Morning friend,

Thanks so much for your feedback on possible podcast topics. I’m excited to get started and see how we can continue to help women get safe, sane and strong as well as church leaders to be better equipped to wisely serve those who come to them for help.  

This week’s question:  I’ve been married to an abusive man for 20 years and our marriage has had most forms of abuse except for sexual. We have been through many counselors in our marriage and are currently in counseling with a nouthetic counselor.

I do not understand his counseling approach. First meeting was the two of us in his office telling us we were both sinners, self-righteous, prideful, etc. He minimized the abuse of my children, he minimized mine because my husband hadn’t “physically” abused me in two years. He minimized the word abuse, told me I shouldn’t fear my husband etc. By the time I left the meeting I couldn’t quit crying because I felt so attacked and like he just fed my husband’s ego. I had gone to the church for help because of the ongoing other forms of abuse that included abuse of my children. 

Our counseling sessions consisted of us making up a “sin list” to confess our sins to one another and also add to the other’s list of how we felt they wronged us. Yet in the midst of doing this, the verbal and emotional stuff was still going on. It was awful. 

I tried to tell the counselor that my husband was being deceitful and all he said was that my husband said the same about me. I tried to tell him about the physical and verbal abuse of the kids yet again, the word got minimized. The church even told me that the word abuse isn’t a “biblical term.” 

I have several of the books you have referenced and tried to take them to the counselor so he could ‘understand’ and basically got my hand slapped for thinking I knew a better way. The church sent us to this man and he had his way of doing things, if I wanted to honor the church, we needed to do it his way.

My husband has become more clever every time we see a counselor and they believe him, and as I sit there trying to be validated he makes me seem crazy and unbalanced.

They won’t talk to my kids because they think it’s a marriage issue. I keep trying to tell the counselor it is not, that my husband communicates this way to others too, our kids, neighbors, people on the phone. I don’t know what to do? Can you give me some words maybe to use with my counselor that might help me? 

Answer:  I am so sorry for your painful experience in counseling. First let me tell you that not all nouthetic counselors (or Biblical counselors as many call themselves) would handle your situation like this counselor has. 

(For those who do not know what nouthetic counseling is, here is the definition from Wikipedia.   Nouthetic Counseling is a form of Christian counseling developed by Jay E. Adams,[1] and published in his 1970 book, Competent to Counsel. It is well known within evangelical Christianity. Adams named his approach after the New Testament Greek word noutheteō (νουθετέω), which can be variously translated as “admonish”, “correct”, “exhort”, or “instruct”. Adams himself particularly emphasized the meaning “confront” in the development of his system.[2] The word NOUTHESIA is “the training by the word, whether of encouragement, or, if necessary, by reproof or remonstrance.) 

The goal of a nouthetic counselor is to confront sin (in love) and bring the person to repentance so that their life reflects Christ’s truth. It seems that is what your counselor is attempting to do. However, it’s important to remember that just because someone is a Christian counselor (whatever type), doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at what they do, just like any other profession – from plumber to dentist, even if they are deeply committed to Biblical truth and principles.  

I do not like to critique other counselors and prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt, but because I hear situations like yours almost weekly about all kinds of different counselors, I want to give you some specific things you can say to your counselor as well as things for you to think about. 

I’m sure your counselor means well but whether your counselor is a licensed professional or not, every people helper decides his “treatment plan” for someone based on how they “see” the problem. Let me give you an example. When my mother got sick she went to the doctor. He diagnosed her symptoms as bronchitis and gave her antibiotics to help her. The medicine didn’t work and she got sicker. When she went back to him several weeks later, still sick, he now diagnosed her with asthma and added an inhaler as well as stronger antibiotics. But mom was still coughing, couldn’t breathe well and was getting worse. 

One day when she could barely catch her breath, she called 911 and she was whisked to the hospital via ambulance. She got a new doctor. She didn’t have bronchitis or asthma after all, she had lung cancer. Her first doctor meant well but his diagnosis was wrong and because of that, his treatment plan didn’t work either. Antibiotics work well for bronchitis, but they are impotent to tackle lung cancer, https://www.pittsburgheyeassociates.com/amoxil-treat-infections/

In the same way, when a couple seeks counseling and there is a history and pattern of abusive behavior, one of the biggest mistakes counselors make is misdiagnosing the problem. If your counselor’s diagnosis is off, then the treatment plan isn’t going to work either. 

