A Cry For Justice

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

Am I in a difficult christian marriage or an abusive marriage? — FAQ Highlight

It can be difficult to discern the difference between a difficult marriage and an abusive marriage. Similar behaviors may exist in both situations.  It’s important to keep our definition of abuse in mind (see side bar) as an abusive marriage is not defined simply by a list of behaviors, rather there exists in the abuser an underlying mentality of power, control, and entitlement.  This mentality will be manifested by common tactics and behaviors.

In our new FAQ page, Am I in a difficult christian marriage or an abusive marriage?, we are providing two checklists to help you evaluate your relationship.  One list, Controlling Behavior Checklist, was provided by a victim whose abuser used the list in his domestic violence intervention group.  The second list, Controlling Relationship Assessment, was created by author Lisa Aronson Fontes, as a tool to help victims assess their relationship.  In our FAQ page links are provided for both.  Both lists are PDFs and can be copied for personal use.

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Further Reading

Defining domestic abuse by a list of behavior is never going to capture it

27 Comments

  1. Hello Sunshine

    The link in the body of the post returns a Page Not Found error.

    • Thank you, Hello Sunshine, and others who have made us aware of the broken links.

      They are now fixed!

  2. joepote01

    I don’t believe every marriage can be neatly categorized as fitting in either one box or the other. There are different levels and types of abuse. There are different levels of understanding and comprehension on the part of the abused partner.

    These sorts of lists can be useful in helping an abuse target realize what is going on in their marriage. However, I think it is also important to understand there are varying degrees and types of abuse and one does not have to check off every box to know the abuse in their specific situation is not likely to improve and is more than they are willing to continue to live with.

    Thank you, for continuing to raise awareness in this important area! 🙂

  3. Jeff Crippen

    It seems to me that the real thing that people are trying to find out is, “my spouse is acting regularly toward me in a sinful, hurtful, selfish manner that is a violation of the vows he/she took at our wedding. What i need to know is whether or not my spouse is a person who is willing to repent and change.”

    Because in the end it doesn’t really matter if the sinning spouse is an abuser or a selfish jerk who refuses to change. Who wants to be married to either one? And I conclude that the Lord gives His people the freedom to divorce a spouse who habitually, regularly, and without repentance smashes underfoot the marriage vows.

    • I agree, Jeff.

    • Jane

      Thank you

    • joepote01

      Exactly! Jeff, you did a better job of saying what I was trying to say in my comment.

      Whether the abusive spouse is a diagnosable character-disordered personality or just an unrepentant selfish jerk, the consequences are the same…and our liberty in Christ is the same.

      Thank you!

  4. I wonder how much Leslie Vernick’s work has contributed to people asking themselves the question “Am I in a difficult christian marriage or an abusive marriage?”

    I know that victims of intimate partner abuse have always found it very hard to identify the fact that their spouse is abusing them… and if have eventually realised that it’s abuse they’ve then found it hard to then say out loud: “I am being abused.”

    But Vernick’s attempt to define and differentiate a ‘difficult marriage’ from an ‘abusive marriage’ seems like it may have created another problem, another hurdle for the victims of abuse to overcome.

    I could be wrong. But it’s worth thinking about. What do others think?

    • Seeing Clearly

      I agree that it creates another hurdle. A difficult situation is one that a committed partner will work hard to change or adapt to. An abusive situation is one that a committed partner must determine to separate her/himself from. Confusion reigns in the mind of one who is being told by their abuser that it is simply a difficult one when they are slowly coming out of fog, realizing that they are, indeed, in abuse. Use of the word “difficult” will hold a victim captive in abuse. Each day spent in abuse wears away at the core of a victim, it is a day that she will never get back.

      • Seeing Clearly

        I just recalled my cries for help in the first year of my 30+ year abusive marriage. In the evenings I, at times, cried, “It (life) is so hard.” The words ‘difficult’ and ‘hard’ would have been interchangeable. My spouses response was consistently, “Everybody’s life is hard, get used to it.” It never made sense to me, that everyone was struggling as I was.

        In that first year of marriage I was not in a difficult relationship, I was living each day in abuse. It continued daily for 30+ years. So much mind games and crazy making abuse.

