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Many Christian couples engage in pastoral counseling when life gets rough. Including couples who are experiencing domestic violence in their marriage.

However, what if many pastors are unknowingly putting Christian women, who are in abusive marriages, at risk of more harm?

Pastoral Counseling and Domestic Violence

I am no stranger to pastoral counseling, or counseling in general. I don’t believe we are meant to live this life in isolation or without help and guidance from others when we need it.

I don’t believe we are meant to live this life in isolation or without help and guidance from others when we need it.

In brief, pastoral counseling focuses on addressing the emotional, spiritual and psychological needs of an individual or family incorporating Christian beliefs and values. 

So why and how can a God-centered service, like pastoral counseling, get messy? 

When I was in an abusive marriage, we often went for pastoral counselling. I hoped my marriage would improve, I could become a ‘better’ wife and therefore honour God. Honestly, it didn’t work. 

As I can’t speak for every survivor, nor every pastor, I will highlight my experience with pastoral counseling and domestic violence, how I think pastoral counseling could be putting victims at risk, and how I believe the church can improve in how they serve and love survivors better. 

The Lack of Knowledge

In my experience, many pastors and church leaders lack the knowledge and understanding of what domestic violence is, how to identify it in a marriage, and how to address it. I also believe that Christians make the mistake of thinking that as a body, we are not experiencing ‘the hard stuff’ such as domestic violence, addictions, mental illness etc. 

But we are, and we do

If you don’t know what something is, then how can you identify it? Abusers are often very manipulative and two-faced. So, ‘Deacon Harry’ may play nice on Sunday mornings, yet the rest of the week he is a nightmare at home. 

Discernment is important, but knowledge and understanding are vital as well. 

The ‘Submission’ Issue

It is common for Christian married couples (who are experiencing domestic violence) to be told that they need to work on loving, respecting and submitting more to each other. While this is technically true, remember that domestic violence isn’t a marriage issue, it’s an individual (the abuser’s) issue. 

Marriage counseling won’t fix domestic violence.  Telling a victim to respect her husband and to be more submissive, quite frankly, could cost her her life. 

Marriage counseling won’t fix domestic violence

How is this possible?

The Narcissist

Many abusive men are also narcissistic. I like the definition of a narcissist given by

“Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek too much attention and want people to admire them. People with this disorder may lack the ability to understand or care about the feelings of others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence, they are not sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism.”

When an abusive husband possesses a narcissistic ego, having his wife bend over backwards to make him happy will only feed his narcissism.

I know pastors do not intend to send the message “please your husband no matter the cost”, but this is what a victim of domestic violence will HEAR.

This is because most victims struggle with pleasing people. They believe the abuse is their fault and that they can stop it by being ‘good.’ Victims of domestic abuse often have very poor boundaries. 

Unhealthy submission keeps the couple circling around and around in the cycle of abuse. It does not create the peace and safety a wife needs and desires.

I’ll conclude my point by giving you a personal example. In one of our pastoral counseling sessions, we discussed serving and submitting more to each other. I went home being more intentional and mindful of serving my husband. I anticipated his needs and wants. I worked hard on my servitude until our next counseling session.

woman crying domestic violence
Photo by Fa Barboza

During the second session, the pastor commented to me, “Your husband says you have improved in your service towards him. He highlighted the time you made him a burrito and served it to him without being asked.” 

I felt my marriage was reduced to a stupid burrito. 

My low self-worth was pleased to hear I did a ‘good thing’. My needs to feel safe and secure were in limbo because I was unsure if my ‘services’ would buy me a safe future. 

Would the abuse stop? Was I now good enough to be deemed worthy in his eyes? I thought we were on the right track. However, our train had gone off the tracks a long time ago.

Feed the narcissist and he keeps growing. 

Feed the narcissist and he keeps growing. 

Don’t Counsel a Couple Together

As I stated earlier, domestic violence is not a marriage problem. It’s an individual problem. The abusive partner (husband in this discussion) has individual issues to work through. With this in mind, couples should not be counseled together. At least not right away. 

Counseling a couple together will not give the pastor an accurate depiction of what is happening in the relationship. It is highly likely that the husband will present very well, will dominate the conversation, lie and exude good self-control and composure. Thus fooling the pastor.

Participating in counseling together will make a wife feel very self-conscious and force her to carefully calculate all her responses. She is concerned about saying the wrong things or saying too much. This is because she knows she will ‘pay’ for saying or doing the wrong thing later at home. 