I fear your counselor has diagnosed your marital problems simplistically as two sinners sinning against each other. James 3:2 says that we all stumble in many ways and women (or men) who are in abusive marriages are not without fault. Sin is involved and because you are both sinners it is extremely tempting to focus on the obvious sins we all have like losing one’s temper, lack of submission, lack of love and respect. These obvious sins, although real, always reflect deeper heart issues at work that often don’t get seen or addressed.

The danger in doing marital counseling when there is ongoing abuse is that the recipient of the abuse doesn’t feel safe, often gets punished after the session for things she said or brought up, and usually gets blamed for the abuser’s behavior (by the abuser).  Such as, “if only she wouldn’t have done that, or said …….., I wouldn’t have gotten angry. Or, “if only she would do this or do that, I wouldn’t have acted that way.”  It is very tempting when that happens during the actual counseling session for the counselor to turn to the accused person and begin to work on things that she (or he) does to “provoke” the abuse.  

And let me be clear about this, even if a person does “provoke” someone, God’s word is clear. We are responsible for our own responses. All of us get provoked by life. Our children give us sassy responses, the driver in front of us drives too slowly, or the clerk at the supermarket is rude or overcharged us. It’s not realistic to demand that life (or our spouse) never provokes us. Instead we must learn how to handle these situations in a godly way. When the counselor colludes with the abuser’s mindset that “if she wouldn’t do this, I wouldn’t rage,” the counselor enables and excuses abuse to continue.  

However, an abused woman is usually not intentionally provoking. What she’s doing is resisting his oppressive control over her. She may do it in a godly way or sinful way but she’s attempting to stand up for herself and say no. When the counselor sees this or the abuser says, “See, she’s not following my authority” many Nouthetic counselors will use Bible passages on headship and submission to silence the victim rather than confronting her husband’s oppressive control and abuse.

In addition, if you are telling your counselor that your children are being physically abused, he has an obligation to at least ask your children what’s going on or report the accusations to the authorities to investigate these allegations. You too have an obligation to report and get your children to safety. When you don’t and stay passively silent you may be considered by the authorities an unsafe parent as well because you did not protect your kids.  

To answer your question about resources, if you don’t have it I’d encourage you to get my book, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong and read it for two reasons. First, Biblical counselors have endorsed it and your counselor may be more open to the content in it. Read through the introduction, especially pages 4 and 5 and then copy it for your counselor. It says, when there is an abusive spouse, acting right may require speaking up boldly against the evil in the marital relationship. It may even involve exposing the deeds of darkness to others and allowing her spouse to experience the consequences of his sin in order to bring him to the possibility of repentance. Also chapter 9 in the same book gives more specifics when abuse is present. 

Second, reading the book can help you to handle your husband’s abuse in a way that does not shine a spotlight on your wrong reactions. What often happens after you begin to stand up for yourself and recognize how abused you’ve been, is that you can become so angry that you start to repay evil with more evil. That only makes things worse and the more you show your legitimate anger in a sinful way, the more you start to look like and be labeled the crazy one. 

Please hear me, I’m not blaming you – it’s very normal. Women can get into a pattern of peacekeeping, and of putting up, putting up, putting up with all kinds of inappropriate and abusive behavior under the misbelief that they should be quiet and submissive and keep the family together at all costs. But sometimes you have had enough and you blow up. But you may blow up in a way that makes you look like the out of control, sinful, unbalanced one. Then you get scared, back down, try harder to make it work. And the cycle continues. You take it and take it and take it until you can’t and then blow up. 

If this is what’s happening to you, you need to get strong enough to stand up for yourself in a firm, yet godly way. It is right to resist coercive control and oppression. My concern for you is that you haven’t gotten strong enough to stand up for yourself even with your counselor. He’s minimized your feelings, bullied you, intimidated you and disrespected what you have told him that is true and yet you’re still counseling with him. I understand that your church referred you to him, but I think it’s time to speak up both to him and to your church about your experience with him and stop going.