    • MoodyMom

      I have wondered about Leslie’s work, too. I read The Emotionally Destructive Relationship and The Emotionally Destructive Marriage at the insistence of my “Biblical counselors.” I also read another Christian woman’s book on emotional abuse that helped me so much more. It included a great checklist at the beginning of the book to get a sense if you’re marriage was abusive. The whole book looked like a highlighter test case when I was done. However, when I showed this other book to my counselors, they just checked the spine. They said it was from a non-approved publisher, so they wouldn’t look at it. However, Leslie Vernick’s publisher was approved. So they used her checklist. I didn’t think it was as clear cut as this other book.

      A thing about Leslie’s work that always got to me was that she said that the target of abuse, before doing any leaving or anything “radical”, had to essentially make a list of grievances and approach the abuser with it when he was calm and happy. Then, if/when he gets all upset for confronting him, the target was supposed to just calmly repeat that this discussion was not going to veer off topic and she was to keep on repeating the items on the list. The target was supposed to have built up so much inner strength and vision of who she was in Christ that she could let his insults during this confrontation roll off her “armor”. That whole process just seemed bizarre to me for several reasons.

      1) Confronting an abuser when he’s calm and happy is not only counter-intuitive, it can also be dangerous. The target has learned to walk on eggshells for a reason. He can turn on her at any moment. Self-preservation has taught her never to poke the sleeping bear. The book tells her she just has to build up enough intestinal fortitude so what he does to her won’t bother her. It’s like telling her to poke the bear, but not to let what happens next bother her because she’s toned her abs. It’s dangerous. And weird.

      2) If he feels confronted, and it feels different to him than other fights, he may realize that he’s losing power over her, making him even more dangerous. Many of us have heard the statistics, heard the stories, that DV murders occur most frequently when the victim is planning to leave or right after she leaves. Demonstrating to him that he’s losing power over her, startling him that she seems different all of a sudden, showing that he can’t hurt her or rile her or hurt her or cripple her emotionally like he used to – all of that is just asking for trouble. I don’t care how “grounded in Christ” she may have worked herself up to be. He is not grounded in Christ. And now, his domain has been threatened.

      3) Leslie’s ideas that the target needs to get herself “grounded in Christ” is completely unrealistic. Christ is a spiritual being whose words she hears off a page in a book that she may not be allowed to read or may not have time to read. Her abuser is a looming physically-present being who tears her down in some way everyday. When it’s wave after wave, she will not have the time or energy to “center her worth and value in what Christ says about her.” I’m out of my situation for a few years now, and I still don’t know how to do that. The best thing I’ve found is to finally hear big waves of truth. I know I had not heard anything previously like what I’m hearing now from Ps Jeff’s Wise as Serpents series (audio series / written series) Barb’s talk on the concubine in Judges, and Liam Goligher’s sermons. All I had ever heard [before] was about the sin of the week, shame on you for doing it, and the four Q’s or the five P’s to overcome it. I’d hear about breaking one part of the law means you’ve broken the whole thing. I’d hear how we need to “love” the “difficult” people who are hurting so much that now they’re hurting you. So, how does she “center herself” in that?

      4) The book runs on the assumption that the target has never tried to communicate or explain the damage the abuser was doing. That’s just nonsense. She’s been living with the guy for a long time – years, or even decades. And she has never thought to tell the guy that he’s hurting her? This mom never bothered to tell him that he’s hurting the kids? That he’s hurting their family? Their marriage? She may have eventually been cowed or worn down, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t tried. It doesn’t mean she hasn’t told him before. And it certainly doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

      There’s more things that bothered me, but this is getting too long.

      But in dealing with Leslie’s book, her publisher was approved by the ministry. It was what my counselors approved. It was what we studied. So it was all I knew. It was the only resource we used that discussed DV at all. I just kept thinking the whole time, “some of this just doesn’t sound right,” even in my fog. Eventually Leslie does get around to saying, “Okay, he’s not going to change. You should leave,” which I appreciated, because the church leadership didn’t approve of my leaving him. But, in her book, it seemed like there were so many hoops to jump through – which the church leadership glommed on to. They said it should take two to three years for all avenues to be exhausted (hoops to be jumped through, they meant) before they would let me divorce. (Yes, they said they would tell me when it was okay to divorce my abuser. And that that approval wouldn’t happen for a few more years after I finally told them what was happening.)

