Friday, June 26, 2009

Counseling and Abuse in Marriage

Counseling and Abuse in Marriage
Part I: A Wise Christian Response

Recently a pastor asked me how a church should deal with “abuse in marriage.” 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”?

First Things First: Listen and Learn

While “abuse” can surely be “both ways” (a wife to a husband or a husband to a wife), for this discussion we’ll emphasize how we can respond when a husband is abusing his wife. When a wife says to you, as her pastor or her spiritual friend, “My husband is abusing me,” where do you start?

“Abuse” is a word fraught with emotion and emotions tempt us to jump in “Peter-first”—like the Apostle Peter. We’re tempted to speak without thinking. However, even in this highly charged situation, we must step back and define the fuzzy word “abuse.”

Abuse can be emotional, mental, spiritual, sexual, or physical. It can happen one time in the heat of a passionate exchange, or it can become a habitual way a husband mistreats his wife. So our first calling is to explore lovingly, caringly, and wisely exactly what is occurring.

Respond with Compassion: Empathy

We’re not simply on a “fact-finding mission” asking questions like “Joe Friday” from the old Dragnet detective television series, “Just the facts, Maam.” We must enter this situation, this person’s story, and this person’s soul (compare 1 Thessalonians 2:8) with empathy (Romans 12:15).

As we listen to this woman’s story of spousal abuse, she must know our compassion and our passion. In compassion, we weep with her as she weeps. In passion, we express righteous anger over the evil of the abuse she is suffering.

It’s a horrific thing to be abused by one who has vowed to love you. Satan attempts to use abuse to shatter a woman’s sense of self, sense of trust, and sense of reality.

Satan also uses society, including Evangelical Christian society to “victimize the victim.” Male pastors in particular (I’m an ordained minister so I am speaking to myself also) must be very careful to guard against abusing the abuse victim. We must show ourselves trustworthy or we will silence a wife’s courageous decision to verbalize her abuse.

Yes, the time will come when we explore her response to the abuse. Yes, the time will even come, if we enter into marital counseling, when we explore how she relates to her husband. But we must be extremely careful lest we ever convey, “You caused this abuse.”

Nothing ever excuses a husband’s abuse of his wife. Nothing ever “causes” a husband to abuse his wife. (In a later post, we’ll discuss couples counseling for abuse.)

Respond with Passion: Bold Love

Of course “empathy and compassion” without “passion and action” can be like saying to a person in need, “Go your way, I’ll be praying for you.” So to “compassion” we must add “passion”—righteous anger that wisely responds to the abusive situation with bold love.

We must immediately help the abused wife to establish safeguards against further abuse. This will look different depending on the nature of the abuse. It is crucial to involve “others.”

“Others” can include the Body of Christ. The pastor and other church leaders, including men who know the husband, can intervene by lovingly but firmly confronting the abusing husband.

“Others” can include godly, strong women in the church who will, if necessary, provide a safe, supportive place to stay for the wife (and children if there are any—an abusive husband is often also an abusive father). An angry, abusive husband, exposed by his wife, could very well explode with rage when he learns his wife has talked with “outsiders” about the abuse. Sending a wife back into that situation without considering protective options is naïve.

“Others” could include the “authorities” (compare Romans 13). Police may need to become involved. In some situations the court system may need to be involved. A restraining order may need to be obtained.

Many times I have seen the combined support of the Body of Christ and of civil authorities bring protection to an abused woman. Even more than that, I have seen such combined action begin to bring true healing to an abusive situation.

It is never an easy decision as to whether or not we involve civil authorities. Each situation is unique. We must listen well to “both sides” and seek to “weigh the evidence” in a “Solomon-like” way.

We must factor in:

*Whether the husband is willing to receive counseling.

*Whether the husband shows signs of true remorse and repentance

*Whether or not the husband has shown a history of an inability to control his behavior. We must seek to discern whether the husband is simply trying to appease and pacify us.

Where Do We Go From Here?

First, we listen carefully and soulfully to a wife’s traumatic story of abuse.

Second, we empathize with her pain over broken vows to love and cherish.

Third, we act with bold love as we address the situation face-to-face with the abusing husband and as we provide a safety-net for the abused wife (and children).

Safety first.

To the goal of safety we must always add the broadest goal of God’s glory. God is glorified when an on-looking world sees grace triumphing over sin. God is glorified when marriages change.

In our next post we’ll explore marital counseling for abuse.

In a future post, we’ll also explore the hotly debated issue and contested question, “Is ‘abuse’ biblical grounds for divorce?”


Anonymous said...

I'd like to know the definition of mental or emotional abuse? How does a controlling husband fit in? Is it abuse if you're husband is always saying you are wrong, saying you don't listen to him, you don't do as he says, that he is not the priority even when you do all you know to make him so; even to the neglect of your children? Is it abuse when you feel you can never measure up to his standards and he claims you are the problem, not him? Is it abuse when you try to engage in conversation and it's always considered arguing? When you try to express your feelings and you're told your only allowed to share them when you encounter a problem, not when he is talking about having a problem with you? What if every pastor you've talked to is against the marriage continuing and you feel God has said you made a commitment and need to stay in it? What if you still love him in the midst of all the "toxicity"? What if no one thinks you are doing the right thing by staying in the marriage?

Doc. K. said...

Thank you for your candor. Those are heart-wrenching questions. If you feel comfortable, please feel free to email me at and I will be glad to respond personally. Perhaps what I can also is respond more generally to these real-life questions as a part of this series. My short answer is: Yes, you are describing emotional, mental, spiritual abuse.

Paula Silva said...

It is critical that the church get involved in the domestic violence that is permeating our Christian community. So often emotional abuse is negated because there are no physical wounds. The wounds are deep inside. The heart of those being abused have been wallpapered with lies from the abuser. There are many scripture passages that warn us about the effect of words.

Knowing how to respond to both the victim and the abuser is critical. Well intended people often revictimize the abused.

We in FOCUS Ministries not only minister to women and families but also provide tools for those who want to help in our book, Violence Among Us: Ministry to Families in Crisis.

There has been an Elephant in our church for too long. I am encouraged that the church is beginning to address the sin of abuse that is destroying our families.

Paula Silva, president of FOCUS MInistries,

Grandma said...

I would also like to hear your thoughts regarding "Anonymous's" questions so if you would make them public, I would really appreciate it.

How do you advise grandparents who feel that grandchildren are being emotionally and mentally abused?

Doc. K. said...

Grandma, I have engaged in a email correspondance with anonymous, since her questions were more private.

I think anyone reading her candid comments would agree that she is involved in an abusive relationship. Her post describes spiritual abuse among other types of abuse. I recommend people read Johnson and vonVonderan's "The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse."

To go into more detail on my response to anonymous would, I think, border on breaking confidentiality, so I will have to stop there.

As for your good question about how to advise grandparents who think their children are being emotionally and mentally abused... as I said in my first post in this series, I would first want to listen well and gather enough information so that together we could define what is happening. What is meant by emotional and mental abuse. My advice, as well as my empathy, would correspond to the details of the situation.

Having said that, how much a grandparent can say and do, depends upon many factors: is the abusing parent the biological child or the in-law? What is the relationship like between the grandparent and the parent? What is the intensity and frequency of the "abuse"? How old are the parents? How responsive are they to help, feedback, and counsel? Are they believers? Do they attend a good church that could provide parental counseling? I'd be glad to interact more via email: Bob