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.