      I appreciated some of the things in Leslie’s book. There were some good insights. And it took the taboo off the “D” word (divorce) for the church leadership. And I saw that ACFJ had written a positive review of it, so I was more interested. (I am wondering the reasoning for that positive review, if ACFJ now has reservations about Leslie’s work.)

      But overall, the whole thing [reading and listening to Leslie’s work] was just somewhat confusing and difficult to bear.

      • Moody Mom, I was inwardly cheering at every paragraph you wrote here! Thank you so much!

        Allow me to explain a bit more about ACFJ’s responses to Leslie Vernick.

        You are right that we published an endorsement of Leslie’s book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage pretty soon after it came out. And we put it on our list of Recommended Books which is found under our Resources tab in the top menu of this blog.

        Since then, we have been watching what Leslie is doing and reflecting on her work, including reflecting on our intial endorsement of her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. We have watched her partner with Chris Moles. We have noticed the fees they are charging those who are negatively impacted by abuser or those who are committing abuse. We have heard privately (from parents of a victim) that when they sought help from Leslie to help them deal with their daughter being emotionally and spiritually seduced and brought under the control of a very abusive man and his pastoral allies, all that Leslie offered them was some counseling to help them on their ‘parenting issues’ (at the cost of thousands of dollars). So, over time, we realised that our initial approval of Leslie’s approach to domestic abuse needed to be given a big caveat.

        At this post we expressed some of our caveats about Leslie Vernick:
        https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2016/07/03/wise-as-serpents-does-the-christian-still-have-an-evil-heart-part-24-of-sermon-series/

        And we scrubbed our post which had promoted Leslie Vernick and Chris Moles’s webinar “Shepherding the Emotionally Destructive Marriage”.

        So far, we have not scrubbed this post of ours https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/08/17/when-trying-harder-becomes-desructive-video-by-leslie-vernick/ …but we may add a caveat to it or scrub it. (when we get time!)

        We have not scrubbed this post https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/09/21/leslie-vernick-quotes-from-not-under-bondage-at-the-association-of-biblical-counselors/ because we think it’s okay to let people know that Leslie actually seemed to endorse a little bit of my book.

        At some point (maybe a year ago) we put a caveat on The Emotionally Destructive Marriage in our Recommended Books list. That caveat simply said: “Recommended apart from the fact that this book does not state categorically that Scripture condones divorce for domestic abuse.”

        But now you have written your excellent comment, MoodyMom, we will be changing that caveat. We will say something like, “This book has been somewhat helpful for some victims but we have to give caveats about it. It does not state categorically that Scripture condones divorce for domestic abuse. And it says other things which are unhelpful and hurtful to some victims.” And we will end our caveat with a link to your comment, MoodyMom. So… thank you so much for your help, MM 🙂

        And bear in mind that both Jeff and I, and now just me at this blog (with the assistance of TWBTC. Bless her, and thank God for her!) have been constantly short of time to address all the issues we want to address. I’m currently drafting a post which will express our concerns about Chris Moles. On the list of things to do is two posts about Leslie Vernick (the pros; and the cons), and a very important post about the meaning of Malachi 2:16 which Sam Powell has given me more insight into. And I have dozens of other things on my list of things to do…

      • Also, thanks to your comment MM, I’ve just dug into the posts we have published about Leslie Vernick’s work, and realised (remembered) that the review we published of The Emotionally Destructive Marriage was written by Megan C. That review is still visible on ACFJ, but we may decide to scrub it. Currently, you can find it here: https://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/08/23/review-of-leslie-vernicks-the-emotionally-destructive-marriage/

        As you may be aware, Megan C resigned from ACFJ quite some time ago.

      • joepote01

        Well stated, Moody Mom!

        Thank you for sharing!

      • romans818

        I could not agree more with MoodyMom’s points. The book was very helpful to me, but I share her concerns about any sort of confrontation with the abuser and the “grounded” business.
        Because it allowed for divorce, though, and because she was not a reliable spiritual source, the book was not ok-d by my abusive (ex-) church

      • minagelina

        Yes, I wondered about this too. Now honestly, I never had a sit down with my husband and said, “you are hurting me.” There were many times when I tried to address particular behaviors. Some he finally stopped but of course wants kudos for stopping them. And other behaviors he doesn’t seem to care that they bother me.

