A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Abuse and Pre-Marriage Counseling: We Must Change Our Approach

There are scores of books written and designed to be used to counsel engaged couples, purporting to make them better prepared for marriage.  Many pastors insist on pre-marriage counseling before they will agree to perform a wedding.  I am sure that their intent is good, but frankly, I have never enjoyed nor felt any degree of excitement about this kind of counseling.  I have done it out of “duty.”  It is expected.  People think that we need to pull out all the stops and do everything we can to turn a shaky takeoff into a solid flight.

But it isn’t working, and I think we know it.

Pre-marriage counseling is most often a mere “nicety” rather than a truly effective tool.  “There, the couple has had their little chat with the pastor.  They have heard a few quips about the importance of communication.  All is well.”  But then, all does not turn out well.  Let me suggest a better way.

First, if the bride and groom are truly genuine Christians who therefore know Christ and are regenerate in heart, then they have already been taught by the spirit of Jesus.  Scripture tells us so.  They already have become new creations in Christ who know how to love, and in particular know how to love another believer.  Oh sure, in their humanity they will have some glitches and sins to overcome as they learn about themselves and one another.  But they will overcome.  They will eventually see the baggage they have brought along with them, often stuff that originated in their upbringing in their family of origin.  But Christ makes them one flesh and the union grows.

But throw into the mix a man or woman who is faking it — who is Christian in name only — and you have trouble.  Trouble far greater than if two admittedly non-Christians marry one another.  And then, to fire up the furnace of grief even further, toss in a false, hypocritical “Christian” who is also an entitled, power/control seeking abuser and, well, most of our readers can complete the rest of the story.  Top off the concoction with some basic instruction on headship and submission, which the still-secret abuser twists and warps to his own ends, and the mold is cast.  Standard pre-marriage counseling in other words, can actually serve to enable the abuser even before the wedding day.

So let me suggest a new model of pre-marriage counseling.  Let’s see, what shall we call it?  Maybe something like this:  A Course in What Kind of Person You Must Never Marry.  The goal of this counseling has very little to do with teaching communication skills or practical ways that a husband can love his wife (save that for a followup meeting about one year after the wedding).  And it has everything to do with exposing just what kind of person the man or woman is about to marry.

I propose that our primary goal in pre-marriage counseling must be to provide the couple with necessary knowledge and tools to discern “red-flags” before they take their vows.  In other words, the goal is to expose and reveal the abuser for what he is.  How to do this?  I would provide the couple with some basic books that we are all familiar with, such as:

  • The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
  • Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft [NOTE:  This may be too detailed for pre-marriage counseling, but certainly the counselor could use some excerpts from it]
  • Read some true stories told by abuse victims, particularly focusing on early warning signs that were “felt” but discounted.

The goals of this counseling are to 1) expose a false Christian, 2) give each of the potential husband or wife the necessary tools to discover abusive tactics and mentalities that have already been evidenced in the relationship, and 3) equip the counselees with knowledge and tools to use should abuse ever begin to show itself in their marriage.

This kind of counseling may well not be received warmly by pastors and Christians.  Why?  Because it sounds like we are trying to talk this fine young couple out of getting married!  Throwing a damper on the whole thing.  Aren’t we supposed to encourage marriage in these days when marriage is slighted?  Those are the objections we are going to hear.  My answer — “Yes, I am trying to talk at least one of the couple out of getting married IF the person they are about to marry is a false Christian and/or an abuser.”  Absolutely!  I would count it a great success if, as a result of this kind of pre-marriage counseling, one of the engaged couple said “I am not going to marry this person.”  Because when it comes to NOT marrying the wrong person, that is indeed a happy ending.

14 Comments

  1. Oh my goodness! This would have been so wonderful-if I had had access to something like it early on. I remember saying many times to him and others that I wouldn’t marry him until i had seen him angry. Of course I didn’t listen to my own words. I dated him for a year and never saw him angry about anything, and I thought that was weird. I used to make “jokes” about how I was afraid that one day he would snap and kill everyone in sight- or me.
    I knew there was a big problem, but I didn’t listen to my intuition- if there had been anyone pointing this out to me- it would have reinforced my thinking and I wouldn’t have married him.

