Tag Archives: responding to domestic violence

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 4

This article is part 4 in a 5 part series on recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship. Many victims do not even realize their relationships are abusive. The intent of these articles is to show that domestic violence is far more than physical abuse.

Emotional Abuse 

Women who live with domestic violence often tell me they prefer hitting to the emotional torture their abusers put them through. The Power and Control Wheel calls it emotional abuse, and while some may not agree with the terminology, there is definitely an emotionally destructive element to these relationships. “Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.”[i] Tactics include: putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, name calling, mind games, making her think she’s crazy, humiliation, and making her feel guilty. Several years ago, I watched a woman in a store ask her husband if she could purchase a three-dollar item. Rather than saying yes or no, her husband began to put her down in front of everyone present. He asked her how she could be so foolish as to want to buy something that cheap, and indicated that she probably wouldn’t even use it. As he was criticizing her for her stupidity, he looked over at us and chuckled. It was clear he enjoyed taunting his wife, and that he saw her as inferior. Her face turned red as she tried to mumble out answers to his questions, and finally she put the item back to avoid further humiliation. It seems silly that something so small could ignite such a fury, but that’s the nature of domestic violence. Molehills become mountains on a regular basis when you live with an abuser.

One woman at the shelter told me that sometimes she would purposely do something to get her husband to hit her, just because she knew that once the abuse was over there would be a break in the verbal assaults for a while. Victims are made to feel they are constantly wrong, incompetent and worthless. No matter what the issue, and no matter who is right or wrong, everything gets turned around and the victim ends up getting blamed for everything. The sad thing is that abusers are often skilled enough to convince counselors and pastors that their wives really are to blame for most of the problems in the marriage. They go to great lengths to portray themselves as morally superior and intellectually more reasonable than their victims, and by the time they get to counseling many victims are so overwhelmed, and insecure about themselves, that they do seem unstable.

Isolation

Abusers love to isolate their victims from people and situations that might provide them with support. I have had women tell me that, after getting married, they eventually lost every single friend. My friend Kathy was rarely allowed to see her family- even on holidays. On several occasions, her husband reached out to her friends and family and told them it was her decision to cut off the relationships. He led them to believe that she was mentally unstable, and he was doing his best to make things easier on her. However, he was the one controlling her contact with others. She was basically allowed to go to church (with him), and to the grocery store as long as she wasn’t gone too long, and came home with a receipt to prove her whereabouts.

      Abusers use isolation to try and make sure their victims have nowhere to turn when things get tough. Most controlling people live in fear of losing control, so they go to great lengths to maintain it. Linda’s husband, Dave, bought a 17-acre farm 20 minutes from the nearest town, and he had the only car in the family. He was retired, so Linda had him as her constant companion. Dave controlled what she ate, what she read, and even her opinions. She was not allowed to disagree with him in any way. When I met her, they had been married over 30 years, and up until just before she came to the shelter, he had never laid a hand on her. Although Dave did not allow Linda to have friends, he had several, and when he invited his friend Carl out to visit, he brought his wife, Lucy. This was the first friend Linda had been allowed in years, and she was grateful. One day when the men were out hunting, Lucy told Linda she needed to stand up to Dave’s bullying, and let him know she had a right to her opinion. Shortly afterwards, she did just that, and Dave went ballistic. He beat her so badly she nearly died, and he ended up in prison. For all the years they had been married isolation had achieved its goal. When she completely isolated, Linda was too afraid to refuse any of Dave’s demands, but as soon as she found some external support she found courage to challenge him. Unfortunately, by the time she did, it nearly cost her life.

[i] Vernick, Leslie, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Colorado Springs, Waterbrook Press, 2013), Kindle Version Location 256.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 1    

One fine day, in the spring of 1995, I lied to a judge. This happened shortly after taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel even a twinge of guilt, because at the time, I didn’t believe I was lying. I testified to the judge that my marriage of 14 years had not been abusive at all. Rather, some recent stress had caused my husband to snap, and act completely out of character. It was a story I wholeheartedly embraced, because I had been telling it to myself for so many years. Up until that point, there had been numerous incidences of violence, but it didn’t happen on a regular basis. In fact, a few years were completely violence-free. Perhaps another reason I did not think I was abused was the image that I had conjured up in my mind about abuse victims. When I thought about domestic violence, the term that came to my mind was “battered,”, and I was certainly not battered. In the entire length of our relationship, he had never once punched me with his fists. Our rare physical altercations usually began with something like a shove or being jerked by the arm. Once I had my fingers slammed into a drawer and once I was kicked. Oh yes, and there was that time when he held a knife to my throat, but no I wasn’t battered.

