The Crazy Things Your Pastor or Bible Counselor Told You to Do In Your Abusive Relationship
I recently asked the following question on my public Flying Free Facebook page:
“What’s the craziest thing a pastor, Bible counselor, or church leader told you to do in your abusive relationship?”
Within eight hours there were over 180 comments.
That question struck a nerve.
These women lived out their prime years within prison cells built on these lies. Each lie a thick, unbending iron bar.
I’d like to share a few of the answers here, and then I’m going to tear down some of the most prevalent ones.
The Crazy Things Your Pastor or Bible Counselor Told You to Do In Your Abusive Relationship
“All couples fight.”
“You are not in God’s will.”
“You need to give him more sex.”
“Give your 11 children to the elders to be placed in three different church homes to prove that you’re telling the truth. If you insist on keeping your children, you must be lying about the abuse.”
“You’re not praying hard enough.”
“Do what he wants you to do. Whatever makes him happy.”
“You made a vow. You have to keep it.”
“All marriages are hard.”
“If you leave, you don’t love your children.”
“Are you keeping the house clean enough? Do you cook him good dinners?”
“You had too many babies, so that’s why he abuses you.”
“Back away from your relationship with Jesus. It intimidates your husband. You must decrease so he can increase.”
“IF these things are really going on in your house (and that is a big “IF”) then it’s your responsibility to get him the help he needs.”
“You are slave to Christ and your husband. There is no greater love than to die for your husband. Treat him as if he were God. He stands in the place of God for you.”
“Compliment him more. He is discouraged and just needs to be affirmed by someone who thinks he is good looking.”
“Quit focusing on the bad stuff. Focus on the WINS!”
“Your personality is too strong. You need to be meek in order to let him shine.” (This woman said she tried to be less intelligent, not have opinions, submit, and not use her sense of humor. Basically, become a non-person.)
“He’s not complicated, but you are. You need counseling.”
“You don’t know how good you have it. Be thankful he isn’t worse.”
“The only right you have is to die to yourself.”
“You’re husband had an affair with your sister? You need to initiate sex, then. Because love covers a multitude of sins.”
“Jesus is pleased with your suffering.”
“If your husband is addicted to porn and sleeps with other men and women, it’s because you are frigid and unimaginative. Work on that.”
“Just because your husband recently cheated on you, and you are nine months pregnant, doesn’t give you the right to refuse him sex.”
“Remember the reasons you married him.”
“Your quest for the truth is damaging your marriage. Stop making him feel bad.”
“You’re blowing things out of proportion.”
“You obviously haven’t obeyed him perfectly.”
“Because of Eve, you owe him obedience and loyalty no matter what.”
“Stop expecting a Hollywood romance.”
“When he gets home from having an affair, smile at him.”
“Christian marriage is hell. Accept it.”
“It’s just his sin nature. Give him grace.”
“Stop complaining before something worse happens.”
“He’s not abusive enough for your to divorce him. We can tell.”
“Grow a thicker skin.”
“Forgive without limit. Respect him.”
“You are having problems because you let him have your body before marriage.”
“Study Hosea who married a prostitute and stayed no matter what.”
“Buy a sexy nightie, and he’ll stop sleeping around.”
After attempted murder and a sexual assault, her pastor told her “your situation is a 3 out of 10. Let him move back home or you’ll be held accountable before God for putting a nail in the coffin of your marriage.”
“Repent of your bitterness.”
“Churches are exempt from protective orders, so your husband can be here.”
“Win him without a word.”
“You are obviously mentally ill.”
“He’s not hitting you. What’s the big deal?”
“The word ‘abuse’ is not in the Bible.”
“A man would never treat his wife like this unless she were doing something wrong.”
“If you don’t stay, you have no faith.”
“You aren’t a Christian.”
“God will kill your child if you leave.”
“You don’t know what your name is. You are ______’s wife. You have no name.”
NO MORE LIES!
The following is a lesson I wrote within the Flying Free Sisterhood as part of the new course: Recovering from C-PTSD.
If you’ve hung out with me very long, you know that I believe the root cause of abuse in the home and in the church is misogyny. The dehumanization of women. And I believe culture—and especially RELIGIOUS culture—perpetuates that attitude toward women by brainwashing people with subtle, twisted truths. You can see how this works by looking at that list above. For every comment above, there are thousands and thousands more who could say they heard the same thing.
In general, girls are raised to believe they need to be quiet. Domestic. Agreeable. Supportive. Submissive. Peace-keepers.
To express an opinion that differs from a man in the room is automatically labeled as rebellious. Divisive. Uncooperative. Bitchy.
