When it is not "A Marriage Problem"?

Human cognitive biases include a tendency to interpret information in a way that supports our preconceptions (confirmation bias) and depend excessively on automated systems which can lead to erroneous automated information overriding correct decisions (automation bias). Another is "anchoring bias", otherwise known as "Law of the instrument" and perhaps more commonly, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

An Anecdote:

I recall a meeting in the home of an older brother (a generation older who I will call Brother Norm) who had been conscientiously trying to help in a situation where a sister had left her husband.

I had earlier been privileged to hear the confidential disclosure the sister had made to my wife and I about years of domestic abuse of almost all kinds - emotional and psychological, spiritual and sexual, financial and verbal. The shame and stress of the situation was at times confronting as the sister would compose herself again as she went on to describe another chapter of abuse in her life - the oppression she had been enduring. Her adult children there supporting her verified all but the terrible scenes described that happened behind the closed bedroom door. They were stories that couldn't be made up. They had to be believed.

Brother Norm, like most of us, was inclined to help, and genuine in his desire. He had already made a private visit to the sister to "encourage her". The nature of the encouragement was a reminder about her wedding vows, and the importance of marriage - certainly not something that this Sister needed the slightest reminder of. The encouragement was supported with a stern recommendation that "she go home soon" for the sake of her family.

The sister did not make the same disclosure to Brother Norm - perhaps she didn't trust him; perhaps she had already endured the retelling of the story four or five times and couldn't stomach another; perhaps he didn't ask. But in any case, neither I, my wife or Brother Norm really had any entitlement to know about such shameful and private trials. We certainly had no authority to tell anyone else except in the situation of threats to life and safety.

In going to meet him I thought that I could help Brother Norm see that his approach and demands on the sister involved were inappropriate and convince him that there may be a better way and other ways he should help - especially ways that cared for the oppressed and took them out of harm's way.

Unfortunately the discussion didn't go like that and I was phenomenally unsuccessful. Instead of believing that there may have been domestic abuse Brother Norm was adamant that knowing the husband for so many years, he was very quiet and never would be violent. Further I was told that it was none of my business and I was forcing the family apart instead of "helping". Tellingly, I was told that in every case "like this" that he had "seen over the years" that it was as much the sister's problem, and that this sister could be forceful and direct at times. Further, all of these marriage problems needed the three-C's of communication, compromise and commitment - by supporting the sister's desire (and her adult children's desires) to avoid all communication with her husband I was "getting in the way".

Back to biases

Looking at the situation it was clear to see the biases in operation.

The confirmation bias that discounted any possibility the husband was a user of abusive behaviours because he was a quiet fellow. Of course abuse happens behind closed doors and the behaviours are practised in such a way as to avoid the attention of people around. Carefully curated appearances of "lovely brothers" and "happy families" are maintained and we all are surprised when the truth comes out.

The automation bias characterised the problem automatically as a marriage problem - it was after all a problem in the marriage, and must therefore have been like all the other marriage problems Brother Norm thought he had helped with over the years.

The anchoring bias characterised by taking out the marriage counselling toolbag and laying out the three-Cs. This is the solution to all marriage problems. It was the only toolbag Brother Norm had, but to him every problem in a marriage looked like a problem with the marriage.

Avoiding biases

These biases need to be avoided for the sake of the oppressed.

We need to avoid prejudice. Christ called us to care for the oppressed and the widows. James requires that we judge without prejudice. And we are warned, are we not, that we are easily fooled, and that the heart of man is deceitful above all things. We know that some of our fellow believers will not be truly changed by the Word of God. We should not be surprised, especially given the prevalence of domestic violence in society around us, that it can occur in our own midst.

We need to listen to scripture about human nature. Just because a problem is a problem in a marriage does not mean it is a problem with the marriage. The problem is a problem of human nature - selfish interests and failing to show love, care and empathy for other people around them.

Another issue around prejudice arises when we forget that both parties are human. Unfortunately abusers are deceivers and they will ensure we are well aware of their partner's faults (and more often than not, their mental health issues). Is it in anyway justification for domestic violence? Clearly no - be it by the Law of Christ, or the laws of the developed countries we tend to live in. And we should expect that as we all have flaws, so do people who suffer abuse. Psychological and emotional abuse are always present. These destroy a sense of sense, of self-worth and confidence - indeed confidence even about spiritual things they hold dear. I have heard from more than one wife that her husband told them in front of the children that they are wicked and would not be in the Kindgom. When this abuse becomes extreme (as is the norm with escalation of domestic violence) the only autonomy an abused person may have is to be loud, to lash out and worse. None of this is justified but we must undertand it. It is not domestic violence - it is situational violence and they are different. It is no reason to desert the person suffering the abuse, or to blame them in our discourse - be it justification, minimisation or privatisation. They have no place in the lips of those who would be Good Samaritans.

Dropping the marriage counselling toolbag

And the "marriage counselling toolbag" is not suitable for domestic violence problems. It should be left at home for other occasions. What to I mean? Well let's look at the tools in the toolbag.

Communication: the premise of the solution is that the problem is the lack of desire on the part of the partners in the marriage to communicate. In reality, people suffering abusive behaviours desperately try to communicate. They try to understand the unfathomable: why they deserve to be punished; how they can improve; what they did wrong; who they need to avoid seeing (for instance). They try to have heart to heart conversations only to have the back turned on them. They try to raise ideas about how to improve the relationship, only to have the silent treatment for days and weeks. They write letters explaining how they feel only to have them thrown in the bin in rage.

