Saturday, June 5, 2010

How Much Abuse is Too Much?

This is an age old question that plagues every person who considers leaving a relationship. I have to be honest with you as a reader of my blog, abuse is a deal breaker for me. I don't believe it is ever warranted, and if someone persists in abusive behavior, won't take responsibility for it and do something to change, then there need to be consequences for that. In this series of questions, this part of the dialogue between myself and this person who lives in another country, is the last question over several exchanges. Her husband has been very verbally and emotionally abusive to her, he has been physical several times in the past, they have gone to counseling and have reached out for help but the counseling was stopped after several months. At this point, she is being advised not to leave the relationship by Christian counselors and church leaders because they want her to give her husband a chance to change.
Here is the question that is often asked:
"I have always been taught that reconciliation and restoration of relationships should be the end-goal. I have also been taught not to follow my feelings - eg, you may feel like gossiping, but you choose not to. I am afraid that if I ask for a severance of relationship, he will be able to get back-up support to pressure me to "patch things up" if he is working towards change, eg. from the Bible, from books, from the psychologist, from friends, from spiritual leaders, etc. How do I withstand that pressure and justify freedom from abuse when I haven't been (and probably will never be, as he is on a good behaviour bond) beaten? How severe does domestic violence have to be before it becomes justifiable to leave the relationship?"
Here is my answer:
"Yes, I understand the pressure that comes from parts of the Christian Community in terms of leaving relationships. However, it must be understood that what Jesus was talking about in the New Testament scriptures was divorce for no cause, similar to what we have today and He referred back to the Old Testament scriptures when He did it. Anyone in that day who heard Him speak would have known exactly what He was talking about. You don't just divorce someone because they don't put the cap back on the toothpaste tube. However emotional and physical safety need to be a priority and when those boundaries are consistently crossed, action of some kind needs to be taken. Whether a person divorces or not, the priority at that point becomes being safe by whatever means are needed to achieve that safety.

Although I can't speak for laws where you are, there are laws here that deal with verbal assault, assault in general and then when the physical comes into it, that is called battery. Again, I am not an attorney or a police officer, so the legal aspects of those things are beyond the scope of what I can give you here, but it is an example. If he has EVER put his hands on you, that is against the law, at least where I am from and Jesus taught us to obey the laws of the land.

It is never easy to oppose authority, but I have never failed to see the Lord provide for women who have chosen to leave an abusive relationship. He simply waits for them to make a decision and once that decision is made, doors seem to open for them. You are not going to be able to go into a big theological debate with these people about why you want to leave. Is your husband fulfilling his part of the marriage contract that he made with you on your wedding day? Is he honoring you and cherishing you? Is he, as head of the home, providing an environment where you and your family can thrive and grow. If not, he is being neglectful towards you.

There comes a point in every abusive marriage where the abuse victim has to stand up and say "enough!". Everyone will have their opinion, but you have to live with the situation and you have to choose what you can live with and what you can't. The pastors and the friends and the psychologist and the authors of the books don't have to live with it, you your opinion counts more than anyone else. Divorce, when considered a sin is no different than any other sin and is forgiven just as any other sin is forgiven. The problem is, the church has made marriage into an idol. 40 years ago, alcoholism and nicotine addiction were the idol. People who drank and smoked were ostracized from the church and now people say very little about it, they even have support groups created to help people with addictions that are held within the church structure. Today the issue is marriage/divorce and 40 years from now who knows what the issue will be. All I know is that the God I serve values women, has taken steps to protect them from the "hardened hearts" of men and it is not His will that any person should be harmed. I believe that the reason He hates divorce is because of the consequences of it; it can be painful, it can be destructive and the aftermath can be difficult for all involved. However, He did not say not to do it and He gave individuals a way out. Scripture says that God always provides a way out....why would He not provide a way out of such sinful and destructive relationships as those with abuse involved? The Lord forgave and stood up for the woman caught in adultery and He also forgave Rahab in the Old Testament. Although those are not direct examples of what we are talking about, I believe they do show the heart of God towards women who are being abused by and taken advantage of by men.

In regard to the teaching of not following your feelings, I am aware of that teaching, however if we aren't supposed to pay attention to our feelings, why did God give them to us? God has feelings and scripture often says that Jesus was moved by compassion before He healed someone. We aren't supposed to base our decisions entirely on them, but feelings are messengers and we are supposed to pay attention to the message. Take fear for example; if you are walking on a dark street and all of a sudden the hair on the back of your neck stands up and you get a nervous twitch in your stomach...that is a warning. Individuals who haven't paid attention to that warning have ended up murdered, raped or assaulted. If we ascribe to the teaching that we aren't to follow our feelings, then we cut off a very valuable part of our discernment which is a gift that God has given us. Scripture also says that God gives us the desires of our hearts...which means that He places desires in our hearts that He would have us follow. If we weren't moved by desire...which is also a would be be able to follow Him in those areas? The idea that feelings are bad and should be ignored is a very false premise...the truth is that we aren't to be ruled by emotion, but we are to use it in conjunction with wisdom, with reasoning and with truth in order to make informed and good decisions.

