Domestic violence

Domestic violence and abuse can take several forms. The most commonly acknowledged forms of domestic violence are physical and sexual violence, emotional and social abuse (e.g. constant verbal putdowns and preventing contact with friends or family) and economic deprivation (e.g. withholding money). The Australian Medical Association (1998) defines it as the domination, coercion, intimidation and victimisation of one person by another by physical, sexual, or emotional means within intimate relationships.

How prevalent is it? The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that one in four or five Australian women (23%) reported experiencing abuse from partners during their adulthood.

Here are some statistics for physical assault of women from a survey in 2004:

"¢ between 6 - 9 % of Australian women aged 18 and over are physically assaulted each year: 35 - 40 % of these are domestic assaults
"¢ In 2004, there were 25,761 domestic assaults in NSW
"¢ In one study, only 8% the most recent violent incidents perpetrated by a current partner were reported to police
"¢ 80% of offenders were male

We would be fools to think that somehow in our churches we are immune from this social epidemic. Certainly I have seen a significant number of Christian couples for counselling where domestic violence, of both physical and emotional nature, has been present.

How should we respond to this in our churches?  How do we deal with marriages where there is evidence of domestic violence?

Firstly we need to remember that any type of domestic violence - physical, emotional or sexual - is damaging for women and for any children who witness it. Many victims/survivors have argued that the psychological effects of abuse are more profoundly damaging to their sense of self than any physical injuries. The dynamic of domestic violence, which is about power and control, leaves victims/survivors with feelings of shame, self doubt and, for many, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Additionally, some domestic violence acts are criminal.

This means that our usual counsel concerning working at the preservation of the marriage, and for the woman simply to "try harder", "to keep on loving him" is inappropriate. The husband who suggests that "if only she would..." and then he would not lose his temper, not need to talk to her that way, not control the household finances, is shifting the blame for his behaviour onto his wife. I have worked with a number of Christian wives who have tolerated severe emotionally abusive behaviour from their husbands (who can be charming men outside the home). They have had difficulty working out what the problem was with their marriage since there was no actual physical violence, but they and their children have been seriously hurt by the emotional abuse.

For the marriage to be restored to a respectful, safe and loving relationship, the user of violence must accept responsibility for their behaviour and make concerted efforts to choose different behaviours and responses to their partner. For some marriages, this may mean a period of separation while the offender considers and works on their reactions to their partner and to stressful situations. Only once this has been done, can relationship counselling be considered, and the possibility of rebuilding the marriage be attempted.

A marriage where there is domestic violence is long way from the mutual submission described in Ephesians 5. Helping both parties in a marriage to talk about and face up to what is happening in the marriage is the first step in restoration.

Nicky Lock, BSc(hons) Grad Dip EFT PACFA reg., Senior Counsellor and Clinical Consultant, and a lecturer and author of counselling courses.

Comments (18)

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  • Andrew White
    September 17, 09 - 1:36am
    Why do you think more religion is the answer here when religion seems to be a part of the problem?
    While we're at it, let's reduce high speed car accidents by replacing the highway system with dirt tracks and prevent cyber-bullying by removing the national telecommunications system.

    Consider the passage you quoted: Eph 5:24. Immediately after it says "In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself." (Eph 5:28) - there's a whole paragraph on putting this into practice. Similarly Col 3:19: "Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.".

    Christian doctrine in no way sanctions domestic violence, and actively speaks against it.

    If one really wanted to pin domestic violence on "religion", one could perhaps argue that Christian doctrine is unliveable and thus domestic violence is one inevitable outworking of this frustration. But that is countered by the (majority?) of Christian couples who seem to live out their marriage without domestic violence rearing its ugly head.

