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A Cure for Marital Cancer

Guest Article By Nancy Pearcey

Growing up with an abusive father, Jennifer was determined to create a better marriage for herself. But as any psychologist will tell you, we tend to reproduce what we experienced in childhood. Her own husband became alcoholic and violent. “He would punch walls. He threw things at me. He would yank me off my chair and drag me by my hair along the floor in front of our children.”

Jennifer sought help from the pastor and elders at her church. But repeatedly she was told that the abuse was her fault: “If you forgive more, if you love more, if you submit more, if you die-to-self more, he will blossom into the man you want him to be.”

In most marriages, these would be good strategies. Most of us need to practice being more loving and forgiving. But in truly abusive marriages, women have typically pursued these strategies—often for many long, painful years—and have discovered that being nicer does not work. On the contrary, if you acquiesce to abuse, it is likely to continue and even grow worse. After all, the abusive person is getting what he wants. Why should he stop?

Jennifer’s husband escalated his bullying behavior until one day he punched her in the face in front of their children. Even then, the pastor and elders treated her as the person at fault. “He should not have hit you,” they conceded. “But what did you do to provoke him?” The elders refused to discipline Jennifer’s husband for his physical violence. Instead, they treated him as the victim, while threatening to excommunicate her for “contumacy” (refusal to comply with authority). Finally, Jennifer’s case was forwarded to the local presbytery, the administrative body over several Presbyterian churches, which ruled in her favor and affirmed that physical abuse is grounds for divorce.

When one partner in a marriage engages in a repeated pattern of serious sin—such as violence, adultery, addiction, or abandonment—how can Christian leaders hold the offending spouse accountable? And how can they effectively counsel the victim?

The Most Common Mistake

Because the church is often the first place where couples seek help when in conflict, it’s important for the pastoral staff to be educated on the dynamics of abuse. The most common mistake pastors make is to offer marriage counseling—bringing both spouses into the office together. But if the husband is present, the wife may be afraid to reveal any serious mistreatment. She knows that afterward she will be punished.

For example, a marriage therapist persuaded a woman named Irene to reveal that her husband was being violent at home. In the therapist’s office, her husband appeared shaken and repentant. But on the drive home, he kept one hand on the steering wheel while with the other hand he grabbed Irene’s hair and slammed her head into the dashboard repeatedly, screaming, I told you. Never. To talk. To anyone. About that. (Except that he used much more vulgar language.) Joint therapy can pose considerable risks to the victim.

The fallacy in couples counseling is that it assumes both spouses are mutually at fault. But “abuse is a matter of personal responsibility, not a shared relational culpability,’ writes Brad Hambrick, a professor of biblical counseling and author of Self-Centered Spouse. “When one person is willing to harm another in order to get his way, no amount of working on ‘us’ will remedy the problem.” The focus must be on calling the abusive partner to accountability.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Sadly, in counseling sessions, the focus is often on the victim instead of the perpetrator. By the time a couple meets with their pastor, the wife has often been traumatized, possibly for years. Being distressed and distraught, she does not make a good impression. By contrast, her husband, being the one in control, is calm, confident, and on his best behavior. These men can be very charming and skilled at presenting a convincing façade of the model Christian. They deny, minimize, and rationalize their harmful behavior. They are adept at changing from Dr. Jekyll in public to Mr. Hyde at home. “His speech is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart” (Psalm 55:21).

These men often succeed in drawing pastors to their side. People find it difficult to believe that the godly man they know from church could be violent at home.

One reason perpetrators are so convincing is that, strange as it may seem, many genuinely believe that they are victims. Toxic people tend to feel entitled. And when things do not go the way they want, they think they have been wronged. As psychotherapist Terrence Real writes, Almost all perpetrators see themselves as victims. When they strike out, they do so with a sense of self-righteous anger. As they see it, they are just getting back at the people who let them down, who had the audacity to have a mind of their own.

