May 7, 2014

Cuts like a knife …Taking Non-Physical Marital Abuse More Seriously

Gary Thomas — 
Non Physical Marital Abuse

Photo by George Hodan



(This is a guest post written by a good friend of mine, Dr. Steve Wilke. You can visit his ministry page at: )


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:


  • Abandonment
  • Addictions
  • Adultery
  • Abuse


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.

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20 responses to Cuts like a knife …Taking Non-Physical Marital Abuse More Seriously

  1. Gary, one thing you didn’t talk about in this post that needs addressing is the full impact on children in a home where non-nurturing behaviors take place.

    I grew up in a home like this.

    Arguing. Cold language. It was like a shark attack. Violent thrashing underneath and calm waters on top. There was this unspoken war between my parents. Constant and uncomfortable and always tense. It affected me in so many ways I can’t list here. The basic lesson was this: if your husband hates you, pray harder. God is in charge and you need to die to self anyway. How wrong!!!

    Gary, please write a book about THIS for pastors. Our church family did not want to get involved and yet we were hurt daily by the home relationship more than the sins of the world around us.

    Thank you.

  2. Hi Gary can you please clarify some things for me I don’t get in this post. The first thing Dr. Wilke does is give the widest possible deffinision of abuse and then admits that he is abusive every day.

    “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.

    Then right after that he lists abuse as a deal breaker along with Adultery. Then he goes on to imply that abuse is a possible reason for separation or divorce. Does this mean that his wive should separate from him every day. Please explain.

  3. Thanks Karen, for dropping by. What you say is so true, milnlois need to see this! I’m glad I did, because it taught me about bold evangelisation! Telling people the Truth, in Love is essential, to bring people into relationship with Jesus, & Conversion of heart, change of life. We ALL need this challenge!

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  5. I keep trying to rationalize my husband’s behavior. I keep trying to see the wrong that I am doing and reach out to him to help address the problems that we are having. Yet the only response that I get is continual criticism. I finally realize that the way he is treating me is abusive. I am accused of doing things that I have not done. If I raise a question about anything, I get ignored for hours on end. I have been told awful things about myself, everything from what I look like to how poorly I cook. My husband lives his own life, plans what he is doing, doesn’t talk to me about anything and gets angry if I try to talk about anything. We haven’t been married very long but before we got married he promised me some things, yet right after we got married he went back on his word, only to inform me that he had changed his mind and that he has the right to change his mind without telling me. I don’t believe in divorce and he knows this. He talks about being a Christian, mainly to tell me that I am not a very good one, he threatens to leave me saying that I have ruined our marriage.
    This article was hard for me to read but it moved me closer to calling all of this abuse. No one wants to admit that they are being abused. My two children are grown and not nearby and remain angry for getting married. (I am divorced from their father and it was hard for them to see me marry another man, yet we have been divorced for years. They are grown with families of their own, yet felt it was wrong for me to get married. Raising them, I put my life on hold for many years) Seeking support from them is not an option. We are new to our community and have not been going to the church that we are long. I am in poor health, one thing that my husband seems to use to his advantage, as he threatens to leave me, put our house up for sale and let me figure out how to get by without him. I just found out that I have a heart disease that is worsened by stress. What keeps me going is God, through so many things in my life, I have clung to Him. I know that He is good all the time. I pray constantly for our marriage and for my husband. I am constantly questioning myself and trying to figure out my wrong in all of this. My husband sees everything wrong as being my fault. It is so true that there is no help, in the church or outside the church, for women in this situation.

    • Lauren, please email me; we have much in common and I wish to invite you to a private group of women who have or are suffering in the same way you are. You ARE in an abusive situation; my heart grieves for you and I know you need support. In Christ’s love…

    • Please go to That’s where those of us in abusive marriages hang out and encourage one another. Yes, you are in an abusive marriage. No, it’s not your fault and you don’t deserve any of this. Many women at this website will tell you that life is better after the divorce. Life is always better after getting out of prison. To say that God is against divorce, that is taken out of context. God hates divorce because that means that a spouse has an unrepentant heart. Do you think God wants you to be treated like this? No, he doesn’t. You have choices. Please set yourself free, God will watch over you.

  6. Thank you for addressing this issue. I’ve seen the church talk about purity before marriage but not purity in marriage. So heartbreaking to see people in the church pardon abuse such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse, etc. I’ve especially seen lust and control pardoned…. as in they say: it’s ok for a husband to demand a certain amount of sex or certain acts in sex (perhaps what he has seen in porn) against his wife’s wishes, or to demand his wife dress a certain way, or to even have surgery to alter her body to what he wants, or to control who can she be friends with, etc. I’ve been appalled to see this!