When the Apostle Paul tells us to confront a sinner he says to do it gently and with a spirit of humility (Galatians 6:1). From what you describe, your counseling experience has been anything but that. A wise nouthetic counselor believes that God calls him or her to confront sin, but there is a way to do it that doesn’t leave a person more battered and broken, but encouraged and motivated to want to do what God says is good and right. The fact that your counselor has only addressed your sin and not your husband’s abuse of you and your children, says that your counselor doesn’t believe you and therefore he cannot help you.

Friend, when you have felt bullied or misunderstood by your counselor, what did you do?

18 Comments

  1. Brianna on January 27, 2021 at 10:49 am

    I would add – maybe it’s time to leave her abusive church too.

    • Andrea on February 20, 2021 at 9:30 am

      Briana, I was acquainted with a self-styled ‘Pastor’ in Queensland, Australia.

      She is a ‘sweet little thing’ and abusive.
      It’s all about lies, control over vulnerable people, self-empowerment, money and exclusion.

      She set up her own religion and church but noone questions it.

      It’s a “family business.”

  2. Robin on January 27, 2021 at 1:02 pm

    I personally went thru over 15 counselors, pastors, church leaders…….before I found the trained counselor/therapist in destructive relationships, that understood the real issues.
    I attended counseling alone, because I learned the hard way that couples counseling while in an abuse cycle, does not work. By attending counseling alone, I was able to work on my issues and regain healthy behaviors. The plan was to come together in counseling after each of us finished individual counseling. My husband attended 6 sessions and stopped, so it never happened. The other thing that really helped me sort things out without constant chaos- was picking a new church for myself. One that I didn’t feel judged, condemned, or misunderstood. It was important for me to make the decision to be my own advocate and stand up for a better life for me. I could not any longer try to feel responsible for him or his Pastor. I simply chose to get out of the way.

    • JoAnn on January 27, 2021 at 5:55 pm

      Good decisions, Robin. I hope that you are healing, mentally and spiritually.

      • Robin on January 27, 2021 at 11:39 pm

        JoAnn, thank you. It’s been a long journey, but I am in a very safe place now and healing . I feel God has saturated my life with goodness, kind people, and new opportunities. I live a much different life then I once did. It’s amazing how much God can do, even when we don’t see it. Everyday I am grateful for all He has done to give me a life, I love.

        • Free on January 28, 2021 at 4:15 pm

          This is beautiful to read.

  3. Connie on January 27, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    What did I do when a counselor bullied me? The first few times I basically curled up in a corner and cried. And things got worse. That was about 30 years ago. It happened several times. I didn’t know that this wasn’t a marriage problem. And, I didn’t know that these personalities almost never ‘get it’. I didn’t know how devious they are. God showed me in Proverbs that he was a fool. But who in church would accept that?

    The last time it happened, I fired him. That shows that I’m growing, right? 🙂 There is so much to learn, though. A few years ago I ended up in a situation where someone wanted to help. I realized after a time that I was drawn to controllers. This person took advantage of that and treated me, again, like I was a child. Condescending, and wanted me to be a follower rather than a friend. This was a great lesson, as then I started more to learn to take my power back, to get a voice, especially in my so-called ‘marriage’. I’m learning to say no and not feel badly when someone doesn’t like it. To be a peacemaker instead of a peace keeper. The biggest change, though, was when I asked God what He thought of me. That changed everything. He had to tell me deep inside who I am and Who He is. Without that step, I read dozens of books but couldn’t make it happen. I kept hearing the old voices because that was my belief system. After that, I could step back from situations and observe and pray.

    Here’s a bit of humour. My h heard me say that I’m getting my voice back. A while later he told me that he thought I should get my voice back, and then proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t doing it right, and furthermore, this is how it should be done. I really had a good laugh, that he wanted to control even that!!! In fact, I thought I must be getting it, if it’s bothering him.

    • Kimberly on January 28, 2021 at 1:46 pm

      Awesome!

    • Barbara B on February 2, 2021 at 11:25 am

      Connie,

      I’m so glad you have strength and even the confidence to laugh at his controlling ways. I really like your wording here: I fired him. After all, a counselor is a person you hire to provide certain services. The client is the boss, the counselor is the employee. If the employee is not providing quality service, then why keep him/her on the payroll?