    By all means, let's point out areas where Christians and the church could better put their religion into practice by looking after and proactively protecting the victims of injustice. But suggesting that religion is inherently the problem is inaccurate, antagonistic, and unlikely to garner a sympathetic response on a forum where people are thinking about how to use it to do good.
  • Jean Marlow
    September 17, 09 - 3:05am
    I do think that for a Christian woman it can be harder to seek help and to eventually leave an abusive marriage; there is almost a belief that she must stay, no matter what, and that by leaving her abusive husband she is not only letting down herself and her family but also her Church family and ultimately God.
    In my own family, my sweet, caring Christian relative tried many things; they had counselling (he would change) they moved to another state (he would change), they tried more counselling (he would change), she left him and then went back (he would change) and eventually she left for good. He hasn't changed and still, four years later, doesn't really see why she left. One of the things that has sustained her has been the unconditional love and support from her Church family, but I think that for many women, there is the fear that the Church family will treat her as a pariah-tell her in words and attitudes that it was her "duty" to stay.
    I think that it has to be made clear to all Christians that our faith does not entitle men to be violent, nor force women to stay. I do think, however, that if my relative were not a Christian she would have left the marriage earlier; her faith compelled her to try harder to resolve the issue, but it couldn't force her to stay when it was clear that the issue could not be resolved.
  • Craig Schwarze
    September 17, 09 - 4:07am
    Thanks for raising this important topic Nicky. Some Christian leaders have not dealt with this issue well in the past, but I believe that is changing. It would be great if the doctrine or ethics committee could put together a report that discussed appropriate pastoral/Biblical responses to domestic abuse.
  • Andrew White
    September 17, 09 - 4:08am
    Perhaps "our" marriages are not transparent enough? I get the impression from scripture that (my words) "Holiness is everyone's business". Is the Church family is too slow to step in and say "Hey, I think you guys have a problem here!"?

    I'm particularly looking at the guys here. It's easy to talk about right and wrong. But when there's a hint of men failing in their role as husbands, are the men in our churches too slow to step in and say to the man "look, mate, we've really got to get this sorted out!". And are we good, tough, western men and thus too unwilling to actually poke around in each others hearts and emotions where we might discover some of these problems before they turn into mistreatment and violence?

    (Don't have answers, but at least getting the questions off my chest.)
  • Jonathon Ray
    September 17, 09 - 9:56am
    "domestic violence -physical, emotional or sexual - is damaging for women"

    Yes and damaging for men too. This is a serious problem. But its not a problem with just men. And abusive relationships need to be resolved and the abuse needs to stop being tolerated by both parties.

    We need marriages that can communicate what the individual wants, without demanding that they get it. Marriages that are not afraid of what happens when the other party disagrees with you. Marriages born in love. Males and females need to physically, emotionally, and verbally love eachother. It is a command outside of marriage, and you might say is a bedrock for marriage.

    Are our churches willing to address a marriage where this isn't the case? Could our churches cope with the fact that this isn't the case with most marriages??
  • Jonathon Ray
    September 17, 09 - 9:58am
    "almost impossible for a woman to divorce and live a respectable unmarried life afterwards."

    Maybe in countries that mistake their own country for God's kingdom. But Protestant christians I know are quite comfortably living divorced lives. Abuse is incidious in all types of societies, and all types of relationships: married or unmarried.
  • Andrew White
    September 18, 09 - 2:05am
    At least you agree with me that religion is part of the problem (accident, cyber-bully).
    Uh? Try reading "religion" as "highway", "telecoms". Religion (including Christianity) is at times a tool used by the fallen to pursue their evil agendas. Christianity can equally be a tool for the holy to restore and sanctify those who have fallen.

    There's a certain truth to your claim that divorced women attract a stigma in more religious societies that doesn't exist in modern secular societies. However, that's more easily explained by a general disregard for persistent relationship than any special enlightenment of modern society. I'd much rather take my baby to the doctor than flush it down the plug-hole because the bathwater happens to be mucky in places.

    Possibly, I'm missing your point and you're claiming that organised, formalised religion is inherently corrupt (and un-Christian). My observation is that corruption in organised, formalised Christian religion is (and likely should be) judged more harshly because it typically aspires to a moral higher standard than the rest of the community. Structure and order is not un-Christian, nor is it notably more vulnerable to corruption than anything else fallen humanity puts its hands to.

