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.