It’s Sunday morning, and you greet Sandy* and Bob* as they sit in the pew behind you. You smile and shake hands. What you see is a nice couple, good parents who are active in the church. What you miss are the emptiness and pain in Sandy’s eyes because her husband is abusing her.
What, Bob—an abuser? Surely not. He’s a successful real estate agent, an affable, outgoing man, chair of the church finance committee. And Sandy does not fit the image of the battered wife who has to explain occasional bruises by muttering lame excuses about running into a cupboard door. It’s true that Bob has never laid a hand on Sandy, but she is abused nonetheless. Her bruises are on the inside.
Sandy is confused. Bob is really a nice guy—most of the time, anyway. He presents one picture to the outside world, but at home he can be very different. He puts Sandy down with mean, sarcastic comments, then, when she cries, he says he’s just kidding. He laughs at her when she makes the least little mistake. Sometimes he hurts her so much she wonders if she can stand it, then the next day he is affectionate, even apologetic, and all seems well again. Sandy wonders if she’s going crazy.
Although most people tend to associate domestic abuse mainly with physical violence, situations like Sandy’s are much more common. Writes Dr. Jill A. Murray in her book But He Never Hit Me: The Devastating Cost of Non-Physical Abuse to Girls and Women, “Popular wisdom suggests that all abuse is physical, so if a woman doesn’t have a black eye or a broken arm, she doesn’t consider herself abused—and neither does the outside world. In fact, physical abuse—hitting, shoving, choking, grabbing and assaulting by any means—constitutes the vast minority of abuse. The vast majority consists of verbal, emotional, psychological, financial and spiritual abuse.”
The phases of abuse
Typically, an abusive relationship cycles between three phases:
- Honeymoon: In the honeymoon phase, the relationship seems to be going well. The abuser can be attentive, affectionate and positive.
- Tension: This is followed by the tension building, in which the abuser can display moods such as silence and moodiness to withdrawing from the relationship. This phase can be days, weeks or months long.
- Explosion: Finally comes explosion, when the abuser reacts with angry, brutal attacks against his partner, whether it be striking her, swearing at her or throwing objects in a fit of rage.
Then it’s back to the honeymoon phase, and the cycle begins once again. A woman caught in this cycle feels she is constantly walking on eggshells, not knowing what to expect from her partner or when, not knowing how he will react. She may find herself thinking that if she just tried harder, if she just did something different, he wouldn’t treat her this way.
“I wish he would just hit me,” is a common sentiment among victims of verbal or emotional abuse, who long for either concrete proof of abuse or a perceived justifiable excuse to leave the relationship.
Christian experience mirrors that of the general public
According to Karen McAndless-Davis, co-author of When Love Hurts, one in four Canadian women will experience some kind of relationship abuse in her life. Sadly, the incidence among Christians is no different than the general public, so chances are very good that any congregation has someone who is experiencing some form of Intimate Partner Abuse (IPA). These people—almost always women—are often invisible. They are too ashamed to speak up, or they become experts at covering up. Often they convince themselves that they are not really being abused.
Wendy* is one such woman. She never considered herself abused until friends pointed out the disrespectful ways her husband treats her. She never knows when to expect an outburst of temper.
“We don’t fight or anything, but once he angrily scolded me in front of guests and I was so embarrassed I wanted to crawl into a hole,” she admits, adding, “He sometimes implies I am stupid or ignorant, and he expects me to attend to him when he asks. But most of the time he’s quite normal and he tells me he loves me. It’s not that bad. Is this really abuse?”
Why men abuse their partners
The reasons why a man abuses are varying and complex. Whether as a result of his own experience with abuse, feelings of failure and inadequacy, or a need to put others down to build himself up, at the heart of an abusive man’s behaviour is a need for power and control over his partner.
As explained by Jill Cory and McAndless-Davis in When Love Hurts, the abusive man feels he is central, superior and deserving. There is no room in the power and control belief system for the man to treat the woman with respect. Although he may not admit it, or even consciously realize it, he sees the woman in his life is a means to serve his needs. If he is central, she is on the periphery; if he is superior, she is inferior; if he is deserving, she is undeserving. The balance of power in the relationship is in his hands, and he uses that power to intentionally control or dominate his intimate partner.
Abuse in the church
Women who are active in the church have a particularly difficult time dealing with IPA. Traditional views of male-dominated roles in church and the marriage relationship often serve to perpetuate the sense of powerlessness an abused woman feels. While an egalitarian model of marriage promotes equality of values, authority and mutual decision-making, a traditional model has husband and wife with different roles, with the husband in authority over his wife. Abused Christian women who are told, “Woman is the heart of a marriage, but man is the head,” feel that if they oppose what their husband says or does, even if hurtful or disempowering to them, they are disobeying God.