It is crucial for churches not to let perpetrators get away with painting themselves as the victim. No excuses, no denying, no minimizing. Steven Tracy of Phoenix Seminary writes, “Christian leaders must recognize this dynamic lest they buy into abusers’ lies and contribute to victim blaming.”

Some husbands may be struggling with genuine psychological issues. They may have experienced childhood trauma, which left them self-absorbed and defensive. We should certainly have empathy for these men. But that does not give them permission to attack their mate, either verbally or physically. Stopping the sin is not only good for the victim but good for the offending spouse as well.

Cough Medicine for Cancer

Another common mistake is to hope that being kind and merciful will turn the abusive spouse around. David Clarke, a psychologist who has been featured on Focus on the Family, gives the example of a woman whose husband was committing adultery. The woman’s pastor counseled her to forgive the affair and concentrate on fixing herself: “to be cheerful, be affectionate, make nice meals, be romantic, invite him often to have sex, ask what his needs are every day, and really work hard on her weaknesses.”

Clarke labels this the weak, wimpy, walk-all-over-me approach. And he is adamant that it does not work. If a wife keeps catering to her husband’s needs when he is actively sinning, she is making him too comfortable in his sin. As Clarke writes, she is making “his life too easy, so he has no need to change.” As long as she keeps overlooking sin, he will think their relationship is just fine and he will have no incentive to repair it.

Toxic people interpret kindness as weakness. They interpret forgiveness as the acceptance of bad behavior. Lundy Bancroft, who works with abusive men in court-ordered counseling, says, “You cannot, I am sorry to say, get an abuser to work on himself by pleading, soothing, gently leading, getting friends to persuade him, or using any other non-confrontational method. I have watched hundreds of women attempt such an approach without success.”

In every other area of life, we know that you cannot stop bullies by placating or acquiescing to them. It does not work with the playground bully. It does not work in international politics with belligerent nations. And it does not work in an abusive marriage. As bestselling pastor Gary Thomas writes, “If you employ ‘normal’ methods of resolving conflict with a toxic person, they won’t work.” It’s like giving cough medicine for cancer.

Become a Peacemaker

What does work is Matthew 18, where Jesus commands his followers to hold one another accountable for sin: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault.” In fact, if you do not speak up, Clarke says, you are violating Scripture because you are failing to tell the truth. You are pretending that everything is okay when it is not. As Leslie Vernick writes, God does not call women “to lie and pretend. . . . Marriage does not give someone a ‘get out of jail free’ card that entitles one to lie, mistreat, ignore, be cruel, or crush his spouse’s spirit with no consequences.”

Of course, confrontation must be done with the right motive, not just venting or counterattacking but acting with the other person’s best interest at heart. The goal is not retaliation but restoration. When abusers are confronted with the consequence of their actions, the hope is that they will be brought to reflect and repent. “If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15). That is the goal—to win them over.

A wife who stands up to her husband is not fighting against him, she is fighting for him against his sin.

Writing to church leaders, Steven Tracy says, “We must teach and model to women that they have a right to stand up to males who refuse to respect them. And we must stand with women in this process.” A peacekeeper refuses to stand up to a misbehaving person. But a peacemaker is willing to risk conflict for the sake of reaching a genuine resolution.

BIO: Nancy Pearcey is a professor and scholar in residence at Houston Christian University. She is the author of several bestselling books, including Total Truth and Love Thy Body. This article is adapted from her forthcoming book, which you can pre order now, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes.

Book Giveaway


The Emotionally Destructive Relationship

by Leslie Vernick

Leslie Vernick, counselor and social worker, has witnessed the devastating effects of emotional abuse. Many, including many in the church, have not addressed this form of destruction in families and relationships because it is difficult to talk about. With godly guidance and practical experience, Vernick offers an empathetic approach to recognizing an emotionally destructive relationship and addresses the symptoms and the damage with biblical tools. Readers will understand how to:

  • Reveal behaviors that are meant to control, punish, and hurt
  • Confront and speak truth when the timing is right
  • Determine when to keep trying, when to get out
  • Get safe and stay safe
  • Build an identity in Christ

This practical and thorough resource will help countless individuals, families, and churches view abuse from God's perspective and understand how vital it is for victims to embrace His freedom from the physical, emotional, spiritual, and generational effects of emotionally destructive relationships.