  2. Robin

    Jeff, I think your course would be excellent – but I don’t think it would be very successful for engaged couples. I think once a couple is engaged, it is already too late to recognize the peril. The blinders are on, excuses are made for the abuser, and emotions and feelings rule out the warning signs. (There are usually warning signs, but the abuser may be quite the deceiver, too. The abuser is at his most charming before the wedding).
    The education and wisdom regarding abuse and the tactics of abusers needs to come before dating even begins. Young people (and their parents) need to be equipped to recognize the warning signs before they get emotionally attached and end up justifing the behavior of the abuser. As most of us on this blog have seen and experienced, it usually takes years of abuse and heartbreak for the victim to realize that 1) she married an abuser , and 2) he will not change. There were warning signs when I was dating – but I did not heed the red flags or listen to other’s warnings. I was in denial, and naive. No one could dissuade me from marrying him. It took 15 years to realize I had married an abuser and that he would not change.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Robin- I agree absolutely. Changing PM counseling is one important thing to do. But there is more. Yes, we need to educate the whole church and that includes the young people. Indeed, once an attachment is made between a couple then objectivity can go out the window. I do think though that intense PM counseling that strives to leave no stone untirned must be done. But as always, prevention before the fact is the best.

  3. Judy Kanters

    Hi B!

    This is such a GREAT article! I wish I could send it to every pastor on the planet! Ha!

  4. You are right on with this! It would be great to be given the warning signs prior to marriage from Lundy Bancofts, Why Does He Do That, if nothing more than a means to keep in the back of your head. By the time you are engaged its too late, the fantasy has set in, but knowledge is power. Recognizing you are being abused earlier on can only help. Love it! Also knowing going into marriage that God doesn’t endorse abuse and that divorcing an abuser would help women be free of the failure they feel when having to end their marriages.

  5. Pippa

    This is an amazing and thoughtful blog. It is something important to me on more than one level, and something to which I have given some thought.
    I often take a “public health” view of problems in society. From that stance, I would guess that the most effective way to deal with the problem given the fact that “love is blind” and those engaging in premarital counseling are unlikely to attend to any detailed information that takes them on a path away from their S.O., a quick engaging informative session detailing the red flags alerting one to avoid a relationship might be most helpful. This probably would not help most women get out of a doomed relationship in time but it might help some.
    As for me, over 33 years ago I had a session of premarital counseling done by a college chaplain. It was brief. It focused on why we thought the marriage would be successful, a small bit on communication skills and the details of the ceremony. I’ll try to describe our spiritual states: I grew up in a Christian home, in the sense that my parents read and believed the Bible and prayed. My father was a pastor/preacher, but It wasn’t especially the picture of the “American Christian family.’ More informatively, I spoke to God in prayer and felt that I was special to Him, believed in Jesus, and think I might have quietly spoken in tongues in prayer (which I don’t do now) when I was very young; I did not make this known to anyone else. When I was an adolescent, I went up on an altar call and was baptized. This was not preceded by a strong conviction of anything except that I thought it was time. I gradually grew away, rebelled from the Lord until several years after the ex and I were married, when I did have a strong conviction of a need for the Lord and an acceptance of Him which was really not related to any specific earthly relationship force. I became spiritually active. Ok, so that’s where I was, and this just points out that each person’s story is complex. The ex did not show any interest in spiritual matters, but owned a bible, and had a history of going to church or to whatever religious activities in which his social group was involved. Do I really know what was in his mind? No. Was I alerted by a dozen red flags in his behavior, his life? Definitely. He “grew” into a religiously hyperactive poser or possibly Pharisee…I don’t even know for sure if he thinks he believes. I am beginning to believe that he doesn’t even think he believes.
    I knew about red flags. I probably would not have avoided the marriage if I had been warned by another. But it is possible that if I had the confirmation from others that I would have avoided it. I would say that if the goal is to avoid marrying abusers, then this would have been more effective than nothing and possibly more effective than anything else that could be simply done on a big scale. A woman in the early stages of abuse is usually in a strong state of denial. She is feeling shame and stuffing her emotions, telling herself what she wants to hear..that everything will be ok. It would be good, I think, to preemptively tell her that NO, it will not be ok–to give her an early confirmation of her feelings.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Thank you very much Pippa for these great insights and for more of your own story and experience. As someone else noted as well, at least if a woman hears ahead of time that abuse is grounds for divorce (as well as what it looks like), when she does come to the point of seeing what is happening to her just maybe that earlier work in counseling will come to her rescue. Hey, it sure is better than what most pastors are doing now in pre-marriage counseling. By the way, I have felt guilty many times for many years because here I was a pastor and I had absolutely NO interest in or enthusiasm about pre-marriage counseling. I thought, frankly, that it was wimpy stuff and I could barely bring myself to pass it on to people. In addition, since I only do weddings for Christians, biblical teaching about marriage was something these people have heard many times already. Well, now it turns out that I know why I had no motivation for it — and it isn’t because I was defective (as I thought). It is because it WAS a big waste of time after all! At least for the most part. Now I know what to tell engaged couples and young people before they are ever engaged and THAT I can get excited about.

