As far as Sara Buel knew, things like that didn’t happen to nice girls from Christian families. They certainly wouldn’t be involved in abusive relationships.
He was her high-school sweetheart, after all. His mother was a devout believer. He was charming, his manners were impeccable and he didn’t drink. And best of all, he loved her. Loved her so much, he said, that he was jealous for her.
“And when you’re young and in love, that’s exactly what you want to hear,” says Buel, who lives in Austin, Texas. “I look back now and think, ‘Where was my brain?’ But when you’re in the middle of it, it’s very hard to have perspective.”
Buel was in the middle of an abusive relationship. It began, as so many do, with verbal and emotional abuse. She was told she was stupid or fat or that her hair wasn’t right. But the comments were mixed with words of love so she always felt confused. Little by little, he took control of where she went, what she did, what she wore and whom she talked to. By the time he finally slapped her hard across the face, her self-esteem had become so low that she believed him when he said she had done something to cause it. And she believed him when he said it would never happen again.
Even in the Church
Though it’s not usually discussed in the church, abuse is often a common part of dating and marriage. Every year, 4 million American women [and men] are assaulted by their partners —one every nine-seconds. Estimates of physical violence in dating relationships range from 20 to 35 percent. Abuse crosses social, cultural, racial, religious, geographical and economic backgrounds, and though men can be abused, 95 percent of victims are women.
When Christianity is part of the equation, there are additional issues of shame. There are pat answers to “just pray about it” and move on, denial, the feeling that God brought abuse as judgment for past sins or that it must be part of “God’s will.” Abusers can often twist Scripture to justify their actions. Wives are supposed to submit to their husbands. And women who marry their abusers may feel they have to stay because they made a commitment for better or for worse.
As for the reference to wives submitting to their husbands in Ephesians 5, Dr. Don Brady, clinical director of Diakonos Inc., a Christian counseling center in Independence, Mo., says women are called to submit to their husbands. But men have responsibilities as well.
“Both have to submit to God,” Brady says. “If the husband can submit, then the wife can submit. The husband is to sacrificially love his wife as Christ loved the church. And if someone sacrificially loves you, that means they put you first.”
Putting you first, however, should never be used to justify jealousy that cuts you off from the outside world.
Misdefinition of Love
“It’s a normal and natural feeling to want to feel special,” says Rosalind Wiseman, a 33-year-old abuse survivor who co-founded The Empower Program to teach boys and girls about preventing violence. “It’s intoxicating. After all, it’s romantic to hear, ‘You’re the only one who understands me.’ And good girls want to help troubled boys. Then you start hearing those girls say, ‘He loves me, and that’s why he wants to know where I am 24/7. That’s why he doesn’t want me to be with my friends.’ And that misdefinition of love makes girls —and women —very vulnerable to justifying the guy’s behavior and falling down that slope. It’s not that the guy becomes abusive overnight. It’s that one day, you wake up and say, ‘How did I get here?’”
Sarah Buel didn’t have that moment of realization until long after she married her abuser. “In the beginning, I kept hoping things would change,” says Buel, who left the man in 1977 on the advice of a counselor, divorced him in 1984 and eventually started the Domestic Violence Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “I had never met anybody like him. Growing up as one of seven kids, I wasn’t used to that much attention. I try to explain to people now that it’s not that victims are crazy or helpless or weak. It’s that batterers can have good sides too. They can be very charming, and it’s easy to think they mean it when they say they love you.”
It’s enough to make 28-year-old Shanterra McBride cautious about whom she dates. Though she’s never been in an abusive relationship herself, McBride’s aunt quietly stayed in a violent marriage for years. That is because her husband was a deacon in the church.
“Now, when a guy approaches me, I ask more than ‘Where do you go to church?’” says McBride, who works with Wiseman in Washington, D.C. “I ask, ‘What is your relationship with the Lord? Who holds you accountable?’ Sometimes we overlook these things because he looks good and sings great in worship. But that’s not enough. I understand that the plans the Lord has for me are for good, not disaster. And if someone is mistreating me or talking crazy to me, that’s disaster.”