Perhaps believing lies was my way of trying to convince myself that things really weren’t that bad, so when I finally did have to admit I had been in abusive relationship, I felt like a complete fool. I had always considered myself pretty bright, and facing the truth challenged that belief. Another thing the truth challenged was my idealistic concept of my husband’s opinion of me. I thought that my ability to elicit such great emotion from him meant that he truly loved me. It didn’t matter that his actions towards me were the exact opposite of the biblical description of love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [i]

Whenever I came across this passage in my quiet times, I couldn’t help but notice that my husband’s actions towards me were most often the reverse. It didn’t take much for him to lose his patience with me, and within my first month of knowing him, jealously reared its ugly head several times. I can’t tell you how many times he embarrassed me in public by making rude comments towards others, the kids or me. I felt so vulnerable and unprotected when I was with him—certainly not protected. It was his way or no way, and lies were the foundation of our relationship. However, the most blatant contrast between godly love and my relationship was found in verse 5, which states that “love is not easily angered.” There were times when I couldn’t believe how seemingly insignificant details could enrage my husband, and over the years I’ve heard countless stories from other victims of abuse who suddenly found themselves the object of wrath when a small detail in the course of the day set off a reaction of atomic proportions.

One dear lady told me that she received a horrible beating simply because she left hamburger meat in the sink to thaw, another was belittled to the point of tears in front of her children because she failed to fold and stack her towels in the “correct” manner. Another relayed that her husband tore apart the entire house (throwing things against the walls, and clearing counters of their contents as he went through each room) after one of the children moved his hairbrush from its prescribed resting place in the bathroom. In recent years, a counselee told me that just leaving one cup in the kitchen sink would send her husband into a rage. I would call that being “easily angered,” and it took me years to realize that true love does not act that way.

Perhaps one reason victims tend to lie to themselves is because admitting the truth is almost more painful than the abuse. It means admitting that their husbands’ actions do not equate to love at all. So most convince themselves that wounds from the past (or mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, etc.)  just make it harder for their husbands to deal with life, and that they don’t really choose those angry actions. I truly thought my husband was out of control when he blew up, and that I needed to try to hold things together so that he wouldn’t have a reason to lose it. I thought he needed me, and so I built my life around making things go as smoothly as possible for him. I realize this is probably contrary to the average stereotype about domestic violence. People who are unfamiliar with it, including many pastors and counselors, believe that domestic abuse is the result of heated arguments that could have been started by either party. Certainly no man would physically harm his wife unless she had done something to provoke him, right? It seems to be a logical conclusion, but the problem is, that in the vast majority of cases, it’s a faulty one.

Most abusive people are self-seeking, easily angered, impatient, along with all the other contradictions to God’s love listed in 1 Corinthians 13, and most victims have a hard time facing the fact that their abusers are choosing to treat them with contempt rather than love. In his book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft states that “An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside.”[ii] After working with victims and abusers for nearly two decades, I’d have to say that this assessment is spot-on. Unfortunately, it is not something that most victims would like to admit. It was so much easier for me to believe my husband was abusing me because he was wounded inside, or that he lacked coping skills, than to admit he was making a choice to hurt me. Coming to terms with the truth was almost too much to bear, so I lied to myself until the day somebody placed a tool called the Power and Control Wheel into my hands.

This is part one in a series.  

[i] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, New International Version

[ii] Bancroft, Lundy, Why Does He do That? (New York, Berkley, 2002), 31.

The Church and Domestic Violence: A Call to Action

For more than fifteen years, it seemed as though my life was a revolving door to crisis. As a victim of domestic violence, I found myself helpless to overcome the physical abuse and intimidation that occurred regularly in my home. Over the years, frequent marital counseling sessions with Christian counselors and pastors failed to stop the violence. In fact, it only continued to escalate in intensity until fleeing for safety became the only option. Unfortunately, my story is not a rarity in our increasingly violent society, and sadly, statistics suggest that the problem is equally prevalent among Christian families.[i] Yet, one need only visit a battered women’s shelter or peruse the current literature to discover that, for the most part, the church has been absent regarding this issue.