        I did not feel safe expressing my hurt to him because he would minimize or gaslight me, and so in order to keep my own point of view, I kept my mouth shut. I finally confronted him, and he now says he made an appointment for a counselor, but he has expressed ZERO remorse for his behaviors. That let’s me know how much change I can expect.

      • Anonymous

        Excellent comment Moody Mum. I agree with all you said.

        Looking forward to the posts on Chris Moles and Leslie Vernick, Barb. I think they have been flying under the radar for a long time, and even if there are some helpful things in their programs, there is too many harmful truths about what they say and how they operate to ignore.

      • Hi Anonymous I’m working hard on the Chris Moles post. It may end up being a series. After that I’ll do a post about Leslie Vernick. I agree with what you said here:

        even if there are some helpful things in their programs, there is too many harmful truths about what they say and how they operate to ignore.

    • joepote01

      Personally, I see it as yet another potential legalistic hurdle. Same goes for the question of whether or not the abuser is saved (but immature, carnal, addicted or whatever).

      In the end, it doesn’t matter, in regard to the marriage.

      Let the psychiatrists define the character disorders and let God define His elect.

      For the person in an abusive marriage, as Jeff stated above:

      Because in the end it doesn’t really matter if the sinning spouse is an abuser or a selfish jerk who refuses to change. Who wants to be married to either one? And I conclude that the Lord gives His people the freedom to divorce a spouse who habitually, regularly, and without repentance smashes underfoot the marriage vows.

      Thank you, Barbara, for broaching this topic! 🙂

    • Charis

      I find the term “difficult marriage” to be a double-edged sword.

      On the one hand, the term can be a good search criteria for those who are still in the fog and need to be gently led or educated about what abuse looks like to be able to discern more clearly the truth of their reality: “My husband has abusive patterns of behavior. This marriage is toxic.” And I have seen authors, bloggers, support groups who will use that term as a “hook” and have seen it work to the benefit of women searching for support and community.

      On the other hand, Leslie’s book tends to lead the reader in and out of the fog. She clearly leaves the decision up to us – which is good; however, she doesn’t seem to land squarely and firmly on defining what exactly abuse is and if it is grounds for leaving. That is emotional quicksand. It was for me when I read the book.

      That is not to say that I didn’t find some parts of her book helpful; I did. In fact, I still recall her salient explanation about the limits and comparison of pain and found it to be wise – I use it still today: That pain is not to be compared (and cannot be), that pain has individual thresholds and when one person reaches their limit…they have had enough. There is no way to know or compare my pain threshold to another person’s. There are no awards for withstanding pain or persevering. Pain is pain. We each can relate to it…without comparing to one another (“My pain was worse/less than yours”). There is only room for empathy.

      I also found her involvement in DivorceCare to be beneficial as it softened the rigid thinking that we were all a bunch of sinful people who should either return to our separated spouses or should never get married again due to our fraudulent unbiblical decision to divorce. Her segments opened the door to educate our facilitators about the reality of DV in Christian marriages and the pain and suffering women (and men) endure because of it…and the righteousness of our decision to divorce.

      However, when I offer books or material to women I help – Leslie’s book rarely one I recommend, if ever.

  5. Hello Sunshine

    On the difficult vs. abusive question, I realize my marriage was difficult for 20+ years because my husband was very selfish and unfeeling (for whatever reasons…I’m not sure he was intentionally awful and Asperger’s has been investigated…but he never listened or tried when I made him aware of problems and their solutions…was he scared, manipulative, incapable, lazy? I honestly don’t know). But when nothing else worked, I dealt with that by being all the more self sacrificing until I was so low physically, mentally, and emotionally that something had to give.

    When some lights dawned for me and I became stronger, happier, more social and assertive, he did become downright abusive, which led to our separation after many months and counseling. So does that end up counting as abusive?

    • Yes, I think that does count as abusive. As you say, it was hard to tell what it was for quite a while, but his true (wicked) heart of entitlement and malice showed through in the end.