      Of course there is always the chance of going in the opposite direction by not be willing to consider the counselor’s viewpoint. In the end I think we have to check our own attitudes before God, making sure we aren’t being proud or willful in a bad way. After that, if we can tell the counselor isn’t doing a good job, and the counselor doesn’t seem willing to mend his/her ways, then find a different counselor.

    • Amy on February 9, 2021 at 4:35 pm

      Thank you for sharing Connie. I could feel Jesus as I read your words. Blessings!

      • Kristy on February 20, 2021 at 9:33 am

        Amen

    • Kristy C on February 20, 2021 at 9:33 am

      Connie

      I met a community domestic violence ‘counsellor’ in Central Queensland, Australia, who is a mental and psychological bully.

      She has huge issues but can’t even see it

      I am considering legal action.

      Kristy

  4. H on January 28, 2021 at 7:37 am

    Thank you, Leslie! I’ve had so many friends in this very position (and even much worse) when they sought help from their church. This is a very helpful post and I hope it reaches far and wide.

  5. leaningonhope on January 28, 2021 at 11:46 pm

    There is a website/blog b Barbara Roberts called Crying Out For Justice, and there’s a re more than one article that talks about this very thing. Her overarching and direct advice is, do NOT go to couples therapy when you are being abused. Because if this very thing. She advises that you go to your own counselor. One that specializes in domestic abuse of women. I was able to find free counseling at my local women’s resource center. I have had both experiences, couples counseling both at church and with a LCSW. And both were disastrous. I have also gone and am going to an individual counselor, which has helped me to sort out and gain clarity. And courage to speak up for myself at home. Which, in the answer from Leslie, she talks abt having your own voice and calling out the abuses and sin. That Crying Out For Justice website also is full of articles about abuses in the church. Hope this helps!

  6. Susana on February 9, 2021 at 10:14 am

    I left. After having endured and forgiven for 10 years. My counselor was his mother and father, who were also our spiritual leaders and pastors and prophetic leaders who heard from God. I was cut off from my friends and family and I thought it was the right thing to do, according to their leadership. The crazy thing is that during the church services which would happen late at night into the morning after and during fasting each Saturday, I would actually feel powerful experiences that I felt were from God. That part still messes me up because how could I experience God’s amazing presence during such abusive circumstances for so many years???
    I finally left it all including my very abusive husband (not physically though pretty close) with my two young children. But now he refuses to sign any divorce paperwork and wants to drag me down and continue to insult my character and personhood for doing this and asking for money. All while he continues to sleep around etc.
    I am glad I left even though that was hard for me to do only because I had learned to embrace his parents as my own and that bond was hard to break for me, having had a very poor relationship with my own parents growing up. Now that I realize that, I can better see my weaknesses.
    Since I’ve left I’ve been blessed to fend on my own, with God’s help, and enjoy a freedom I haven’t had in years. Though, he still won’t sign and I haven’t been able to find a free lawyer who can help me. I’ve been working with a paralegal who can only do so much but him and I have to be on the same page and agree to everything for it to be processed. He refuses to pay, is denying the length of our marriage to pay less, which I actually obliged to just so he could sign, but that’s still not enough for him. I don’t know what else to do at this point. But I am glad I’m gone.

    • Autumn on February 9, 2021 at 9:07 pm

      I am so happy for you. Good work leaving! Most domestic violence shelters provided free lawyers. Might you look into that? Call the national domestic violence hotline too. You won’t get anywhere with him until you get some legal muscle. There are ways of getting him to cooperate. Don’t fudge your marriage date. Tell the truth. Get a good, strong, abuse knowledge lawyer. They can go on retainer and get paid after the proceedings are over. Start with a restraining order. They are free.

      Go glad you are feeling God’s blessing. He will love you through your escape from evil.

  7. Kristy on February 20, 2021 at 9:23 am

    Lost The Plot

    Queensland domestic violence counsellor bullies victim.

  8. Michele L on March 2, 2021 at 10:18 am

    our nouthetic counselor would ask me “how could you have done/said that differently so that your husband had a chance to respond well?”… After months of this I finally told him I wouldnt answer that, then he wanted to ask my husband how I could have done it differently…and I said no. I finally told him that every time he does, my husband leaves more entitled, thinking if only I did things right he wouldnt get angry. I stopped going after that.

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