Twenty-five year police veteran, Detective Sergeant Don Stewart, has made a career of studying the problem of domestic violence. As a Christian, he laments that far too few pastors take the time to familiarize themselves with this troubling topic. Perhaps many pastors do not recognize the issue, because it thrives in shame and secrecy. In a nationwide survey of pastors, a majority interviewed indicated that they did not believe spousal abuse was happening in their churches, because “no one had ever disclosed an episode of abuse to them. [However] none of these ministers seemed to associate the lack of disclosure with the fact that they had never broached the subject of domestic violence from the pulpit.”[ii]

As former spokesperson for a domestic violence program, I am fully aware of the prevalence of family violence within the church. In my own small corner of the world, I have seen victims wearing wounds to rival those found on battlefields, and children’s faces telling stories of shock and dismay. I have met women who were strangled, stabbed, forced to drink poison, kicked, and punched. I have heard stories of unbelievable intimidation by abusers. One woman watched her husband cut the head off of her dog, and another opened her car door to find her car filled with poisonous snakes. Several perpetrators threatened violence or sexual assault against their own children. Many of these women were Christians, and were doubly grieved because their churches offered little or no support. Some reported that their pastors didn’t believe their stories or seemed to care more about saving their marriages than their lives.

Although, preservation of marriages is the ideal, a thorough examination of scripture might indicate a more important objective for those counseling the abused. While religious leaders insisted on the letter of the law, Jesus always chose individuals over ordinances. When they chastised Him for healing on the Sabbath, He responded by asking, “What man is there among you who has a sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will he not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep!”[iii] Surely, this passage would apply to rescuing hurting women and children from the torment of abuse.

If the church is to be salt and light to an unbelieving world, can we do it by esteeming broken covenants over His hurting children?  Would unbelievers be attracted to a God who expects His children to endure horrific abuses?  Jesus said that even evil earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children. Would an earthly father just stand back and watch someone beat his daughter unconscious? I certainly doubt it, but the church’s failure to reach out to victims of domestic violence causes our Lord to seem cruel and distant in the eyes of unbelievers. There are no easy solutions for the problem of domestic violence, but that does not mean the church can remain silent and expect worldly shelters to handle it. Pastors and church leaders must take the initiative to learn how to effectively minister to those held captive by violence.

Understanding the Dynamics of Domestic Violence

Domestic violence occurs within every socioeconomic group and every race. Every year, in America approximately 2000 women are murdered by their spouses, former spouses, or partners. Every year over 700,000 incidents of domestic violence are documented in America, with thousands more going unreported.[iv] Battering by an intimate partner is the number one cause of injury to women.[v] As indicated earlier, the church seems to fare no better than the world when it comes to domestic violence. In fact, many experts have suggested that unbalanced teaching on biblical submission and headship can actually worsen the problem for some women.[vi] George Scipione, director of the Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship in La Mesa, Calif., has stated that “in our circles, people get beat up with the bible.”[vii] Abusers have a great tendency to take scripture out of context and use it to keep their wives under control.

For the most part, physical abuse is related to a batterer’s desire to control his wife. He may seek to dominate nearly every aspect of his partner’s life, and often uses a variety of methods to maintain power. Experts have identified common behaviors among most abusive men that range from economic abuse, to isolating the victim, to physical battering. [viii] These control mechanisms can be subtle and often involve a great deal of mental deception. He may make her feel sorry for him, make her responsible for all of his problems, or make her feel she deserves the abuse. When mental coercion fails, he often resorts to verbal denigration, threats, or intimidation. He might block her exit from a room, or destroy her property in an effort to get his way. If these tactics do not work, he soon directs his violence towards her.[ix]

Many abusive men are able to maintain control without severe physical assault- grabbing and pushing may get the desired results. Perhaps this is the reason a large number of women in violent relationships do not even identify themselves as battered. Chaplain Miles claims that out of the hundreds of abused women he has seen “almost none of these victims has identified herself as a battered woman.”[x] This dynamic only serves to complicate matters for counselors and pastors. In most violent marriages, the abuse comes in cycles.[xi]  Often, after a particularly violent episode the abuser may show remorse in an attempt to lure his partner back. During this “honeymoon phase,”[xii] many batterers will agree to go for counseling. However, many couples never admit to the physical abuse, and may merely indicate that he has anger issues.

