I thought I would do something a little different this week. Recently Russ has expressed concerns regarding his wife falsely accusing him of abuse. I also had a counselor write me because he has some concerns that I am not providing enough qualifiers in my on-line material and because of that, my material may be empowering women to falsely accuse their husbands of abuse. I thought it would be helpful to respond publicly and invite you to respond as well.
Remember, we are all working on CORE strength and so let’s work on being constructive and respectful as we respond, even if you disagree. I thought by making this dialogue more public, it would help us understand their concerns, and hopefully, it would help them understand a woman’s concerns when she tries to communicate with her friends or people helper what’s going on at home.
Counselor’s Questions: I’m working with a woman who has been strongly influenced by your website in negative ways which are in fact complicating the process of finding workable solutions (I was made aware of your resources through her). With that in mind, while I would not want to in any way question your expertise in the area of “abuse,” I wanted to share some of the reservations I’ve been struggling with as I have looked through your materials on emotional abuse. So as not to waste your time, I’ll jump right in with the following questions.
There are some important cautions and disclaimers which I find lacking in your information (or at least they aren’t obvious).
My first concern, you omit a caution that accusing someone of being “abusive” (in any of the various ways) is a serious matter, on a par with accusing someone of embezzling funds or of sexual harassment or of being an alcoholic or a sex addict. A contemporary translation of the 9th Commandment could read, “Don’t make false accusations against someone close to you.” For a wife to falsely accuse her husband of “being abusive” or “being an abuser” is absolutely devastating. It destroys trust and seriously sets back the process of finding constructive solutions to that couple’s marriage struggles. It seems some warning about jumping to conclusions and accusations without adequate interaction with a counselor, etc. might be in order.
Answer: I agree with you that making false accusations of abuse is devastating, but so is living with a person who has a pattern of coercive control and abuse. Both destroy trust and break apart marriages.
However, I disagree with you that a person who is or has experienced abuse always needs a counselor to validate or verify her experience. Some victims might appreciate that validation from a counselor because her own perceptions have been discounted or minimized so that she doesn’t trust her own perceptions of what’s true anymore.
You’re also correct. People lie and I imagine some people – men and women do make false accusations against their spouse at times. However, I do not think it’s wise or healthy to warn a person not to trust her own perceptions or experiences. Quite the contrary. One of the most painful experiences for a victim of interpersonal abuse is to have the people she goes to for help (pastors and counselors) not believe her, invalidate her claims, and/or minimize or dismiss her experience because they don't “see it.”
As a counselor when a woman (or man) comes to you expressing that she has been a victim of abusive behavior by someone, of course we would want to know specifics in order to make a wise assessment. And in my book, I talk about those specifics and patterns that are present that differentiate a difficult or disappointing marriage from a destructive one. I imagine your client has given you specific behaviors and attitudes that she considers abusive and/or destructive. My guess is that you don’t define those behaviors as abusive or you don’t believe her and that is a different problem.
You say she has been “strongly influenced by my information in a negative way” but you didn’t detail what that was. Many women do write to tell me that I have put into words what they experienced but couldn’t define. Could it be she’s also putting her foot down and thwarting your “workable solution” because I don’t recommend joint marital counseling when there are chronic patterns of abuse, addictions, and/or adultery. Those issues cause marriage problems for sure, but they are NOT marriage problems themselves. They are individual sin and character issues and that must be admitted to and addressed before any healing of the marriage can take place.
Also, if there is on-going abuse in that marriage, there is no safety for her to honestly disclose details in front of her husband without being afraid of more abuse later. And some abusive men (and women) are very good charmers and liars. The Bible calls them wolves in sheep’s clothing. As you stated, victims of abuse are not “sinless.” That’s true. So what happens when a woman (who is a victim) poorly expresses her own anger or resentment when she tries to explain what’s happening at home? And what if her husband is calm, cool, and collected because he’s an expert at image management and deception? To the counselor, he looks like the “spiritually mature one” and she looks like an angry, unhappy woman. Be careful. A clever sociopath has duped many a counselor. Sometimes you don't know what you don’t know.
Question #2: A second needed disclaimer is that (contrary to the impression your materials give), not all abusers are men and not all victims are women. Women are just as sinful, self-centered, deceitful, and controlling as men. And they are just as capable of emotional abuse, and maybe even more capable of verbal abuse. I observe many marriages where the women are vicious and relentless in their harangues of their husbands and children. Enough said…
Answer: I’ve never claimed that men are not victims of abuse. I have written an article that Men Are Victims Too, and you can find it here.
I also know first hand that women can be abusive and if you have read anything of my own story, my mother was the abuser and my father was a great man, as is my husband. But God has led me to minister to and help women in destructive marriages. That’s why my information is directed towards her. I don't think women are believed and heard when they talk about being abused and I believe God has called me to advocate for them with churches and counselors such as yourself. I do have another book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship that speaks to both men and women who have been victims of abusive relationships.
Question #3: Your articles and talks give a distinct impression that if a woman “feels” controlled, fearful, confused, objectified, etc., she IS probably being abused. Our post-modern feeling-obsessed culture notwithstanding, feelings are often not a reliable indicator of reality. If a woman feels her husband is abusive, narcissistic, dishonest, or addicted to porn, but there is no obvious evidence that any of this is true, then what? What if others who know him would disagree with any of these assertions? And she has not given me any credible examples to substantiate her accusations? Yet a counselor with whom she apparently has had several sessions (and who introduced her to your site) continues to reinforce the perception that “if you feel these things, abuse must be happening.”
