Responding to Physical Abuse
Abusive behavior was never and can never be a part of God’s plan for a marriage or a family.
By Dennis Rainey with Leslie Barner
Let me begin by saying that I cannot think of a circumstance in a marriage or family that could justify abuse of any kind—emotional, mental, physical, or sexual. Abusive behavior was never and can never be a part of God’s plan for a marriage or a family.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to limit this answer to physical abuse. And by this I mean assaulting, threatening, or restraining a person through force. It would include hitting, slapping, punching, beating, grabbing, shoving, biting, kicking, pulling hair, burning, using or threatening the use of weapons, blocking you from leaving a room or the house during an argument, driving recklessly, or intimidating you with threatening gestures.
Also, I think it’s important to note that I do not, like some others in today’s culture, automatically classify spanking of children as abuse. I believe that loving, controlled physical discipline is biblical, and beneficial for a child. In some cases it can turn abusive when performed with anger or malice, and in those cases it must be stopped.
What do the Scriptures say?
The Bible does not speak about destructive behavior within the family in terms we use today—”abuse,” etc. It does, however, condemn ungodly behavior that can damage a marriage and family—sexual immorality, anger, wrath, malice and more. And it also includes a number of other exhortations that can help you determine how to respond to an abusive situation. For example:
- We should treat others with respect, as we want them to treat us (Matthew 7:12).
- We should love others sacrificially, even to the point of laying down our lives for them (John 15:13).
- The Bible is a history of redemption. God can move in the heart of any person, no matter how wicked, and make him a new creature in Christ. And He will use other people in this process—to help show an ungodly person his need for salvation.
- God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and calls us to uphold the marriage covenant (Matthew 19:1-9).
- We should not seek revenge, but return a blessing for an insult (1 Peter 3:9).
- We should “never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (Romans 12:17).
- We should submit to and comply with government laws (Romans 13:1-10, 1 Peter 2:13-17).
- We should involve others in confronting the sin of a brother in Christ (Matthew 18:15-17).
- We should involve the leaders of the local church when a sinning brother refuses to respond (Matthew 18:17).
When it comes to abuse, Christians should insist that everyone, especially Christians, uphold and obey the civil and criminal laws governing abuse in our society. We should decry abuse in any form, whether verbal or physical. We should seek to eradicate it from marriage, family and church. And we should do everything we can to redeem and help bring the abuser to a point of repentance and a change in behavior. Additionally, we also believe that God has placed authorities such as law enforcement officers in our lives to protect us from those who would do harm to us or our children.
Practical steps to take if you’re being abused
Note: Although the following text is written to abused wives, we understand there are an increasing number of women who are abusive to their husbands. Much of the information here is just as appropriate for men who are being abused.
Step One: Recognize the need for change in your life. According to the American Medical Association, husbands and boyfriends severely assault as many as four million women every year. Many of these women feel trapped, anxious, afraid, and helpless. Some feel they are to blame—that if they could just do better at pleasing their husbands, they could change their situations. Others don’t know what to do, or where to go to get help. Most suffer in silence, hiding their situations from family and friends because of the shame and embarrassment they feel. Or perhaps they fear others will not believe them.
Many women have taken bold and courageous steps to seek help, to find freedom from abuse, and to begin the journey toward a new life. Some have even seen their abusers find the help they desperately needed to stop their destructive behavior and to experience healing and recovery in their own lives. Some couples, through the help of intervention and a structured recovery process guided by pastors or biblical counselors, have been able to experience true healing and reconciliation in their marriages.
Yes, it is true that change does take time, a lot of courage, and a great deal of support, but change can happen. And if you are in an abusive situation, change must occur.
Women do not stay in abusive relationships because they like being abused. Nor is it true that only weak, helpless women are caught up in abusive relationships. These are just myths. Many of the women who are involved in abusive relationships are strong, capable women, but over time have been weakened by domestic abuse. In fact, it is often the strongest women who will stay the longest, because they are determined not to give up, convinced that they can change or fix their relationship.
Here are some typical reasons a woman stays with an abusive husband and does not seek the help she needs:
- She still loves him.
- She feels sorry for him, and believes she can help him.
- He promised to get help.
- She feels the good times outweigh the bad.
- She believes if she can work harder to please him, he will treat her better.
- She blames herself and thinks she deserved the beatings.
- She doesn’t believe she can escape her batterer’s domination.
- She may think other people will believe it’s her fault.
- Her abuser threatens to kill her, to kill others and/or himself if she leaves him.