During counseling, victims “may fear that openness will lead to retaliation by the abuser.”[xiii] This is why many experts strongly suggest individual rather than conjoint counseling in such cases.[xiv] Without training in the dynamics of domestic violence, a counselor or pastor might spend several sessions with the couple and never learn their secret. In such instances, it is likely that the abuser will only attend a few sessions to appease the victim, and quickly drop out as the cycle of violence escalates. The challenge for those who would help an abused wife is to get her to tell the truth before serious physical harm is done, remembering that domestic violence escalates over time, and it thrives on secrecy. “All of this adds up to the fact that you may have to overcome a conspiracy of silence in the family that serves to protect the [abuser]… You must be prepared to drag it into the light.”[xv]

A Ministry Plan for Battered Families

Once the issue is exposed, safety for the victim must be the first priority. Detective Sgt. Stewart has suggested that the church has a “biblical mandate” to care for victims of domestic violence. [xvi]  George Scipione put it rather bluntly, “I’m sick and tired of pastors who don’t protect their sheep!”[xvii] People perish for a lack of knowledge, so in order to protect those in the throes of abuse, pastors and counselors must seek to learn how to keep women safe. In most cases, this will involve something that might seem contrary to scripture- separation from the marriage. Perhaps this explains the reluctance of many pastors to deal with domestic violence, and the myriad of complaints by victims that their pastors seemed more concerned about their marriages than their lives.[xviii] Some scholars have suggested that I Corinthians 7 forbids a woman from leaving her husband for any reason. They say that Paul is inferring that “if she does leave,” it would be sinful. However, such interpretation fails to examine the purpose of Paul’s instructions in the first place. They were written because “God has called us to peace.”[xix] A battered woman lives in terror on a daily basis, and many times separation is the only way to achieve peace.

There are multiple positions on the length a separation between abuser and victim should last, but most recommend a minimum of one year. George Scipione has indicated that the couple should not be reconciled until there is some guarantee that the abuser will be held accountable, and the victim feels safe. Regardless of the timeframe, the church needs to be prepared to help provide for the wife’s basic needs of housing, food, and transportation during this time. If it becomes necessary for her to obtain a protective order, or go to court, those helping should recognize how intimidating this may be for her and volunteer to go with her. Statistics reveal that the danger for a woman increases significantly once she leaves the abuser. Women are 75% more likely to be killed by their partners when they leave or report the violence. [xxi] This is particularly true if there is no one to hold him accountable.

If the church is not able to provide for her safety, then a battered women’s shelter may be her only alternative. While many believers are quick to condemn these institutions, they have been on the front lines saving lives for decades while the church has been largely absent. The problem with these programs is that they have historically focused on helping the woman by discouraging reconciliation.[xxii] However, in recent years, more shelters have expanded their service to offer programs for batterers as they have recognized the tendency of victims to return to them. Their main priority is safety, and they are experts in providing it. They assist women with filing protective orders, transportation for job searches, medical treatment, and more. In addition, their experience in the field can help determine the lethality of an abuser.

Anyone interested in beginning a domestic violence ministry could learn a great deal from these centers. Most shelters accept volunteers, and many would appreciate having someone who could provide scriptural counsel their Christian clients (this was certainly the case in the shelter where I worked). A believer’s presence there could provide a powerful witness to women who have given up on churches altogether. Perhaps, rather than completely disregarding these institutions as bastions of feminism, the church should view them as mission fields full of broken women in need of a Savior.

After the victim’s safety is achieved, the next step needed to restore the couple is confrontation of the abuser. This can be particularly challenging since many batterers are masters of manipulation. They can be “charming and gifted seducers” who feign confession and repentance.[xxiii] Counselors must be aware of this, and resist the temptation to encourage the victim to forgive and forget before it is truly safe. Because of the illusive nature of the batterer, many experts have suggested that “group treatment is preferable over individual treatment because, to put it simply, it’s hard to con a con man.”[xxiv] In other words, batterers can fool just about everyone except other batterers.

Biblical counselors, David Powlison, Paul Tripp, and Edward Welch believe that biblical confrontation and accountability is the best way to treat abusive men.[xxv] Since many of these men come from backgrounds of abuse, they must unlearn violent behaviors and replace them with the biblical actions such as servanthood and truthfulness. Galatians 6:1 implores believers to “gently restore” those who are caught in trespasses. In the case of abusers, this may be a challenge, but it is not impossible. Abusers need “radical honesty, accountability, reminders, encouragement, models, daily exposure to the light of day, prayers of intercession.” [xxvi] They need to learn that there will be negative consequences if they choose to abuse.

