Category Archives: Sexual Abuse

Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?

Last week, I gave advice on How to Read a Marriage Book, which might be one of the more important posts I’ve written, since the points there can make a big difference in whether a resource helps or hurts your marriage.

One point I made is that most marriage books presume good-willed spouses. Yes, these spouses may have moments of high frustration, over-the-top words, or hard stonewalling. However, those are moments and usually arise from deep-seated emotional pain the spouse feels in the face of relational conflict they don’t know how to resolve.

That’s different from a pattern of abuse, in which a spouse exhibits behaviors intended to keep their partner under their thumb. Such behaviors include physical violence, direct threats, constant belittling, gaslighting, economic deprivation, sexual force, and emotional intimidation. And for those spouses in an abusive marriage, or with features of abuse in their marriage, the typical marriage advice isn’t going to work.

For instance, there’s no reason to read my own book, Hot, Holy & Humorous: Sex in Marriage by God’s Design, with information and ideas on how to improve your marriage bed if your spouse is raping you. That would be like getting your car detailed when the engine has fallen out onto the road.

If you’re in an abusive marriage, the first order of business is addressing the abuse. If and when that resolves, you can address other relationship issues.

If you're in an abusive marriage, the first order of business is addressing the abuse. If and when that resolves, you can address other relationship issues. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

Where do you begin?

Let me first point out that I am not a clinical psychologist; licensed, professional counselor; psychiatric specialist; licensed social worker; law enforcement member; or domestic abuse expert. I do not have a background working with individuals or couples who have experienced domestic abuse. Thus, everything I advise here is based on Scripture, common sense, expert resources I’ve consulted, and personal contact I’ve had with victims of domestic abuse.

And that caveat is why my primary suggestion is you consult the expert you need, as soon as possible. What do I mean by “the expert you need”? Here are a few examples.

  • If you or your children experience physical or sexual violence from your spouse, call the police. It does not matter that you are married to the offender, you are still being assaulted and deserve protection and justice.
  • If you feel you or your children are at risk of physical or sexual violence, contact the domestic abuse hotline or a local shelter. You need to get to a place of safety.
  • If your spouse is denying you access to your home, personal belongings, or money to feed and care for yourself and children, you may need to speak to a lawyer to get what is legally and rightfully yours.
  • If the abuse is verbal or emotional in nature, you should see a psychiatrist, psychologist, licensed social worker, or professional counselor.

In an abusive or destructive marriage, the dominant spouse has gained outsized control and an unfair advantage. The way to re-balance the scales is to bring in reinforcements. So get help from people who can actually help you.

In an abusive marriage, the dominant spouse has gained outsized control and an unfair advantage. The way to re-balance the scales is to bring in reinforcements. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

If you don’t know whether you’re in an emotionally abusive marriage, take the Are You In An Emotionally Destructive Relationship? Quiz from Leslie Vernick. This is her area of expertise, and she also maintains a website where you can find resources to help you navigate an emotionally abusive situation.

What if the maltreatment isn’t so dire?

Some marriages simply have abusive or destructive traits. That is, they don’t pose an immediate threat to your safety or survival, nor do you feel like you’re in an emotional war zone, but your spouse sometimes behaves horribly toward you. What can you do?

In dysfunctional relationships, we tend to take on a role that unwittingly keeps the dynamic going. For instance, you may play the role of caretaker, scapegoat, or clown/mascot—all in an effort to calm the storms caused your spouse. But if you want to stop a system, throw a wrench into the gears. That is, stop playing your part and choose a different role—a healthier role.

This is an underlying principle in programs for spouses of addicts, as well as a key part of Boundaries, a wonderful book from Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. These Christian clinical psychologists also wrote Boundaries in Marriage, in which they lay out how you can stand up for yourself in the face of mistreatment from a spouse. By changing your way of dealing with unacceptable behavior, you make it more difficult for the other person to continue their misconduct—at least not without real cost.

Are all abusers the same?

No, they’re not. Some abusers can be reformed, but even as Christians who believe that God can redeem any situation, we must face the reality that some abusers will not change.