Two winners will be selected in our next newsletter! (Giveaway only available to U.S. residents)

If you would like to enter to win, you can click here to provide name and email address.

The winners of “The Emotionally Destructive Relationship” by Leslie Vernick are Caroline P. and Marilyn W.

Enter For Your Chance to Win

How Do I Stop Reacting When He Triggers Me?

By Leslie Vernick

Question: I hope to join your Conquer program this spring. Presently I am struggling with trying to move forward in my relationship with my husband. He has had alcohol, spending, and porn addictions in the past to self-medicate.

I am to believe this is over however, he still feels that he has to protect himself from conflict rather than be truthful about things with me. He very rarely talks at all about his needs, concerns, or anything personal or non-personal in his life.

I keep discovering things that he still feels unsafe to tell me. I do understand his fear of conflict however, I cannot see our marriage ever improving if he cannot tell me things and accept that I may be disappointed but that is not as bad as destroying any chance of me being able to trust him and feel safe in the relationship. I am trying to get to a place to talk calmly when disappointed. Unfortunately, when I voice my concerns or needs my husband feels criticized by me just asking for things to be done differently. That is when he throws at me that I don't allow him to talk, I talk over him, and I do not want to hear what he has to say. I just want to blame him. Etc.

I will admit that the reason I want to join Conquer is that when he accuses me of this I raise my voice and try to get back to the topic at hand. However, the topic then just changes to how badly I treat him as I get angry. I know my getting upset does not help the situation. I need to find ways for me not to be triggered and respond in a Godly manner. I have been on this vicious cycle for about 20 years. Kept believing untruths and having broken promises. Prior to Conquer happening can you give me pointers on how for me not to be reactive when the tables are turned onto me?

Answer: You’ve been through a lot in your 20 years of marriage. You say you believe his addiction problems are over, but what makes you think that? A 20-year addiction to multiple self-medicating strategies (alcohol, porn, spending, lying) is rarely changed without serious accountability, support, tools, and a strategy for pitfalls and temptations. And, if he is beginning his journey of facing his addictions and working on sobriety, his long-standing patterns of avoiding conflict with you are probably not the first thing he’s going to tackle. He may still rely on some of his unhealthy protective patterns, even though they continue to cause you to feel devalued and unable to trust him.

Your desire to work hard to repair broken trust and build a better bond with him is admirable. Does he want that too? If so, can you both agree that he needs time and space to work on his sobriety as the first step in his getting healthy? That may mean that he still isn’t capable/ready to dig deep into a vulnerable constructive conversation with you about tough or painful topics. He may not even know how to understand his own feelings yet, let alone put them into words to help you understand. But where does that leave you and your hope for a better marriage?

What People Are Saying About Leslie’s book “The Emotionally Destructive Marriage”

This is an excellent, well organized, thoughtful, book. It is seasoned with scriptural truths that confront heart conditions which produce an unhealthy thought life and bad or weak – cowardly behavior. Everyone needs exposure to scripture in order to discern truth. Grace and Truth came by way of Jesus Christ. He claimed to be truth; not have it. He always exposed what was at the very root of a an issue in a courageous, composed confrontation with people, then left them to choose to come to terms with it. No bullying, just truth.

~ C. Smith


Leslie wants to help you grow in your personal and relational effectiveness. Please submit your questions by clicking here.

Then, visit Leslie's Blog as she posts her responses to one question per week.

Note: Due to the volume of questions that Leslie receives, she is unable to respond to every question.