Domestic Abuse in the Christian Marriage
By Gretchen Stockman, MA, LMFT
Domestic abuse is a grossly underreported crime. It takes place in every country in the world, and it is an evil that pervades intimate relationships and families from all walks of life, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economic or social factors, or religion...it is prevalent even among those who identify as born-again Christians.
Although acts of physical domestic violence are perpetrated against men, several sources estimate that 95% of victims are women.* Nevertheless, 3 million men are physically assaulted by their partner each year in the United States alone. One in four women will experience an act of domestic violence in her lifetime, and it is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, occurring more often than car accidents, muggings, rapes, and cancer deaths combined. Every nine seconds a woman is physically battered by her partner.
Consider these other startling observations and statistics:
- Fifty percent of all marriages will be marred by domestic violence
- Domestic violence occurs in 24-30 percent of all homes on a regular basis.
- Up to 50% of all homeless women and children are in their predicament due to domestic violence.
- Forty percent of children who witness their mother being battered develop anxiety; 48%, depression; 53% act out with parents; and 60% act out with siblings.
- Male children who witness violence against their moms are 700 times more likely to physically abuse their own wives, and if the child was abused also he is 1,000 times more likely to abuse his wife.
- Witnessing domestic violence in the home is the strongest risk factor for spreading it from one generation to the next.
- Victims of domestic violence are prone to depression, sleep problems, anxiety, post-traumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms such as flash-backs, and other emotional problems. The emotional impact of domestic violence factors into more than ¼ of all adult female suicide attempts and is a leading cause of substance abuse in women. Long term chronic conditions are common among abuse survivors, such as heart disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
- Generation after generation, people have abandoned their faith and trust in God because of the Church's silence, lack of intervention and support, and the misinterpretation of scripture to suggest that God wants them to endure the abuse, that they don't have enough faith or that praying and believing is the only appropriate course of action, and/or that God does not care about their suffering.
Abuse is Not Always Physical
Bear in mind that the above statistics and any others you can find are almost ALL related to acts of physical domestic violence. There are millions of uncounted victims who, although they have not been physically harmed, still live with repeated verbal assaults, sexual mistreatment, economic abuse, spiritual abuse, humiliation, and many other forms of non-physical violence. Paul Hegstrom, Phd, author of Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them, identifies twenty different forms of domestic abuse, and only one of them is physical. If relatively few victims report physical abuse, how much more underreported might emotional abuse be? Non-physical abuse is nearly impossible to prove, is often not met with appropriate concern, is not grounds for a restraining order, and does not engender legal ramifications. Why report it, and to whom?
What Constitutes Domestic Abuse?
"Domestic violence" and "domestic abuse" are terms often used interchangeably in books, articles, and other forms of media—and rightfully so. Nevertheless, many people fail to recognize or call abuse "violence" because they equate domestic violence only with physical aggression, such as hitting, kicking, choking, or restraining. But here are a few definitions of "violence" found in the dictionary that interestingly do not describe anything necessarily physical:
- An unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power
- Rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language
- Strength of emotion or an unpleasant or destructive natural force
One definition of "domestic abuse" is to treat (a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly. This view makes the term an excellent umbrella for capturing a host of injurious behaviors not limited to physical aggression. According to author and expert Lundy Bancroft, a domestic abuser is one who exhibits a pattern of "disrespecting, controlling, insulting, or devaluing his partner, whether or not his behavior also involves more explicit verbal abuse, physical aggression, or sexual mistreatment."
Domestic abuse is not about someone "losing control." Rather, it is ALL about power and control. The abuser intentionally creates or takes advantage of an imbalance of power to exploit and control another person to serve his own purposes. He does it because it works for him. The abuser's abusive thinking (belief system) supports his attitude, words, and actions.
