What not to say: "But all marriages have problems"
I guess all couples do have problems, but this “truth” neglects to mention that domestic abuse is not just another marriage problem. If we ask that question not only are we suggesting that there is something ‘normal’ about domestic abuse - there is not; not only are we suggesting it is the marriage that has the problem - it does not; but we are minimising the horror and trauma of domestic violence and in this we perpetuate a grave injustice.
Let’s discuss those aspects.
Domestic abuse is not a marriage problem. Allow me to say that again - here’s why: some brothers recently handling domestic abuse cases told me that this was the most important realisation that the Hear Believe Act Project had given them. Domestic abuse is not a marriage problem.
Domestic abuse is a problem of the misuse of power and control by the abuser. It is a problem arising entirely from the evil behaviour of the abuser. It is a gross sin against the commandments of Christ and of the Law of the Land. Even society at large recognises the terrible impact on victims and survivors. The problem needs to be owned by the abuser and the abuser needs to be held accountable for their behaviours.
Marriage problems are problems of commitment, responsibility and compromise. One and often both of the parties have problems in these areas and marriage counselling by experienced counsellors focusing on these areas can engage both parties, explore the difficulities and enrich the marriage with new perspectives and approaches to the positive and negative aspects of the relationship. This is why marriage enrichment courses provide a good way of avoiding these issues. In these areas there is usually a responsibility on the couple - not just one partner, to be involved. Compromises are appropriate. Both parties can help. Focusing on areas of difference and disputes - situational problems that may lead to unChristlike behaviours, is appropriate. These behaviours are wrong, but they are not the habituated and often cyclic abusive behaviours rooted in one side’s need for power and control.
It is not unusual for marriage problems to be present with domestic abuse problems. Both parties are still human and most marriages have had marriage problems at some time! However, we cannot allow ourselves to overlook the oppression of domestic abuse when we are distracted with marriage problems. At some point when the domestic abuse is all resolved by the Grace of God - perhaps a very long time later when the abuser has confessed, been through a long period of domestic violence counselling and shown fruits meet for repentance and the survivor has accepted that and wants to remake the marriage, then and only then can marriage counselling be considered appropriate.
With our insight into the impact on victims, survivors and their children we should be able to perceive the impact on their acceptance of the Christ life and their interest in enjoying the God-given benefits of the Divine gift of marriage.
There is nothing normal about domestic abuse. The profound injustice of saying this to a victim is that usually after being worked over by the abuser, belittled to within an inch of her sanity and pummelled into submission within an inch of her life, time after time, year after year, pregnancy after pregnancy this becomes so much “her new normal” that the cooperation and harmony of truly normal marriages in the Lord are totally forgotten - not even a dim memory, and the challenge of surviving every day her major focus. She convinces herself that what he says must be right and she is to blame. His justifications including spiritual abuse like misusing scripture to support unChristlike behaviour and claiming privileges and reverence a wicked man is never entitled to suggest every brother in Christ behaves so to his wife and children.
This is truly an abomination and we need to temper everything we say with a deeply held disgust for it and find language that truly supports the victim and survivor to see that we do not tolerate abuse and that there is nothing acceptable about it.
Domestic abuse is horrific and terrifying. The key feature of domestic abuse is the fear and shame that the victims and survivors feel. They talk of feeling imprisoned and unable to have the normal autonomy every sister or brother should have. They cannot ‘choose’ to revere their spouse (as scripture might call for wives to do) - they are forced to submit to them through threats and intimidation. Even when survivors have separated (two survivors I have spoken to 14 and 20 years respectively after separation) endure continuing abuse - stalking, monitoring, turning children against them, using the legal system as a weapon, using finances as a weapon, using children as a weapon, using pets as a weapon - and then perpetuating lies and innuendo about the survivor - their mental health, their morality and their spirituality.
Domestic abuse must never be minimised and we must always remember that we have probably only “seen the tip of the iceberg” if we are talking to a survivor or victim - what we know about is usually only a small part of what they have endured. Saying “all marriages have problems” might be true, but it is minimising the experience of the victim or survivor - to do this is a profound injustice.
What can we say?
We can say we have read about domestic abuse and we know that it can be horrific and terrifying. We can ask them if they feel safe now, and if there is anything they need us to do or arrange to help them to help them and their children be safe. We can tell them we know of the trauma and grief that most survivors feel and suggest that we can help them find places to go that can help them - the Police, Christadelphian and other professional counsellors specialising in domestic abuse for instance. Finally, we must always say that if they want anyone to talk to we will be ready for them. Remember it is not our place to tell them what to do - we don’t know the complexities of their situation anything like their lived experience.
If this article raises concerns you have about domestic violence in your own life or those around you can call 1800RESPECT (If in Australia) or similar services in other countries. There is also a list of support services on this website including Christadelphian Support Services.
Image credit: Creative Commons License Ed Yourdon, "Sunday morning in Piazza del Popolo, Nov 2009 - 46"