A Christian Counselor Speaks
This is the third article in a four-part series on domestic abuse. As previously shown, domestic abuse is not always physical. Rather, it is a pattern of “disrespecting, controlling, insulting, or devaluing one’s partner, whether or not that behavior also involves more explicit verbal abuse, physical aggression, or sexual mistreatment.” (Lundy Bancroft) In fact, Paul Hegstrom, PhD. identifies 25 different kinds of domestic abuse in his book Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them, and only one of these is physical.
In my previous articles, I discussed the startling statistics, what is and is not abuse, the characteristics of abusers, the impact of abuse, and the barriers to getting help. Many victims agonize over the right way to respond to domestic abuse and stay stuck in a valley of indecision for months or years. This article addresses the question of “What should I do?” and provides helpful insight from the Bible to assist abuse victims to reach their own conclusion.
Please note that, while the heart-breaking tragedy of domestic abuse perpetrated by men against women is the most common, men can be and are abused by women, too. This is especially true in cases of emotional abuse. Keep this in mind as you read these articles.*
Confronting Denial about Domestic Abuse
In the light of my own personal experience and my research into the subject, I strongly believe and teach that abusive behavior must be aggressively confronted and dealt with one hundred percent of the time. Children have to be protected and that means removing them from the source of the abuse. It is magical thinking to trust that abusive people will just change and get better on their own, without any consequences to motivate them, or any accountability or help.Many abuse victims will say that they stay, “for the sake of the kids and to keep the family together.” They may argue that the abuse is directed at them, rather than the children, or that their partner is a “good father.” That is a lie. A good father does not abuse his wife. And a good mother does not tolerate being abused. One of the toughest truths I have ever had to face was this: I was an accomplice to the abuse and its destruction of my children’s well-being because I had not removed my abusing spouse from my home. If this is you, let that sink in and roll around for a while. The denial needs to be crushed, or another generation of hurt and damaged children will ensue.
“Should I Stay or Go?”
The Agonized Question of the Abused Spouse
I separated from my abusive husband after many years of staying. The motivation for my decision ̶ or lack of decision ̶ was complex and was rooted in the fact that I had been a physically or emotionally battered woman for most of my adult life. I’d had conflicting values and messages instilled in me from an early age, which were reinforced over the years. This war inside me caused much anguish and paralyzed me from taking action when it was called for. I was utterly fearful of making the wrong choice and hurting someone – including my abusing spouse.
Some of the values and beliefs that profoundly impacted my decision to stay as long as I did were the lifelong dream to be a wife and mother, the belief that a whole family is the best thing for children, and my misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches. I prayed fervently, searched the Bible, talked to counselors and friends, read books and articles, and was still tortured over what to do. Eventually, I came to a conclusion and filed for a separation. For a period, my husband tried to convince me that he wanted to change and started seeing a specialist. But he still demonstrated very controlling and abusive language and behavior, interspersed with times of seeming repentance, romance, and saying all the things I longed to hear. After a couple of pleasant dates, when I would not just throw all caution to the wind and let him move back in, he was enraged. A deluge of scathing and inflammatory texts, emails, and voice mails followed and continued for months, interspersed with apologies and pleas. My therapist encouraged me to cease all contact, but my husband would not stop harassing and stalking me. I contacted his counselor and filed for a protection order (which was denied because there was no physical abuse). He responded by divorcing me.
A Flawed Moral Compass Causes Inner Conflict
As a friend and counselor, I have heard many, many people tell their stories, which has only made my compassion for others grow. It is not unusual to hear stories similar to my own. I have met with women in abusive situations who came to me because they were torn and could not decide what the “right” thing to do was. None of these women are stupid and none of them are selfish. Except in cases of substantial financial dependency, I have never heard one single woman say that she had not or was not going to leave her abuser because she didn’t want to be alone. Not one. Usually, these women echo the same inner conflicts I experienced and express the same fear of harming the people they love the most by making the wrong decision. Seldom is there any emphasis on their own happiness or well-being. It is all about other people and adhering to some sense of a moral compass that is flawed.
Most of these women struggle because they believe their partners are in pain and need their compassion and help. In addition, they see the good parts and the potential in their abusive mates, and they ache to believe the empty promises in order to avoid the breakup of their families ̶ which is a known and well-documented source of damage and heartache. They don’t want to give up on or abandon anyone ̶ not even, and especially not, their abusive spouse. They overestimate the power of their love and the certainty of its influence, assume too much responsibility for the well-being of others, and forget about free will in the equation. They take for granted the bond that they have with their children and overrate their ability to mitigate the effects on their children of being exposed to an abusive environment. They feel impossibly stuck, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, torn by a choice that will hurt the ones they love no matter which one they make.
I remember watching a film on domestic violence in graduate school. Afterward, a couple of students commented that they just could not understand why any woman would stay with an abuser. My hand shot up, and, tears streaming, I told them I understood exactly why.
It is more than likely that, if the abuse has been occurring for some time, everyone in the family will need support and help in recovering from the abuse and dealing with its effects. This can involve professional, pastoral, or lay counseling. But it needs to be helpful and informed by knowledge of the realities of abuse.