Here is a sample of behaviors that may be components of domestic abuse, particularly if they are repeated and chronic:
- Physical aggression and/or threats of physical aggression
- Towering over you, getting uncomfortably close when angry
- Angry tirades
- Hostile lectures that go on and on and on
- Threatening to leave/divorce you
- Threatening to have an affair
- Threatening to commit suicide if you complain, leave, or report the abuse
- Threatening to lie, tell on, or report you about something in retaliation
- Intimidation - to make you afraid with looks, actions, and gestures
- Smashing things / destroying property
- Abusing pets
- Displaying weapons
- Insulting, putting down, patronizing, unjustly accusing you
- Criticism that is harsh, undeserved, or frequent
- Yelling, seething, growling, profanity
- Extreme unwarranted jealousy
- Humiliating, hostile humor, joking at your expense
- Shaming, provoking guilt
- Dismissing your grievances to talk about his own
- Accusing you of doing what he does or thinking the way he thinks (i.e. telling you you're the one who's angry all the time, claiming you are mistreating him)
- Contemptuous facial expressions and other devaluing body language
- Denying or minimizing the abuse, blaming you for causing it
- Isolating you-- controlling if you go, where you go, who you see or talk to
- Controlling what you do, what you wear
- Not listening to you, using the silent treatment
- Punishing you
- Depriving you of things you need (such as food, clothing, a bed, sleep, medical care, etc.)
- Withholding sex or affection
- Demanding sex, sexually assaulting or raping, coercing to perform unwanted or bazaar sexual acts
- Threatening to take the children away
- Preventing you from getting or keeping a job
- Controlling the money, taking your money, giving you an allowance
- Male privilege (treating you like a servant, making all the major decisions, defining your roles and duties, acting like the king of the castle)
- Denying basic rights, like privacy and self-determination
- Using the law to enforce his power
- Using the Scriptures to guilt or control you; asserting that God supports his beliefs/attitude/actions; misinterpreting the Bible to profit himself
- Making you feel bad about yourself
- Gaslighting--making you think you're crazy; using mind games
- Abusing you and getting you to believe you misunderstood somehow or imagined it
- Making you feel guilty, embarrassed, or stupid for the negative impact the abuse is causing you
According to Lundy, the making of an abuser is like a recipe...each recipe has a different sub- set of ingredients from those possible. A single abuser may not exhibit every item on the list, but he will some of them.
When Is Abuse Not Domestic Abuse?
All relationships are imperfect and everyone has a bad day sometimes. Anyone in an intimate relationship has made grave relationship errors, including some that can be considered abusive. For example, on more than one occasion each spouse may have been rude, shouted, cussed, name-called, said things they wish they wouldn't have, broken a promise, failed to listen, acted selfishly, made some kind of threat, ridiculed, or even intentionally hurt their partner's feelings or embarrassed them. Isolated or infrequent incidences of abusive behavior may damage a relationship and threaten love, but fall short of "domestic abuse." Domestic abuse refers to a persistent pattern of abusive behavior that in one way or another usually occurs often, if not daily.
Who Are the Abusers?
Unless you live with the abuser and are his victim, it can be difficult to spot him*. In fact, he is often extremely charming and well-liked by others. He may sit on the third row every Sunday at church, sing in the choir, or serve as an usher. He may even be the pastor! His friends may think he's an all-around good guy and acquaintances may find him quite pleasant, conversational, and witty. It is not unusual for abused wives to report that the courtship and even early marriage were idyllic, with their man being romantic, attentive, and seemingly caring. But eventually the honeymoon ended and the horror either abruptly erupted or slowly emerged, leaving these wives dazed, confused, and absolutely crushed. Some missed or explained away early indicators. Victims often try frantically to find ways to change themselves to please or appease their husbands and restore their relationships to what they once seemed to be. Some believe if they pray hard enough, long enough, or if they love enough, the abuse will stop.
If you have been or are being abused, if you suspect someone is abusing, or if abuse has been reported to you by someone, consider these common characteristics of abusers in your assessment of the situation:
- Low self-esteem, high insecurity
- Believe in male supremacy and rigidly insist on stereotypical sex roles in the family
- Blame others for their actions
- Exceedingly possessive and may accuse their wives of flirting or having affairs
- Disrespect their partners and consider themselves superior
- Controlling and manipulative
- Feel entitled
- Feel justified
- Have a Jekyll and Hyde personality
- Twist things and turn tables
- Minimize or deny their abusive behavior
- Treat their wives differently at home than they do in public
- Work hard at preserving a good public image
- Have severe responses to stress
- Exaggerate their own contributions to the relationship/family
- Hate when their wives disagree with them
- Supreme fault-finders when it comes to their partners, everything is her fault
- Assert that their wives are the ones with the problem
- Are the only ones who know the right way to do anything
- See themselves as victims
- Adept at making allies when the spotlight is on the abuse
If any combination of these fit the description, then you are very likely dealing with domestic abuse.
