Morning friend,

I’m scared. The world has turned upside down over the past week just as we thought things were returning to normal. What do we do with our body when it’s still shaking after watching the news? Or our mind when we see pictures of children dying and mothers fleeing their homes with littles in tow? Or our emotions seeing the horror inflicted on people who refuse to give in to a bully dictator? 

In the past, we’ve read about war. We’ve watched movies about war. We’ve never watched live war happening before us. It’s terrifying. 

Now just imagine when you live at war in your own home. War at home where bully dictators called husbands demand their way, demand control over a person they have no right to control, their wife. Independence is not allowed. Non-compliance means punishment. Compliance and obedience are demanded.

Question: My husband says that his behavior is not considered abusive because he doesn’t physically hit me. Is it still abuse when he controls all the money and won’t let me make any decisions of my own? He says God says he’s the head of our home and I must submit.

Answer: Thank you for asking this question. It’s crucial that you understand an important dimension of abuse. If not, you will miss the bigger picture as Christian people helpers often do.

Domestic abuse is never directly about hitting, slapping, or punching. A pattern of physical violence in marriage happens for one purpose: control. An abuser becomes physical in order to more fully dominate, intimidate, humiliate, and scare you so that you do what he wants. It’s a means to get you to stop resisting or refusing to do what he wants. If he can scare you or harm you, you are more likely to comply with his agenda. Right?

That’s why a woman who separates from a destructive spouse can often be in more physical danger than before. Her abuser fears losing control over her. She’s defied him. She’s left him and now she will pay. That doesn’t mean a woman shouldn’t leave if she needs to, but please if that’s you – do it wisely. Please get a safety plan in place before you leave by visiting your local domestic violence shelter or call the DV hotline at 1800 799 SAFE (7233) and they will walk you through a safety plan for your particular situation.

However, without ever being physically violent, a husband can control a wife with intimidating looks, threatening gestures, name-calling, breaking furniture, punching holes in walls, and misusing Bible verses. These are meant to scare you and/or guilt you into compliance. 

This “power over” dynamic is not defined as Biblical leadership or godly headship. It’s called bullying and has a huge negative impact on a marriage. It assaults the God-given dignity of you as his wife. A person who God made and God loves.

The writer of Proverbs describes the safety and trust embodied in a good marriage when he writes, “He trusts her to do him good, not harm all the days of his life.” (Proverbs 31:11,12). The marriage relationship must be rooted in safety and trust if it is going to be viable long term. 

Romans 13:10 reminds us that love does no harm. That doesn’t mean love never hurts. But it does not intentionally cause harm to the other person and when it does, the relationship is not safe nor can you trust. 

If you are a conservative Christian woman who ascribes to the traditional view of headship and submission, it’s important for you to understand how the Bible, not your husband, defines headship. Being the head does not mean your husband gets to make all of the decisions in the family nor all of the decisions for you as a person. It also doesn’t mean he gets to have his way all the time. 

The Bible clearly has a different word for those behaviors and they’re not described as leadership, but selfishness. Jesus was very clear when he washed his disciple’s dirty feet that the leader serves others first. (John 13:1-17). A Godly leader initiates sacrificial servanthood as an example for the rest of the family to follow. 

Even after Jesus washed his disciple’s feet and explained this to them, they still didn’t get it and started arguing among themselves who was going to get to sit at Jesus’ right hand (Luke 22:24-3). Jesus strongly reminded them that his form of headship or leadership wasn’t about being first or getting your way or dominating over other people. He told his disciples “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you, it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave” (Matthew 20:25).

When your husband uses headship passages as a means to control you, understand this is not God’s plan. It is part of an abuser’s strategy to get his own way and to control you through spiritual bullying and intimidation. It’s called spiritual abuse, not godly headship.

And that brings me to other forms of coercive control. [Tweet “Physical abuse alone is never sufficient to gain long-term control over another adult.”] Prisoners of war know that. Prison guards know that, and your husband knows that.

Ginny Nicarthy writes regarding a report on torture from Amnesty International. She says:

Most people who brainwash…….use methods similar to those of prison guards, who recognize that physical control over prisoners is never easily accomplished without the cooperation of the prisoner.

The MOST effective way to gain that cooperation is through subversive manipulation of the mind and feelings of the victim, who then become a psychological as well as physical prisoner

What better way to control a Christian wife than through the Bible to make her feel guilty or ashamed when she complains that the way he treats her is harsh and unloving. What better way to make you feel afraid to speak up or stand up for yourself than by quoting scripture and telling you that you’re unsubmissive and selfish. That you’re ruining the family by refusing to die to yourself or submit.  

