Does unclear language or presenting opposing ideas when speaking into a harmful situation keep women spinning their wheels in abuse?
I believe it does.
Based on some conversations I’ve had online, some people believe God can change anyone, including hardhearted harmful people.
And so, to them, it’s essential to hold space for change, even as the harmed individual seeks safety from the destructive mate.
In other words, while women need to know that God hates abuse, they also need to know that God can miraculously change their abusive spouse.
And I think that’s a problematic approach.
In this post, I want to explore how the mindset is harmful, especially coming from anyone wanting to help women in abusive marriages.
Helping Women in Abusive Marriages
Neutrality and lack of clear language around matters of safety have been a massive problem in the Christian faith community for a long time. “Let’s trust God to change your abusive spouse” is a message abused spouses have heard over and over again.
It is a form of marriage worship – where Christians believe the ultimate sign of God working in someone’s life is the preservation of their marriage. Anything less than a relationship turnaround is deemed unfavorable, thus the desire is to not relegate the marriage to the margin, even when the life of an individual is at stake.
Christian faith community love to center marriages – we throw (or think we are throwing) a lifeline in the form of safe-sounding words and strategies.
But then we immediately discharge a cloud of smoke into the room, essentially making it harder for the victim to find and use the help we’re supposedly dispensing.
Man’s Freedom to Choose
Different frames of mind are at play when people say, “let’s leave room for God to work” in abusive relationships. One of the issue is being unable to separate God’s “ability” and man’s freedom of choice.
The reality is, using clear language does not mean God cannot help people who want to change.
Using clear language is more on the side of truth. Anchoring ourselves on truth, to be specific. The truth is God will not override a partner’s freedom to choose. (There are differing views on man’s free will, so keep the relationship context in mind. A healthy relationship requires two consenting adults.)
Developing gentle and compassionate language around truth and helping people move forward with clarity (rather than keep them running in circles in a smoke-filled room) is what Christians should be known for.
Helping Women in Abusive Marriages: Can Spouses Change?
Certainly, we can hold space for change in marriage.
If both spouses are already good and decent people who love, honor, and cherish each other, and they just need some skills, strategies, and support to work through “normal” marriage stuff, then we can talk about holding space for the actual relationship.
(Please note: Even in healthy marriages, everyone is responsible for their actions. The influence here does not take away the other party’s responsibility. Each person changes and grows because they decide to. Whether influenced by their spouse or not, it’s still a personal decision)
Abuse, however, is not on the same planet as regular folk dealing with regular marriage issues. Abuse is an entrenched harmful pattern of relating. It’s feeling entitled over another human being to control, manipulate, deceive, disregard, and exploit.
Consequently, abuse is not a two-person problem – it’s a one-person problem. Thus, addressing abuse is not a two-person responsibility; it’s a one-person responsibility.
Marriage advice that takes into account that victims already want to save their marriages, frequently at the cost of their own safety and wellness, is more valuable than advice that centers the marriage.
Advice that is clear (within an individual’s capacity to hold new information) that the survival of the marriage is not an primary concern is more valuable than counsel, which makes it harder to discern the scale of importance.
Input that diminishes the safety and wholeness of the individual as the most immediate concern does more harm than good.
The Different Types of Good News To Abused Women
I’ve heard different versions of “we must leave room for God to work,” and I think some people feel that not holding space for the survival of a marriage (i.e., prioritizing people over the institution) is removing God and His influence from the equation.
That’s not what it means, though.
For many women, “God’s work” will be learning He does not hate divorce. The miracle will be discovering life-saving divorce is God’s miraculous provision for the abused, betrayed, and abandoned.
“Leaving room for God to work” will be learning that one-parent families are better than two-parent harmful ones. The excellent news will be God loves people more than He loves marriage.
Harmed spouses need to hear the good news that they are not obligated to focus on saving the source of their torment. That they don’t have to hold out hope for its “restoration” to be considered good, faithful Christians.
It doesn’t mean victims can’t want to save their marriages or they must leave their husbands. No, the good news is simply knowing they have a choice about the kind of life they want to live: that a harmful marriage is not all the option they have.
Truth is good news. And it can be presented in a way that ensures the harmed spouse is still in charge of her life and decisions. It can be presented in a way that does not water down the reality of what abuse is, how to work towards safety and wholeness, or whose responsibility it is to stop abusing.
Transparency is not (or should not be) about trying to make wives leave their husbands. It’s about being explicit that marriage is not the problem, per se; a person is. And so the person, the perpetrator, needs to work on themselves. And that work does not require intimate proximity with, or effort from their victim.
When Advice Presents Opposing “Options”
I don’t think we can tell women, “you deserve to be safe,” and “let’s leave room for God to work on your marriage,” and think the latter (and all it’s pressure) won’t be all she hears.
I don’t believe we can hold her safety and the survival of her marriage simultaneously.
I am sure there’s some space for nuance. But when statistics tell us that 3 in 10 women (29%) in the US have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by a partner and that only 1 in 10 abusers actually change, marriage advice givers should be focused on safety.
Offering clarity is not taking away her power to choose. She can chose to stay or leave. I see clarity as presenting a soft blanket: a gentle presence around her, inviting her to new information and possibilities of liberation and rest.
She can decide to set aside the blanket if she wants to. But she know it’s there when she’s ready. Clarity looks like marriage teachers getting into the business of soft blankets, and bouncing out of the business of smoke machines that make it harder to find the blankets.
The responsibility of those invited to speak into an abusive situation is NOT to further blur the lines on how abusive patterns present and how to find hope and healing.
Helping Women in Abusive Marriages: Know Better, Do Better
I didn’t always know what I know now.
I’m coming from the speaking-out-of-both-sides-of-the-mouth crowd. But once I knew better, I became passionate about doing a better job and making a case for authors or pastors and the general Christian community to do better.
Lack of clear language has been a huge problem. If we are interested in helping women in abusive marriages, if we want to hold abusers accountable and educate our communities and congregations, we must quit straddling lanes.
Saying she can be safe and then following that with “but God can change your spouse” snips the lifeline we just threw at her. It is better to focus on exploring how safety looks like, than how the marriage can also still be saved.
Again, people can change if they want to. But nobody should be a sacrificial lamb. Harmful spouses can change if they want to (many harmful spouses won’t) but that doesn’t mean their mates should be waiting at the bus stop, waiting for Change to arrive. (The early church did not practice that type of waiting either: I Cor 5:9-13)
I think marriage teachers should be clear about that.
The immediate concern is safety from the oppressive conditions. And it just makes sense not to make it harder for her to process her life-giving options.
Unholy Fruit | Your WILD Guide to Discerning Toxic Character
If you have felt confused by the dissonance between someone’s pious words and their exploitative actions, this workshop by Abuse recovery coach Sarah McDugal offers clarity and some possible next steps in your healing journey. Watch Now.