The Impact of Abuse
The physical impact of severe physical abuse is often more or less obvious—broken bones, burns, cuts, bruises, black eyes, concussions, internal injuries, and death, although milder physical abuse such as grabbing, shoving, or slapping may not leave distinguishable marks. Emotional abuse is often equally or more devastating to the recipient and the damage usually lasts much longer than the wounds of physical violence. In fact, many women who have been physically assaulted in intimate relationships claim that the greater harm resulted from the man's emotional abuse. Also physical abuse is usually cyclical with a "honeymoon" period between episodes, and while emotional abuse can also have long stretches of relative peace between episodes, it is usually much more frequent, and in many cases occurs daily.
Those being physically abused are typically emotionally abused also, compounding the damage.
The effects of emotional abuse are numerous. Victims typically have become used to walking on eggshells. They may be chronically defensive, nervous, and may by hypersensitive to criticism. They may doubt themselves and their perceptions to a degree that those who have not been abused cannot understand. Frequently they doubt their ability to make good decisions, discern danger, or protect themselves or their children. Abuse can contribute to plaguing feelings of worthlessness, incompetency, and not being able to do anything right. Many people develop substance abuse problems as a means of numbing the pain and coping with the betrayal, hopelessness, and disillusionment. Fear, anger, resentment, unforgiveness, sadness, regret, guilt, and other negative feelings may become problematic. Emotional abuse feels very personal, as it tears down a person and wounds their spirit. Love and hurt become linked. Healing from abuse can take months, years, or may never be completed this side of heaven.
Psychological difficulties such as ongoing anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and post-traumatic stress are common among abuse victims and survivors, as are physical health problems. The stress of abuse compromises the immune system, increasing the risks of both minor and serious illnesses. Headaches, stomach aches, and psychosomatic symptoms are common. Children who are exposed to abuse in their homes are also at risk of similar issues, as well as academic, behavioral, and social problems—even if the abuse was not directed at them!
Abused people often wrestle with shame and may avoid outside friends and extended family. The ability to be an effective, tuned in, and emotionally available parent usually suffers. Being injured or emotionally rattled often leads to missed work or poor performance, which can result in job stress and unemployment.
Barriers to Telling and Getting Help
First and foremost, many abused wives don't tell because they are afraid of what their husbands might do to them. They have either been overtly threatened or are immobilized by fear of the unknown and what-ifs. Even if a man has never grabbed, pushed, kicked, hit, or beaten his wife before, if he has been emotionally abusing her it can become physical at any time. Anyone who has seen "the look" from their abusive partner knows that any caustic situation has an unknown escalation potential.
Female and male abused spouses may be dependent on their partners financially and be uncertain of how they would survive or support the children if the person they told convinced them to leave or if their partners became so enraged by the disclosure or its consequences that they chose to leave them.
Both female and male abused spouses may fear telling about what is going on in their homes because of the high regard others appear to have for their partners. They may either still want to protect their spouse's reputation or fear not being believed. It is not uncommon for clergy, family, and friends to find such reports difficult to fathom because, after all, they know this guy! He's a good man, a great father, and a solid Christian, right?
And abuse victims can be very good at hiding the fact that they're suffering—holding themselves together and appearing to be normal to high achievers, functioning well outside the home, helping others, and seeming cheerful and very put together. But inside it is a whole different story!
Many churches have an unofficial "hands off" policy when it comes to issues of domestic abuse due to ignorance, disbelief, denial, fear of legal ramifications, and/or not wanting to participate in the split-up of families or lose members. If an abused wife gathers the courage to seek help within such a church, at best she might be pointed toward individual counseling for herself or perhaps marriage counseling, and at worst be advised to go home and work at complaining less, praying more, and being more submissive. In the latter case, the implication is that she is somehow at least partially responsible for her own abuse. Church leaders who have little understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse often apply and propagate the "it takes two" or 50/50 philosophy of relationship difficulties, thus exacerbating the victim's sense of guilt and confusion, and reinforcing the blame her abuser spews at her regularly.
Christian abuse victims often use the Scriptures and church teaching against themselves, or have had it used against them by their abusing spouse or others, so that they tolerate abuse and enable it to continue. In the back of their minds, they are painfully aware of scriptures that endorse turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, keeping no record of wrongs, and enduring all things. They wonder if the Apostle Paul's instruction to submit to their husbands and obey them in all things extends to the emotional beatings, control, and unreasonable demands they are subjected to. It doesn't seem logical, but they suspect God wants and expects them to hang in there long enough for the abuse to miraculously end, no matter how many lives are falling apart in the interim.