Communication is the way in which abusers use narcissistic behaviours and particularly coercive control to exert their influence on the abused person, even when they have left them. The intimidation, threats, threats of self-harm, threats to harm other people or animals and much more subtle things like financial threats and pressure, demands for compliance and to return are all things that I have seen from Christadelphians using abusive behaviours. Forcing communications, be it meetings, at meetings, for counselling or (much worse) demanding the couple get back to living in the marital home, all serve to enable the abuse. This is the most terrible thing a disciple of Christ could be found to be doing - to be part of the oppression of another member of the body of Christ.

Compromise: the premise of the solution is that there are "two sides to the story" and that the two people involved need to compromise for the sake of the marriage and in love for each other. The unwritten assumption is that the problem is the responsibility of both parties, and that more compromise will solve it. Further, there is an expectation (including by Brother Norm) that all relationships are respectful, like his with his wife, and that such compromise from one party gets respected and responded to by the other. In situations of power and control there is a dramatic imbalance in power toward the abuser. By appearing to compromise the abuser can manipulate those helpers and other family members to appear to be very compliant and helpful, and use that to vilify the abused person and have the counselling process end up placing unreasonable demands on the abused person. I have seen abused sisters told "to make him what he wants" (so that he doesn't throw the meal at you). I have seen abused sisters told to "realise he has had a long hard day at work" and make sure the house is tidy and quiet before he comes home (so he doesn't explode in rage).

By subtly demanding compromise we are enabling the abuse in the very act itself. Even the influence that a counsellor in the room has on making it an obligation on the abused to express a compromise to meet the demands of the abuser, or the abuser's entitlement thinking is enabling the abuse. Marriage counsellors must ensure that they are not a part of enabling the abuse by not recognising it in couples who come to them and handling it differently, or if need be, handing it over to counsellors skilled in dealing with domestic violence perpetrators. In my experience, going no contact is the most important strategy, and the couples should see separate counsellors so as not to enable the abuse.

Commitment: the premise of the solution here is that the problem is that the partners' mutual lack of commitment to the marriage. Whilst this is the case at one level, the extent of the difference in thinking between the parties means that making the focus commitment ignores the elephant in the room. The pachyderm is the one party that has deserted the marriage: deserted the "heirs together of the grace of life" objective; deserted the "that they might develop a Godly seed" and deserted the responsibility to live with his wife in an understanding way. There is no point demanding more commitment from each of them when the marriage vows themselves have been deserted.

When marriage counselling isn't the answer

There is certainly room for counselling when marriage counselling is not the answer. When the behaviour is criminal and lives are threatened we should urgently seek the help of the authorities, and encourage and support people suffering abuse to obtain the protection of the Police and the Courts with the protection orders that apply in your jurisdiction. We must also provide a place of safety and do it absolutely confidentially and secretly when needed.

We should go to experts in helping people suffering abuse to understand the nature of the behaviours they were experiencing. These people may well be radical feminists with different values to ours, but in my experience they focus on the situation and the person. They don't try to destroy people's faith, although we shouldn't "shoot the messenger" when they point out that some people and perhaps even whole ecclesias are enabling abuse recommending making a break from them, or keeping their distance!

Perpetrator programs or men's behavioural change programs have limited success, but are something constructive that we can direct perpetrators to. At least this puts abuse on the table and demands their participation.

As always we are called to "lead sinners to repentance", and this might be a challenging task and a lifetime's endeavour in many cases. It takes insight and introspection as well as a lot of understanding of the realities of the power and control behaviours so as not to be manipulated ourselves.

When it comes to the authorities

In my experience Christadelphian communities rarely seek help from the Police in these instances. That is a mistake. It underestimates the risk and puts lives at risk. It also misses key opportunities to have domestic violence behaviours clearly out in the open. When the Police put an intervention order in place it is because they believe there is genuine cause for concern about the safety of the people protected by it. There is an opening for every ecclesia to discuss with the alleged perpetrator why the Police have that view and what the perpetrator needs to change in response.

Further, ecclesias are not left having to judge, or having to decide between her and him. When the Police stop him coming to meetings she is usually at, it is easy. The ecclesia then has the task of finding some other way for him to get spiritual development and fellowship - perhaps in his home with a roster of members, or at some other ecclesia nearby.

What about the Courts?

Romans 13 makes it clear that the laws are put there for our good. In most developed countries there are laws about separation after marriage and divorce. These address issues including domestic violence, providing for children, providing for spousal maintenance and dividing the family resources. I Corinthians 6 makes it clear that the ecclesia has a responsibility to judge between members. These two sections of scripture taken together suggest that the ecclesia should help separating married couples avoid Court (and lawyers and legal expense) by helping them judge on generally the same principles as the law which Romans says was put there for our good and for the punishment of evildoers. It also suggests that separating couples should accept the ecclesia's judgement in these matters.

For practicality, confidentiality and independence brothers or sisters with experience in financial matters, with capability to make such judgements and willingness to give for the task should be chosen - most often from other meetings some distance away. They should ensure they are briefed on how the law of the country operates and give diligence to the task. That means refusing to be manipulated and operating independently and without any expectation they should "negotiate" an outcome.

When the ecclesia is unable to (e.g. one partner is unwilling to participate) or unwilling to, it would seem perfectly legitimate for separating couples to use the help of the authorities in the Courts. To say otherwise may be to perpetuate abuse and allow perpetrators to escape. To suggest that somehow the injunction of 1 Cor 6 about not going to law suggests abusers can hide behind the law is just a perversion of the Divine Economy.


The ecclesial response to domestic violence needs education so that we don't inadvertently become enablers or perpetuators of the abusive behaviours. We need to hear the pleas of the oppressed, rescue them from danger and ensure their safety and spiritual development free of manipulation and power and control behaviours. This may challenge long-held prejudices and demand humility to recognise we have made mistakes in the past and need to change our approach, but it is the Law of Christ we are called to.