Deadly Counseling

A few weeks ago I posted a simple question to survivors of domestic violence in a few online forums. The question was, ” Could you share examples of bad counsel you’ve received from churches and counselors?” In less than an hour I had over 50 responses. Below are just some the answers I received.

  • Pray more, have more sex, ask God to show you what you’re doing to make him so angry.
  • “Read this book on how to be a better wife.” “Just stop pushing his buttons; you know what they are.”
  • You need to treat your husband like he has special needs. Step back from things so you can give him your full attention.
  • “He never meant you any harm. Just trust God- don’t fight for anything in the divorce settlement. You are bitter- you need to forgive him.
  • ” Well, I don’t think he was TRYING to kill you all.”
  • “You need to work on being more submissive.”
  • “You married him for better or for worse.”
  • ” Try doing things for him, pay more attention to him, be willing to sacrifice to make him happy.” They didn’t realize that trying to keep him happy was ALL that I was doing. Nothing for myself. And still, the abuse continued.
  • I was given a book on respecting my spouse. It was perfect ammunition for my abuser.
  • It doesn’t matter if he kills you– Jesus was killed too and you’ll go to Heaven too.”
  • “Love covers a multitude of sins”; “Forgive and forget”; YOU sin too.”
  • “It’s an anger issue– if there’s a fire, you can either throw a bucket of water on it or a can of petrol/gasoline.”
  • “Let God handle him; suffer for Jesus.”
  • “You are definitely suffering….we need to help you learn how to suffer well.”
  • “Keep telling yourself “the glass is half-full”.
  • “Forgive him and reconcile, he didn’t mean to hit you.”
  • “Just have more sex with your husband and everything in your marriage will be fixed.”
  • “There are only two biblically sanctioned reasons for divorce so you can’t leave and be in God’s will.”

I wish I could say that counsel like this is the exception, but in my 20 years of working with Christian victims of domestic abuse it has been the rule. Victims are dismissed, told to minimize the severity of what happened, or to try to change their abusers’ behavior by placating them. But it doesn’t work! One dear lady wrote the following:

Honestly, I think the most damaging thing is that pastors place ALL the responsibility on the wife’s shoulders to do things to “change him.” It never works. What’s really needed is swift and strong action against him- if just one person had looked at my ex and said “You are NOT going to treat her this way or there will be consequences” and then did exactly that—he wouldn’t have continued, then and now. His arrogance was fed in my former church—he still attends because it’s safe for him. He’s still abusive, and unrepentant.

This statement is loaded with truth. Studies show that abusers do not spontaneously change without strong intervention. In fact, every survivor I’ve ever met told me that the more they tried to appease their abusers, the worse things got. I know it was true for me when I was in it. The few times I’ve seen lasting reconciliation after domestic abuse, there was a long period of separation with lots of individual counseling and accountability for the abuser. Counsel that puts the burden of change on the victim not only kills any chance of overcoming abuse, but it could also get someone killed. At an advocacy training I attended this past summer, one of the other advocates shared a story that happened in her hometown. A local pastor told a victim in his congregation that she had to reconcile with her abusive husband, and shortly after her return her husband killed her. Why are counselors and pastors willing to take such risks with their counsel?

I have to conclude that most just lack the knowledge to provide effective intervention, because they operate under several faulty assumptions. 1) They believe that abuse is provoked or that it’s just the result of heated tempers on the part of both parties– rather than a pattern of coercive control on the part of the abusive partner. 2) They believe domestic violence is a marital problem– rather than the responsibility of the one choosing the violence. 3) They don’t consider a destructive relationship abusive unless there is physical abuse– even though domestic violence experts have identified a pattern of “nonphysical” behaviors that can clearly indicate lethality. None of these flawed conclusions are grounded in truth or empirical evidence, but are unfounded notions based on outward appearances.

The truth is that abusive people usually have two personas– one that is seen in public and another that is only seen in private. Abusers are very often charming and likable to outsiders, but cruel and demanding at home. Sadly they are able to instill so much fear in their victims that they help hide the truth. In fact, often they hide it so well that when they come forward people automatically doubt their stories. It is difficult to discern the truth without specific training in the dynamics of abuse.

Victims may also fear telling the truth about what goes on at home to their religious leaders because of their beliefs. Many times pastors and Christian counselors make marriage the priority in their counseling, rather than the safety and welfare of victims and their children. It seems the modern church has learned to elevate marriage over people, even as the religious leaders in Jesus’ time elevated the Sabbath. In our zeal we forget that marriage was made for people and not people for marriage, as Jesus reminded the Pharisees about the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).