In Christian circles, separation and divorce can be regarded as one of the worst sins a person can commit, the most damaging threat to children's lives, the hallmark of faithlessness, and an overall epic failure. I propose that domestic abuse is a horrific sin, is a profoundly damaging threat to children's lives, is faithless, and an epic failure to love and care for one's spouse and children. Abuse should never be enabled by allowing it to continue--there is far too much at stake! While it's true that miracles happen and effectual fervent prayer is powerful, abusing spouses have free choice and there is no guarantee they will yield no matter how much prayer goes forth or how persuasive the Spirit is. There almost always must be consequences for chronic abusive behavior in order for the abuser to be motivated to get the help he or she needs. The abuser must come to a solid conclusion that, "I don't want to be that person anymore!" and the belief system that fuels the abuse must be challenged and changed.
Husbands and wives who abuse their spouses may avoid getting the help they need for a variety of reasons. They may remain completely justified in their own thinking or blame their partners for provoking them or needing to be "straightened out." They may want to try to make changes privately, without help or accountability, relying on willpower that eventually taps out. Pride and a profound desire to not have to sacrifice one's position, status, and positive public image is also an incredible barrier to getting help, even when the person has come to the realization that he or she desperately needs it.
What Needs to Happen?
In light of personal experience and research into the subject, I support and now teach that 100% of the time abusive behavior must be aggressively confronted and dealt with. Children are to be protected, period, and that means removal from the source of the abuse. It's magical thinking to trust that abusive people will just change and get better on their own without any consequences to motivate them, accountability, or help.
Many abuse victims will say they stay "for the sake of the kids and keeping the family together." They may argue that the abuse is directed at them, not at 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: that because I had not removed my abusing spouse from my home I was an accomplice to the abuse and its destruction of my children's well-being. If this is you, let that sink in and roll around for a while. The denial must be crushed, or another generation of hurt and damaged children will ensue.
I separated from my abusive husband after many years of staying. The motivation for my decision--or lack of decision-- was complex, rooted in the fact that I had been a physically or emotionally battered woman most of my adult life and had conflicting values and messages instilled in me from an early age, reinforced throughout 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 still was 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 he wanted to change and started seeing a specialist. But he still demonstrated very controlling and abusive language and behavior, intermittent with times of seeming repentance, romance, and saying all the things I longed to hear. After a couple of pleasant dates, when I wouldn't 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 voicemails, interspersed with apologies and pleas, followed and continued for months. 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.
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 couldn't 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 hadn't or wasn't 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's all about other people and adhering to some sense of moral compass that is flawed. Most of the 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 break up 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 wellbeing of others, and forget about free-will in the equation. They take for granted the bond they have with their children and overrate their ability to mitigate the effects on their children 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 in graduate school watching a film on domestic violence, and afterward a couple of students commented that they just couldn't understand why any woman would stay with an abuser. My hand shot up, and tears streaming, I told them I understood exactly why.
More than likely, if the abuse has been occurring for some time, everyone in the family needs support and help in recovering from the abuse and dealing with its effects. This can involve professional, pastoral, or lay counseling....as long as it's helpful and informed by knowledge of the realities of abuse.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
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 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 mind-set must be completely dismantled, and that takes skilled and focused intervention, as well as time. Experts agree that a quality treatment program for domestic abuse will span a minimum of 1-2 years.
What Does Scripture Say?
The Bible says many things about how believers should treat each other, providing a firm foundation for taking a stand against domestic abuse of all kinds. For instance, 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 does not cease to apply just because two people get married! Scriptures specific to spousal conduct are confirming and harmonious 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, having 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 parents. In our society we no longer have slaves and women now enjoy the same civil and legal rights and most of the privileges of men. Many are as educated if not more educated than the average male, and are well able to live alone, competent to lead, manage, and govern, 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 husbands do—Christ alone. Application of Paul's teaching about 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 female submission be treated similarly.
Regardless of whether or not God intended for 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 to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Submission and loving like Christ, therefore, are two sides of the same coin, and in practice 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, weighing them heavily in all matters and seeking for her good above his own. A couple guided by Biblical values will aspire to out-give each other.
To elaborate, 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)
A godly husband, it follows, will be a giver and a server, not a boss, a dictator, controller, or an abuser.
Any concept of submission that is not contingent on husbands appropriately loving and serving their wives 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.