What Can You Do?
First of all, if someone you know is being abused, the worst thing you can do is stay silent.
If you’re a friend:
• Don’t judge. She’s had enough of that already from her abuser.
• Pray with her and for her.
• Repeatedly remind her that you love her and that she deserves better.
• Do what you can to help her get out of the relationship, but be patient. She’s the one who has to have the desire to leave.
Some of her reasons for staying may include that she believes the man loves her. She loves him, she’s afraid, her self-esteem is demolished, and her identity is tied to the relationship. She prefers a bad relationship to none at all, and thinks she can change the man. Or it may be that she feels like she’s done something to deserve the abuse. In addition, she may have been so isolated by the abuser that she no longer has reality checks from others about what’s normal and what’s not.
Secondly, if you see or hear a friend abusing his girlfriend:
• Confront him. Tell him it’s not right and that you want to see him get help. Men batter for a variety of reasons, including low self-esteem, fear of intimacy, depression and lack of skills in reducing stress or dealing with anger.
• Have compassion, but hold him accountable. He may have been taught that he has a right to abuse —especially since 70 percent of men who abuse were either abused as kids or regularly saw violence at home.
If you’re a pastor or church leader:
• Discuss the issue from the pulpit. Talk about what makes relationships healthy and be available to congregants who come forward needing help.
• Recognize that abusive relationships are a reality even in the church. Believe those who tell you they’ve been abused; and avoid easy, patronizing answers.
• Protect the confidentiality of abuse victims. If you’re going to confront the abuser based on information from the victim, let the victim know you’re going to do it first. Otherwise, you may be putting the victim’s life in danger.
• Get help. The Center for Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, for example, offers books, videos and curricula for churches, lay leaders, clergy and the like.
If you don’t know anyone involved in abuse but would like to help:
• Donate time, money or materials to the nearest shelter.
• Protect yourself and make others aware of potential dangers. Open discussions with friends, family and members of your church.
• Organize community action.
Mutual Respect and Trust
What makes a relationship healthy? At the very least, it should be based on mutual respect and trust.
As for unhealthy or abusive relationships, they can be a little harder to recognize —especially if you’re in the middle of one. Here are a few warning signs of abuse from a variety of sources. If you recognize your relationship here, talk to someone about the abuse, and do what you can to get out. Remember, abuse doesn’t have to be physical.
• Make you feel insignificant or small, belittling you with comments about your appearance, intelligence, job, etc?
• Isolate you from family and friends because he’s jealous for your attention?
• Use guilt to motivate you, such as, “If you really loved me, you would …”?
• Promise he won’t hurt you again but is unwilling to seek help for his behavior or denies it being a problem?
• Constantly check on your whereabouts and must know where you are at all times?
• Try to control the way you dress or which men you talk to?
• Threaten to hurt you, to leave you or to commit suicide if you leave him?
• Physically abuse you, even if he swears it will never happen again?
Lastly, are you ready to get help? Consider starting here:
• National Coalition Against Domestic Violence hotline: 800.799.SAFE (24 hours) or ncadv.org. Referrals for shelters, counselors, etc.
• National Organization for Victim Assistance hotline: 800.TRY.NOVA (24 hours) or try-nova.org. Information and referrals for crisis counseling, response specialists, etc.
• National Center for Victims of Crime: (202) 467-8700 or victimsofcrime.org. Referrals to nearby services.
Fiona Soltes wrote this article on abusive relationships. It is shared with us courtesy of Christian Single. It was originally posted on the resource web site of Lifeway.com.
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Filed under: Abuse in Marriage
16 responses to “An Inside Look at Abusive Relationships”
(ZIMBABWE) I can relate to almost everything mentioned in this article. Isn’t there something I can do before thinking of walking out of the marriage? Is divorce the only option for a woman in an abusive marriage? Please respond, there’s more I need to ask. thank you & God bless.