    I think there's a heck of a lot more that the Church can do to both prevent and support victims of domestic violence. But Church as a concept is not the problem, even if some realisations of this concept have been (and still are).
  • Jonathon Ray
    September 18, 09 - 2:10am

    Well I think you are right in saying that more religion would not be a solution. But I don't think anyone has suggested that more religion will save marriages from DV. Nicky is raising the question as to why we are tolerating DV, and it seems to me to be a plea for Christian men and women to not accept violence in marriages and be prepared for the fallout for fixing marriages in this state.

    Abusers can make appeals to authority like the bible. But it doesn't hold any weight. The Bible shows us a way of love that is persistent in being loving even when you are not being loved in return, a way of love that is so far opposite to abuse its not funny. If a husband is meant to be able to love his wife the way Jesus loved us in being rejected, beaten and hung on a cross for us, then I dont think abuse can be found. If love is described by Paul as kind and not seeking your own benefit, and enduring all things then I dont think abuse has any room to fit. The two are just incompatible. Religion wont solve anything. Christian love is the only answer.
  • Jonathon Ray
    September 18, 09 - 2:12am
    oh sorry above post is to Marc
  • Ian Tyrrell
    September 18, 09 - 2:33am
    I don't see anyone here suggesting "more religion" as a solution.

    I can see several people saying that people's actions need to match up with their rhetoric on Christian living. And I can't see how that wouldn't help.
  • Luke Stevens
    September 18, 09 - 3:54am
    Interesting post, but doesn't seem to address the elephant in the room - when is divorce appropriate?

    I don't think we make it much easier for victims if we can't even mention the 'D' word.
  • Melinda Seed
    September 18, 09 - 7:15am
    Abusers can make appeals to authority like the bible. But it doesn't hold any weight.

    Jonathan Ray, That's exactly the view that I used to hold...until I was trying to provide support to a woman trying to leave a DV situation and I learnt a little (but more than I wanted to) about abuse.
    Most abusers are extremely manipulative and will use physical, emotional and spiritual abuse interchangeably. It's irrelevant that appeals to the bible hold no weight with "us", the abuser knows which appeals hold weight with the victim.
    The case that you make for "love that is .. loving even when you are not being loved in return" and
    Jesus loved us in being rejected, beaten and hung on a cross for us
    is EXACTLY the argument the abusive husband use whenever his wife tried to leave him. She should love him and it's not loving or biblical for a wife to leave her husband, God hates divorce...She should forgive him, he's reformed but of course it always happened again.
    This isn't to say that religion is the problem because an abuser twists God's message to his own evil ends. It's also simplistic to say that "less religion" would be a solution to DV. As a church community we should try to be aware of how our faith can be misused and be sensitive to ensuring we're not complicit in DV by preaching simplistic and one dimensional approaches to gender/marital relationships though.
    It's a complex issue and congrats to Nicky for raising it.
  • Jonathon Ray
    September 18, 09 - 11:54pm
    Hey Melinda,

    Totally agree with everything you just said. I think I may have had a point mixed up. This was a point to Marc against the idea that removing religion is the key.

    I think the point to Marc I was making is that the Scriptures need to be twisted in order to be used by abusers and that the abuser is the one in direct contradiction to the scriptures by what he/she is doing.

    ensuring we're not complicit in DV by preaching simplistic and one dimensional approaches to gender/marital relationships

    This is a great point. If the promise we make to our spouses is to love them, and we violate that love through abuse, which doesn't allow for any sort of love, then we need to be asking ourselves is this a biblical marriage anyway? Has the abuser effectively divorced their spouse by abusing their position of intimacy to be one of domination and fear. This in my mind is the exact opposite of love. Its not just a matter of missing the mark, it is working against love directly.
  • Melinda Seed
    September 19, 09 - 2:48am
    Hey Jonathan,

    I think we're on the same page. I totaly understand the point you were making to Marc, I wasn't very clear in connecting the dots of my response (the limitation on # of characters cramps my style). The point I was making was how easy it is for the Christian message of sacrificial love to be twisted and misused in an abusive relationship.
    This is why we need to guard against the simplistic approach to gender/marital relationships and to balance the messages about gender roles and submission and the sanctity of marriage with consideration of what is a Christian marriage and how safeguards against abuse can be built-in to all relationships. I think your last para is a great start towards the latter.
  • Jason Hobba
    September 19, 09 - 12:44pm
    We did a four week series on "Peace in Families" in our church (with churches in our area of Casey in Melbourne) - very hard, but necessary stuff. It was amazing and shocking to see the number of women and children who suffer family violence! But there are also men as well.