A domestic abuser is one who exhibits a pattern of "disrespecting, controlling, insulting, or devaluing his partner, whether or not his behavior also involves more explicit verbal abuse, physical aggression, or sexual mistreatment." - Lundy Bancroft
Grounds for Separation
Domestic abuse is wrong. How is this sin to be dealt with by the church and in the Christian home? Again, the Bible has something to say:
Make no friendship with an angry man, and with a furious man do not go... (Proverbs 22:24)
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that 'by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.' And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Corinthians 5:4-5)
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. (Luke 17:3)
And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother. (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
Depending on the nature and severity of the abuse, there may need to be a lengthy period of either no contact with the abuser, or else restricted contact. This will allow family members to concentrate on their own healing and growth, without the pressure of having to interact with the offending party and fear of the possibility of relapse. Once the abuser has spent substantial time in treatment and has demonstrated both willingness and progress, a spouse may choose to begin a season of "dating" her partner. This decision should not be made too early or in isolation, however. A Christian counselor and trusted others can help victims "see" any red flags and to know when trust or reconciliation is premature or unwise. Abusers are typically gifted at concealing their abusiveness when they want to....after all, they conned their wives into marrying them in the first place! An abuser who has not truly changed how he thinks will often try to reclaim his victim if he can, and deceptively woo her into letting him back into the home. Unfortunately, once he's back this typically brings with it a worsening of the abuse. Because now he is really ticked at her for putting him through all that.
The statistics on abusers fundamentally changing are, sadly, very low. It is important for a victim to remember this when she feels tempted to "believe all things," hang her hope on a miracle, and stay in the abusive relationship. I am NOT suggesting that she not pray or trust God to intervene in the ways He can. I AM suggesting that God can only do miracles in an affected marriage or family when the abuser yields to Him. True change takes time. Because the ramifications of abuse are so devastating, demand proof of the change before believing it.
To Reconcile or Not to Reconcile
But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent—not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. (2 Corinthians 2:5-7)
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
Regardless of how badly we've been hurt or mistreated, God expects us to forgive, just as we have been forgiven by Him (Ephesians 4:32). However, forgiving someone does not mean you have to put yourself back in harm's way...to remain married and begin living together again with someone who has not repented and changed his thinking and his ways.
If an abusing spouse gets the help needed and is sufficiently transformed, and if the wounds of his partner are not too severe and she is willing, then reconciliation is possible. Reconciliation is God's specialty! But the wisdom of doing so is on a case by case basis and should be considered with appropriate unction and counsel. A wife does not have to reconcile with someone who has abused her, and it is not shameful or a spiritual indictment if she chooses not to.
Marriage Counseling is Not the Answer
Domestic abuse is not a marriage problem. I repeat, domestic abuse is not a marriage problem! Domestic abuse is an abuser problem. Most victims struggle with this truth because they are aware of their own weaknesses and flaws. Abusers often take advantage of this fact to blame the abuse on their partners and get them to accept at least partial blame.
Church leadership and professional counselors who are not dialed in to the realities of domestic abuse and the deceptive presentation of many abusers often become hooked by the abusing partner and end up colluding with him. During a counseling session, while in her abuser's presence, a wife may find it very difficult to articulate with any force or clarity the ordeal she is experiencing. She may be utterly intimidated, particularly if the therapist is sympathetic to the abuser's complaints about his wife. Understandably, this adds insult to injury for the victim.
Domestic abuse is not a marriage problem.
Individual counseling or treatment for the abuser that is informed and targeted at changing abusive thinking and behavior, along with intercessory prayer, is likely to be the most effective course of action. Only once sincere and prolonged change in the abuser has occurred can marital counseling have any positive effect. In the meantime, the wife and any children can benefit from receiving the services of a domestic violence agency or shelter and individual family, or group counseling, preferably with a Christian counselor familiar with the impact of domestic abuse.
How Individual Christian Counseling Can Help
Coping with and overcoming the effects of domestic abuse is not something that should be shouldered alone. Wives and children who have been abused or exposed to abuse face many challenges, some which may not surface until well after the abuse has ended. If the abuse is still occurring, Christian counseling can help you or your loved one reveal what is happening in a confidential and supportive environment, sort out conflicting desires and beliefs, develop a safety plan, and make important decisions. If abuse is in the past, counseling can help you connect the dots between what happened back then and what is experienced now. Emotional healing and a restored life are possible with faith in Jesus Christ and practical tools. If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out today. I am an email or 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.