Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Recovering a Marriage After Abuse

When people write to me about abusive relationships, usually they are seeking advice regarding how to save the relationship. As long as there is hope for a better future, individuals are willing to put up with a lot of difficulty in the present. This is especially prevalent in faith based relationships because there is an underlying faith in God to make the situation better. Hope is what keeps us going, it offers possibilities and it is the main ingredient to having faith. So with that in mind, how do we apply faith and hope in an abusive situation?
As with any relationship, it is essential that both parties be committed to doing whatever it takes to make things right, to build trust and to heal the hearts of those involved. In abusive relationships that is just as much an ingredient, if not more so. Usually what we find in these kinds of relationships are abusers who refuse to change, don't see the need to change or aren't taking responsibility for their actions and on the other side we find the victim who is excusing or denying the abuse for reasons of self preservation or self image/identity issues.
In faith based relationships it is important to understand that it is never God's will for abuse to be taking place, however because man has free will, as long as an individual is willing to be abusive, the abuse will go on. That is why it is important to incorporate the practical into these situations as well as having faith. For healing to occur, there must be a true heart change in the abuser as well as in the victim. I say true heart change because all too often when the victim has had enough and is able to leave the relationship, the abuser will resort to manipulation in order to convince the victim to stay. That is not a true heart change. A true heart change results in a behavior that is called "restitution". Restitution is a scriptural principle as well as a legal one and it is one that requires the offending party to do whatever is necessary to restore the victim to wholeness. When restitution is the result of a heart change, you see it as a willingness which springs out of empathy in the heart of the offender. When the offender is able to understand from a heart level what they have done to their victim, they will offer whatever they can do for as long as it takes to make it right and it is often their own idea. That and nothing less is what restores the heart of an abused spouse.
The following question came to me which illustrates this principle quite well:
"I married an impulsive angry abuser. He was only abusive during arguments, not on a daily basis...however, I experienced physical, emotional and verbal abuse for 3 years of our marriage. I asked for divorce, but he promised he would change....and has. For the last year, he has been a different person. Our marriage is better than ever...except one area: I'm still healing. He thinks I should just get over it and becomes very defensive anytime the past is brought up. There are occasions where I am reminded of an abusive event. If I bring it up, he gets angry. He says that I'm throwing it in his face. Am I wrong to think that in order for me to completely heal, I need to talk about what happened? And am I wrong to think that he should take responsibility for what happened, apologize again, and reassure me that it will never happen again? When he reacts this way, it hurts just as much as it did when it happened the first time. It feels like it's never going to go away."
Do you see how the absence of restitution has affected this woman? Although the man seems to have worked very hard to change his behavior, the heart hasn't kept pace and she can feel it. As human beings we are body, soul and spirit, therefore we can't just change one part of us, (in this instance behavior) and not change in other parts of our humanity. Check out my answer:
"It is disappointing when people who are abusive do not take responsibility for their actions. No, you are not wrong in thinking he should take responsibility and do whatever it takes to restore your heart. That is called restitution and it is a very important part of the healing process. It rebuilds trust and lets the abuse victim know that there has been a true heart change.

My suggestion to you would be to seek out an abuse counselor and work out your healing process with that person. If you have a local women's center, they would be a good resource for you as often there are abuse counselors who volunteer their time for people such as yourself. Women are verbal and we process out loud. Men do not process that way, they process internally. In order to meet your need to talk, a counselor may be your best option. You are not going to be able to just "get over it". That is an irrational stance to take and shows a lack of understanding with regard to what his behavior has done to you.

Your husband still has some issues and counseling might be an option for him as well, if he is open to that. He seems to be responding out of shame and/or guilt and that needs to be healed as well."

I often refer abused women to their local women's centers because it is hard to tell what kind of financial resources they have and these centers usually provide assistance for little to no cost.
The bottom line when looking at domestic violence is the safety of the individuals involved as well as whether one or both of the participants are willing to change in order to save the relationship. If only one is willing to change, the odds of recovery are often slim to none.


Anonymous said...

The problem described is exactly why I don't want to return to my husband. In the past, he would promise change and I would believe him. I have never left him before.

In some ways, he DID change. After the first few turbulent years, he calmed down, held better jobs and stopped being physical with me. Looking back, it was probably me who changed - I stopped speaking out, became a lot more accepting of things (including unacceptable behaviour). I thought we had a rather OK marriage, except for those occasions of sudden outbursts of temper, leaving me wondering if I was back at square one. Then everything was sweet again.

This went on for years (over 20 years). Finally God answered my prayers with some huge escalation and the involvement of external authorities. I still didn't think it was right to leave. And neither did our Christian mentors.

Now he is super-remorseful, saying THIS time it will be different, as God has not finished with him yet. But the story of the lady you wrote about illustrates exactly why I don't want to go back. Sure, he won't hit me or the family again. He may even think twice about raising his voice. But I still don't see the heart change - he still has to be in control, even from afar, like complaining about the lack of contact, or feeling sorry that we are aloof or need time to heal. And trying very hard to squeeze his way in again, regardless of how we feel.

Thanks for sharing that story.

Anonymous said...

May I offer some thoughts? He thinks I should just get over it and becomes very defensive anytime the past is brought up. There are occasions where I am reminded of an abusive event. ........
If I were that person I think I would check my motives for bringing up the past. It may be to punish or even revenge for the original hurt. The thing is: only God can heal the hurt. Bringing it up probably means the hurt hasn't been healed. As long as we are looking to the abuser for healing, God can't heal us. You know you are healed when you can look at the abuser and not demand something back. I have learned by experience that God alone is the author of the abuser's sanctification. A woman can never get that guy to the place he should be - only God can. She would probably do better to speak positive words of faith both to him and to herself. She should celebrate every small thing she sees change and erase the list of prior offenses. I don't mean turning blind eyes to problems. But most men respond best to positive affirmation than accusation. Accusing will normally turn the other to defensiveness. They may be dealing with enough guilt already.

