I thought I would do something a little different this week. I get a lot of e-mails, much of it I can’t personally respond to and so I use this forum to answer questions from mostly women in destructive marriages. But this week I want to answer several questions from a counselor who has some concerns that I am not providing enough qualifiers in my online material and may be empowering women to falsely accuse their husbands of abuse.
I thought it would be helpful to let you in on both his questions and my responses to his concerns. I also want you to respond to him from your experience with well-meaning people helpers. Remember, we are all working on CORE strength and so I would appreciate you being constructive and respectful as you respond, even if you get triggered or disagree with his thoughts. I thought it would help you see how some people think and help him understand more of your experience when you’ve tried to communicate with your counselor what’s going on at home.
Question #1: 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). First is the 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. Making false accusations of abuse is devastating, but so is any kind of abuse. Both destroy trust and break apart marriages.
However, I disagree that a person being abused needs verification from a counselor before she can be sure she is being abused. Some victims might need that validation from a counselor only because her own perceptions have been regularly discounted or minimized and therefore she no longer knows or trusts her own thoughts, feelings, perceptions, or experiences anymore. But someone who lives with it day in and day out year after year is the most qualified to define her experience.
I agree with you that people lie and I imagine some people – men and women, make false accusations against their spouse at times. However, I do not think I should warn a woman not to trust her own perceptions or experiences. Quite the contrary. One of the most painful things for a victim of interpersonal abuse is to have the people she goes to for help (pastors and counselors) not believe her and 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, you would want to know specifics in order to make a wise assessment. I imagine your specific client has given you some examples of what she considers abusive. My guess is that you don’t define those behaviors as abusive or you don’t believe her and that is the problem.
You say she has been “strongly influenced by my information in a negative way” but you didn’t detail what that was. Could it be that one of the ways she is thwarting a “workable solution” is that she refuses to do joint marital counseling with you? I’m clear that marital counseling is not recommended when someone is in an ongoing abusive relationship. If there is no safety for her to disclose without being further abused, how can she be honest? Also, 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) is depressed, or 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? (See Proverbs 26:23-26). To the counselor, he looks like the “spiritually mature one” and she looks like an angry, unhappy woman. Be careful. Clever sociopaths have the ability to fool counselors. 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.
I also know first hand that women can be abusive and if you have read anything about 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 women like your client. I don't think women, especially Christian women, are typically believed when they talk about being abused (especially when it’s not obvious physical abuse). I believe God has called me to advocate for abused women in church and counseling setting such as in your example. 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 other’s 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 persisting feelings of being abused, those feeling 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 feelings 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. So what is going on? Is she paranoid? Crazy? Deceitful? Or is something going on in her relationship? Those are your options to explore as her counselor.
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? Would it only be projection or delusion? I don't think so. We might disagree on this. 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, have you considered the possibility that there might be something rotten going on in her marriage – that might not be going on in other relationships? And perhaps 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 10-minute video called Fred and Marie. It is in French with English Subtitles.
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” her counselor for sure that she was emotionally abused? 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 just how I function 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 42 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.
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: Most people don’t read everything someone has written. They pick and choose what fits for them. Someone can 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 or article teaching something from Scripture must have qualifiers around it so that no one misinterprets or misuses it. That would be cumbersome and frankly impossible.
I hope as you become more familiar with my teaching you can recommend my resources without reservation. I know you have respect for Focus on the Family. I have been on their radio several times and they have received a huge positive response from my interviews. Their staff regularly recommends 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 and watching my videos and wholeheartedly recommend them to others who may benefit.
I also have a new website just for pastors and counselors and advocates at www.leslievernick.com/counselors. I encourage you to spend some time there continuing 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 destructive marriages.
Friend, how have you struggled to communicate the reality of your abusive marriage to your pastor or counselor with specific examples? Have you been believed?