(ZIMBABWE) It’s really sad. A lot of women are going through abuse but they chose to stay because they feel their children need to be in a family setup with father and mother. Financial security plays a big roll as well; poverty is a curse. Sometimes women stay because if they move out they can’t afford the lifestyle they have been given by their abuser. I feel women should be taught to love themselves first. That way they will not allow anyone to abuse them.
(AMERICA) Your article is very informative and it will set many woman free who face this situation daily. I pray there comes healing behind this in Jesus name amen<3
(USA) I was born in Zimbabwe but live in the USA for most of my life. God is speaking to me tonight! Been married to an abusive man for 13 years. Have two children and no financial way financially to get out. I am a broken person with little if no self worth. If you are not yet married and still have a chance, get out of abusive relationships fast! These men do not change! It only gets much worse! It’s by God’s Grace that I am able to wake up every day and face life! Pray for me. I desperately need a miracle. I want to be free of violence in my family.
True. I’ve been married for 21 years and my husband’s abuse got worse and he refuses to get help or change. We are in the process of our divorce now. It got so bad to the point that our children asked us to separate and divorce. Abusive men will never change because they do not want to give up power and control, nor accept their responsibility for abuse.
(UNITES STATES) I dont know where to start. I grew up watching my dad abuse my mom, my little brother, and me, so at the age of 18 I married my first husband who was 34. He was sweet and loving when I met him but that all changed after we married. He began to abuse me in all ways possible; he did not allow me to work, we had 2 children together and he did not help at all with them.
He abused pills and beer and he called me every name in the book. He threatened to kill me, he kicked me and my kids out plenty of times. I always came back because I didn’t think I could do it on my own. But 8 years in after serving him hand and foot, I left and divorced him. A year later I married my husband of today and he has a smoking problem. He is disabled AND he is abusing me also but I love him and feel he needs me so I put up with it but he is telling me now either I bow down to him or he is leaving me.
I do not know what to do; I dont feel like I should have to bow down to him when he does not respect me; he spits on me and tells me he hates me all the time. I do love him and dont want to lose him but feel like me and my 2 children deserve better….Prayers needed.
(USA) Actually men abuse, because of a sense of entitlement. Some of these men were abused as children, but it is not the main reason they abuse. Here’s a good book and info on this topic: Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft and he also has a blog where he gives other information. This is not a Christian book, but deals explicitly with abuse and why it happens. Very informative.
Some women tend to stay in abuse, out of fear and also because they feel sorry for him and suspect that there is a “reason” why he does what he does and that it is because he “hurts” too. This book will help with that.
Women abuse too. It is just not as prevalent, as male abusers.
I see so many requests for prayer from women who are being abused. They say that they know that divorce is not “allowed” according to Scripture. And I see so many responses from women saying to just pray, pray for the husband, etc and eventually the husband and the relationship will be healed. I feel bad for these women. I know they want help or else they wouldn’t be posting their issue and looking for help. I have a question of my own… when these wives are asking for help and/or advice and they are told to pray about it, seek counseling, pray for the marriage, etc isn’t that just adding more conflict to the equation? If that were me and I was looking for advice that would just add to my frustration and confusion.
I had a 25 year marriage to a psychologically abusive man. When we were first married he was extremely controlling. I couldn’t leave the house, when I did leave the house to go with him somewhere I had to keep my head down and not look at other men or else I would be accused of having an affair. For the first year we lived with his dad and brother and I was accused of having an affair with them!
Fast forward 20 years later. I was finally allowed to leave the house, have friends, etc. BUT.. when I sat down with him and told him what he was doing to me was abusive he denied it. He said he was just jealous and that I was putting a time limit on how long it would take him to learn to trust me. SERIOUSLY!?!??! If you can’t trust your spouse after 20 years of marriage then forget it! I finally left. I lost everything, but I left.
I honestly hope that these women who are being abused see that it was not God’s plan for their husband to be like that. Yes, you can pray for him and for your marriage, but do it from a safe distance. This was NOT what God meant when He said “For better or worse, till death do you part”.
Do you feel that Jesus still has the desire for you to overcome in the marriage? I still think the Lord wants me to but I am faced with unbelievable obstacles that seem hopeless and this sounds like what would be my own future at times.