What better way to abuse you sexually than to quote 1 Corinthians 7 and say that God says you aren’t allowed to say no. Your body is his to use however he wants. What better way to undermine your confidence as a person, a woman of God, and a mother and wife by constantly questioning your judgment, criticizing your choices, or reminding you how stupid, careless, thoughtless, selfish, or crazy you are. 

What better way to keep control over you than to refuse to give you any access to the family money, no credit in your name, no joint bank accounts, or mutual decision-making financially. Instead of being treated like an equal partner, you are diminished to the status of a child or a slave.

Picture yourself in any other environment where you are constantly controlled, criticized, undermined, and devalued. What happens? Most people begin to shut down if they can’t get away. They get quiet, stop having opinions, or making decisions. It’s easier to be invisible than to be repeatedly questioned, squashed, or told your ideas are wrong or ungodly or just plain stupid. 

Remember at its core, abuse is not physical. It’s not about getting angry or losing one’s temper. That’s why an anger management class is not an appropriate treatment for an abuser. He may stop physical abuse because he knows it will get him arrested. 

He switches to other controlling tactics that aren’t illegal but usually just as effective. 

Abuse is not about anger out of control. It’s about oppression and domination over another human being, often by shaming, degrading, and depriving them of their God-given dignity as well as seeking to suppress their God-given freedom and right to choose what’s best for them as well as to say no to another person, including their spouse. 

[Tweet “To summarize, the abuse of power can be physical for sure as we’re witnessing in our world, but it also is mental, emotional, psychological, financial, sexual, and spiritual.”]

I want you to know, God is always on the side of the oppressed and never supports the oppressor even if the oppressor says he’s a Christian. 

Friend, how did you understand you were being controlled, even if you weren’t being physically hit?

18 Comments

  1. JoAnn on March 2, 2022 at 11:24 am

    I want to reply to Leslie’s comment about the world turning upside down. the Bible tells us that before the Lord returns, these things will increase in our world. We are living in the end times. So, as things get worse and worse, we live by turning our eyes on the enthroned One. The hymn says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.” As we keep our eyes upon Him, He empowers us to live a life that glorifies Him. This applies also in abusive situations, so when one’s eyes are on Him, He can then empower you to do what you must do to protect yourself and your children. Because He does care.

    • Leslie Vernick on March 2, 2022 at 11:28 am

      Thanks JoAnn for the reminder to us all that God is on his throne and in charge of all things, even when we don’t understand or like it. But he didn’t say it wouldn’t be scary. Staring evil in the face is plain terror and I have no idea how those who do not know God live with that.

      • JoAnn on March 3, 2022 at 3:16 pm

        I don’t either. How does one live without hope, or the knowledge of His love for us? It’s hard enough for those of us who believe in Him.

    • Lisa on March 3, 2022 at 8:44 am

      And please pray for our dear brothers and sisters as they fight to protect their homeland and their families! They need our prayers!

    • Krystal on March 3, 2022 at 6:40 pm

      Thanks for this reminder, JoAnn.

  2. Dawn on March 3, 2022 at 8:47 am

    I’ve been listening to the Eden Podcast, read the Book of Eden and am reading Bruce Fleming’s book on leadership heresies. I am definitely curious if Leslie has heard of this ministry? Their interpretation makes so much more sense to me than the ones most often heard in a conservative American church. Because I cannot read Hebrew or Greek there is always a certain questioning and I try to guard against quick acceptance of message I want to be true. I have pointed many people to you because of your answers to questions like the one above…there’s so much need for clarity as the ladies who are most deeply committed to the Lord are often set up for abuse. He goes very deep into the specific words and meanings of passages and it is not ‘light’ but it is very interesting. Thank you Leslie.

  3. Lisa on March 3, 2022 at 8:52 am

    I think I’ve realized I was being controlled for many years. My challenge came in naming it as abuse, and in realizing that “submitting” by crushing down all my thoughts and dreams was NOT what God desires of me! Thanks to Leslie’s writings, among others, I have become much clearer in my thoughts and responses!
    And, just to give someone some encouragement, my husband is VOLUNTARILY seeking counseling. I know this happens rarely, but it can happen. Just don’t go down the road of waiting forever when God makes it clear to you that it WON’T happen. (I’m still trying to be wise about watching the long term result before I accept a claim of healing and change.)

