I’m in an abusive marriage and my counselor doesn’t “get” it. Help!

Good Monday!

I love, love women’s retreats. It blesses me so much to see the lights go on and the tears begin to flow as God powerfully renews a mind, touches a heart, and restores a soul. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your prayers. For although I’ve been physically exhausted, I am emotionally and spiritually refreshed and recharged.

This past weekend I spoke at a wonderful women’s retreat in Cleveland. Saturday night we played games, painted our nails, ate chocolate, drank cappuccino’s and learned line dancing. How fun is that? But my ankle started hurting so I had to stop (for those new to my blog, I twisted my ankle dancing at my 40th high school reunion several weeks ago).

Two more weekends on the road and then I get to stay home. I do so appreciate your prayers on my behalf. This coming weekend I’m doing a workshop for a group of Christian psychologists on The Emotionally Destructive Relationships at a CAPS (Christians and Psychological Studies) conference. Pray that they are open to learning the difference between regular marital counseling and dealing with abusive relationships. That brings me to this week’s question and I’m going to warn you up front it’s a long question and answer but I think a necessary one.

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 now currently in counseling with a nouthetic counselor.

I do not understand his counseling approach. First meeting was 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 wise 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 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.[citation needed] 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 give to your counselor as well as things for you to think about.

I’m sure your counselor means well but he is focusing on the symptoms he sees and incorrectly diagnosing what the core problem is, therefore his treatment plan is “off”. Let me give you an example. When my mother became ill she went to the doctor. He diagnosed her symptoms as bronchitis and gave her antibiotics to help her. However the medicine didn’t work. When she went back to him several weeks later, still sick, he diagnosed her with asthma and added an inhaler as well as new antibiotics. But mom was still coughing, couldn’t breathe well and was getting worse, https://www.pittsburgheyeassociates.com/amoxil-treat-infections/.

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 are wonderful and work well for bronchitis, but they are impotent to tackle lung cancer.

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 diagnosis is off, you’re 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 surely 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 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 he or she said or brought up, and usually gets blamed for the abusers 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 what that happens in a 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 there is something she (or he) is doing to “provoke”, when that becomes the focus of attention in a marital counseling session, it only fuels the abusers blindness and excuse making and therefore marital counseling becomes ineffective and even dangerous.

Because no one is perfect, there is sin and hurt in every marriage, however, if there is ongoing abuse, or when one person in the marriage is willing to own their sinfulness but the other is not, or continues to blame his or her spouse and/or lie about it, marital counseling is not appropriate.

In addition, if you are telling your counselor that your children are being abused, he has an obligation to at least ask your children what’s going on, or report the accusations to the authorities.

To answer your question about resources, I’d encourage you to get my book, How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong and read it for two reasons. First, NANC (National Association of Nouthetic Counselors) endorses 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. Basically 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 more godly way. What often happens after you begin to stand up for yourself and recognize how abused you’ve been, you get so angry you start to repay evil with more evil. However, it only makes things worse and the more you speak up and get angry in a sinfully destructive way, the more you look like the crazy one. I fear that’s what’s happening and that you are losing your ability to influence the situation for good because of your own unhealthy responses.

Please here me, I’m not blaming you – it’s very typical. Women especially get into a pattern peacekeeping, of putting up, putting up, putting up with all kinds of inappropriate and abusive behavior and then when she finally has enough she blows up. But she blows up in a way that makes her look like the unbalanced one. Then she backs down, tries harder to make it work and takes it and takes it and takes it until she blows up again.

If this is what’s happening to you, you need to get healthy enough to stand up for yourself in a strong, firm, yet godly way. My concern for you is that you haven’t gotten healthy enough to stand up for yourself even with this counselor. You’ve allowed him to minimized your feelings, bully you, intimidate you and disrespect what you have told him 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.

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 good nouthetic counselor believes that God calls them 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.

I would be happy to consult with your counselor if he’d be open to it. He can call my toll free # at 1-877-837-7931. God Bless.

Have you heard about the BRAND NEW group coaching program?


This small group coaching program is the culmination of 25 years of private practice and hundreds of hours helping women just like you.


  1. Anonymous on November 1, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Wow, I have so been there too with a Christian counselor and a non-christian counselor. It is rediculous how uneducated some counselors are about domestic violence and addictions as well. I've had my fill of counselors for awhile, as they did more damage than good.

  2. Anonymous on November 1, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Um, Leslie, in what way does NANC "endorse" your book? NANC does not endorse anything. They certify counselors and training centers. That's it. Perhaps some specific NANC member has endorsed your book, but NANC has not. Please be more careful.

  3. StevoCoolj on November 1, 2010 at 8:47 pm


    Apparently, the association does make endorsements.


  4. Leslie Vernick on November 1, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks. I stand corrected. Specific NANC members have used my book and have encouraged others to read it.

  5. Anonymous on November 2, 2010 at 2:24 am

    wow, wish we had you in our lives for the last 20 years. . .now it is too late.
    x family member

  6. Anonymous on November 3, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Woah- Who would have thought that the NANC comment would have be such a touchy subject?

    Leslie, I appreciate your humility and integrity in being quick to correct that comment.

    Great post, very helpful! It is so important for a woman in this situation to be strong and take care of herself so that she is not brought down further by the abuser.
    I'd encourage this woman to get help elsewhere and protect her children from further abuse.

Leave a Comment

Ask Your Question

Have a blog question you'd like to submit?

Read More

My Husband Won’t Let Me See My Daughter

Morning friends, This blog is about domestic abuse and the abuse of power. But that abuse of power and privilege isn’t just in marriage. It’s in organizations as well. My heart breaks for our country, and I’m praying for us to be able to sit together and have compassionate conversations. There is a lot of…


My husband is pressuring me to have another baby

Question: My husband desperately wants us to have another baby (we already have three children under the age of eight). While I love being a mom, I feel our family is complete, and I don’t want to try for a fourth. I’m getting older, and our finances are stretched as is. We argue over this…


Help! My daughter-in-law hates me

For those who regularly look for my Monday update, please accept my apologies. I’m on vacation and don’t have easy access to a wireless system to update my blog. Today was my earliest opportunity. Q. My daughter-in-law was offended by something I did (I’m not even sure what it was) while she was dating my…