How severe does the domestic violence have to be? Here are the definitions to keep in mind: (not my words, these came from the dictionary)

"# The definition of abuse: 1) to use wrongly or improperly, misuse, 2) to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way: 3) to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about;
# Abuse turns into trauma when an emotional wound or shock creates substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person"

In simple terms, severity relates to a pattern of behavior. Usually individuals can deal with difficult behavior when someone has a bad day or they are ill and irritable. Those situations don't happen all the time. However, when the pattern of bad behavior persists monthly, weekly or daily, then there is little time for the victim to recover and over time, that creates lasting damage to the emotional and psychological health of the victim. The issue that I see with those who are pressuring you to stay is that they are not giving you credit for the years of chances that you have already given your husband to change. When you found yourself asking for help, it was not because this had been the first time your husband had been abusive. He had been abusive many, many times. At this point, the consequences of that abuse are apparent, are beyond what you can overcome. That needs to be taken into consideration.

In leaving the situation, you are not saying that you don't believe this person is incapable of change and healing, it just says that you have reached a point where you cannot endure the process any longer and if he is going to change and heal, he is fully capable of doing that without you there to be the recipient of his bad behavior. You withstand the pressure by standing with people who agree with you, finding an abuse counselor who can be of support to you and by standing firm in the knowledge of why you are leaving. If you have reached a point that you are not able to grow in this relationship, or that you cannot recover from the abuse that has happened to you within this relationship, those may be deal breakers for you. You define what your deal breakers are and then stand in your convictions. That will require some courage and inner strength. Like I said before, once out of these relationships, most women find they have a clearer head and can see what has happened to them over the time they have been with the abuser.

If you aren't at a place where you believe you can withstand the outside pressure, you have to assess that. If you aren't strong enough, then my best advice would be to seek out an abuse counselor, someone who has experience with abused women, and work on those inner beliefs that keep you there. Invest in yourself, strengthen yourself, get healthy and create a support network around you that you can fall back on when you feel tired and hopeless. Just understand that whether you divorce or not, God loves you and that will NEVER change. You will never be "less than" in His eyes for anything that you do or don't do. He loves you unconditionally."

As you can see, this is a very complex subject. There are no pat answers, simply because people are individuals and as such, their relationships are unique. However, abuse has a very distinct and repeatable pattern to it; so much so that many, many books and much research have been written on the subject. Bottom line, at least for me, is that relationship is a privilege and we all must honor and respect each other in them. Individuals who are unable or unwilling to do that, first need to be confronted and if there is no change, then the two people go to a mediator and if they continue to refuse to make the changes necessary, then the consequences are clear. That is the Matthew 18 principle.


Anonymous said...

Kris- Thank you so much for your words of encouragement. They ring loud as sirens. Please know how much you help the individuals who have visited your site, including myself. Brooke

Gr8mochas said...

Thank you for your encouragement Brooke. It is good to know that this information is of help. Many blessings on you!

Anonymous said...

Kriss, I left an abusive relationship at a time when I felt there was no other option - the kids and I were not only feeling unsafe, but also worn down, emotionally traumatised and going insane. Not sure that I understood how bad the abuse was, but now with the help of hindsight, it is clear that we were abused. During that time, he had oscillated between being very nice (which sucked us in) and very nasty (which confused us). But since we have split, he has been surprisingly kind and insightful, introspective and much more spiritual. Before he had no time for books or therapy, but after, he says he has been really thinking, reading and seeking help. I want minimal contact, but he is yearning for communication and always wanting a chance to hear what I have to say or to explain his feelings. He still calls me darling and sweetheart. My family and I are very happy now, but he keeps wanting to be a part of our lives. Because he is not being abusive, I feel we have no excuse not to talk to him and in fact beginning to wonder if he is capable of being abusive again. And with the way he is, I am under pressure from others in church to consider his feelings. Is there such a thing as abuse being very bad, only to disappear because a person has hit rock bottom? I know there are signs of change, but it is really hard to tell, especially if the person keeps sounding soft and saying that he understands how awful he was and how we suffered so much and how much he wants to make it up.

Gr8mochas said...

To quote a very famous psychologist, Dr. Phil McGraw, "the best indication of future behavior is past behavior". Definitely there are times when a person has to hit rock bottom before they begin to understand, but saying they understand may not be the same as being able articulate from the heart the extent of what you felt and what you went through. Over the course of an abusive relationship, there are many opportunities that the abuser has to change. Sometimes relationships are irretrievably broken and although it is sad that it took that kind of trauma for this person to "see the light", that doesn't mean that you have to go back to the relationship or have any further contact. Your side of the situation is important as well and while we can be thankful that your husband has had an awakening, that is a separate issue from putting a relationship back together.

Anonymous said...

Kriss, I have been digging into every Christian resource I could find in the last few months and I know God had me come to this point on my own way and for my own story. I told my husband I was filing for divorce yesterday and I found this blog by fluke today. This woman is me, her words could be my words. :( Thank you Lord for the encouragement through Kriss to me today.