We need to stop prioritizing marriage over the safety of abuse victims. Period.
It seems that, especially in the south, there is this idea that abuse is simply a marital problem, one that needs to be “fixed” with counseling. The woman or man is not supposed to leave their husband or wife. Instead, they are supposed to undergo some kind of treatment in order to “change their hearts, minds and attitudes.”
This way of thinking is so dangerous on many levels.
First of all, abusers are cunning, charming and deceitful. They can charm counselors into thinking that they have changed. If it was so easy for them to hide the abuse the first time, then why would it not be easy to hide that it is ongoing? Meanwhile, the victim has asked for help and not truly received it. They feel like they have not been respected and that all the courage that they mustered up in order to speak out was for nothing. On the outside, everyone is patting themselves on the back and thinking that they have stopped the abuse while really they have most likely made things worse. The victim who spoke out could be severely punished by the abuser and the abuse is amplified.
This helps the abuser, not the abuse victims.
Another problem is that people tend to blame an outside source for the cause of the abuse. This can be anything from friends, alcohol, or work-related stress. There is a tendency for people to think that the abuser is being pushed to this behavior, not that the problem is the abuser. This is great for the abuser because it takes the pressure off them to actually change, as the blame is placed on the outside influence.
Nothing causes abuse other than the abuser!
Think about it. You may go out and drink with your friends, but you may not come home and physically or emotionally abuse your family. The abuser, like it or not, makes the decision themselves. Therefore, only they can stop the abuse.
Nothing that the victim or outside help can do will stop an abuser. Only the abuser can stop the abuse.
As Gottman and Jacobson point out in their book, When Men Batter Women, we must hold the batterer alone accountable for their abuse, not allow them to blame outside influences or even their pasts: “Battering has little to do with what the women do or don’t do, what they say or don’t say. It is the batterer’s responsibility-and his alone- to stop being abusive” (53).
The perspective that some Christian families have only magnifies this problem due to the fact that they are more likely to want to preserve the marriage than help keep the abuser’s family safe.
I’ve seen it so many times. The woman or man speaks out about abuse, and the family asks the key question:
“Yes, but what can we do to save your marriage?”
Or, when a spouse leaves due to abuse and someone says,
“What are you doing? Go back to your husband/wife. Do what God wants you to do and stop playing around!”
I’ve heard all of this, always from an outside perspective. Sometimes, even from people who have experienced abuse themselves. And when children are involved, the chances that either of these things will be said goes up dramatically. I know, the Bible says that we are supposed to stay married unless there is adultery. However, it isn’t as simple as that. I don’t believe that God wants someone stuck in an abusive situation, where they or their children are being hurt physically, emotionally, mentally, sexually or otherwise simply because of some kind of legalistic view of marriage. And then, heaven forbid, the family gets hurt, the same people are the first to ask, “Why didn’t she leave? How could she/he live like that?” (I swear, my blood is literally boiling as I type this.)
I know, for me, I wasn’t married. In some ways, that made it easier because people believed that we should either get married or not be together at all. However, I did feel a lot of pressure to get married. I felt that we needed to get married because that was what God wanted, for us to not be “living in sin.” The problem is that it was harmful for me to be with him, as it was for my child. I think that, especially once you have a child together, people want you to get married no matter what. And once you are married, to stay married. Under normal circumstances, yes. By all means, people should get married. The problem is that, many times, the abuse starts when a woman is pregnant. One in 6 abused women says her partner abused her for the first time during pregnancy, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 4 to 8 percent of pregnant women suffer abuse during pregnancy. This means that a married woman feels pressured to stay in a marriage that is harmful and an unwed mother feels that she has to marry a violent man simply because they now have a child together.
This way of thinking is dangerous, not only for the victim but for the child.
If the woman has told her family or others who are more concerned about keeping the marriage together above everything else, then chances are they are going to make them go to marriage counseling. Possibly, they will coerce the abuser to go into anger management. While the abuser is in therapy, the family is still at home, possibly enduring abuse under the illusion that things are getting better. Also, in order to keep up the appearance that the abuser is getting better, the pressure is increased to keep the abuse a secret. Meanwhile, the victim feels that they cannot leave because it is sinful. Even if things seem to be getting better, there is a chance the abuser will relapse. Quitting a behavior is hard. How many of those quitting smoking that you know have a relapse? The case is the same with abuse, especially if the abuser feels that they did nothing wrong or blames the abuse on an outside source.
Our God calls us to love and abuse is the opposite of love.
What is marriage supposed to look like? Let’s take the example in Ephesians 5:25: “For husbands, this means love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. He gave his life up for her.” So, my question is: Is abuse loving your wife or husband as God loved the church? No. I don’t think that if you are abusing your wife or husband, then your marriage is nothing like God wants it to be. No one should be stuck in an abusive situation simply because they think that God wants them to stay. As Jesus said himself in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”
Abusing your family is not loving them with the love of Christ.
Honestly, to me, the biggest problem is that there seems to be an idea circulating that, if we love our abusers with the love of Christ, then they will change. Yes, God changes people. I have seen God change even the worst person and make them on fire for him. However, they must allow God to change them. They have to submit to his will, accept Jesus in their lives, and then the change follows. I don’t believe that constantly taking abuse while loving someone unconditionally will change them, simply because we know that only the abuser can change themselves. I definitely fell into this trap. I loved him more the more he beat me. We know how that turned out… not well.
The bottom line is, even if you are not comfortable with getting a divorce, you have to find a safe place for you and your children.
Even if your abuser is penitent, they are going to have times when they relapse and put you in danger. I think that removing yourself from their house is the only way to make anything better. No, they may not change. However, it is not okay to live in constant turmoil simply because you are scared that to leave would be a sin. There is a chance that others will not agree with me, but they are not the ones who are being screamed at, lied to, beaten, having their children put in danger or their spirits torn down day after day.
You have to do what is best for your own well-being and that of your child, whether that be physical, mental or otherwise. And at the end of the day, that is between you and God. (not you, God, your family, your church, etc.)
Every single time that I pray to God about what I am supposed to write, “I did not free people from sin for them to live in the bondage of abuse” is what echoes in my mind. It’s what I firmly believe with all my heart. Jesus came to free us and bring us peace, not for us to place ourselves in other kinds of heart-wrenching pain, simply because we feel we have to.
I know. We just want everyone to stay married and the abuser to change. I want a money tree in my back yard. Sometimes, no matter how hard we want things, it just isn’t the way it works out. Chances are the abuser is never going to change. Their behaviors are hard-programmed into them by years of development and learning from their environment and many of them do not wish to invest the time that it would take to truly change.
I do not believe that we should pin the safety of the victims on our hopes for the abuser to change.
This is putting thousands of victims in danger when they should be removed from the situation. I think we should start with separating the abuser from the family. Period. No questions asked, and work from there. It might not be permanent, but at least it would give the family some safety.
No, I’m not a theologian. And yes, I do believe that marriage is sacred. I might not have everything figured out or know all of the verses in the Bible that talk about marriage. However, I do know that God wants us to be free and safe. And as long as we are prioritizing marriage over the safety of abuse victims, I feel like we are forcing people to live under agonizing bondage. No one should feel religiously obligated to suffer abuse.