Not a Marriage Problem
“I don’t see the harm in sitting down with the couple to get the whole story.”
“That’s great Chris, but when can we begin marriage counseling?”
“How long before they can move back in together?”
These are just a few examples of the kinds of things I’ve heard over the years from pastors and ministry leaders who have come to me for help and assistance with a case in their ministry involving abuse. Many have been resistant to my recommendations to delay marriage counseling and feel pressure to focus attention on the marriage. The truth is domestic abuse is not a marriage problem, it’s a heart problem. Therefore, marriage-focused solutions may do more harm than good in cases of domestic abuse. Rushing a resolution could prove damaging and even deadly in cases of domestic abuse. While there remains some debate regarding the value of marriage counseling in an abusive situation most believe that marriage counseling endangers the victim through, often unintended, but real consequences. For instance, couples suffering in the midst of family abuse often have nonverbal cues or key words that have hidden meaning. Men who are driven by control and eager to manipulate may use the counseling room as a tool to control while (seemingly) humble or portraying themselves as a victim. Therefore, hurried marriage-focused solutions may endanger one party and ultimately undermine the long-term success of the marriage we are desperately trying to save. One way to view this issue is to imagine the reconciliation process like a hurdle race at a track and field event. While each hurdle must be cleared by the runner he or she is bound by the rules to clear them in order. They cannot skip hurdle one to attempt to clear hurdle five without suffering disqualification. In much the same way, I am suggesting that our first obstacle is the abuse; not communication, not nagging, and not even the marriage. Our first objective is to end the abuse. Then we are free to traverse the next obstacle on the way to reconciliation. I understand, to some degree, why we are quick to pursue marriage counseling. We are comfortable with marriage counseling. We’ve been equipped to provide marriage counseling. And the Bible has a great deal to say about marriage. Since domestic abuse often occurs in the context of marriage that seems like the proper context in which to address it. I’m in no way suggesting that domestic abuse and marriage are unrelated. Certainly, it has devastating effects on the marriage relationship but I must stress and urge us to accept that domestic abuse is, in fact, a problem beginning in the heart of an abuser.
We would never suggest that a child abuser simply needs classes on Biblical parenting because the act of abuse occurred in the context of a parent/child relationship. No! We would want to comfort the victim by addressing the child’s suffering. We would, in accordance with state law, want to confront the abuser, and offer them the gospel, accountability, and correction for their sin. In much the same way the church should determine to comfort those who suffer from the terror and harm of domestic abuse and address the heart of the abuser. I firmly believe that the most effective means of reducing abuse against women is addressing the hearts of men.