This creates the perfect environment for abuse. A woman is treated “less than,” and if she protests even in the most humble way, she is immediately shamed for protesting. There is an unspoken law. Thou shalt not protest your discomfort when you are mistreated, lied to, and dehumanized. If you are a woman. A man is seen as strong and assertive if he stands up for himself, so he doesn’t have to swim against a tide of hatred and suspicion.
We can’t change society. We can’t change the religious environment that encourages this kind of insane treatment. But we CAN advocate for ourselves by kicking out a few of the pervasive lies we were brainwashed with for most of our lives. We CAN walk away from lies and the people who tell them in order to find sanity and peace with those who believe in treating all members of the human race with equality and respect.
You know, like Jesus did.
I’ve pulled some of the following concepts from the book Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence. They’ve condensed many of the lies we’ve been taught into a few big ones. Most of the other lies are simply variations of these.
1. You made your bed, and now you’ll have to lie in it.
It’s a common cliche that isn’t rooted in reality. Consider another one: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Really? What about “Out of sight, out of mind?” See how these kinds of cliches make no sense when it comes to real life? They are just societal truisms, and you can almost always find another one that contradicts the first one. We say them when we don’t want to actually use our brains, and we’re just itching to say the first thing that pops into our heads.
So what does it mean – that if you make your bed, you have to lie in it? It means you can’t ever change your mind.
Is that true? Are human beings not allowed to change their minds? Let’s say a mother is going to send her child to a camp, but then she finds out one of the class bullies who has been tormenting her child during the school year is going to be there. So she can’t change her mind?
Let’s say a general lays out a battle plan based on the intelligence he was given that morning. But later in the day, he receives new intelligence indicating that his first battle plan would be ill advised. Does this mean he can’t change his mind? Seriously?
No, this is a dorky lie for cartoon characters. You, a real human being, CAN change your mind. And sometimes changing your mind is the wisest thing to do. A woman who marries an abusive person now has new information. She can make a different decision based on that new information. She can change her mind.
She made her bed, but guess what? She can leave and make a new bed. And she gets to choose to lie in the bed that is safest for her.
2. Marriage is forever.
Um, no. A marriage is a covenant/contract between two people. Contracts or “covenant” vows can be broken by one person. Once they are broken, the entire thing is null and void. A divorce provides legal protection for the victim of a broken contract or covenant. And just in case you’ve heard that there is a difference between “covenant” and “contract” (a contract has to be kept by both partners, but a covenant [marriage covenant, for example] can be broken by one and must still be kept by the other), here is another perspective:
As originally written, there was no distinction between “covenant” and “contract.” There is only one word for both and there is no reason to believe that this word represented more than one type of agreement. This applies not only to the OT use of the term “covenant” but also to its use in the NT and beyond into the Church Fathers. Throughout this period, the term “covenant” meant a contract that could be broken if either side reneged on their half of the agreement.
In the New Testament and beyond, there was also a second, entirely separate meaning of “covenant” as the “New Covenant” (i.e., New Testament). This developed alongside the traditional meaning of covenant as contract.
The theological meaning of “covenant” is an agreement that a faithful person would not break even if the partner to whom that person is in covenant breaks the stipulations of the covenant. This new meaning of “covenant” is based on the covenantal relationship between God and his people in the later prophets and the New Testament. In the later prophets, God promised that he would keep his side of the agreement whether or not his people kept theirs. God would be faithful even if his people were faithless. This irrevocable covenant was portrayed in Ezekiel 36-37 and Jeremiah 31 as a “new covenant.” This is different to every other type of covenant found in the ancient Near East or in the Old Testament. It is this difference that made the “new covenant” so special.
If your business contracted with another business for goods and services, and the other business didn’t come through with their end of the bargain, does that mean you have to pay them? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. A contract/covenant requires two sides keeping their end of the bargain. Period.
Women who are mistreated have absolutely no obligation to provide goods and services to their abusers who have broken their vows to love and cherish by neglecting and dehumanizing them. They are free to go.
God set precedence for this reality when He divorced Israel for not keeping covenant with Him.
3. Poor, poor abuser. He can’t help himself because he needs you for sex, so you should stay.
There are two people involved in this relationship. You and him. When you stay because you feel sorry for him, you are throwing yourself under the bus in order to protect an abusive person who willfully chooses to mistreat you.
He certainly isn’t feeling sorry for you. He’s feeling sorry for him, and he expects you to feel sorry for him too, because it’s all about him. You are a nothing to him.
