Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2015 Nancy Virden
Abuse of any kind generally follows a recognizable cyclical pattern: the abuse, a honeymoon or reconciliation period, calm, tension building, abuse, etc.* This cycle can happen within a few moments or even over a year. Many abuse tactics are found repeatedly in a variety of abusive situations. Abuse is about power and control.
Emotional abuse in a “Christian” home can look the same as anywhere else, only a dimension I’ve observed is different, and that is spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse can come from within a marriage or from a religious organization. My experience with Christian churches has been more with the evangelical stream; I cannot speak to Catholic or fundamentalist environments except by what I have heard from people in those realms. Evangelical churches tend to have some commonalities in social atmosphere, expectations of congregants, and leadership qualities.
Let me be clear, please. This is a series on emotional abuse and not a report card on churches. The Christian faith and most marriages within that faith are not to be defined by the examples I use. I have met many wives over the years in Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and supporting prayer groups. Women tend to talk about marriage, although as anywhere else, abused women do not open up about the truth very often. Most christian wives share positive experiences mixed with normal disappointments.
Some of the following stories are about people I know well or have heard about in church settings. A few of the husbands and wives I describe here have died, others I haven’t seen in decades. Some situations I have observed from afar and others closer-up.
Separating the woman from support systems. From a pastor, “No one needs to know our business,” and “I am called to go to another church.” These spiritualized comments were not made in discussion, they were imperatives supported by attitude, tone, or behavior. “Your role is to follow me” was another implied or stated idea used to make sure the church leader’s wife would keep family secrets. One wife I met felt guilty if she did not include her husband in each of her activities and social circles. Yet when he was reluctant to join her, she stayed home with him.
Preventing her from achieving her educational or occupational goals. “Just stay home and be a godly wife” is one comment I have overheard in a church setting. What is “godly” apparently was to be decided by the husband.
Possessive. In one family, a husband falsely accused his wife of unfaithful behavior by expressing doubt their baby was his. His unfounded rationale? She wasn’t acting “like a christian” toward him.
Direct and indirect criticism. Snide remarks, sarcasm, and “oops” excuses for insulting a wife can be abusive. One husband used to complain about his wife in church, publicly humiliating her and writing it off as jokes. No leader at church ever called him on it, making church seem an unsafe place for his wife. One preacher spoke against the “sin” of getting fat, while his overweight wife sat in the front row. Another husband told his wife who was trying to start a ministry that what she had to offer wasn’t good enough. He mocked her privately by making negative comments about women who shared her ambitions. Achievements she did make were met with jealousy or put-downs. Publicly he praised the Lord for his “wonderful” wife. In a situation where the victim can never please her mate, she forgets her own value and worth.
Using a woman’s physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental challenges against her. “You need to settle down,” one husband said in front of his wife and her friends. She had been adamant about something that upset her. She was humiliated and embarrassed and remained quiet for the rest of the night. She told me later in her heart she felt guilty for not having a “quiet and gentle spirit.” False guilt is a manipulative tool that may come rather easily to the abusive man in a “christian” marriage due to misrepresented scriptures or false teachings in the church. A wife may learn to doubt her thoughts and feelings.
Punishing “bad” behavior. A husband who uses religion to control his wife suggested she deserves his maltreatment due to something she said or did or failed to say or do. His favorite scriptures were misquotes or conveniently out of context. One husband refused to talk to his wife until she would eventually give in to whatever he wanted due to the weight of emotional torture. I asked a therapist once if one person could break another’s spirit. The answer was, “Not unless the second person allows it and stays around for more.” Theoretically he is right. In a christian marriage context a wife is often taught not to leave, and that to love as Jesus did means to take whatever comes. I’ve seen broken wives- and the church often has nothing to say on the matter.
Intimidating. Banging around cupboard doors and dishes, punching walls, yelling at the children in a nonsensical manner – all these behaviors exposed a husband’s anger and ability to break things which was intimidating to his wife. Threats of spiritual failure may also be intimidating. Another church attending husband would talk non-stop about religious rules of conduct until he had apologies from his family just to shut him up.
Blaming. Pornography is one real problem that breaks up a lot of marriages. I have heard both men and women ignorantly blame wives in these circumstances with accusations of being prudish, not understanding men’s issues, or being unattractive. “Christian” husbands who engage in such lust find easy excuses for their behavior, after all, aren’t christian women supposed to meet their husbands’ needs with compassion and forgiveness? A wife in this or any circumstance in which she dares to confront her abusive husband, will hear the story shift to everything being her fault.
Undermining or ignoring a wife’s input. In some churches, men are often raised to superhuman heights by sheer implication due to the lack of females in leadership. When women are told to not be in positions of power in church settings, children grow up seeing that as normal. Wives learn “their place” and abusive husbands can feel cocky. An atmosphere of female inferiority is a breeding ground for abuse. While many christians I know would argue with me, many others would agree. It shows up in how husbands confront their wives in front of children, in who makes all the decisions for the family via verbal command or attitudinal demand, who withholds information and refuses to communicate, who decides where they attend church, who will be her friends, and how she lives her life.
Gaslighting. If the christian wife should take the matter to him or to the church, the abuser will lie or deny attempting to make the victim doubt her experience – the abuse never happened, she perceived it wrong, she is making assumptions that are not true, etc. She questions her memory and begins to lose the fight against helplessness.
Controlling the money. I have heard in christian circles (among women!) that men are supposed to be the leaders in their homes and that means doing the bills and taxes. Really? Sorry, I’ve seen no scripture that even implies men are mandated to be in charge of family money matters. Yet somehow in abusive christian homes the men find ways to make all the money “belong” to them, and to expect their wives to be and act constantly grateful for the men’s willingness to provide housing. Christian women sometimes choose to stay home to raise the children. In one such family, the husband asked her to do this, and she creates no income. The abusive husband demands her submission if she wants a little cash.
Demanding she stroke his ego. This is an umbrella statement over all abusive behavior as abuse is always about control and power. In one church a husband asked me if his wife wasn’t supposed to be more grateful for his gift of a tennis bracelet. I answered if he gave it to her to make her happy then her response would indicate what he needed to do next. If she didn’t like it, perhaps he ought to exchange it. This made the husband angry (he was well-known as a control-freak) and he mumbled she ought be more appreciative. I told him it sounded like he bought the bracelet for himself, and he walked away. His wife laughed; she’d loved the whole scene. Another husband said his wife was sinning by leaving him even though he admitted being abusive to her. In his mind, she owed him for being her husband.
Compassionate love may keep a woman in an abusive marriage, but there is nothing unloving about leaving. In the next of this series I will take a look at how the church can best help an emotionally battered wife.
More about the above tactics can be read at:
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.
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