Grace said...

I am sorry but I don't agree with the previous comment. Bringing up the past doesn't necessarily have to be done out of revenge or wanting to punish. It could be part of the healing process - the need to share thoughts and feelings as they arise. It also doesn't have to be done in an accusatory manner.

The abuser has to realise that in a sense, he owes his partner a debt that may never be repaid. No matter how many times she brings it up, in anger or not, he needs to listen and allow room for that anger. Any defensiveness on his part, or insistence that she recognises and celebrates change is a sign that he doesn't see the extent of her hurt. If he really wants to make amends, he needs to allow her to express her feelings.

I agree that healing doesn't come from the abuser. And one shouldn't demand anything from another. But an abused woman should not feel punished or unheard in her attempts to articulate what happened for her in the past.

Anonymous said...

I have been an Elijah House trained counselor for many years. Forgiveness can be discerned by this: If you have forgiven, you have given up your legal right to be paid back by the one that hurt you. Real freedom is found when you realize that God alone can and will 'pay you back' in healing and comfort. When both are healed, you are able to talk about the past in a positive way. But when the past is brought up and the abuser shows by his reaction that he is not healed then is it worth it? Does it bring peace into the situation? As in all ways of life sometimes God takes you through tough and hard times to bring maturity and character into your life. This does not mean one should endure physical abuse. God doesn't require that we live in danger, much less subject children to that atmosphere.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying, as a trained and experienced counselor, that if my husband shows (during the times of contact I have with him) that he has not changed, even if he is desperately trying to prove that he has changed, that I have made the right choice in not reconciling? He says the right words ("you are so wonderful I should have appreciated you more", "I am learning so much during this time apart I can't wait for us to get back") but he still sulks when he doesn't get his way.

Gr8mochas said...

In scripture, Jesus instructed the disciples to look at the fruit of someone's life rather than just listen to their words. "You shall know them by their fruit". If the fruit of your husband's life doesn't fall in line with the words that he is speaking, then you look at the fruit. Fruit takes times to develop so it isn't an instantaneous thing...it can't develop over the course of a conversation. You left him because of the fruit in his life, that decision has merit because it is based on evidence. Words without evidence to back them up are just words.

Unknown said...

There is a Checklist for Repentance on my website.
Go to

I think you may find it helpful.

I believe that if the abuser guilts you when you bring up an abusive incident from the past (because you need to talk about it and want to heal from it), then he is not truly repentant. He is still trying to sweep his guilt and his responsibility under the carpet.

As victims, we know in our spirit the difference between wanting to rub someone's nose in their sins in order to take vengeance, and wanting simply to talk about how their sins have effected us, because we want those snags in our souls healed, and we want to be feel nurtured and loved by the (former) abuser.

To Anonymous, I say: Trust your gut feelings. They are probably right.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is an old post. I can only hope that my comment will be found, read and responded to.

I have been married for about 2 and half years. My husband has been very verbally abusive to me during this time (and beforehand, if i'm being honest). Calling me out of my name many times, telling me it's my fault that I was raped many years ago, etc.

I do not know how to trust him - I don't think he has earned it. I do not know how to go on. My heart and my dreams are crushed. And yet I stay. Feeling like God somehow "arranged" this marriage, and that I don't want to walk away from it before I get "the payoff", get the biggest lessons in the love...before I see how wonderful it CAN be and was intended to be.

But I am heartbroken. I go through bouts of crying quite often. And suffer from great bouts of depression, and even stupidity and shame for staying with someone who would treat me this way. My husband's behavior has changed somewhat, but he too, does not have the heart of a man who understands what he has done to to me - his wife, the one who was to be his friend.

I think he loves me (as much as he can), and shows me in many ways, kindness and devotion. But I want to be cherished...and loved...for ME...forever. And I don't know what to do. I feel cheated. Gypped. Ripped off from what some women have -- adoring husbands who would never dream of being the thing their wife needs protection from. They are their wives protectors, defenders and lovers.

Does anyone have words of wisdom?

Gr8mochas said...

To Anonymous: it is possible that The Lord desires us to learn things from hard situations, but perhaps it is not the lesson we think. Women tend to believe that God wants us to love people who abuse us. That may be the case, however it is never his will for his people to abuse each other. Perhaps the lesson we are to learn in this is how to respect ourselves enough to learn who to allow and not allow into our lives. In the post above yours, Barbara gave my readers a repentance checklist. She has also written a book called Not Under Bondage which outlines so very well why women are not scripturally bound to stay in relationship with an abuser. It is a treasure of good research that will help you. If the offending spouse is not taking steps to change, there will be no change and one person cannot try for both people. Learning To Leave is another excellent resource to refer to if and/or when someone chooses to leave a relationship. You do not need to be treated badly in your marriage, it is not God's will.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting. I want to stay. I want to help him and myself and not fall in the statistics of abused women. I want to handle this differently. Always helping others, now I need to help myself.

Gr8mochas said...

I'm glad the post was helpful. No one wants their relationship to end. Just be sure that in your desire to work it out, that both of you are actually putting forth the effort to make it work.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. My 14 year old daughter and I left my emotionally abusive husband 3 weeks ago. We feel so much better, but his begging, his blaming, his harrassment to come back are endless. It tears me apart. You've awakened me to something deeper. You've reminded me that God doesn't want us to diminish ourselves, and that to fulfill our purpose we can't allow ourselves to be battered. Thank you.