      I still won’t be writing any romance novels though:)

    • Pippa

      (Didn’t finish my thought about our spiritual states–I was wondering “aloud” whether the Great Commission is the only thing with which we should we should be dealing, if that would have made a difference. I think I answered myself that we need to be caring for the down-trodden, warning those in danger.)

    • Rebecca

      Pippa,
      Thank you for sharing some of your story. I could echo so much of what you shared, it is an all too familiar bad memory. I remember feeling sick on my wedding day, sick with regret and doubt, but didn’t have the courage to walk away. That was almost 19 yrs ago. I’ve thought about this alot in the past several years…why didn’t I walk away? Part of it is I didn’t trust myself, and the other part was fear of being judged for either being too ‘particular’, too ‘judgmental’, or getting an ‘I told you so’ from my family. No one would have loving supported the decision or believed my reservations. Having come from a very legalistic upbringing where my parents judged every move, I now see how this laid the groundwork for my lack of courage and fear of being further dismissed.

      Jeff- your idea for a change in Premarital counseling is outstanding. It may even be a great series for those in Divorce Care or a Singles Group, at least trying to make an impression on those who haven’t yet fallen for blind trust or manipulated into the false charm of blind love.

      It would be even better if the Pastors who did finally embrace this approach would actually have the courage then to say ‘NO, I won’t marry you…this is an unhealthy relationship.’ At a previous church I attended, not only does the church and the lead Pastor bandaid PM Counseling, he did, at one time instruct couples living together prior to the marriage, to move apart for 3 weeks before he would perform the ceremony…also knowing that one man he was going to marry had an affair with the new woman he was going to marry…(the reason he divorced his first wife), So I think you’re right when you said the idea wouldn’t be warmly welcomed by most churches and pastors…it would raise questions and perhaps ‘taint the image’ of the church. A paradox considering the above example….unless the truth is known. Bringing your suggestion of a change in PM counseling into practice would be a tremendous beginning.

    • Pippa, Your story is mine to a T!

  6. I think that much of what passes for pre-marriage counseling actually does more harm than good, even when both parties are sincere young Christians. Tell a young couple in their early twenties that the husband is responsible for being the spiritual head and that the wife is must submit to the husband’s headship, and you’ve likely gotten them off to a rock start.

    It would be much better to simply instruct the young couple to bear with one another in love, then move on to the importance of fully and wholeheartedly honoring their marriage vows.

    And, yes, discussion of what type of person NOT to marry might, possibly, prevent a few bad marriages…or at least help them to recognize warning signs sooner.

    • Ooops…mean to say “rocky start,” not “rock start.”

    • Jeff Crippen

      Joe – Here is a really good book that describes the kinds of people that you do NOT want to marry. It’s very good: Toxic Relationships and How to Change Them: Health and Holiness in Everyday Life, by Clinton McLemore. These include abusers, but there are other types as well like “the Drifter” and “the Freeloader.” I m thinking about taking our women’s study group through it.

  7. I agree with your idea of re-vamping the whole thrust of premarriage counseling, Jeff. Even if it only catches a few people from marrying an abuser, it would be good. If all engaged couples underwent it, or it was given to youth groups or young adult groups, those people who ended up in non-abusive marriages would at least be more aware that abuse can occur in marriage, what it looks like when it occurs and that Christians don’t need to keep it secret if it occurs. This overall awareness raising about the dynamics of domestic abuse is essential for prevention across the whole society.

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