It appears that there are two types of domestic violence: situational and characterological. Situational violence describes a conflict in which one or both partners escalate in their frustration and anger to the point of lashing out. These spouses tend to recognize the awfulness of what they’ve done, feel genuine remorse, and want to avoid repeating that experience. Experts say such abusers lack self-control and conflict resolution skills—but, with the right help, they can learn.

Meanwhile, characterological violence means what it sounds like—it’s a core feature of the person’s character to dominate, manipulate, and maltreat their partner. Such abusers tend to blame their victims, give halfhearted or just-for-show apologies (if they give them at all), and maintain their pattern of abuse. Moreover, their escalation isn’t tracked in a single incident of losing control, but over the course of the relationship, with the abuse slowly becoming worse and worse. This building of intensity can be compared to the frog placed in a pot of water and heat slowly rising until it reaches boiling point; by the time the frog (or abuse victim) realizes what’s happening, they’re stuck. Or at least feel stuck.

Sadly, the characterological abuser is unlikely to ever change.

He is like the man with a hardened heart whom God cannot change. Not because God lacks the ability to mold a sinful person into something beautiful, but because the clay will never admit it needs the Artist’s hands. If you are married to this kind of abuser, I’ll say it plainly: Get out.

If your abuser later decides to confess their sin, repent of their sin, and embrace God’s love instead, you can re-negotiate then. But you cannot have anything resembling the kind of marriage God desires with a characterological abuser. As author and speaker Gary Thomas said: “How does it honor the concept of ‘Christian marriage’ to enforce the continuance of an abusive, destructive relationship that is slowly squeezing all life and joy out of a woman’s soul?”

The Bible says that God knit you in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:14), that He has numbered the hairs of your head (Luke 12:7), that He sacrificed His Son for you (Romans 5:8), and that, through Christ, you are God’s beloved child (1 John 3:1). As much as I believe in marriage, you are worth more than your marriage.

As much as I believe in marriage, you are worth more than your marriage. via @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

When it’s a matter of saving your life, your soul, your value, it’s okay to find the exit door. And then enter God’s welcoming, comforting arms.

Therapy for you, not us

If you are in a marriage with a characterological abuser or controller, couples’ therapy probably won’t work. Why? Because such abusers and controllers are unlikely to tell the truth, accept responsibility for their actions, respect a counselor, or even attend counseling. They don’t believe they’re the problem anyway. If they go, they want the counselor to say you are the problem.

Sadly, that’s what some counselors do. If that happened to you, let me assure you it shouldn’t have.

Other couples’ counselors can and will see what’s happening and encourage you toward positive steps to change the unhealthy dynamic.

But given the destructive nature of your marriage relationship, your best option is seeking therapy for yourself. Explain to a licensed, Christian counselor what you’re dealing with and ask for wisdom and help. Learn what you can do to care for yourself, your children, and yes, your marriage, if it can be healed.

You may be in for a long road, but the road will feel longer and harder if you continue the path you’re walking. Don’t simply reach for another resource that presumes two good-willed spouses. If you’re in an abusive or destructive marriage, get real help for your situation.

Resource List

What to Do about Sexual Predators in the Church

Like many of you, my heart has been ripped apart and shredded over the recent stories of child sexual abuse by a subset of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania. While this latest report is so widespread that it sucks one’s breath away and makes righteous anger swell, it’s by no means the only story of church leaders taking advantage of their position to prey upon parishioners for the sake of their twisted sexual desires.

As someone who writes about embracing healthy and holy sexual intimacy, I contemplate how someone repeatedly abused by a church leader in this most vulnerable way can move toward healing. And how does their experience color their view of God?

While God is entirely opposed to such heinous acts, He has chosen through much of history to act through His people. Which is why these stories, of both Catholic and Protestant leaders preying sexually on adults and children, bother me most in the way they were handled by Christians who knew or should have known what was happening.

Did we support the victim? Did we demand accountability? Did we put into place boundaries that made acting on evil impulses more difficult, if not impossible? Did we oust those who would abuse God’s Church and embrace those whom Jesus would embrace?

Y’all, we have to do better.

If we want people to experience all the beauty of sexual intimacy that God intends for them to have and to have a relationship with Christ, they cannot be made pawns of cruel abusers. We must “learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed” (Isaiah 1:17).

So what should we do as a Church about the sexual predators among us?

