Working with domestic abuse* survivors has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, but also one of the most challenging.
I’ve seen black eyes swollen shut and indigo necklaces of strangulation bruises. I’ve heard accounts of marital rape and skulls being slammed into walls. I’ve counseled clients who were so afraid for their lives that they slept on the streets rather than returning to their own homes.
What has surprised me more than these injuries are the people who have experienced them.
I used to be ignorant. I used to think that domestic abuse disproportionately affected people of color, the less affluent and the uneducated. I was wrong. That is a complete myth—a myth that I fear most of America still believes.
The truth is that domestic abuse knows no race, socioeconomic class or education level. I’ve served clients of all racial backgrounds, in all tax brackets, and whose education levels range from some high school to post-graduate degrees.
These survivors are the people in line with you at the market. They’re the parents you see at the park. They’re sitting at the next table over at your favorite restaurant. They’re the teachers at your child’s school. They’re your neighbors.
And they’re your church members.
This last fact has been the hardest for me to digest, but it’s true. A startling proportion of the survivors I work with attend church. I know this because when we discuss the parameters of restraining orders, they specifically request that their abusers be ordered to stay away from their churches—Christian churches in my community with names and locations that I recognize.
And sometimes my clients tell me that their churches have tried to help them: well-meaning pastors, elders, leaders and friends urged them and their abusive partners to try couple’s or marriage counseling, but it failed to change the nature of their relationships.
While I believe that these churches have good intentions, they are unknowingly perpetuating domestic abuse by advising these couples to attend therapy. Relationship counseling is almost always an ineffective, and sometimes even dangerous, recommendation when a relationship is abusive.
An abusive relationship is one in which there is a chronic imbalance of power and control. The abuser uses force, threats, intimidation, fear, isolation, manipulation and other tactics to coerce the abused partner to behave in certain ways and to prevent him or her from behaving in others.
The abusive behavior tends to play out through what is called the cycle of violence: First there is the honeymoon phase, during which the abuser is apologetic, perhaps even romantic, and promises to change. Then there is the tension-building phase, during which abusive tactics escalate. Finally there is an explosion, which is usually a severe incident of abuse. This occurs over and over. Whether the cycle lasts days, weeks or months differs in every relationship.
Abuse cannot be “solved” by relationship counseling for multiple reasons, chiefly that abuse is not a relationship problem. An abuser’s choice to mistreat another human being is his or her own; it is not a couple’s problem. We’re not talking about couples who argue a lot or have difficulty communicating. We’re talking about couples in which one partner has a pattern of exerting undue power and control over the other.
Relationship counseling requires that each person accept responsibility for his or her actions and make behavioral adjustments accordingly, but history and psychology tell us it is extremely rare that an abuser is willing to take these steps. Instead, abusers tend to act manipulatively toward therapists, minimize or deny their own wrongdoing, and shift blame to the abused partner. And with the abuser in the room, the abused partner may not feel free to be fully open and honest with a therapist, leaving the true nature of the relationship undisclosed.
Ironically, instead of helping, relationship counseling frequently has the opposite effect of worsening the abuse. The abuser often becomes angry that his or her partner has involved a third party, especially if the abuser feels unjustly accused or threatened. This puts the abused partner at risk of greater harm and also reinforces self-blame and learned helplessness.
This is not at all meant to be a blanket dismissal of relationship counseling; couple’s and marital therapy are certainly appropriate in some situations and can be tremendously helpful. But in the overwhelming majority of abusive situations, relationship counseling is not the solution.
It is my earnest hope that we, the church, can educate ourselves and speak out about domestic abuse. It is frighteningly pervasive, and I guarantee you it affects your communities and congregations. Abuse survivors endure some of the most harrowing pain a person could ever know, and their need for God’s love, truth and healing is deep and real. Knowing the signs of abuse and responding appropriately—with safety planning and seeking individual support services for the abused partner, for starters—may save someone’s life.
*Domestic abuse is also known as “domestic violence” or “intimate partner violence.” However, because abuse can be emotional (also called verbal or psychological), financial, sexual and/or physical, I refrain from using these terms, as they lend themselves to the false idea that there must be physical force or bodily injury in order for a relationship to be considered abusive.