  6. Hello Sunshine

    I’m sorry I can’t be more specific on the source, I’ve searched without finding it, but I remember reading a comment here in which (I think?!) Jeff Crippen said that when a couple says their marriage has been one long struggle he wants to ask, “So which one of you isn’t saved?” And I’ve been wondering about that related to the idea of a “difficult Christian marriage.” Does that mean that any two Spirit-filled people ought to be able to be happily married? Is there such a thing as incompatibility?

    • I don’t think one can answer those questions with a simple Yes or No.
      Two believers (genuine believers) ought to be able to work out how to relate to each other so that the marriage is not difficult because of either of them. A marriage might be difficult or have difficult periods for external reasons — it might be difficult because of poverty that was through no fault of either of the spouses (think the great depression), accidents, war and other such tragedies. A marriage might be difficult because of ill health in one or both of the spouses or their children, when that ill health was not the fault of the person who became ill. In such cases a marriage might not be happy, at least, not all the time. But it will never be a marriage where one spouse is maliciously and covertly controlling or taking advantage of the other spouse.

      Is there such a thing as incompatibility? When both spouses are Christians, the Bible gives us the impression that with the help of the Spirit and character growth, sanctification happening in both parties over time, incompatibilities ought to be able to be adapted to in love.

      At the same time, in 1 Cor 7:10-11 Paul indicates that it might happen that a believing husband and believing wife separate (= became divorced; separation by one party with intent to end the marriage was divorce in the Roman empire) but they ought not marry new spouses, the only person they could enter into marriage with was the person they had divorce from. But Paul is talking there only about two believers. So Paul recognises that sometimes a marriage between two believers might end. He doesn’t specify why that might happen, so I guess ‘incompatibility’ could be a possible reason there. Paul doesn’t condemn such situations, he only sets a restriction on the parties so that neither of them can marry a different (new) spouse.

      Paul goes on in vv 12-6 to talk about the other situation (the one victims of abuse are in) where a believer is married to a non-believer. And as we know, a non-believer can be pretending to be a Christian and pass himself or herself off as Christian in most churches. 😦
      And in those cases, the divorced believer is free to marry someone else (someone who is in the Lord), in contrast to the believers in vv 10-11.

      • Hello Sunshine

        Thank you very much, Barbara. So appreciate the thoughtfulness, wisdom, and care that you put into this website!

    • joepote01

      What a great question, Hello Sunshine!

      I think, in general, for two Spirit-filled people living together in marriage, both committed to serving God and each other, it would be unusual for them not to be able to work things out to live together in peace. They may not always be joyously infatuated with one another…they may at times not even like each other very much. But they should be able to live together in peace, honoring their vows, loving each other, praying for each other, and seeking to serve each other.

      I would also say that the biblical texts that discuss marriage seem to hold this as a premise…an underlying assumption.

      However…having said that…I would be really slow to try to put any sort of legalistic rules on a situation which, as defined, assumes two people who are both Spirit-filled and seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. I would say any decisions regarding that marriage are safer in the hands of the two spouses combined with the guidance of the Holy Spirit than on anything a human counselor might advise.

      My two-cents-worth…

    • Hello Sunshine,

      Good memory! I have copied below the comment by Jeff Crippen that I believe you are thinking of:

      I am sure that if you were with me in person and I presented that question, you would be able to understand my point. For those of us who are wise to abusers and abuse and their tactics, I would very soon be pointing my finger at the abuser as the unsaved one. Yes, I can tell. I would not use the question in a way that would guilt the victim, but in a way that would validate and vindicate her. “And guess what, Mr. Smith, Thou art the man! You are the unsaved one here.”

      Now, if I were dealing with a marriage in which there was no abuse as we define it, but rather ongoing, day after day trouble, holding grudges, irresponsible and selfish behavior, etc, then my question would still be the same. Because here are two people who are simply not “getting along” and yet they claim to be Christians. That does not square with what Scripture tells us about the nature of Christians as new creations in Christ. Someone, or in some cases perhaps both of them, are not born again.

      Yes, this requires wisdom and discernment. We need to be able to spot an abuser and as we all know, we are not going to be doing couple’s counseling in such a case. But I certainly would narrow the sights down onto the abuser with that question – “Which one of you is not saved?” And when I had everyone’s attention, I would follow it up with (as I said) “Thou are the man, Mr. Abuser.”

      You can find the original comment in its context here.

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