- She feels she cannot financially support herself and/or her children.
- She has no other support system available (friends, family, etc.).
- She believes that if she hangs in there with him, things will change, and get better.
- She fears being alone.
- She came from an abusive home so the violence seems natural.
- She denies or minimizes the abuse, e.g., “It really wasn’t that bad. He only hits me every few months.”
- She stays because of religious or cultural beliefs (i.e., believing she is abandoning God or her parent’s values if she leaves).
- She believes leaving will mean she is a failure as a wife and mother.
- She does not know her legal rights and feels she has no options.
- She stays because of the children.
- She doesn’t know anywhere she can move.
- She is too afraid or feels too powerless to leave.
- He isn’t always brutal—he can be very loving when he’s not abusive.
- She is unaware of the resources available to her1
If you have children, you have another very important reason for change. Studies show that one third of the children who witness the battering of their mothers demonstrate significant behavioral and/or emotional problems. Children may develop problems such as depression, anger and hostility, isolation, drug and/or alcohol use, and more. They may attempt to get attention through violent behavior, such as lashing out or treating pets cruelly, or by threatening siblings or mother with violence.
Boys who witness their father’s abuse of their mothers are more likely to inflict severe violence when they become adults. Data suggest that girls who witness maternal abuse are more likely to tolerate abuse as adults. Children from abused homes often have relationship and marital problems as adults. And the struggle with the concept of God, finding it especially difficult to accept the love of an eternal, heavenly Father.
You do not deserve to be abused, nor are you to blame for the abuse that you have suffered. Abuse of any type is wrong, and if you are in an abusive situation, the first step toward new life and freedom is to recognize that there is a need for a change in your life. Change can be difficult, and in some cases, change can be frightening. However, in any type of an abusive situation, change is absolutely necessary for your own well being.
Step Two: Seek outside help and guidance. Do not try to make changes on your own. You will need help during the recovery process, and you will need help as you address the abuse in your marriage relationship.
This is a great time to strengthen your support base of key relationships in your life–your pastor, family members, friends, and others. These relationships may be estranged if your husband has isolated you from them. These people can be of great help to you; they can provide a listening ear, a place to go, financial support, and many other things in your time of need. They also can help provide safety if the situation is dangerous.
If you are not attending a Christ-centered church with a strong, Bible-teaching ministry, now is the time to begin. The church can help you in several ways: love and emotional support, spiritual counseling (individual, marital, and family), food and shelter, financial support, and guidance.
In the past many churches were not equipped to handle the problem of domestic abuse, perhaps because of lack of education about the problem, lack of resources, or an unwillingness to admit that abuse does exist in Christian homes. However, more and more churches are recognizing the need for this type of ministry and are learning how to deal with it biblically. Search for a church that will intervene on your behalf, and give you, and eventually your mate, the proper biblical guidance to safety, healing, recovery and reconciliation.
If that type of help is not available, the next option would be to find a Christian counselor with experience in this area. Other options would include a women’s shelter, a licensed counselor, a rape crisis center, a crisis hotline, or some other service in your community that may specialize in helping women.
Outside friends and counselors also can help you learn the rights you have within the law to protect you and to help you as a person, as a wife, and as a mother. There are protection rights, such as restraining orders, to keep your abusive husband away. There are custody rights, property rights, rights regarding finances, etc. While we would urge you to seek help through the church before turning to legal solutions, you need to know your rights and how they apply to your situation, according to the laws in your country, and if the U.S., state of residence, in order to exercise them. To learn about these rights, contact a Christian attorney or legal service, your local police department, the County Bar Association, the city or county prosecutor’s office, a women’s shelter, or a crisis hotline.
Step Three: Move toward personal recovery by establishing a strong relationship with God. Living in an abusive situation is not God’s will for your life. He loves and cares for you, and desires that you experience His love, His peace, His joy, and the abundant life that only He can give. John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.”
This is a God who is interested in having a close personal relationship with us. Just read the words of Jeremiah 29:11-12
“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.”
Some of you have grown up hearing about God all your lives, yet you have never experienced the abundant, rich relationship He promises to those who seek Him. Now may be the time to begin that relationship if you never have before. John 3:16 states, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
Some of you do know Christ, but have neglected your relationship with Him. And now is when you need Him more than ever.
Being abused by the man you love can cause many deep wounds, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, socially and physically. Everyone has a need to be loved, respected, valued, trusted, understood, and needed. In an abusive situation, those needs are not being met, and you begin to feel worthless.