Yes I am going through some traumatic abuse from my husband. Since I left he has threatened to commit me to a mental institution secretly, to have my child taken from me and to get my nurses license taken from me because he claims I am not fit to be a mother to my child or a nurse. It’s all because I did not stay with him while he read scripture in the living room and then started cussing me over an unresolved issue we had. And then he mentally and emotionally abused me to attempt to get his way.
He does not work…and has never worked. And he tells me to give him 600.00 a month. And then tells me when to be home from work and who I should talk to and not speak to any man. It’s all abuse. I am gone and stay with my mom and dad and I am peaceful but still afraid what’s up his sleeve next for me and very sad that our marriage has to be this way. But as long as I can have a close relationship with Christ I somehow will be content.
I am just afraid if Jesus wants me to go back one day. I am not planning a divorce and not planning to date or remarry. I do have some problems with porn because I can’t go back to my husband because I am scared of him. So self control and lots of prayer is what I need pleases.
I am male and suffered constant verbal abuse and manipulation, occasional violence. Felt like I was walking on eggshells. After I woke up with her strangling me at night, I could not even feel safe while I slept from then on in. I had sleeping problems previous added to that, but this completely left me like a zombie. Constant criticism and guilt trips were used as a weapon to control and coerce financial and emotional tax on my sanity and well being. Often men get completely overlooked in this subject but it is as damaging to us as is to the female victim also.
Jim, we totally agree. We know of many, many men that have and are suffering abuse at the hands of women but they don’t report it for many different reasons. Some of them are pointed out in the article, Husband Abuse: Can a Wife Abuse Her Husband? –found in the Abuse in Marriage topic. Society today dismisses (and if it’s reported, many times discounts and ridicules) this type of abuse. There is great sympathy given to abused wives, but abused husbands are ignored. As a result, there aren’t as many resources available to help them… so, so sad. Abuse is wrong whether the wife is the recipient or the husband. We’re so sorry that you’ve experienced this. We hope you can find a way to be and stay safe.
If you live in Central Alberta and are effected by domestic abuse, Masquerade Ministries serves this need. We focus on outreach to the abuser so they will have a real chance of taking responsibility and ending the abuse at its source, supporting and educating the abused, and equipping the church to engage domestic abuse in their families, their churches, and their communities.
The Zimbabwean woman living in the USA, call the Police and get help. I am from Nigeria but live in Europe, no job because of my kids. I called the Police and everything changed. Do that before it is too late.
I am a guy who was in an abusive relationship with a very violent woman for 6 years. I escaped, but not without significant difficulty. Whilst I have great empathy for women in the same position there are guys out there like myself who have the same experience.
What is common is that violent and abusive partners are most unlikely to change and anyone in that type of relationship should just run for the hills, seek help from those who can offer it. I found that my friends were very accommodating and through due process the police and courts were excellent support for myself and my kids. It all looks daunting at the start but the hardest bit is taking that first step. After that life just gets easier.
I have been married for 59 years there has always been abuse. In the early years there was physical, mental, and verbal abuse. With time I stopped the physical by telling him I would call the police and I had become strong enough he knew I would do it.
Somehow I could never stop all the other stuff and yet I couldn’t leave. I tried a few times; he would always tell me this time he really realized and it wouldn’t happen again. Of course it did happen over and over. I learned over the years how to avoid trouble always mindful of things that would set him off. Still it came; verbal is horrible calling me names, threatening to throw me out if I did this or that. Tried to cut off all contact with my family but was only partially successful.
With age I have grown weary. I have helped many women find help yet for me I stay. We have done counseling; it’s always the same “he loves me; he knows he treats me badly but he will change.” I would be interested in hearing what is wrong with me and why have I stayed. My husband does not know God. I pray everyday that God will soften his heart and take the hate away that he has for almost everyone. As you can see if I am writing on your web site I am desperate so thank you for any help. I pray God will lead you in your comments. I pray I will be open to receive your response.