A Cry For Justice

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

Watch the Wife and You Can Often See When There is Trouble in Paradise

I have now encountered the same pattern often enough as I am speaking with Christian married couples that I can conclude I am not imagining it. I think it is important enough to share with you and I suspect you are going to read this and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that for sure!” What I am talking about is indicators in the wife that reveal a marriage is not the paradise it represents itself as. And in this article I am not talking about classic abuse. I have in mind a Christian marriage where there is an undercurrent of unresolved tension.

Ok, let’s see if I can describe it. I am talking to a Christian husband and wife together. Not counseling, just visiting. Might be a pastor and his wife or visitors to our church or, whoever. So myself and the husband start talking about some point of theology and what our church believes about it or how we have had this or that problem and how we handled it and so on. At some point obviously I am going to bring up our ministry to abuse victims. I describe the problems they face in our churches and how deceptive abusers are and how they dupe entire churches. I talk about the evils of patriarchy and about how we can spot abusers.  All the stuff we deal with here on the blog.

And then one of the two says something. Usually it is the husband, but sometimes it is the wife and then her husband responds to what she said. He says something like, “Well, as the breadwinner in our home I believe I have the right to have the final say on money.”  Or “you have to be careful because women can cry ‘abuse’ for all kinds of things.” Or “I am not condoning abuse, but the Bible does say that none of us have authority over our own bodies in marriage.” The husband may not be an abuser at all. But perhaps without realizing it, he is using phrases that abusers use to minimize their evil and to shift blame to the victim.

Now, watch the wife. As this husband makes these kinds of statements with great assurance and confidence in their veracity, you don’t see that same confidence in the wife. Oh, sometimes you might if she has been sufficiently brain-washed and has become a preacher of patriarchy herself (and there are a few women like that, some have written those infamous harmful books we list on our bad resources page), but in most cases what you will see is that the wife does not evidence the confidence in what her husband just said that he does. In fact, you see a bit of fidgeting. And often she will speak up with a, “but on the other hand…” response, to which he will counter with some attempt at humor: “Haha, and you make it a point to remind me of that pretty often!”  Chuckle, chuckle. But her chuckling isn’t quite as enthusiastic as his.

What I am trying to say is that this kind of a scenario tells me that this Christian marriage is not the complete paradise that it is portrayed to be. There is tension in it. The husband’s husbanding style has some real problems, and the wife knows it. They have had some “discussions” about it in the privacy of their home, but he hasn’t really got the message yet. There are ways that he is lording it over her that are not right, and she knows it, but he has not ‘fessed up yet.

I have found that married couples who have to keep talking about head and submit issues do not have a healthy marriage. In a healthy marriage, you really don’t have to keep talking about “who is in charge.” You just love one another, serve one another, and just “do it.” If a wife keeps saying that her husband needs to step up and lead, then there is a problem — it may well be that he is passive and irresponsible. Or if a husband feels he needs to keep talking about how his wife needs to obey him and submit to him, there is a problem. The mere fact that it has to be a regular topic of discussion tells me that the paradise they try to put forward gets hit by monsoons pretty often.

So watch the wife in those conversations. You just might find that many of the “perfect Christian marriages” you have envied are not so perfect after all.

29 Comments

  1. joepote01

    What you’ve described is, I think, indicative of authoritatively promoting a doctrine that does not reconcile well with life, or with the full body of scripture. It’s easy to speak authoritatively about how one believes things ‘should’ be if one has limited experience with real life scenarios, or if one is willing to bury their head in the sand and ignore contradictory scenarios and contradictory scripture passages.

    But there will always be tells that reveal the contradiction…

  2. Brenda R

    Ps Jeff, This was a timely post. I was very tired and in a lot of pain the other night so I questioned my own thinking of this encounter.
    At our women’s group meeting an incident occured between an older long time married couple that I was questioning. I have always thought of them as the couple to mirror. That night, husband seemed to be upset while helping his bride make lemonade, but wife was laughing and saying he wasn’t mad after waving him off as he left like he was just being silly as she was saying she had made lemonade before. A lady pulled out a whistle, blew it and said time out while she was laughing. I really think that it was all in fun. The wife knew my experiences and I think she could read the concern on my face. She has shown no signs of abuse in her attitudes and actions. I have never seen him as anything but a gentle, caring man.
    This experience brought up my feelings though. I felt like it was an abusive excallation that was happening to me when it had nothing to do with me. I felt closed in and was looking for a way to get out.

