I was going through my emails this morning and I came across a long response by someone who commented on one of my blog articles about spousal abuse.
The comment had a number of problems, but one of the problems that stood out to me the most was the statement that women who are married to abusive husbands must “exhaust all options and resources” (in an attempt to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change, and hopefully save their marriages) before they are ‘allowed’ to consider divorce.
This false belief (that women are obligated to exhaust all options and resources in an attempt to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change, and save their marriages, before they are ‘allowed’ to consider divorce) is promoted by many well-meaning professing Christians (both in the pews and the pulpit). Their aim is to encourage the perpetuation of ‘traditional’ marriage and ‘in-tact’ nuclear/two-parent families, and discourage divorce, ‘broken’ families, and single-mother households.
This aim might sound good on the surface, but the problem is that telling women that they are obligated to go out of their way, jump through hoops, and bend over backwards (even further than they already have for their abusive husbands) in an attempt to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change, and hopefully save their marriages. . . is one of the reasons why so many women stay in abusive marriages, continue to suffer (as well as their children) as their abusive husbands escalate their abusive behavior, and in some cases, end up murdered in domestic violence homicides and homicide-suicides.
People need to stop asking women why they stay in abusive marriages and start asking themselves in what ways do they encourage women to stay in abusive marriages. They might find that they are among the number of well-meaning professing Christians who encourage women to pray more, fast more, submit more, read their Bibles more, be more gentle and loving, be more patient, read ‘Christian’ books about how to be better wives and fix their marriages (or accept the abuse), attend marriage counseling, get a legal separation and pray for their abusive husbands’ repentance and the restoration of their marriages, assert their boundaries, etc.
Spousal abuse is already a heavy burden upon the hearts, minds, spirits, and bodies of women. Telling women that they must exhaust all options and resources (in an attempt to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change, and save their marriages) simply heaps another burden upon them and makes their life even more painful, difficult, and exhausting.
Abusive husbands already have a problem of thinking that their wives are responsible for doing all of the emotional labor to maintain the marriage. They believe that it is their wives’ sole duty to keep the marriage together, “fix” all of the problems (that they create by being abusive), and somehow make the marriage healthy, happy, and stable in spite of their destructive abusive behavior.
This expectation (that their wives are responsible for doing all of the emotional labor to maintain the marriage) is one of the benefits of abuse (abuse is incentivized by various benefits that abusers coerce and manipulate out of their partners and children). As long as abusive husbands receive this benefit of not having to do any emotional labor to maintain their marriages, they have no incentive to repent or change. But rather, they have a very strong incentive to remain abusive.
Why should abusive husbands feel like they need to repent and change, when they can remain abusive and enjoy the benefit of doing nothing, staying comfortably in their sin, while their wives exhaust themselves trying to make the marriage better, be better wives, get their abusive husbands to change, and put out all of the fires that their abusive husbands create?
Expecting an abusive husband to repent and change while he benefits from his wife “exhausting all options and resources,” is like expecting a child who behaves badly to feel motivated to behave well by their parents spoiling them with sweets, toys, and a trip to Disneyland. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to change if their bad behavior is being incentivized by benefits. Giving an abusive husband more of whatever he is benefiting from (in this case, his wife’s emotional labor being poured into him) obviously won’t incentivize or motivate him to repent or change.
Telling women that they must exhaust all options and resources (in an attempt to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change, and save their marriages) is just another way of reinforcing an abusive husband’s mentality and belief that his wife is solely responsible for doing all of the emotional labor to maintain the marriage. More often than not, this reinforcement or enabling emboldens abusive husbands to become more abusive, and their abuse escalates, which makes the situation even more dangerous and harmful for their wives and children.
Women who are married to abusive husbands do not need a long laundry list of things that they need to do to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change and save their marriages. They are not the ones who are obligated to explore and exhaust all options and resources to fix or save anyone or anything, because they are not the ones who are being abusive and destroying their family and marriage–their husbands are.
Their husbands are the ones who are being abusive, destructive, deceptive, and manipulative, so they are the ones who are obligated to exhaust all options and resources, and make a serious effort to change their thinking, beliefs, values, attitudes, and behavior.
The professing Christian community is approaching the issue of spousal abuse upside down. We are telling women who are married to abusive husbands that they are obligated to exhaust all options and resources, when in fact, this burden of responsibility does not fall on them–it falls on their abusive husbands. The only person who needs to be given a list of things that they need to do to fix the problem (which is THEMSELVES and their warped thinking, values, beliefs, and behavior) is the abusive husband, NOT the wife.
Telling women who are married to abusive husbands that they must exhaust all options and resources is also preaching to the choir. Many women have already exhausted all options and resources in an attempt to get their abusive husbands to repent and change, and save their marriages.
They’ve already tried praying more, fasting, reading their Bible more, submitting more, being more gentle and loving, being more patient, forgiving their husbands, reading and applying advice from Christian materials on how to ‘fix’ their marriages and be better wives, attending marriage counseling, and seeking help from their faith community, religious leaders, friends, and relatives for counseling and accountability.
In some cases, they have already reported the abuse to the authorities (the police, court system, military, etc), but to no avail in terms of getting their abusive husbands to repent and change, and save their marriages. So telling women that they need to DO MORE is NOT the solution.
The support that women need isn’t a cacophony of voices in their family, faith community, or random people on the internet, heaping additional burdens on them by telling them that they are obligated to exhaust all options and resources in an attempt to motivate their abusive husbands to repent and change, so that their marriages might be saved. . . and only THEN, after they have tried every option on earth and in heaven, are they ‘allowed’ to consider divorce.
The support that women need is trauma-centered advocacy that listens to their voice with empathy, believes them as credible eyewitnesses, acknowledges and affirms that they are the expert of their own experiences and the one who knows their abusive husbands best, and respects their autonomy, decisions (including the decision to get divorced or not), and the fact that they (not outsiders) are in the best position to determine what they and their children need to be safe.
Women who are married to abusive husbands need to know that it is okay, and even beneficial (to themselves and their children) to stop bending over backwards, jumping through hoops in an attempt to motivate their husbands to repent and change, to be better wives, and to save their marriages.
Abusive husbands have to want to change on their own. . . not for self-serving reasons, such as to keep their wives from leaving and filing for a divorce, alimony, and child support (so that they can continue to receive the benefits of abuse, save money, and uphold the outward imagery of having a ‘traditional’ marriage and a nuclear/two-parent family to make themselves look good to people outside of the home).
They have to want to change because using deception, manipulation, intimidation, threats, and coercion in order to control people and get what they want at any cost, is inherently immoral, depraved, and wicked. They have to want to change because abuse is wrong, sinful, evil, dehumanizing, oppressive, and destructive, and human beings deserve to be treated with dignity, equality, fairness, respect, and compassion.
The fact that a few husbands sincerely repent of abuse and make meaningful lasting changes for the better doesn’t justify telling women to stay in abusive marriages, because in the vast majority of abusive marriages, the husbands refuse to repent and change, and the abuse only escalates while their wives and children continue to suffer great harm. The fact that a handful of abusers will repent and change doesn’t justify sacrificing millions of lives.
The value of human life far outweighs the value of the institution of marriage. And it’s more important to prevent abuse and save human lives than it is to prevent the filing of divorce papers for a marriage that has already been breached, abandoned, and destroyed by spousal abuse.