Are you a nothing to yourself? You certainly aren’t a nothing to God. How does God view both of you? He loves both of you, but one of you is choosing to be selfish and destructive. Is it in the destructive person’s best interest for everyone to feel sorry for him and enable him to continue to mistreat other human beings?
Is it in his best interest to teach him that he isn’t responsible for his life? That others will mother him and slave for him simply because he was born with a penis?
You are not responsible for his well-being. For his choices. For his behavior. For the consequences he faces because he refuses to get help and transform.
You are responsible for you. God gave YOU your body, mind, and spirit. He won’t hold you accountable for anyone else’s life. Just your own. So let your partner take responsibility for his life, and you take responsibility for yours.
Feeling sorry for him is a horrible reason for staying.
4. He said he was sorry, so I need to give him a fresh start.
We hear this in religious circles quite often. “Forgive and forget.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Love covers up a multitude of sins.”
But here’s the thing. Just because someone says they are sorry doesn’t mean you have to be with them anymore. Abusive men know that their victims will buy their words and look the other way when their actions don’t measure up.
It’s ACTIONS, not words, that tell the true story. Apologies mean nothing. Anyone can say, “I’m sorry.” Big hairy deal.
And even if a chronically abusive man really did change (almost never, ever happens), you still don’t need to go back to him. Losing a wife and family is a natural consequence when you abuse a wife and family. A truly changed man will accept the consequences, give you an amazing divorce, and then work to make amends.
By the way, I’ve never seen an abuser give his wife an amazing divorce. What I HAVE seen is horrible, vengeful behavior when he realized his victim was no longer buying his “I’m sorry” theatricals.
5. If you try harder at doing all the right things, or if you say things the right way, he will change and you’ll save the marriage.
Abusive men can’t have a healthy intimate relationship with ANYONE. They can have surface, transactional relationships. But not intimate relationships. So it doesn’t matter what you do or say or how hard you try. It wouldn’t matter if you were Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, Himself. You can’t change an abuser. Ever. You can’t save a marriage when one of the players isn’t playing.
So you haven’t failed. You’ve just been thrown into a game you’ll never win. It’s fixed. And it’s not your fault.
How about putting all that energy and focus into trying harder to be free of him? Trying harder to advocate for yourself and your kids? Trying harder to see the truth instead of falling back into the pretty little lies that feel familiar?
Save your energy for YOU.
6. It’s your responsibility to make the marriage work.
This one is similar to number five. Consider this:
If two people are in a rowboat and each one has an oar, they both have to row to make the boat move forward. If only one person rows the boat, the boat will go around in circles and not get anywhere. Hearing this set of statements, one of our clients said, “I would just row harder.” to which her therapist responded, “Then I guess you would go around in circles faster.”
Healing the Trauma of Domestic Violence by Dr. Edward Kubany
Or consider this: let’s say you and your partner bought a new house, and it needed some repairs. Your partner refused to do anything to see that the repairs were made. So you took matters into your own hands and started looking up YouTube videos in order to begin making some of the repairs yourself. But every time you’d start working on a project, your partner would come behind you and take away your tools and smack the thing that needed repair, doing even greater damage.
Are you responsible? Of course not.
Nor are you responsible for building a marriage when you’re tied to a marriage wrecker.
I was told many horrible things about what a rotten wife and Christian I was. Interestingly enough, I’m quite successful at my “wife” job in my new marriage. And it has nothing to do with my “wife” job. It has everything to do with the fact that in my new marriage, there are two of us working to make it amazing. (And it’s not even work! It’s sheer pleasure!)
7. Children need a father, therefore, you need to stay or go back. Or – children need an intact family, so you have to make this marriage work.
But do children need an abusive father who is a bad role model? Do they need a mother who is daily struggling with survival and symptoms of C-PTSD? Or would it be better if they had a peaceful single parent home with an emotionally healthy mother?
It’s true that the ideal family situation is a two parent home with two healthy, committed, involved, empathic parents who love one another. But that’s not what you’ve got in an abusive home. So THAT kind of “intact” family really isn’t an intact family at all. It’s a toxic family that is PRETENDING to be healthy. And THAT, dear lady, is one of the worst kinds of environments to grow up in.
The underlying psych issues children deal with as they grow into adulthood after coming out of homes like this are profound. And the chronic cover-up leaves them with zero skills for dealing with reality. They often suffer in their own relationships and personal lives for years until they finally get to the end of their rope and reach out for professional help to unravel the mess.
Now it’s your turn. In the comments section, pick one of the “wise” things a religious person told an abuse survivor to do (above list) and give an alternative response. What would you say to that same survivor to help her see the truth and be set free?