Physical Separation is Necessary in Cases of Abuse
In my opinion, if there is any physical abuse, the abuser should be removed from the home without exception. In many cases, saying “No” to physical or emotional abuse does not necessitate a rush to divorce. But it often does require a physical separation in order to provide physical and/or emotional safety for the affected family members and to discipline the abuser. The message must be put across in a potent way that abuse is not going to be tolerated. The abuser’s abusing mindset must be completely dismantled, and that requires a skilled and focused intervention, as well as time. Experts agree that a quality treatment program for domestic abuse will span a minimum of one to two years.
What Does Scripture Say to the Abused Spouse?
The Bible says many things about how believers should treat each other, and provides a firm foundation for taking a stand against domestic abuse of all kinds. For example, Romans 12:10 states: “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.” There is absolutely nothing about domestic abuse that is kindly affectionate or honoring. Here are a few other examples:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. – Ephesians 4:2
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. – Ephesians 4:29
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. – Ephesians 5:21
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. – Philippians 2:3-4
Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:17
Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. – 1 Peter 3:8
Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
Any admonitions regarding behavior and attitude given to believers do not cease to apply just because two people get married. Scriptures specific to spousal conduct confirm and are in harmony with those given to the body of Christ as a whole.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. – Ephesians 5:25-29
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them. – Colossians 3:19
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. – 1 Peter 3:7
Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. – Ephesians 5:33)
An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones. – Proverbs 12:4
Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. The heart of her husband safely trusts her; so he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil all the days of her life. – Proverbs 31:10-12
What about Submission?
A word about wives submitting to husbands. These verses are in fact in the Bible:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. – Ephesians 5:22
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. – Colossians 3:18
First of all, consider the context in which Paul’s teaching was given. At that time, women were considered property. It makes sense that if a woman is property and dependent on her husband for her care, with few rights or resources of her own, that it would be prudent for her to submit to him and for him to be responsible for her ̶ much as a slave to his master or children to their parents. In our society, we no longer have slaves and women now enjoy the same civil and legal rights as men, and most of the same privileges. Many are as educated if not more educated than men and are well able to live alone. They are competent to lead, manage, and govern. They can raise children, establish careers, make financial decisions, and support themselves singly. Marriages today are more often regarded as loving partnerships between equals and the expectation is that such relationships will be collaborative. Wives are responsible for their own conduct and have the same High Priest as their husbands – Christ alone. The application of Paul’s teaching concerning women speaking and teaching in the church, serving in positions of leadership, and having long hair have been understood as temporary directives in light of the necessity of these rules in New Testament culture and concerns at the time they were written. Though often controversial, some Bible scholars argue that female submission should be treated in a similar way.
But regardless of whether or not God intended wives to submit to their husbands as a temporary provision or permanently across the ages, the mandate to submit is given to wives. It is not given to husbands to demand that their wives submit to them. Submission is a choice and must be earned by husbands, who are instructed to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Submission and loving like Christ are therefore two sides of the same coin, and in practice, this approximates mutual submission or reciprocity. Many a wife has an innate longing (perhaps due to Genesis 3:16) for a husband who provides, leads, and protects her, both physically and emotionally – someone she can look to, trust, and respect. Complimentary to that is the wise and considerate husband who eagerly seeks his wife’s opinions and counsel, weighs them heavily in all matters, and seeks for her good above his own. A couple who are guided by Biblical values will aspire to out-give each other.
To elaborate this, we can say that leaders (by principle, husbands) are to be servants.
…but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. – Mark 10:43-45
If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. – John 13:14-15
Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. – Luke 22:26
It follows that a godly husband will be a giver and a server, rather than a boss, dictator, controller, or abuser. Any concept of submission that is not contingent on a husband appropriately loving and serving his wife is not understood through the grid of scripture. It does not reflect the New Testament teaching on Christian conduct, which should be viewed as a coherent and consistent whole, not as a collection of random, unrelated verses.
Furthermore, consider these words:
We ought to obey God rather than men. – Acts 5:29
Do not give place to the devil. – Ephesians 4:27
As believers, we are not to submit to the devil or to sin. Domestic abuse is devilish and it is a sin.
How Can Christian Counseling Help with Domestic Abuse?
Choosing to confront or leave an abusive relationship takes a lot of courage. Many Christians struggle with the decision because they are compassionate toward and care about their abusing partners, in spite of their hurtful words and behavior. They know that change is possible. Because believers value the commitment of marriage, abuse victims may only be able to take the necessary steps when they believe in their hearts that they have done everything in their power to help their spouse and save the relationship. They desperately want to know God’s opinion and do his will, but they cannot hear above the noise in their heads. A Christian counselor can help you to sort out your experiences, provide a safe environment for you to talk about and process what is going on or has happened, and help you develop a plan of action while being sensitive to your spiritual beliefs and personal concerns. I am an abuse survivor and love to work with this population, so if this is you, reach out today. If you would like to know more about how Christian counseling can help you, please contact me here. I am only a phone call away.
*For simplicity, I will most often refer to abusers as “he” and “him,” bearing in mind that women can abuse too. So can minor-aged boys and girls.
Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them, by Paul Hegstrom, PhD; Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, By Lundy Bancroft
“Annoyed” by Dustin and Jennifer Stacey, Flickr CreativeCommons, (CC BY 2.0); “Exercise Plays Vital Role Maintaining Brain Health,” courtesy of A Health Blog, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Bible Coffee” by Oklahoma Christian University, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.