'But He Never Hit Me': A Christian Primer on Emotional Abuse
Deb* still has a hard time saying she was abused. Her husband knew the Bible well and proclaimed his Christian faith boldly. They studied Scripture together, prayed together, and hosted Bible studies in their home. But a domineering nature lurked behind his confident, God-fearing front. He spent years tearing down Deb's sense of security and self-worth.
"I had things broken around me, threats made to me, emotional games played on me—a knife held to my throat, a gun held to my head," Deb says. "The Bible itself was even used as a weapon against me—always out of context, mind you, but used nonetheless."
He blamed his outbursts on Deb, and for years she bought the lie that she was partially responsible. "I had to have been doing something wrong if things weren't going well in a relationship that included God, right? I tried so hard to be godly … and the Bible told me to submit to my husband. Maybe God just wanted me to suffer a bit, to make me more holy. Besides, it wasn't that bad—he never hit me."
But it was bad, enough that their marriage disintegrated under the strain, leaving Deb brokenhearted, fearful, and ashamed.
Deb's story is not unusual. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four American women experiences domestic abuse in her lifetime, with emotional abuse present in the majority of cases. The numbers are no better among churchgoers (a fact supported by research, studies, and statistics in No Place for Abuse: Biblical and Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence, by Nancy Nason-Clark and the late theologian Catherine Clark Kroeger). In fact, the difference seems to be that Christian women are less likely to seek help, because many believe the Bible says they must submit to their husband regardless of his behavior. When they do seek help, it is their churches they go to first.
Emotional abuse is a particularly sticky topic for Christians committed to the sanctity of marriage. While an increasing number of church leaders will suggest that a woman remove herself from a violent situation, they aren't sure whether nonviolent forms of abuse merit anything beyond the suggestion that she "pray and submit." The misguided advice many well-intentioned Christians give victims reveals a common misunderstanding about the problem—a misunderstanding some Christian organizations are working to correct.
Yvonne DeVaughn is the national coordinator of AVA (Advocacy for Victims of Abuse), a ministry of the Evangelical Covenant Church that equips churches to address domestic abuse. She explains that, contrary to what many believe, domestic abuse is not about an angry person losing their temper and lashing out at their spouse. Rather, it is a pattern of behaviors that people use to establish dominance in their relationships. "The common denominator is that it's about having power and control over another human being," she says. "It's not about anger management—often you see that the person can manage that anger when they're in social situations. It's not about drugs, alcohol, genetics, biology, out-of-control behavior, or stress—it is about having power and control over another human."
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