Recognizing Abuse in a Christian Marriage
based on my personal experience…
by Del Hungerford
If I had to look back at the abusive behavior of my husband, several warning signs were there, but I somehow didn’t see it as such. I think as women, we want to please our husbands. It’s natural to get upset with each other. Because we are human, we will treat each other poorly at various times in any relationship. The amount of stress that people are under, in addition life in general, will often have an affect on our behavior towards a spouse. Every couple fights and has disagreements. It goes with the territory. So, when does it become abuse? I believe the simple answer here is that when one person wants to control the other, the abuse starts. Generally, the abuse is gradual at first and gets more severe as time passes. You will see evidence of this in my own story. Many couples will experience the “cycle of abuse,” which is explained in most books on abuse. As I state in my book, because this was never the case in my marriage, I can’t relate to that cycle. Therefore, I have no experience with the emotional aspects of the cycle. I can only imagine that it would make it tougher for a victim to leave the abuser.
As with many couples, when my husband and I started having communication problems, we went into counseling with our pastor. We also saw the couple that sponsored a “young married’s” group in the church. They worked with couples that had been married less than five years. We also saw my husband’s best friend, who was a substance abuse counselor. He had a degree in counseling so we thought that his counsel would be very helpful, and much of it was.
In CHRISTIAN counseling, I believe the focus may be different than non-Christian counseling. Because Christian couples are encouraged to work together, counselors make sure each person is doing his/her part. This can’t be accomplished if one spouse is complaining about the behavior of the other. I am guessing this because of how things were done in my own marriage counseling experience, outside the church setting. My husband and I went to a secular counselor after we separated in hopes of finding a way to get back together. We did this at the request of our pastor.
Here are some things that I noticed in our counseling sessions:
- Counselors took us at our word. If we told them something, they had no choice but to believe what was said. Since none of the counselors could see what was going on in our home, they could only go by what we said to them.
- We often went into counseling sessions with assignments that were to be prepared for the specific session. I always had the assignments done, and my husband didn’t. I wish our counselors would have sent us home. To me, this showed my husband that the assignments weren’t that big of a deal.
- It was hard for me to disagree with my husband during counseling sessions. I struggled with knowing what to say and how to say it so it didn’t appear that I was complaining. My husband had no problems disagreeing with me, although he had a way of doing it in counseling so that it didn’t look like he was attacking me.
- All of the counselors that we saw (in the church setting) wanted us to talk about our OWN issues instead of what our spouse was doing to upset us. The focus in counseling sessions was always how to work things through as a couple.
- During individual counseling, we were encouraged to do what we could to support the spouse. Yes, I talked about my frustrations, but the focus was on what I could do to work through those frustrations. Since I couldn’t change my husband’s behavior, I had to focus on my reactions to his behaviors.
- None of my counselors ever told me to get a divorce, even at the point where it because obvious there were problems beyond normal marital issues. I was told that when “enough was enough,” I’d know it. This always left the ball in my court for me to “own” my decision.
- In secular marriage counseling, the job of our marriage counselor was to help with communication. By opening up with each other, sharing hurt feelings and what caused those hurt feelings, we were supposed to see how our individual actions had hurt our spouse . We were then encouraged to learn how to see the needs of each other, and then help meet those needs. From my observations, the marriage counselor shows couples how to “work out” and “through” the difficulties in the marriage.
- In my specific case, I was surprised that our marriage counselor was unable to see the abuse. By the time we quit marriage counseling, I’d been seeing a domestic violence specialist for about a month. It was the domestic violence counselor, without her knowledge, that helped me see the marriage counseling wasn’t working. Although I can’t put my finger on it right now, I knew that how I felt when walking out of the marriage counselors office, was not right. I believe people should never leave a counseling session feeling worse than when they walked in. I felt belittled and attacked after every marriage counseling session. It took all that was within me to walk back into her office each time.
Now, if you’ve had some counseling with anyone specializing in abuse, you may recognize that normal marriage counseling won’t work. For MOST marriages that are dealing with basic communication issues, not involving control, counseling in the above format is fine. Because mankind is inherently selfish, it’s easy to want our own way and blame problems on the spouse. I would say that the majority of church-going-married-couples struggle with communication and deferring to a spouse like all couples. Just because a couple calls themselves Christians, doesn’t mean they will not have the same issues as everyone else. The Character of God takes time to build. Therefore, we will struggle with selfishness along the way. Somehow, it appears that people think because they are Christians, everything will be easier. This is so untrue. The New Testament refers to young Christians as “babies” and that as we grow, we become more mature. As we mature, we no longer need the “milk” of the Word, but the “meat” of the Word. (I Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 5:12 to get you started.) We can only expect to deal with marriage the way God intended it to be based on our level of maturity as a Christian.