  4. Theresa on March 3, 2022 at 10:12 am

    I wish this was taught in churches on a regular basis. It applies to marriage, parenting, relationships, groups.

  5. Emily on March 3, 2022 at 10:13 am

    Thank you for this write up
    It is actually what happens in my relationship with my husband.
    Although he is not abusive physically
    But he uses every other method above to abuse me
    However, through the grace of God, and Various teaches of Holy Spirit ministrations like yours Leslie I am able to stand my ground in the Lord and healing and getting better every day as I give my self more to obeying God than man.

  6. Lisa on March 3, 2022 at 10:27 am

    I think I always knew I was being controlled. The challenge for me came in acknowledging that it was abuse, and in learning that “submission” and silencing my soul were not what God asked me to do to save my marriage. Thanks to Leslie’s books and blog (among others!) I am much clearer in my mind and lighter in my heart and spirit, and I am so grateful!
    And just to encourage somebody today: my husband is VOLUNTARILY seeking counseling! (And I really feel good about the counselor.) I know this does not happen often, but sometimes it does happen! I am still trying to be wise about waiting to see long term growth rather than just accepting a claim of healing and change, so there is that, but still, this is a step in the right direction!

    • Leslie Vernick on March 3, 2022 at 10:11 pm

      I’ve had other women report to me that once they stopped “complying” to abusive tactics and got stronger yet still in CORE, their husband’s did see the sinfulness of their ways and repent. NOt all for sure. Not even most, but some, and that’s encouraging. I’ve never had one man repent to his controlling abusive tactics saying his wife just continued to submit.

  7. Holly on March 3, 2022 at 10:29 am

    Thank you, Leslie! This is so well said! Instead of just saying it’s about power and control, you explained it. It means a lot to me that you use war tactics as an example. It describes so well the covert abuse that I experienced in my former marriage. I felt like a POW and it had PTSD- like effects on me. God is on the side of the oppressed. I know that know that I am on the other side. When I was still a brainwashed prisoner, reading your articles for the first time, I wanted to believe them, but I had some doubts and skepticism. Reading them now, I affirm that your articles are clear, concise and absolutely the truth! I know it experientially. In order to make changes, I had to change my thinking and see the truth in my situation. In order for an abusive person to change their behavior, they need to change their beliefs and thinking. That is where the battle is. I’m grateful that you are equipping women in this important area. I eventually came to realize that I didn’t have the freedom to serve God as a Christ follower in the situation I was in.

  8. Debra on March 3, 2022 at 5:45 pm

    What about if your husband tapes a target practice with a shot thru the heart on the window in your bedroom?

    • Leslie Vernick on March 3, 2022 at 10:08 pm

      A target of you? What is he shooting at for “target practice?”

  9. Linda on March 4, 2022 at 3:08 am

    Thank you so much for sharing this issue regarding the abuse of power to control. I have been in a abusive marriage for 38 years. My husband believes headship and submission are totally biblical. He thinks he hears directly from the Lord and yet he is spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and financially abusive. Your book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage has helped me greatly to understand how I have been brainwashed by the headship passages that my husband used as a means to control me all these years and how unbiblical his abuse of power is. I am not complying anymore and I am getting the help that I need to strengthen my core and get healthy. Thank you for your wonderful counseling ministry!

  10. Ally on March 28, 2022 at 3:15 am

    Leslie,

    What is the best way to show this idea to the governing body of a church. My husband is emotionally abusive. It’s also been suggested that he has Aspergers. And although I was calling it emotional abuse, the pastor and church leaders did not, or could not, see that my situation was abuse until I told them about how my husband used to “spank” me. He did this “affectionately” but I always hated it. It wasn’t until 18 years into our marriage that he did it one day and I blew up at him and told him that if he kept it up. Eventually I would break his hand. He tried to claim that that would bring the police down on me, but I told him that, no, what he was doing was physical assault and the police would side with ME. This finally got him to spot “spanking” me. But it was also only this physical aspect that finally convinced the church that our relationship was actually abuse. How can I help them to see how it’s not always physical and the emotional abuse is usually much more destructive than any physical abuse?

    • Leslie Vernick on March 29, 2022 at 3:04 pm

      Ally, I will answer your question in this week’s new blog.

  11. Barb on April 12, 2022 at 1:23 pm

    I just found you, this blog and am so relieved…convinced I was crazy, I am so thankful to have resources to seek out as I start the journey toward an unknown future- but one that is healthier than where I am today.

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