of Christ.
From the very first meeting with an abusive spouse, insist on a comprehensive approach. This could include:
*The counselee meeting weekly with an accountability partner/spiritual friend.
*The counselee attending a weekly small group with a focus on victory over abuse, anger management, etc.
*The counselee attending church and adult Sunday School every week.
*The counselee practicing spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, prayer, Scripture memorization, Scripture meditation, silence, solitude, etc.
*If the counselee is non-repentant, then the church should begin their church discipline process. (Every church should have a Church Discipline and Restoration Policy that every member reads upon joining.)
Take a Comprehensive Counseling Approach: Ministering to the Whole Person
When working in a marital abuse situation I always counsel the abusive spouse weekly and counsel the abused spouse weekly.
It may surprise you that, especially initially, I may not counsel the couple together. If the abuse is intense, the anger and rage deep, and the fear profound, I sometimes work individually helping the abusive spouse to come to a point of realization, acknowledgement, repentance, confession, and self-control.
I simultaneously work with the abused spouse to come to a point of wise bold love (how to respond to the abusive spouse), forgiveness, biblical self-understanding, and work on this spouse’s own “issues.”
The first part of comprehensive biblical counseling for the abusive spouse is directing the spouse away from an “Adam-like” mentality: “The woman you gave me.” So many abusive spouses blame the victim. While it is true that some spouses know how to antagonize an abusive spouse, and while it is true that both spouses need to work on personal maturity, it is never true that my spouse caused me to abuse them.
You will get nowhere in counseling an abusive spouse until you help that spouse to accept personal responsibility. Repeatedly you will be saying:
“We are not talking about your spouse right now. In my individual meetings with your spouse and when we start marital counseling, your spouse will deal with personal issues. But right now, if you want to save your marriage and if you want to glorify God, then you have to accept full responsibility for your abusive behavior.”
As the abusive spouse takes responsibility, it must be comprehensive. Some spouses will say, “Yes, it was wrong when I ______” (fill in the blank with the abusive action). While taking behavioral responsibility is a start, we work for heart change. That means:
1. Taking spiritual responsibility: Sin in the home always begins with sin in the heart. Sin in human relationships always begins with sin in our relationship to God (see James 4:1-8). Help the spouse to see sinful idols of the heart, false lovers of the soul, and ungodly affections (see Jeremiah 2). Help the spouse to repent of their sin against God. Help the spouse to see and accept God’s forgiveness. Help the spouse to begin to renew their worship, dependent relationship to God.
2. Taking social/relational responsibility: Again, this means accepting my role, my sin, regardless of how another person relates to me. Help the spouse to see the sin against their spouse, to see the damage done, and to repent. Help the spouse to understand and implement biblical principles of godly living as a husband or wife.
3. Taking rational/mental responsibility: This involves exposing and confessing sinful beliefs. It means putting off lies of Satan. It means putting on a renewed mind. It means believing and living the Truth of God.
4. Taking motivational responsibility: An abusive spouse must come to understand why they do what they do. What sinful goals, purposes, and motives drive their actions and reactions? What sinful pathways must the spouse repent of? What new, unselfish pathways and godly purposes should the spouse put on?
5. Taking behavioral responsibility: Here is where most counseling seems to start and finish. It is a vital part, but only a part. Yes, confess the specific sinful action. See the damage done. Help the spouse to begin to replace sinful actions with loving, godly, mature behavior.
6. Taking emotional responsibility: Help the spouse to confess unmanaged mood states and uncontrolled emotions. Help the spouse to put on managed moods and biblical emotional expression and responses.
Some Hallmarks of Comprehensive Biblical Counseling
Notice several hallmarks of comprehensive biblical counseling for marital abuse:
1. Sin and Grace (Romans 5:20): “It’s horrible to sin but wonderful to be forgiven.”
Yes, the person is repenting of sin in all areas of life. Additionally, you are helping the person to understand and apply God’s grace (see Luke 15 and the parable of the prodigal son).
2. Putting Off and Putting On (Ephesians 4:17-24): “It’s supernatural to mature.”
We never simply say, “Stop doing X, Y, and Z.” We also say, “The Bible teaches you how to tap into Christ’s resurrection power so that you can put off the old ways of living and put on the new, godly ways of relating.” In spiritual direction through guiding, we help an abusive spouse to apply the truth that “it’s supernatural to mature.”
3. Patterns of Relating
We never simply confront one incident of sin. We enlighten, expose, exhort, discuss, examine, and confront patterns of relating. Expose patterns of sinful affections, mindsets, pathways, and mood states. When an abusive spouse begins to see the tentacles of sin pervasively invading all aspects of relating in a consistent way, then godly sorrow leads to God-honoring repentance and God-dependence.
In a blog post, all we can do is “hit the high spots.” For comprehensive equipping in comprehensive biblical counseling consider Soul Physicians (http://tinyurl.com/d8grf6) and Spiritual Friends (http://tinyurl.com/coh23r).
Where Do We Go From Here?
In our next post, we’ll explore how to counsel someone victimized by spousal abuse. In the post after that, we’ll examine marital counseling in abuse situations.