I suggest pastors meet with the husband and wife separately. You need to have an understanding of what is going on for each individual separately. The wife will be more comfortable opening up to you when her husband is not in the room. This will provide her with greater emotional safety. 

I recall one counseling session where my ex-husband did not show up. The counselor took the opportunity to ‘tough love’ me and said, “He is a narcissist and will not change. You need to decide how long you are willing to live this way.”

Her words took me for a spin, and I didn’t know what to do. In hindsight, even though it took me years to act on those words, I am so happy I had that one on one time with her. It was a seed planted in my heart and a small step toward freedom.

 It was a seed planted in my heart and a small step toward freedom.

Counseling a couple together may be an option in the future if it would be beneficial and safe.

God Hates Divorce

I fully believe God hates divorce. I believe He hates what divorce does to individuals and families because it tears people’s hearts apart and disrupts the family unit. However, I also believe there are situations where divorce is permissible for a Christian. Spousal abuse is one of them. 

Having grown up in the church, I heard the message of how God hates divorce and how Christians don’t ‘do’ divorce. This mental block was my largest barrier to leaving my situation. I didn’t want to displease God, face judgment from the church, ruin my life or basically be a ‘bad’ Christian girl.

I concluded that divorcing my ex was NOT an option.

That decision kept me in domestic violence for years and put me at risk for serious harm.

My shame kept me in my prison.

What Can the Church do Differently?

I think the topic of domestic violence in Christian marriage is slowly becoming less taboo in the church. However, we need more awareness, and education in order to take greater action. Here are some suggestions I think would help church leadership love and serve survivors better:

1. Increase Education and Awareness 

Pastors and leaders need to become more knowledgeable about domestic violence. As well as an increase in understanding of how it affects women and how to support women with their healing and relationship with God.

I’m not aware of how much social issues are discussed in bible school, but I think there should be teachings and discussions regarding domestic violence.

Pastors who are already leading a church, I suggest having a social worker or counselor come in and talk to the leadership about this issue. This is a good environment to ask questions, learn the basics about abuse, and consult with a professional about how the church can effectively serve survivors.

The church may also benefit from making connections with community agencies that work closely with survivors. In addition, the church would know what agencies they could refer a survivor to for ongoing support. 

2. Listen to Survivors

There is most likely a handful of survivors in every church. You may not know who they are because they fear speaking up, asking for help or are afraid to make their husband look bad.

Their voices have been silenced. 

The church could benefit from listening to women who are currently in or out of domestic violence. Who better than to tell leadership what they need then the women themselves? 

Most women are not going to walk up to the pastor and talk about their experiences or voice their needs. Therefore the church needs to find creative ways of inviting these women to share and feel safe.

Some ideas include:

  • start a bible study for women who are healing from trauma
  • invite guest speakers who are knowledgeable about domestic violence to talk to the women
  • have the church connect to a women’s shelter to build relationships and serve there

We have to start somewhere! 

3. Preach on Domestic Violence and Marriage

I think when there is preaching about marriage or divorce, domestic violence should be part of the discussion. Acknowledge that Christian marriages experience abuse and what God says on the matter. As well as voice the options Christian couples have who are in this situation.

If shame and blame are avoided in the message, it is more likely that a survivor will approach church leadership with her concerns and requests for help.

4. Educate the Youth Better

When I was in youth group, I walked away with the interpretation that in order to find a good and Godly mate, I just had to make sure he was a Christian, had similar goals to me and ensure we didn’t have premarital sex.

Well, that didn’t work out too well for me. 

There is so much more to picking a good and Godly mate than the above. We need to make sure we are teaching our youth about discerning good character and what red flags are in a relationship. 

I think the fruits of the spirit are excellent indicators of how to identify a Godly person. How a person actively lives out the fruits will tell you more than their words ever could. Youth need to know the power in someone’s actions vs their words, as talk is cheap

There is Hope

Whether you are a survivor, pastor or a supportive loved one, I hope I have shed some light on how the church can improve how they serve domestic violence survivors. My heart is that my words do not blame or shame church leadership, but rather spur them into greater intent, urgency and action. 

Pastors, do not be afraid to reach out to community professionals for support or consultation. We all have our strengths, knowledge and expertise, and you can’t be everything to everyone. 

Share this article with other survivors, family and friends to help us raise awareness of domestic violence and educate the church (links at the top of the page).

We are stronger together.

He is faithful,

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