Julie* found this to be true. “Many of the people in my church hold to the belief that women are to be submissive to their husbands, and that means not complaining,” she says. “I felt that I was to be quiet and that if I said anything I would be looked down upon. Another belief commonly held [in my church] is that the man is to be head of the household and that any decision made is to be determined by the husband.”
Further, women experiencing abuse who seek help from the church community often find they are abandoned by the very people who should be helping them. Emotionally abused, Monica* recalls a time when her family began attending a new church, and she approached the pastor to express a need for counselling. A church elder—who knew her husband—came to visit. “My husband is well liked, a happy, social person, and had him laughing in no time,” she says. “[The elder] saw no further need for counselling, as he considered all was well.”
Monica’s husband used Christian teachings to keep her in her place. “When he did or said something that emotionally hurt me and I would mention it to him, his reply was almost always, ‘You’re a Christian; you’re just supposed to forgive.’ So, of course, I wondered why I had difficulties forgiving and what a weak Christian I was in not understanding God’s love.”
Julie also found the church community not to be a safe place, painful because her church and spiritual life are extremely important to her. “I had little support from where I needed it the most,” she says. “I felt that I was not able to confide in my pastor or church leaders, as the church I attend frowns on couples separating and divorce is considered a great sin.”
Support services available
Women who do not find support in their churches may feel alone, without a place to turn. Organizations such as Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) do offer help in some regions. MCC Manitoba has Voices for Non-Violence, and MCC B.C. has Abuse Response and Prevention.
MCC B.C. sponsors a When Love Hurts support group for women experiencing abuse in their intimate relationships, a place to share their stories and gain strength from the encouragement of others. Facilitator Elsie Goerzen says that women who attend her group, who may not have realized what was wrong in their relationships, are relieved they can finally find a voice.
The often-asked question of abused women is, “So why don’t you just leave?” This, too, is complicated, with answers that vary from woman to woman. Some are dependent financially on their husbands. Some don’t want to disturb their children or break up their family unit. Others fear the reactions of family and friends. Many find the thought of a major life change too overwhelming. For Christian women, another factor is the admission of marriage failure and possible rejection by the church in case of divorce.
So what is an abused woman to do? Should she stay, should she try to change her partner, or should she encourage him to go to marriage counselling with her?
“We don’t tell women what to do, whether to leave or stay,” says Goerzen. “We give them the resources to make the decision that is right for them. We teach women that they are their own best advocate, and only they can decide what is best for them.”
Goerzen says that many women feel great guilt over leaving a marriage because of Christian teaching that divorce is sin, and they genuinely want to honour their marriage vows. “We point out that a husband who abuses his wife has already broken the marriage vows,” she says. “Christians now have the same divorce rate as non-Christians. The only difference is, Christians stay in the marriage longer.”
Although couples counselling seems like a logical step, Cory and McAndless-Davis say that, for an abusive situation, this is not recommended. A woman may not feel safe being completely honest about the relationship when her partner is present, for fear of later repercussions. If she is unable to be honest about the extent of the abuse, and if at the same time her partner is free to tell the worst stories about her, the counsellor will get a skewed picture of the relationship. Also, it should be noted that joint counselling works best when both parties are equally committed to improving the relationship. In the case of an abusive marriage or intimate relationship, the problem is solely that of the abuser. The abused woman is not to blame.
While it is difficult for an abuser to change, he can, with commitment and dedication. As Cory and McAndless-Davis explain, “[The abuser] must acknowledge that the problem is abuse and he is responsible for the abuse. He has to register himself in appropriate counselling and then he has to work hard in his counselling program.”
However, most abusive men will resist counselling, as this challenges the balance of power they have enjoyed in the relationship and it means admitting they have a problem.
In B.C., reports Goerzen, a pilot group will be launched in the fall for men who are abusing their partners and want to address their abusive behaviour. “This is very hopeful, because, in our region, the groups available for [abusive] men are those offered through probation, and only court-mandated men are eligible for those,” she says. “This faith-based group will be such an excellent resource for men who truly want to change, and there are men who do!”
In Nanaimo, B.C., men who have abused their partners and want to address their abusive behaviour can attend a Beyond Blame program, and those who have successfully completed the program do report success.
“I have become far more responsible for my decisions,” say Roy*. “When I make a mistake, I more readily own up to it, leading me to more peace and far less drama.”
And Micky* says it has made a difference with his partner. “I am [now] able to stop myself before acting poorly,” he says. “I am more understanding. I’m a better listener, and more interested in how she feels and her opinions.”
There is also hope for Julie, Wendy, Monica and other women in our churches who continue struggling, often in painful silence, with how to handle their abusive situations. Like Wendy, they want to develop the self-esteem to stand up to verbal abuse. Like Julie, they don’t want to be judged or blamed for their decisions. Like Monica, they just want to be believed.
It is up to our churches to acknowledge there is abuse among us, and to respond with compassion and love in a non-judgmental way.