Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2015 Nancy Virden
Physical (including sexual) abuse involves emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can also occur without physical assault. In this series, emotional abuse has been described and put in context. A special focus on what it can look like in a Christian marriage leads naturally to this last discussion, can the church sanction a divorce on grounds of emotional abuse alone?
Clearly, a woman needs to leave a situation where she is beaten, threatened, or assaulted in any way. Divorce may be called for in cases of sexual activity outside the marriage. I think those are popular opinions. What I’ve noticed however, is that when women from a widely considered “christian” marriages try to describe how their husbands treat them like prostitutes, ignore them out of preference for online cheating, express unspoken yet very real threats, practice gross neglect, or use back-handed put-downs disguised as jokes, a limited and judgmental viewpoint from the church may not recognize emotional abuse.
A friend of mine went to her pastor several years ago to discuss her husband’s maltreatment of her. He reprimanded her to stop making her husband “look bad.” On the other hand, I’ve heard similar more recent stories where pastors were very kind and understanding. Domestic abuse is becoming a topic people are willing to discuss, but in the United States we are a long way from being a knowledgable society with regard to emotional abuse.
The best write-up I have seen about domestic abuse both physical and emotional, is found on HelpGuide.org. It is a thorough, easy-to-read summation of what confuses so many of us, and particularly victims. One line in the article reads, “There are many signs of an abusive relationship. The most telling sign is fear of your partner.”*
Wives in emotionally abusive relationships fear their spouses. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)** is not limited to following extreme trauma or war. One emotionally abused woman was afraid to enter her home and spent much of a frozen night in her car. She was filled with dread when her husband was around. After he moved out, she laid in bed tense and frightened that the noises she heard were him coming back. Some women get jumpy, suddenly angry, or suffer bad dreams whether the husband hit her or not.
Emotional abuse survivors often have to overcome the brainwashing that systematic blame, belittling, disrespect, dishonesty, and gross neglect cause. Her beliefs about herself are damaged. This can be a pervasive issue and undermine her ability to function. She may have lost touch with God’s calling on her life, replacing it with a mutated rationalization that by keeping the peace she is doing God’s will.
Victims of any abuse often hide behind a public image. In the church, an emotionally abused wife can keep a “joy of the Lord” smile on her face and never expose the whole truth. A posting on a survivors-related facebook page reads, “Many [women]blame themselves for the abuse and continue to feel responsible and guilty for anything bad that happens to them or to other people they know. Survivors often feel bad about themselves and different from other people. They therefore isolate themselves from other people and avoid making close friendships.” ***
We need interaction with each other. Kind, nurturing relationships go a long way toward our fulfillment, production, and health. Destructive relationships can tear us down and sabotage our positive growth and mental health. I would argue that emotional abuse is life-threatening because it can lead to the poor physical health, substance use, and suicidal thinking of its victims. One woman I met eventually stopped caring for her health, a long-term suicide that satisfied her conscience.
It’s very convenient for abusers of any type to use and count on a Christian spouse’s seventy-times-seven forgiveness and deep desire for relationship. This keeps the abused person vulnerable. Yet churches and counselors can support domestic abuse by assuming everyone knows what it is when they see or experience it.
In The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages, author Amy White writes:
Unless pastors and counselors can recognize the often subtle and always complex dynamics of emotional abuse, women will continue to be victimized first by their husbands and then by the church or the community. An abusive man who is not held accountable is indirectly supported and given license to continue his destructive patterns, and those around him become enablers. Women are not treated with dignity and respect, as God intended, and so God is not honored.****
Of course separation or divorce are appropriate! When a woman is destroyed by her husband’s behavior (and words), her life as intended by God is dead or dying.
Love is to be the most telling sign of our faith in Jesus. We believers are to treat others as we want to be treated. Christian leaders are to be servants. Seeking justice and standing up for the oppressed are tenets of our scripture. Acceptance, denial, and chosen ignorance of emotional abuse by the christian church-at-large makes me wonder if we will ever hold abusers accountable.
Or if we grasp what being Christian means.
************NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.
-pictures from qualitystockphotos.com
****”The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages” by Amy Wildman White http://christiancounsellingcentre.ca/sitecontent/ur3P9wM1inxspbnup9fYhQ–/mfiles/the-silent-killer-of-christian-marriages.pdf