Recently I heard an ultimate example of such religious zeal when I spoke to a dear woman who fled to a local shelter for safety after her husband brutally attacked her. The shelter did a lethality assessment, and she was told the chances of her husband killing her was very high. Less than six months out, her church is telling her that she must reconcile with her husband, even though there have been no signs of true repentance or heart change. They’re focusing their counsel with her on how to stop provoking him. I’ve tried to convince her to stop the counseling with her church, but she won’t. All I can do is pray that she will break free before their foolish and deadly counsel does irreparable harm.

Won’t you join me in prayer for her and the thousands of victims who receive this sort of counsel each year? Better yet, join me in raising your voices to help increase awareness by sharing this post.





20 thoughts on “Deadly Counseling”

  1. I was a mental health social worker before going back to school for my M.Div and am now an Episcopal pastor. We are not allowed to see people more than twice without referring them to a therapist, even with my previous training. It’s something all churches should make mandatory for their clergy but they don’t. I know people who call themselves clergy without any formal seminary training-and their churches do not require it for ordination. It is a very dangerous place to be when you are in pain and hurting and the clergy you turn to have no experience in how to help and they cut and paste the Bible to fit their own belief system.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am currently going through a divorce because of DV. My husband is a pastor. The responses I have gotten from other pastors has been all over the place. Sometimes I wonder if it were their daughter being hit and abused if they would respond the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Until the church ends the patriarchy it insists on perpetuating the connection between donestic abuse and Christianity will never end. I experienced spiritual, emotional, and at times physical abuse at the hands of a Christian man and his family who read the bible every day. They told me it was my fault, that I needed to be more submissive, that I needed to do better or be better. I was treated like a possesion or trophy. I will never set foot in a church again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry to see this J. You aren’t the first person I’ve heard say this. There are some good churches out there that get it, and more are starting to. I just pray that you are able to find some fellowship and support within His true church.


  4. My pastor decided he would be our counselor. Not long after my ex was arrested. My pastor continually told me that I would never heal until I sit in a room with my ex and tell him I forgive him. He also told me that my ex had changed in only a few months. i asked him what he is doing different towards him (the pastor) and he had no reply.


  5. This is a problem that is going to continue unless the church reconciles its mistreatment and subjugation of women. The teachings of Paul about women being submissive and silent are frequently touted in regards to women’s rights which further exacerbates domestic violence. There are many (inconclusive) studies showing a link between the frequency of domestic abuse and a strict religious upbringing. I really admire Christians who choose to acknowledge these flaws instead of glossing over them like so many churches have done.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I was abused and tortured by my Christian husband and his pastors during our 20 year marriage. During my marriage I was required to be a “helpmeet” in a world like the one from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaiden’s Tale.
    My abusive husband used coercive control, isolation and intimidation tactics to strip me of my personhood, safety and freedoms as a United States citizen. I almost died before seeking safety in 1996. The church (evangelical/Baptist) supported my husband during the child custody and divorce proceedings. Domestic violence is a crime. It is a complex problem with roots in an oppressively hierarchical, patriarchal violence-accepting society.
    Yet, fundamental evangelical Christian movements (cults) that thrive today refuse to speak out against domestic violence, rape,
    incest and abuse because their doctrines are the foundation for conditioning women and children to accept abuse. The price for my own safety and freedom in 1996 was an imposed, unnatural and unwanted separation from my eight children, including my nursing infant. The injustice committed against me is not just the physical separation from my children, but the willful desecration of the mother-child relationship and bond, a sacred spiritual and emotional entity. I have lived under a state address protection program from my ex-husband to this day.
    He has legally stalked me for 20 years – 46 court related hearings to date. I live under poverty level due to disabilities. There is no help by advocates and I am unable to afford an attorney to assist me. Please read my OPEN LETTER to Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Lawmakers, Lawmakers & Advocates


    1. I’m so sorry to see this Carol. we really need to get attorneys on board, but I think you might be able to find some help with the The Battered Women’s Justice Project. The will help with gross injustice like your case. Here’s their website.


    2. I’m so sorry. How cruel. You make a very clear point that the abuser is protected by “the church,” while the woman is counseled to do more for him and that amy abuse is HER fault. Sadly, my first husband was a divorce attorney and we were members of a large Baptist Church in Texas. My husband took me to the pastor, who told me that all men cheat and I should just get used to it (“turn the other cheek”). My husband told me that he would continue to go to church, but that he was not going to stop the cheating and abuse – and that he had told the pastor the same. He wasn’t even a little big discreet. In fact he made sure to show me the e-mail from his lovers (who all knew about me and our children). I’m the end I eventually obtained a divorce (where I lost everything from our eighteen-year marriage except the children, but zero child support!). I promptly entered into an eleven-year marriage with a narcissistic psychopath, who destroyed any self-esteem I had left before stealing over $90,000 (my life savings) and discarding me for the final time. He managed to fool his lawyer, the judge, and even MY lawyer. He then systematically smeared me to everyone we knew. #brokentwicebutsmarternow

      Liked by 1 person

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