    While I'm at it - Marc, you're dealing with the topic in caricatures and stereotypes (unless you've had some experience yourself with family violence and the church's response).

    Let's think about this for a second: God hates divorce - true. But it ain't that simple. God hates a lot of things - greed, sexual immorality, drunkenness ... INCLUDING injustice and violence against the powerless. There's a verse in the bible that says, 'Do not do anything that endangers your neighbours life. I am the LORD' (Leviticus 19:16). And if we combine that with a number of other verses, and Jesus' summary of the Old Testament demands of 'Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And love your neighbour as yourself.' That means, it is never acceptable to abuse - mentally, physically, sexually, financially, psychologically, socially or any other form of abuse you could list. It simply does not compute with the Christian faith.

    Now, people who abuse others will look for ANY and EVERY reason to justify their abuse and to manipulate their victims in an attempt to exert power over them - sadly the Bible is just another tool to abusers use to abuse. Real men say NO to family violence!
  • Jason Hobba
    September 19, 09 - 12:58pm
    Here's my 2c worth on the question of Divorce for victims of Family Violence:

    i. Lots of support needs to take place and lots of very wise advice from professionals before considering this step - it is a very dangerous time (this doesn't mean, don't do it; it just means taking care HOW it's done so that the victim isn't further victimised or killed - yes, it's that serious!)

    ii. From the little I know from the material we had on family violence, and some of the thinking I've done since, I would say separation is the first port of call - with a great deal of help for the perpetrator, it's possible that the marriage may be able to work (though, this is a long and difficult road); next, I would say that, although regrettable, Divorce is a real option. Staying in the relationship of abuse only continues for both parties - abuser and victim - the cycle of abuse. In other words, as "noble" as some might think it is to stay in an abusive relationship, staying only confirms the abuser in the sin of their abusive behaviours. So divorce may be a necessary last resort to 'force' repentance on the abuser, or at least to break the sinful cycle of abuse.
  • Andrew White
    September 19, 09 - 9:57pm
    While divorce might be a good thing for the victim, it mustn't allow the rest of the church community to just walk away from the situation. Our goal, as with all sin, needs to be to restore both parties: protection and healing for the victim, and repentance and restoration for the abuser. Obviously, this needs to be a lot more involved than "oh, he's said he's sorry" (witness the scandals from sexual abuse where church officials swept the problem under the rug in the name of forgiveness), but simply pushing the abuser away where they can find another to abuse isn't a full solution either.

    We as fallen christians tend to be poor at what God and Jesus did very well: offer love and forgiveness for sinners while being uncompromising about the need for holiness, repentance, and transformation. Losing sight of either tends to make for unsatisfactory handling of sin and sinners.
  • Melinda Seed
    September 20, 09 - 12:24am
    Jason,it's good to hear that your church tackled the issue of violence with that course.

    I think you're being a bit hasty in your dismissal of Marc's point. I know we all want to reinforce the truth that abuse and violence is anathema to Christians but perhaps Marc's point that
    When religion tells "God hates divorce... She should forgive him", religion is part of the problem.
    has some validity when we think about individual cases of DV.
    How do you respond to Jean's post? It seems like an illustration of the fact that the church's influence can and does lead to a tolerance of DV in certain circumstances.
    I think we fail in our duties as Christians to protect the vulnerable if we dismiss the possiibility that the church can be complicit in encouraging women (and children) to stay in abusive situations. We need to address this issue and make sure that as the body of CHrist we are "saying no to domestic violence" loudly and consistently.