1. Identify the perpetrators.

Yes, a number of leaders who abused parishioners have been finger-pointed, but I fear we have a long way to go. We need to know who these abusers are to deal with the problem.

The reason the Pennsylvania grand jury report included so many victims is that the state set up a hotline for people to call and report their abuse. Why can’t Church do the same?

All denominations and individual churches should have a policy about reporting abuse, including a hotline to call or a clickable button on a website that allows someone to send an email to a trusted individual representing the church. The person receiving these reports should have training in sex abuse prevention and response. Of course, reports of child abuse or sexual assault must then be reported to the proper authorities.

But we need to encourage reporting and following up on accusations. We should lead the way in pursuing truth and compassion. We need to make it as easy as possible for victims to identify the perpetrators and thus stop the abuse from happening again.

2. Support the victims.

Jeremiah 22:16 says: “‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the Lord.” Defending those who need defense is what it means to know God.

Too often, the Church has chosen to believe a leader over a victim, or simply placed leaders in such high regard that it can feel traitorous for a victim or victim’s family to come forward.

No matter how fabulous some preacher is or caring a priest seems to be, we cannot put those people on such a pedestal that evidence to the contrary will not be given consideration. We must keep an open door and an open mind and have resources to support those who have been abused within the Church.

Christian counselors, mentors, and support groups can help victims find healing and do so in a way that helps to preserve their faith. Churches should band together and create counseling centers, peer mentoring (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-4), and support groups led by well-trained leaders. We should keep a list of community and online resources that can also help, including law enforcement and non-profit organizations.

We should mourn with the victim and not push forgiveness of the abuser too quickly, as I’ve seen some churches do. That makes what happened about the abuser, not the abuse. There will be a time for forgiveness, but go read Psalms and see how many times David asks God to crush his oppressor. We must allow sexual abuse victims to have those same feelings — to grieve what happened to them.

3. Pursue justice.

It’s not enough to know the abuse happened or to help the victim(s); we have to hold the abusers accountable and stop the abuse from recurring.

When Simon the Sorcerer tried to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit from the apostles, Peter answered, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21). Don’t we believe that sexual abuse is bad enough to warrant a similar response?

If someone uses the Lord’s church to prey on people, should they keep their position? Simply be moved to another position and retain their salary? Keep their retirement? Why? Why would we support that?

Can some abusers be helped? Changed? Redeemed? Yes, of course. But I don’t know anyone who experienced a transformation without confession, humility, and repentance. So if the abuser isn’t seeking help, they’re not likely to change — and we don’t owe them a place in ministry, or even our church.

Rather, we owe our congregants a safe place to learn, worship, and fellowship.

4. Embrace prevention practices.

We must open ourselves to the hard truth that the Church has at times allowed abuse to happen, even by such small acts as leaving adults alone with children when they shouldn’t have been.

I don’t know about other states, but Texas requires child workers to undergo Sexual Abuse Prevention Training, and that extends to week-long church camp staff. Thus, I’ve gone through the training for the last 4-5 years. It includes the statistic that more abusers are situational offenders, meaning they will offend if they see an opportunity. Since we cannot always know who might abuse, one goal of prevention is to provide no opportunity.

Churches can therefore enact such policies as:

  • having two adults present for youth and children activities
  • installing windows in all classroom and office doors
  • avoiding imbalance of power (like an adolescent left alone with a preschooler; sad to say, perhaps half of child abuse is committed by an adolescent)
  • conducting routine background checks of all staff and volunteers
  • requiring all staff and volunteers to undergo sex abuse prevention training
  • providing a clear set of steps to pursue if/when abuse is reported

We should be leading the way of best practices for protecting our members, especially children. As Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). We should do nothing that hinders our children from embracing the kingdom of God.

Honestly, the need for ministries like mine would be substantially less if the Church did a better job at handling sexuality in so many ways. But among all the things we struggle with, this is where my heart most breaks — where we have historically gotten things most wrong: We cannot allow the Church to be used by abusers as a gathering place for their victims. We have to fight sexual sin everywhere we find it, but most especially in our sanctuaries.

We cannot allow the Church to be used by abusers as a gathering place for their victims. We have to fight sexual sin everywhere we find it, but most especially in our sanctuaries. Click To Tweet

May God show us the way.