  7. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU, Gary, for allowing Dr. Wilke to address this on your blog. I recently divorced after 14 years of constant verbal and emotional abuse. Now I am a mentor to many other women, all of whom say the same tragic words: “If only he would beat me on the outside like he does on the inside, then my church would support me in leaving him.” How awful to have women who are initially wounded by their spouse then be wounded a second time by their church family (pastors, counselors, laypeople) who are charged with helping to RESCUE them from abusive marriages but instead split hairs over the definition of “infidelity.” I can say with complete assurance that divorce is one of the greatest blessings that God has given me. “But if one spouse refuses to seek that healing, then we must help the other spouse seek refuge.” Yes and AMEN!!!!

    • I too am thankful to see abuse other than physical be addressed. However, it is easy to believe that if the abuse was physical that then the church would see it for what it is. I agree that this type of abuse is more often than not swept under the carpet. But it isn’t uncommon for physical abuse to be done the same way. Most turn their heads at physical abuse; Sadly enough a Christian woman has far fewer options than someone who isn’t looking to a church for support. Additionally a woman who leaves for this Biblical reason is often ridiculed for years after the fact.

  8. Rose Wild Woods May 9, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Good article, but where do you see sexual abuse?

    • Rose, I’m not sure what you mean. Obviously, any forced sexual activity, even within marriage, is wrong. Is that what you’re asking?

  9. Gary, this is a good start. I hope you go further in writing about this stuff. Please check out our blog where we have lots or resources on this issue.

    • Thanks, Barbara. I had a previous post on this issue (though focusing on physical abuse) earlier this year. This blog is a marriage relationship “catch all,” so I won’t be making abuse the main focus, but I’m sure it will come again. I also talk about this more in my book “Sacred Influence”

  10. I recently wrestled within myself over why I was ok with a friend divorcing if she chose since I take marriage seriously. It came down to the fact that over 5 years he had broken every part of the covenant, was not supporting the family but did not leave. Nurture had ended years ago. She just legally acted to affirm what he had already done.

  11. I just want to jump up and down and shout “Hooray!” After leaving an abusive marriage wrought with his addiction, my home church and my family rejected me, citing that I did not have a biblical reason for divorce. Now, I spend every spare minute trying to support women who are dealing with the same abandonment, which causes further trauma and re-victimization. If churches would intervene and if more pastors believed what is written in this article, our ministry would not be necessary! Leaving my marriage was the scariest thing I have ever done. But, scarier than that was the time I spent wondering if God was no longer with me because my children and I could not take the psychological/emotional/physical abuse, anymore.

    • PS — Posting this on our Give Her Wings page.

    • What never fails to inspire me are stories of believers who have been so wounded, but who turn around and reach out to others being hurt in the same way. Grace in action. Bless you Megan!

    • Megan and all. I am a 54 year old woman who has been neglected, laughed at, ridiculed, and even ignored when I speak by my husband of 35 years. I was made to feel guilty when I tried to leave him by my sister and others, as they said, ” YOUR BILLS ARE PAID, AND YOUR SON’S TAKEN CARE OF”, and other comments. Those comments started just 6 years into the marriage. Actually? I called my mother and father from our honeymoon while my new husband was in the bathroom. Mother answered. I told her something was not right, but she said I was just nervous.

      I was 18 and he 35 when we were married. Life has been awful being ignored, and laughed at, and told ” you’re crazy” whenever I told/ tell my husband how he’s hurt me.

      I just want other women to know that mental abuse causes anguish and other illnesses over time, and I now believe GOD would, does not expect you, us, to live without love in a constant state of not understanding what I, we, have done wrong. My husband is and has always been wrong and mean.
      I did attempt to leave him, but for me it’s too late. I’ve many ailments now, can’t work, and I have been so mentally stressed and beaten down, I’m stuck.

      Please, ladies, if you are REALLY being abused, seek counsel from your church elders even if your spouses refuse to go. I went to my priest, told him everything when I was still young and not ill, but he told me I had to stay. LOL! Now, at this older age, and my only son’s 32, I think back at all the bad advice, at my fears, and the daily tears I shed, and I PRAY OTHER WOMEN RUN AWAY FROM such degrading torture.

      You see, if my husband had given me a black eye, ALL OF THOSE NAYSAYERS WHO NEVER HELPED ME, WOULD HAVE CHANGED THEIR TUNES!

      God bless all of you and keep your marriages bible based in love, peace, respect, and understanding.

  12. This is so dead on. Thank you for writing this and raising the standard. I left a marriage after 24 years of abuse, both physical and emotional. I wrote this and hope that if any one is in that situation you will read it and be encouraged. God is good and he is enough.