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, 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. 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.
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?