While taping an upcoming vlog, my friend Gary Thomas and I discussed abuse in marriage. Sadly, its impact is far more pervasive than most would like to admit. As we talked, we realized that the focus on physical abuse was understood to some extent, but that other forms of abuse were not so recognized. So, we began a dialogue about the topic and Gary asked me to put some of it into words.
Let’s start with a definition I have used for years in our outpatient counseling clinic: Abuse is defined as, “Any non-nurturing behavior”. That bar is admittedly high. What I mean is that before lunch on most days I have been non-nurturing and therefore abusive in some area of my relationships. As a standard it is a high watermark for sure, but one that underscores our own penchant for missing the mark and for being ‘abusive’. Now, with respect to marriage, which is and should be the most special of our interpersonal relationships, this standard should reign high on our values and certainly in sacred marriage contexts.
At some point in our ongoing dialogue on the topic, I mentioned that there were four areas of behavior in relationships that I thought summarized the ultimate abuse and as a result had a solid chance of destroying this special bond we refer to as matrimony. They are potential deal breakers to the sacred bond to which most of us covenanted to in front of our family and friends to never do. In no specific order, they are:
Each one breaks this covenant significantly and in many cases makes it difficult, if not improbable, for meaningful matrimony to be experienced. In no way am I saying that hard work for restitution and forgiveness aren’t powerful agents for change and growth, but for many couples the force of these betrayals crosses a line that can’t be erased. I spoke to Gary of my concern over that fact that although well intentioned, many of the learned teachers who have spoken about this and written on it simply don’t realize how evil non-physical marital abuse can be, the hell it puts a wife (and in some cases, a husband) through, and how common it is becoming (and growing). While we engage in academic discussions about whether a wife has the right to leave such a marriage, we neglect to consider the horror she’s going through. Pastors, you need to know that the problem of our men and women abusing each other in this context is now at staggeringly high numbers.
The time is ripe for intervention by professional and lay leaders who have taken the time to discuss, define and offer solutions to hurting spouses. I have sat and argued with many a pastor about these specific topics over many years. It is all very polite, respectful and academic, until I ask if it was their daughter (or son) in the crosshairs of patterned abuse, would their theology of family change in any way? Then the conversation gets serious and often takes a turn. Should our personal theology differ from our public positions?
When do we intervene in this personal, but violent abuse, be it any one of the four “A’s”? When and how should we take action? What kind of action? When someone close to us is in the ER? When the husband’s screaming from next door is too loud to ignore? When the ravages of the chemical intoxicants are at your door step or in your house (where the kids might stumble across it) or when your house is foreclosed on because of the absence of a mate who has abandoned their post for another?
I would suggest that an intervention is due any time the daily functioning or responsibilities of any couple or family is disrupted as a pattern by any of these evils. That constitutes the need for a professional intervention. Many of us are trained and equipped to intervene when someone finds their way into these troubled waters (most pastors are not).
One final note: I always have hope. There is a way to escape and be free. The path to freedom from these cycles of violence and patterned behavior is available. I have seen the healing in those I serve. And, I have seen the healing in my own life.
But if one spouse refuses to seek that healing, then we must help the other spouse seek refuge.