God looks at you through different eyes, however. As one of His children, you are loved and accepted by God, today. As Jeremiah 31:3 tells us, “I have loved you with an everlasting love … ”
When you begin to see your worth as God sees it, you view life from a totally different light. You realize that you are made in His image, and that your life has unique purpose and is worth living to the fullest. You begin to realize God has given you strengths, talents and abilities to use in His service. You feel confident and secure about who you are apart from anyone else, and you don’t have to worry excessively about what others think.
Rebuilding an understanding of your value to God is a very important step as you move toward freedom and recovery. It will help give you the courage and motivation you may need to make the necessary changes in your life and relationship. It will help give you the strength to take a stand, and say to the abuse, “No more! I am a worthwhile person, valued and loved by God. He does not want me to be treated this way.”
Step Four: Determine your level of danger and develop a safety plan. Now that you have acknowledged the problem and realize that there is a need for change in your life, you must determine whether or not your safety is at risk as you attempt to live free of fear, violence, and intimidation.
If you fear for your safety, do not stay in an abusive situation because your husband has promised to get help. Get yourself and your children to safety first, and then encourage him to seek the help he needs. Leaving, and staying away until this happens, may give him the motivation he needs to take such a big step in his life.
Keep in mind that if you decide to leave your home to protect yourself from physical harm, your husband may view your leaving as betrayal or rejection. He may become even more violent as a result. That is why you need to develop your safety plan with outside counsel and guidance. You may even need the help and protection of the police. Do not make your plans alone!
If you are staying in the home out of fear, or if your husband’s words or behavior is becoming more and more threatening you need to work out an immediate safety plan. With the help of others (see Step Two), you will need to plan where to keep keys, clothes, medications, and important documents; what to do with your children; where you will go if you have to leave suddenly, and much more. You may need to choose a safe, protected environment where you can be kept hidden from your husband.
Step Five: Move toward reconciliation. One of the most important questions you will ask yourself as you journey toward recovery from abuse is, “Is there hope for my marriage?” Many of your friends and family may tell you to get a divorce, that reconciliation is all but impossible.
Reconciliation in cases of domestic violence is a long and difficult process. But God is the God of reconciliation. He can shine light on even the darkest of hearts.
In many cases, a wife will need to separate (perhaps for months or even years) from her husband in order to ensure her safety, recover from her ordeal and then pursue reconciliation. But before turning to divorce, we recommend that you first pursue reconciliation.
Many batterers will have difficulty recognizing or admitting they have a problem. To change, they must first recognize the behavior, admit it, and truly desire to change. This kind of repentance is possible when God is at work in the heart.
Do not try to confront your husband when the climate between you is still too hot. You may only fuel the flames, resulting in more anger, threats and violence. Only confront him and discuss outside intervention with him when you are safe, when things are calm and during a period when he is remorseful.
Most important, confront your husband with the help of those who are helping you work through this crisis (see Step Two). One of the most important processes the church can provide is the process of church discipline as outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. If your husband calls himself a Christian, this process is God’s way of confronting your husband’s in and providing for any hope of true repentance and reconciliation.
In many cases abusive men need to experience healing and recovery from the pain, memories, and long-term effects of an abusive childhood. They require help from a biblical counselor trained in dealing with domestic violence and abusive behaviors.
In the process of dealing with his sinful behavior, you might look into some programs through the church that teach men how to be godly husbands and fathers. In these groups he will be able to link up with other Christian men who will stand by him in brotherhood and in friendship, and challenge him to biblical manhood, as well as hold him accountable in his daily walk with Christ and in his treatment of you.
Remember, change doesn’t happen overnight. He will have a long road ahead of him that will require some hard times, a lot of work, and a great deal of courage. However in the long run, if he perseveres and leans upon the Lord to change him, he will gain a new sense of self, a strengthened sense of his identity in Christ, and he will learn how, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to exercise self-control as he interacts with you and others day to day. He will learn how to relate to women in healthy ways, and he will eventually experience freedom from a life of shame, guilt, and hopelessness.
On the road to reconciliation you will deal with pain and conflict, you will make mistakes, and you will shed tears. There will be a time of stripping away wrong attitudes, wrong ways of thinking that have prevented you from truly being one with your husband. And there will be a long process of relearning and rebuilding—of love, trust, of mutual respect, and of a marriage and family that will stand the test of time, with Christ at the center.
Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 2003 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.