    • Brenda I understand your feelings. I too have been mildly triggered into fear when watching a couple act out with joint humour and no hidden daggers the kind of scenario that, in an abusive marriage, would be quite intimidating to the victim. Couples in good marriages rarely understand the dynamics of abuse, so they don’t realise how their teasing and humorous poking of each other can be triggering for victims. This is not to blame them. Although, as a survivor, I rather wish they were more sensitive to our feelings sometimes.

      But I wouldn’t want the world be ban humor just because of the sensitivities of victims.

      It’s a fine line. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot because I’ve been listening to Carl Trueman, Todd Pruitt and Aimee Byrd on their Mortification of Spin podcasts recently, and they use a LOT of humor, and sometimes in their humor they parody Patriarchal attitudes. I guess they are trying to mock those attitudes and show how idiotic they are, but they don’t seem to realise how close it cuts to the bone to victims of abuse.

      I’ve decided that using such humor in a face to face small group setting where you know the people is one thing. But using it in a public podcast or blog where your audience could be anybody, is another thing. And IMO one should restrain the humor on the internet or with any kind of blanket audience.

      A pertinent verse is Matthew 12:36

      “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak”

      • And another thing, I think one needs to be careful in using humorous parody of Patriarchal attitudes when the subject of the conversation on the internet is Abuse, because victims of abuse are particularly likely to tune in to the discussion, so the audience is weighted with more victims of abuse than another audience would be.

      • Marah

        When I met for the first time with the women’s ministry gal, she and her husband had an exchange about where she and I could meet (the church was in a new space, and the meeting area wasn’t finished yet). When the husband suggested a coffee shop, the wife replied, “That won’t work” in a mildly frustrated tone.

        My whole body tensed. For me, it was very stressful and upsetting that she’d express mild annoyance to her husband. For them it was no big deal, which I observed when the interaction continued to unfold (and as I’ve seen in their relationship since then). But it felt very threatening to me, just witnessing a tiny bit of perfectly normal tension between spouses. I was cringing inside, waiting for him to display the “inevitable” signs of thinly veiled anger and resentment that I’ve always known in my own marriage. It was helpful for me to have to sit through that, even though it was uncomfortable, because it stuck with me as an example of how married people can be grumpy with each other and not have it be a power struggle.

      • Marah, I have had exactly the same reaction when I see normal couples saying something to each other that is a bit contradictory. Or when the wife disagrees with her husband. Wow. Moments like that show us how accustomed we became to accepting the abnormal as ‘normal’ in our marriages.

      • Brenda R

        Thanks Barb, You always have a way of making me feel better. I don’t know who the people are who you were referring to, but I agree. That was no place for jokes.

        That same night I was joking with the woman who started our Women’s ministry and said we should change name tags this month and see how it goes. I wasn’t serious. Her response was that I wasn’t nice, but I am fun. I still am not sure how I should take that.

      • her response was that I wasn’t nice . . .

        Personally, I would take that as a compliment, by thinking of it the way C S Lewis described Aslan: I’m not quoting him exactly but it was something like “Oh Aslan is good, but he is not safe . . . .” meaning that God is good, but for sinners who do not repent he is fierce angry.
        So Brenda, I would say you are not ‘nice’ in that you do not give a free pass to abusers, and you point out the wickedness to bystanders who will listen, and that means you discomfort some of the bystanders. And they NEED to be discomfited!

      • Brenda R

        Barb, I will keep that in mind.

  3. MeganC

    Oh, this is good. And, now, thinking back . . . I see how this scenario happened in my first marriage and I wonder if anyone caught on. There was one pastor years ago, who pulled me aside and said, “Is your husband *kind* to you???” and, of course, I gushed about how much he has changed and how great our marriage is. :(

    And you are so right on about how people who have healthy marriages don’t talk about headship and submission all the time!

    Looking back, I can also pinpoint some of these same conversations you describe above when Give Her Wings comes up in conversations.

