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What Women Wish Church Leaders Knew About Domestic Abuse and the Victims (part 2)

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

By the time I got involved in Lisa’s case, she had left her husband seven times. Each time she decided to escape, it was because a pattern emerged. It began with Peter intensifying his “rules.” She wasn’t allowed to leave the house without his permission, she had to keep “find my friends” active on her phone, and she had to tell Peter everywhere she planned to visit—if and when she was allowed out of the house. He even set time limits for each stop. When Lisa found Peter’s isolation tactics oppressive, she’d vocalize mild complaints. That’s when a shouting match would ensue.

Peter would spew obscenities and accuse Lisa of sleeping around. Lisa would challenge his faith.

Peter would say Lisa was a no-good mother and insubmissive wife. Lisa would defend herself.

Peter would make mild threats. He’d sense he was losing control so he’d tell her that if she left, she would never see the kids again.

Eventually, Lisa would watch for an opportunity to get away. If her husband was hovered over the computer, or napping on the couch, she’d take the kids and run.

Peter would then cancel her credit cards and terminate her cellphone. He’d track her down and beg her to come home; playfully woo her and soothe every concern. He’d ask what he needed to do to get her back and agree to everything on her checklist. He’d promise that, “this time, he’d change.”

The pattern repeated each time Lisa left. What was so baffling was that she went back.

I’ve heard oppressed women express deep frustration, confusion, and all-encompassing pain. I’ve listened as they wept over their husband’s words and actions. The constant insults, name calling, and blame shifting tear into their soul. They’ve felt diminished, questioned their worth, and believed God was severely disappointed with them. They were plagued by shame, loneliness, and thoughts of insanity. Their husband’s narrative about them reinforced their anxiety.

Yet, the next thing I knew, they were gushing about his attributes and excited to “work on their marriage.” This is a wave an abused wife may ride multiple times.

When they do finally leave for good, they tend to appear unyielding, defiant, and unresponsive to any suggestion that they return. While these attitudes suggest a wife is combative and unwilling to submit to the authority of her church, there are several things they need their church’s leaders to understand.

I still love my husband.

My husband and I mentor engaged couples. We prefer meeting with them after the wedding because they are so starry eyed before. All they can think about is being together; sometimes ignoring major red flags. You may remember a similar situation in your own courtship. When dating a potential spouse, the default mode is to overlook. We see what we want and fall in love in spite of one another’s shortcomings.

Abused women are no different. They convinced themselves that the person they were going to marry was the perfect, loving spouse. Now, they find it difficult to accept reality.

It’s important to remember that they don’t necessarily fall out of love. Abuse just has a way of reframing their perspective. Even if they consciously decide that living with their spouse is dangerous; they still care. In all of the stages of leaving, I’ve found that an abused woman continues to desire to love and be loved by her husband.

I hate divorce.

The women I counsel tend to be strong in their faith and trust God. They do not want to disappoint Him: they are fully aware He hates divorce. These women are conservative and did not enter marriage with divorce as an option. In addition, they recognize it will be hard to be a single mother in their conservative circles.

However, separation and/or divorce may be the only option for safety.[1] In the judicial system, lawyers and mediators’ step in and handle communication between spouses; the wife does not need to defend herself. Child visitation rights are clearly defined; the wife does not need to enforce an agreement. The husband is under the authority of the State, if he defies the court system he answers to them.

Churches must have a solid theology for separation and divorce in domestic abuse cases. Pastors and leaders need to be prepared to navigate what it will look like when a wife involves the magistrate. She needs to know she won’t be disciplined for using the resources of the civil authority to protect herself. Each individual case is unique and must be addressed individually. But churches must have a structure in place for how to think about every aspect in a case of abuse.

This isn’t what I wanted.

Leaving their husband isn’t the abused woman’s dream. They acknowledge there is suffering in this world (Jn. 16:33). They’ve seen marriages struggle through devastating illness, unforeseen disaster, and untimely death. However, they didn’t expect their husband to use his words, actions, or body as a weapon to frighten, control, and dehumanize. Trauma from coercion, terrorization, threats, and intimidation didn’t enter their minds as a possibility; especially if they married a man who claimed to be a Christian.

Those of us who help may find it difficult to fathom the depravity of an abusive man’s behavior. How much more so does his wife? I wonder if the difficulty of mediating that reality is ultimately the reason they continually go back.

So, they want you to know they tried really hard to make it work. They desire that their marriages be permanent. And, as they pursue the possibility life without their husbands, the thought of being alone is devastating. Women in these situations do not make marital decisions without significant anguish and despair.

Domestic abuse is demonic. Those who practice abusive behaviors war against and mutilate the image of God in their partner. This is a significant evil. The church’s response to evil must be equally decisive.

In Part 3, we’ll take a look at some of the ways a church can be helpful to a victim while she is navigating her circumstances.

[1] Although, it is imperative to remember that our judicial systems are wrought with injustice. Even the magistrate can’t protect victims of domestic abuse very well.



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