I believe that many of the problems suffered in an abusive marriage can be seen earlier if counselors look past the obvious and try to help determine what the root of the problem is. This can be tough because, again, it’s hard to get beyond what the “counselee” is saying at that given time. In most cases, a counselor will see their client very little outside of the session. In public, people tend to show their best side, especially if they have something to hide. This is true in churches too. When in a group setting, an abuser knows how to “look good” to those around him/her. They are truly “masters of disguise.” So then, how does a counselor learn to see beyond that mask? From my own experiences, I would like to suggest the following need to be considered:
- Body language. In a Christian marriage, if the wife walks behind the husband instead of beside him, this is a warning sign. If you watch women of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other countries where the husband has complete control over the wife, you will notice that the woman always walks behind the man. Women are considered “property” to a man in certain religions. Women have no voice in these relationships. There are many other forms of body language used by abusers. Watch how the couple sits together. Does the husband turn his body away from the wife? How affectionate are they in public? If they do appear to be affectionate, look into the woman’s eyes. How is she responding to that affection? The eyes are truly the window to the soul. Watch facial expressions, hand gestures, and eye contact of the couple. Sometimes, I see abusers make very little eye contact with the victim. They appear to be looking “past” instead of directly into the eyes of whom they are talking with.
- Tone of voice. In any given conversation, the tone of voice is a major key. A good counselor will look past the actual words being said and pay attention to the tone of voice used by both husband and wife. How does he speak with her? Is there fear or reservation in her voice? Does it appear that maybe she doesn’t know how to respond? Does she not have answers at all? In my situation, my facial expression was often the exact opposite of what it should have been. The reason for this was simple. I didn’t want to give off the impression that what was being said was either hurtful or that it bothered me. Giving this away would have made life at home worse. In other words, my tone of voice didn’t match my facial expression. Counselors didn’t pick up on this, although one did question me about it. I was smiling when my husband was sharing his hurt about something I’d done. She asked why. I couldn’t give her an answer.
- Inability to provide logical answers. When a counselor asks a spouse specific questions about situations; how he/she feels, or how to help resolve an issue, and the counselor is met with an “I don’t know” answer, this is an indicator something’s amiss. In a counseling session as a couple, the victim will rarely reveal any “secrets” to a counselor. Even during individual counseling, it will take prying to get the information out. The counselor must know the right questions to ask.
- Know the signs of abuse. In talking with a woman who works with those suffering abuse at the hands of a Christian man, I learned that she’d been married to an associate pastor. Because she’d worked with domestic violence agencies prior to being married, she began to recognize the signs of abuse and was only in the marriage a short time. Every member of the clergy needs an education in the signs of abuse.
- Relationship with other people. Determine the history of relationships with others, from the beginning of the marriage to the point of counseling. Do they still have the same relationships now? If not, why? Are they seeing less people now than they did earlier in the marriage? The husband may have kept his relationships the same, but in many cases, the wife begins to lose close relationships with family and her friends. How often does she see her family and friends? The abuser almost always isolates the victim to some extent. These are not questions I’d ask in couples counseling. The wife of an abusive husband will not answer properly and will pay the price later for giving an answer that could give away any secrets.
- Expectation of submission. If the husband EXPECTS the wife to submit, then he’s being spiritually abusive. He’s demanding that her will be given over to him. If he’s using scripture to “keep her in line,” he’s wanting control over her. Not only is this unscriptural, but it’s abusive as well. A good counselor should be able to determine if this is happening in a private session. Again, I would not ask these types of questions in couples counseling.
- Determine mental stability. I think this is a big one. If you or a counselor suspect that something doesn’t “seem quite right” with your husband, maybe something really isn’t! I could never understand why my ex-husband truly believed there was never a need to apologize. He ALWAYS thought he was right, even when it seemed obvious that he wasn’t. Todd (the “book name” for my ex-husband) not once during our entire marriage ever said he was sorry for anything. There was no “kiss and makeup” whenever he was angry with me. Flat out… he was never wrong. This behavior is not normal. Although I can’t prove anything, I would suspect by what I’ve read that Todd has some mental issues. I never felt that Todd had a conscience, which scared me at times. Certain “disorders” lend themselves to the inability to change or know the difference between right and wrong.
These are just a few of the “behaviors” I’d suggest looking for to counselors. This article will continue to expand as I talk with more people and garnish more information. I think it’s very difficult, especially in Christian homes, to determine if verbal, emotional, or spiritual abuse are present. If you are a Christian woman reading this and suspect that you’re in an abusive marriage, contact an agency that specializes in abuse for Christian women. There are several listed under the “helpful links” page. They can direct you to counselors in your area that can assist. I would only go to your pastor if you’re in a church that allows women in leadership. If not, more than likely, your pastor will side with your husband. If you have a woman pastor, by all means, go see her.
What is available on this website? Below is a list of questions asked by many Christian women in abusive marriages that are addressed throughout this website:
- What are the signs of verbal, emotional, and spiritual abuse?
- What is verbal abuse?
- What are the effects of verbal abuse?
- Is there a checklist for verbal abuse?
- How to do you stop verbal and emotional abuse?
- Are there examples of verbal abuse?
- Are there books about verbal abuse?
- How do you get out of a verbally abusive relationship?
- As a Christian, can I get a divorce because of verbal abuse?
- Are there Bible verses about verbal abuse?
- Are there ways to stop verbal and emotional abuse?
- Is there a definition for verbal abuse?
- Where can I find information about verbal abuse?
- Are there warning signs of verbal abuse?