Recently I’ve seen a few comments on this blog and others questioning what behaviors or attitudes are considered abusive in a relationship. Some people object to singling out certain behaviors or attitudes as abusive. They say things like, “sin is sin.” Or “We’re all sinners.” I don’t disagree, all abuse is sin, but I think it’s critical that we get more specific.
For example, all cancer is illness, but lung cancer is a much different illness than a common cold and as such requires a much different treatment plan. When a doctor tells his patient, “You're sick,” he’s correct but imprecise. If the doctor doesn’t also tell his patient he’s sick with lung cancer, the doctor is not telling him the whole truth.
In the same way when we tell someone “you’re a sinner” that’s true, but if we’re not truthful with the kind of sin patterns that he or she has been blind to, then he/she won’t get the help necessary in order to stop.
Not all sin is the same, nor does all sin have the same consequences on other people that abusive action and attitudes have.
What Is Abuse?
Physical abuse is characterized by hitting, slapping, spitting at, punching, kicking, yanking (such as by the hair or limbs), throwing, banging, biting, restraining, as well as any other acts of physical coercion or violence directed at another person regardless of the person’s age. In addition spanking children could be considered physically abusive if it is done in anger, leaves marks on a child’s body, or is excessive.
Many people who abuse others through physical force or threats of force attempt to control and intimidate others through violence as well as create an atmosphere or environment of anticipated violence. They might punch a wall; wave their fist or gun in someone’s face.
These kinds of behaviors are abusive even if they do not result in visible injury to the victim. Abusive actions demonstrate profound disrespect for the well being of the other person. If someone did these same behaviors to a stranger or in public, his or her conduct would unquestionably be considered abusive and the perpetrator might even be arrested. Sadly many of these actions are done to people in their closest relationships behind closed doors.
Wherever there is physical abuse, there is always verbal and emotional abuse. Often sexual abuse is part of the overall abusive pattern.
Verbal and Emotional Abuse
Words and gestures are often the weapons of choice to hurt, destroy or control and dominate another person. We often underestimate the power of words to harm others and as Christians or people helpers we can be unsympathetic to those trapped in verbally abusive relationships.
We say things like “Don’t let it bother you.” Or “Just let it roll off your back.” We all remember the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But God knows how words affect our emotional, spiritual and physical health.
For example, Proverbs says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18), and “Wise words bring many benefits” (Proverbs 12:14). “Gentle words are a tree of life, a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4). “Kind words are like honey – sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” (Proverbs 16:24).
Most often we think of name calling, cursing, profanity and mocking when we think of verbal abuse. However, verbal abuse can also be more subtle or covert. Constant criticism, blaming, discounting the feelings, thoughts and opinions of another, as well as manipulating words to deceive, mislead or confuse someone are also abusive. Proverbs warns us, “The words of the wicked conceal violent intentions” (Proverbs 10:6b).
Emotional abuse can also be characterized by degrading, embarrassing publicly, or humiliating someone in front of family, friends or work associates.
Nonphysical abuse is more than using words to hurt another. Emotional abusers systematically undermine their victim in order to gain control. Abusers weaken others in order to strengthen themselves. They know what matters most to their target (for example, her children, his work, her appearance, her family, his pet, her friends) and they seek to destroy it.
Sexual abuse occurs whenever a person forces an unwilling party into having sexual relations or perform sexual acts, even within marriage. While teaching a class on domestic violence at a seminary, a student challenged my definition.
The seminary student argued that 1 Corinthians 7 was biblical proof that forcing a wife to have sex with her husband could not be considered abusive because it was biblically wrong for a wife to refuse her husband. From his perspective, it was man’s God-given right to force his wife if she denied him.
It is true that the apostle Paul cautioned husbands and wives not to deprive each other of sexual relations except under special circumstances. However, Paul also wrote that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). Paul describes what that kind of love looks like: it is a giving and cherishing love, not a coercing or disrespectful love (Ephesians 5:1, Corinthians 13).
If a wife refuses her husband, whatever her reason may be, a loving husband would never respond to his legitimate disappointment by forcing his wife to have sex against her will. At most he might try to gently change her mind but likely he would accept her decision and try again another time.
If his wife regularly denies him, ideally he would pray for her as well or ask her what the problem is, encourage her to work on the problem herself, or ask her if she is willing to go for help together. Forcing his wife to have sex against her will reduces her to an object for him to use as he sees fit regardless of her feelings. That is not only degrading and disrespectful to his wife, it is abusive and in some circumstances considered to be rape.
Other forms of sexual abuse are touching someone sexually without their permission, pressuring someone to view or participate in pornography, talking to someone in sexually derogatory or humiliating ways, taking sexually explicit pictures without a person’s permission or making uninvited suggestive comments.
At the heart of abuse is an inordinate seeking of power over someone else. Money can be used as a powerful weapon to control another person. In marriage, couples ideally decide together on a budget and both parties share power and responsibility for the management of the family funds. When a wife (or a husband) is given no voice or no choice in the family finances, it’s abusive. When a wife (or husband) must be accountable for every penny spent but the other spouse is not, then there is an imbalance of power. The spouse that is accountable is being treated as a child instead of an adult. In addition, financial abuse occurs when one spouse (usually the wife who is staying home with children), has no idea how much money her husband earns, nor does she have any joint access to that money. She is given an allowance, much like a child instead of an equal partner.
Financial abuse serves to keep a spouse overly dependent upon the breadwinner or controlling spouse. If she displeases him, he punishes her by withdrawing financial support. It also can be used to keep her from getting necessary medical attention, counseling support, or educational advancement.
We read about leaders of cults who brainwash their members into subservience and unquestioning compliance. This brainwashing process creates people who cannot think for themselves or make independent choices without incurring the wrath or rejection from the group. When an individual, whether he be a cult leader, a pastor, or a head of a home requires unquestioning allegiance to his authority as the “voice of God” spiritual abuse is taking place.
In addition, spiritual abuse is misusing scripture to get one’s own way, to shame and judge others, who do not do things your way, or to threaten and intimidate someone into compliance.
The important component of abusive behavior whether it is physical, emotional, sexual, financial or spiritual is control over the mind, will, and feelings of another person.
Abuse treats someone as if he or she were an object to control and use rather than a person to love and value (tweet that).
Abuse of any kind is not only sinful; it is emotionally destructive and negates the personhood of the victim. Having a healthy relationship with another person is impossible when there is any kind of ongoing or unrepentant abuse.
Friends, are there any other definitions or categories of abuse that you have experienced?
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