    Again, you always seem to pinpoint the issues and bring clarity and perspective!

    • “Looking back, I can also pinpoint some of these same conversations you describe above when Give Her Wings comes up in conversations.”

      Yes Meg, I know the feeling! The way people repond when we tell them the ministries we are engaged in can tell us a lot about those people. And the more we experience people’s responses, the more discerning we become, don’t we? :)

      • MeganC

        Yes, Barb! And I will paying a WHOLE lot more attention now! :)

  4. Cindy Rapstad

    I see almost a head hang when the abuser comes around. Funny how after I started sharing and posting about abuse there are guys from the old church that would steer their wives away from me or if their wives were talking to me they would make a beeline to us and join the conversation. I see through you Mr. Abuser, you think you can hide but not for long because we are going to bring the fight to the church where you have been able to hide and use the church to hurt people further.

    • MeganC

      Yes! Yes, Cindy! I get that, as well!

  5. Hanna

    One of my elders commented to me that I could win an Oscar for my performance as a Godly wife when the truth of what was happening came to light. It’s true, I was very good because I knew that if I let on to ANYONE what was happening at home, there’d be hell to pay. I love to watch couples who have loving, balanced relationships. They do exist, praise God, but there are many academy award winners out there. Look for the ladies that rarely volunteer or are never at events without hubby or kids in tow. She can’t even go out to lunch without permission granted well in advance and a background check. Don’t bother making reservations, she will probably cancel at the last minute.

    • MeganC

      Hanna — I wish the people who accused me of lying about the abuse would read posts like yours. I was a great actress when it came to our marriage. I wish they knew that, every time I went somewhere or visiting with someone, that I would be questioned upon my return. “What did you TELL THEM?!” :(

    • Isaiah40:31

      I love what you wrote, Hanna. I felt I had to be that actress too. There definitely would have been hell to pay, if I had portrayed him as anything but perfect. And you nailed it: I never volunteered, wasn’t allowed to attend things w/o him, and certainly wasn’t allowed to go out to lunch with friends.

      It feels SO GOOD to be myself now, to not live a lie, and to be able to take my kids to do the things we want to do. I have literally been released from prison.

    • Anonymous

      In my case, the indifference and passive spouse allowed me freedom “to go out”; I just stopped going because I could never be honest with others about “the home”. They only wanted to hear ‘good warm reports about the home’. I felt I was always lying – it was and to some extent, still exhausting.

      • Marah

        Me too, Anonymous, my husband tended to encourage me to get out more, but I became more and more reclusive the more I lost of myself over the years, having to shut away all the normal, healthy responses to the craziness.

        I’d add to the discussion: Look for the couples where the husband is the life of the party, the one who makes everyone who walks through the doors feel special, the talented guy who has an instant connection with anyone they want to…while the wife rarely speaks up, doesn’t interact much, the smile hardly ever reaches her eyes when she occasionally does get drawn into conversation. And especially if she does speak up, interact, ask questions, offer opinions whenever her husband isn’t there that day.

        I’ve always wondered if anyone noticed that while I was virtually silent in small group when my husband was there, I was a completely different person if he was out of town or at a meeting that night. It seemed so obvious to me that it worried me a little. And my husband wasn’t a public humiliator or anything!

      • Clarity

        Oh that is my story too. I have become more and more reclusive over 20 years. I feel like I just don’t have it in me to fake it anymore bc I have to fake it about 10 hours every day while the kids are awake. Then, late at night, when everyone’s asleep I can relax. And sometimes, weirdly enough, I would find myself laughing louder and being much more extroverted than I really am, in conversations with people. I have felt like I don’t even know who I really am anymore. Am I an introvert or an extrovert, quiet or sarcastic??

      • well if you ever get free of the abuser, it will be a journey of self-discovery eh?

        Hugs to you, Clarity. Nice to hear from you again.

      • Brenda R

        Clarity, Me too. I am just now allowing a few people in my life, but hesitantly. I feel as though I am just beginning to find out who I am.

  6. Suzanne

    Isolation is an abuser’s friend. They know that there is always a possibility their victim will talk about the abuse so they do all in their power to keep the victim locked away. I watched my father do that to my mother for decades.