Throughout the Old Testament, God used consequences to discipline and correct His children. In the same way, abusers “will not acknowledge the problem until they personally experience the painful consequences of their choices.”[xxvii] This is a concept that victims need to learn as well, since most have become skilled in protecting their abusers. Such women live with constant fear of man, and must be taught to replace that fear with a holy fear of the Lord. Once a woman is out of harm’s way, it becomes much easier to teach her this concept. She needs to learn that allowing sinful behavior to continue is not the most loving response to her husband, and that separation could very well be a catalyst to motivate change.[xxviii] This will involve a careful study of scripture to challenge her unhealthy fear of man, and to help correct any misinterpretation of scripture. Like their husbands, most Christian women who live with abuse have distorted interpretations of a godly marriage.[xxix] Many believe God calls them to endure mistreatment in the name of submission.

Offering Hope

If both the victim and the abuser are willing to lay aside their idolatries and make God the center of their lives, their marriage can possibly be redeemed. However, counselors working with these couples must be aware of the high recidivism rate among abusers.* If a wife decides to return to the home, there should be a strict system of accountability for her husband. The counselor should also help the wife devise a safety plan in case the violence returns.[xxx] If the husband repeatedly proves to be a danger to his wife, the church must be willing to confront him according to Matthew 18:15-17, and if necessary put him out of the church as an unbeliever.[xxxi] In such cases the wife would no longer be bound to the marriage.[xxxii]

We serve a Savior who was sent “proclaim release to the captives… recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty them that are bruised…” [xxxiii] He offers hope to the afflicted that the world cannot. As His followers, we are called to share that hope with others. We are to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free…”[xxxiv]  Too many precious lives have been “destroyed for a lack of knowledge.”[xxxv] In order to effectively minister to those held captive by violence, we must make a choice to obtain to the knowledge necessary to set the captives free. It is the church’s calling, and we have left it to the world for far too long.

Note: I wrote this article about 10 years for a counseling class in seminary, and while I agree with the basic concepts, I need to add an extra warning here. For a plan of reconciliation to possibly work, you must include experts who are versed on the dynamics of abuse. Trying to handle this issue with regular counseling is counter productive! Please contact us at Called to Peace Ministries if you need more information on where to turn for help .


[i] Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press) 20.

[ii]Al Miles, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know (Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press) 154.

[iii] Matthew 12:11-12 (NASB)

[v]Catherine Clark Kroeger & Nancy Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press) 20.

[vi] Carol Adams, Woman Battering (Minneapolis, Fortress Press) 99./ Miles, Domestic Violence. 35./ Kroeger & Nason Clark, No Place For Abuse. 119.

[vii] George Scipione, “Spousal Abuse.” Recorded at To Love & To Cherish Marriage Conference.

[viii]Beth Swagman, Resonding to Domestic Violence: A Resource for Church Leaders (Grand Rapids, MI, Faith Alive Christian Resources) 38.

[ix] Hegstrom, “Battered Families- Help & Hope” Recorded on Focus on the Family.

[x] Miles, Domestic Violence. 22.

[xi] Stewart, Refuge, 44-45.

[xii] Swagman, Responding to Domestic Violence. 31.

[xiii] David Powlison. Paul David Tripp, & Edward Welch, “Pastoral Responses to Domestic Violence” in Pastoral Leadership for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem & Dennis Rainey (Wheaton, Ill., Crossway Press)

[xiv] Hegstrom, “Battered Families.”

[xv] Powlison et al, 273.

[xvi] Stewart, Refuge. 210.

[xvii] Scipione, Spousal Abuse.

[xviii] Miles, Domestic Violence. 34.

[xix] I Corinthians 7:15 (NASB)

[xx] Adams, Woman-Battering. 22.

[xxi] Stewart, Refuge. 58.

[xxii] Hegstrom, “Battered Families.”

[xxiii] Powlison et.al., “Pastoral Responses.” 272.

[xxiv] Swagman, Responding to Domestic Violence. 133.

[xxv] Powlison et. al. “Pastoral Responses.” 275.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Leslie Vernick, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong (Colorado Springs. CO, Waterbrook Press)178.

[xxviii] Stewart, Refuge. 202.

[xxix] Clark & Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse. 91-99.

[xxx] Stewart, Refuge. 147-149.

[xxxi] Scipione, “Spousal Abuse.”

[xxxii] I Corinthians 7:15

[xxxiii] Luke 4:18 (ASV)

[xxxiv] Isaiah 58:6 (NKJV)

[xxxv] Hosea 4:6