Meanwhile, in my experience, there are a number of reasons why despite strong and persistent feelings of being abused, those feelings might be far from reality. In one case, a woman who was sexually abused as a child was projecting her anger and hurt toward her husband, who was a fine and loving husband. She fully believed her husband was abusive, but those beliefs were delusional. Another woman with a strong personality became emotionally abusive toward her husband with the onset of menopause. For her, accusations and perceptions of abuse toward her husband were a smokescreen to avoid dealing with her own destructive behavior. These aren’t isolated cases, and they demonstrate how complex alleged “abuse” situations can be.
Answer: I agree that these are complex issues and our feelings aren’t always a true indicator of reality, but they are something that we must pay attention to so that we can discover and discern “what’s wrong?” So when a woman/wife regularly feels controlled, objectified, confused, afraid, or demeaned/disrespected in her marriage then it is something she must pay attention to. What IS going on? Is she paranoid? Crazy? Deceitful? Or is something going on in her relationship that is harmful to her? Those are your options as a counselor to explore with your client who is feeling such feelings.
Let me ask you something. If a woman was sexually abused as a child, are you saying that it wouldn’t be possible for her to accurately determine that she was also being sexually abused as an adult in her marriage? It would only be projection or delusion? I don't agree. The very fact that she was abused as a child might make her more sensitive to abuse as an adult but it doesn’t make it less abusive. In the same way, a person who had been burned in a fire might be more sensitive to the sunshine, but it doesn’t make sun exposure less dangerous.
It seems like you have already decided that your client is either lying about what’s happening or delusional and that my information is feeding that pattern. On the other hand, could it possibly be true that something harmful is going on in her marriage – that might not be going on in other relationships? Could it be that finding my information is finally validating it and giving her the courage to speak up and say “no more?” Intimate partner violence is called such because it does NOT happen with other relationships. I’d encourage you to watch a short ten-minute video called Fred and Marie. It is in French with English Subtitles. Click here to watch the video.
Let me ask you if Marie were to come to counseling to talk about how she “felt” her husband treated her, how would she put Fred’s behaviors into words in a way that would “show” you, her counselor, that she was indeed being abused? As you watch this short ten-minute clip of their relationship, do you think Marie is being abused? Sometimes a woman (or man) can’t put what is happening at home into words that sound clear and compelling. But that does not make it untrue or not happening.
I’ve taken a stand. I choose to believe what a woman or victim tells me unless I have compelling evidence not to believe her. That's how I want to be as a counselor and coach. I’d rather be wrong speaking up for the oppressed than be wrong by empowering the oppressor. Click To Tweet
Question #4: I also have to take issue with your description (in your webinar) of Jesus’ primary modeling of headship as that of washing His disciples’ feet. Quite clearly He was teaching them that their apostolic leadership was not to be self-serving, but rather in humility and for the good of those they were leading. But Jesus “the Head” did far more than wash feet. He taught, exhorted, rebuked, counseled, confronted hypocrisy, determined ministry direction, angrily cleared the temple (more than once), and made decisions on behalf of His band of disciples. If Jesus is a model of headship for husbands, they are clearly going to need to be leaders in more dimensions than “washing feet” (i.e. humble service), including the responsibility of being the final “buck-stopper,” in taking responsibility and making decisions. Your statements surrounding that little section (in “5 Red Flags”) emphasized phrases such as “he has no right to….” and “you have the right to…” By not presenting a more balanced picture of headship, and by undue emphasis on “rights” (a Western post-Enlightenment value, not necessarily supported biblically) you can create the misimpression that any husband who takes an active leadership role in his family may be stepping over the line into abusiveness.
Answer: We can agree to disagree here. I don’t believe Biblical headship means the man has the final say. I’ve been married for 44 years and my husband and I have always worked together to have a mutual say in decision-making. In teaching his disciples about leadership and headship Jesus specifically chose to demonstrate headship using this very example of foot washing. He could have used the cleansing of the temple to talk about leadership and headship but he did not. He also warned his disciples – the future leaders of his Church, that they were not to exercise leadership OVER people like the Gentiles (Mark 10:42). He was clear on this. The Bible is also crystal clear on God’s hatred for oppressors.
Question #5: I realize your primary ministry is to women and I realize those in abusive situations often need special care and encouragement. I also realize that if one was able to read everything you’ve written, you’ve probably filled in these gaps somewhere. Having said that, a large percentage will not read everything you wrote, and by what you understate or overstate, you run the danger of creating false impressions or over-simplifying what are actually more complicated situations. I would like to recommend your resources to those who truly need them without reservations, and so I hope you might be willing to consider some of the issues I’ve raised.
Answer: Again, you’re right. Most people don’t read everything someone has written. They pick and choose what fits them. Someone can also read bits and pieces of the Bible and gain false impressions of its teaching or understate or overstate their case on something as well. That doesn’t mean that every verse on the Internet must have qualifiers around it so that no one misinterprets or misuses it. That would be cumbersome and frankly impossible…and probably people wouldn’t read that much either.
I hope as you become more familiar with my teaching you can recommend my resources without reservation. I have been on Focus on the Family radio several times and they have gotten a huge positive response from my interviews and their staff does regularly recommend my resources to those who call their help center. I’ve also spent some time at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs training their counseling staff. I hope you will consider reading my books, articles, watching my video content, and wholeheartedly recommend them to others.
I also have a new website just for pastors, counselors, and advocates at www.leslievernick.com/counselors. I encourage you to spend some time there as you continue to learn and hear God’s heart for the oppressed. You may also want to consider joining EQUIP which is a support group for counselors and church leaders who want to be more effective in helping people in destructive marriages. Click here to learn more.
Friends, how have you struggled to communicate the reality of your abusive marriage to your pastor or counselor? Have you been believed? What words of wisdom might you share with this counselor?