  7. Jeff, you write,

    I have found that married couples who have to keep talking about head and submit issues do not have a healthy marriage. In a healthy marriage, you really don’t have to keep talking about “who is in charge.”

    I brought this up on another blog before a few months ago, but according to one book I have (written by a duo, a Christian layperson and a psychologist – or she’s some kind of therapist), the psychologist said in all her year (20 or more, I believe) of counseling troubled married people, she says the only time a Christian husband brings up the headship stuff is if it’s an abusive or marriage, one where the husband is controlling and/or abusing the wife.

    She said even among all the Christian couples she’s counseled where there’s some serious anger or issues, she’s never had a husband in such a marriage even bring up the “headship” and “submit” verses to throw his weight around – she says it’s only the marriages where the husband is a bully, controller, or abuser.

    It’s interesting that non-abusive males usually do not play the ‘headship’ card, it’s usually the jerks, creeps, and abusers, and I think the book author/therapist lady found that interesting and telling, too.

    Those sorts of men also tend to overlook the verse that comes a sentence or two before the “wives submit” passage, because it mentions that all believers are to submit to all other believers. Abusive men act like that verse is not in the Bible, or that it doesn’t count as much. :roll:

    • Marah

      UGH – I can’t count the times my husband subtly inserted how much he needed to feel respected…the implication being that I didn’t make him feel sufficiently respected, and the implication beyond that being that any “slight behavioral flaws” on his part were therefore my responsibility. And then he’d loudly proclaim that he never said that stuff was my fault (because he didn’t have to SAY it, he communicated it loud and clear by implication).

      How did no counselor ever see through this??!!

      Also, my current church preached through Ephesians last winter. When the pastor got to Eph. 5, I braced for more of the same submission stuff I’ve heard everywhere else. But his focus was on the setup for that passage, where it instructs spouses to submit to one another, and that a woman cannot submit to a man she can’t trust. I was surreptitiously wiping away tears at that last bit, but was extremely uncomfortable about the mutual submission thing. I’d been so thoroughly brainwashed by the evangelical church that I couldn’t accept the CLEAR teaching about Christian submission! My teen daughter told me that when *she* heard that part she sighed with relief and thought that maybe she would consider getting married someday after all.

      • Anonymous

        “… and that a woman cannot submit to a man she can’t trust.”
        For years I sought Biblical counselors and was quite often given the example of Sarah. Abraham didn’t treat her with the greatest respect, however she still referred to him as Lord. I felt more condemned within my spirit as for years I would keep asking the Lord for forgiveness for my apparent weakness … that weakness being that I wasn’t willingly submitting, thus I was considered an embittered woman.

      • Barnabasintraining

        and was quite often given the example of Sarah. Abraham didn’t treat her with the greatest respect, however she still referred to him as Lord.

        I think they are making some major assumptions there. We know of 2 times Abraham initiated stupid things that involved Sarah, and there were other circumstances to consider there too, such as the direct involvement of a foreign king as well as God’s covenant promise. We do not know that this was the general dynamic of their relationship.

        If they are going to appeal to this, are we to understand that they mean every single time your husband does something completely idiotic and dangerous you are to submit to him anyway? How is that not just submission for submission’s sake? Where is the wisdom?

  8. This page at CBE I just found tonight mentions abuse:

    Power, Gender, and Evangelicals: Ideas Have Consequences

    Almost immediately after accepting the position of CBE’s second president, I too began hearing from abused women.
    These women had been beaten, raped, molested, and verbally and emotionally humiliated by their husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, teachers, colleagues, pastors, or other men who believed that Scripture gave them authority over females.
    Abused women are drawn to CBE because we challenge the biblical assumptions held by their abusers who demand submission.

    • NotHeard

      I can so relate to a couple of comments a short while back..especially Anonymous. My husband doesn’t stop me going out..he just invites himself along to promote the ‘happy family’ look. When I speak up about his abuse, he just notches up his extremely convincing clean-cut-good-dad
      -with-the-crazy-wife act (his parents are very good at assisting in this), people disbelieve me, and I feel more alone than before. Abuse takes so many different forms, that’s why it’s so hard to identify (for people that don’t have experience!).

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