Editor’s note: While an abuser can be either male or female, more than 90% are male and approximately 85% of victims are female1. For the purposes of this article, we are speaking primarily to women. If there is any form of abuse in your marriage, separation is a necessary first step to protect the life of the abused and get both the abused and the abuser the help he or she needs. If you are in an abusive situation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help making a plan. Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit https://www.thehotline.org/.
As a family attorney and certified domestic abuse professional focused on helping victims escape domestic abuse, I know far too many Christians don’t realize their “difficult” marriage is actually abusive. I know this firsthand because I was one of them.
For 21 years, I was married to an abuser who attended church with me every Sunday and participated in small-group Bible studies. What started as emotional and financial abuse—including insults, raging, threats of divorce with no access to funds—escalated to tying me to his bed with belts, daily rape, and physical abuse. When I escaped and went into hiding for two years, my unrepentant abuser twisted Scriptures out of context and demanded I “forgive and forget” because “God hates divorce.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 35% of women will be victims of sexual assault (rape), serious physical abuse, and/or stalking at some point in her life. Further, nearly half will experience verbal or emotional abuse or coercive control. And domestic abuse is just as prevalent in church-going circles. But as Christians, we often don’t even like to use the words “domestic abuse.” I believe it’s the most silenced, covered-up, and misunderstood epidemic in the church and society today.
Rather than call our experience abusive, we soft-pedal it. It was an “incident,” or there are “anger management issues.” Perhaps we say he has a “strong personality” or is “high maintenance.” If we do expose abuse, others often silence us and tell us it is “unchristian” to say such things about a spouse—anything to avoid calling it abuse. Anything to avoid calling it what it is: evil.
So, how do you know if you’re in an abusive relationship? What are the different types of abuse? And can an abuser change?
Abuse is a far-ranging collection of attitudes and behaviors designed to obtain and maintain power and control over someone else, usually over a spouse or intimate partner. As such, there are many different types of abuse, all with the same ultimate objective: destroy the spirit of the target to get and keep power and control. We’ll cover the following types of abuse: emotional, verbal, financial, physical, sexual, and spiritual.
Emotional and verbal abuse
Emotionally healthy people are safe people. We don’t need to worry about putting up walls to protect ourselves because they are consistently good.
Abusers, however, are not emotionally healthy people. One hundred percent of abusive relationships involve emotional and verbal abuse. It is the easiest kind of abuse to inflict and the easiest to deny. An abuser may intentionally shoot out a cutting insult and then claim, “I was just kidding! Can’t you take a joke? You’re too sensitive!”
Savvy abusers use a variety of tactics, but the following are some of the most tried-and-true strategies.
Tactics of emotional abuse:
- Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality (charming and friendly to others, cutting and mean behind closed doors).
- Silent treatment.
- Social isolation (isolating someone from friends/family).
- Creating chaos.
- Unreasonable demands.
- Stalking and surveillance.
- Inability to respect boundaries.
- Push-pull relationship (he only wants her when she plays hard to get).
- Controlling and owning their partner.
- Refusal to honor agreements or court orders.
- Withholding emotional intimacy and affection.
- Acting as if nothing has happened after an abusive episode.
- Playing the godfather (requiring all people to pander to him if they want a relationship with anyone in his family).
Tactics of verbal abuse:
- Contempt of others, rules, and authority.
- Gaslighting (saying or doing something hurtful and then denying it so she questions her sanity).
- Projection (accusing the victim of the very thing the accuser is most guilty of).
- False accusations.
- Public or private verbal flogging.
- Pathological lying.
- Discounting, denying, and criticizing the feelings of others.
- Telling others what they are thinking or feeling (“You’re not sorry. You’re too stupid to be sorry!”).
- Withholding information and keeping secrets.
- Playing the victim when he suffers consequences.
- Twisted definition of love (“If you loved me, you would ________”).
- Parental alienation (turning a child against the other parent).
- False claims of mistakes or accidents that were intentional abuse.
- False apologies.
- Inability to resolve conflict.
A financially healthy marriage is characterized by shared decision-making power, openness, honesty, equal access to funds, and prudent use of limited resources. Both spouses view themselves as stewards of resources to be used to benefit their family and others, and generosity toward family members and others comes with “no strings attached.”
Financial abuse is prevalent in 99% of abusive relationships, and it is the number one reason people stay in these relationships. They often have no way to support themselves and their children if they leave.
Financial abusers tend to fall into one of two extremes. Money-making abusers refuse to allow a spouse access to funds, using money to control. “Loafers” sponge off their spouses, saddling them with the entire financial responsibility for the family.
Here are a few favorite tactics.
Financial abuse tactics:
- Using other people’s money.
- Allowing spouse no access to family funds or assets.
- Making spouse ask/beg for money.
- Putting spouse on allowance.
- Requiring expense reports and receipts from spouse.
- Controlling her job and earnings.
- Unsupportive of, or sabotaging, efforts for spouse’s education and career.
- Obtaining credit cards and loans in spouse’s name without knowledge.
- Attitude of “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”
- Keeping financial secrets and lies.
- Risky investments and business ventures.
- Extravagant purchases.
- Refusing to fulfill commitments and agreements.
- Prenuptial agreements.
- Valuing money and/or addictions over spouse and family.
- Lending and holding it over their heads.
- Refusing to work or contribute to household income.
- Intentionally underemployed.
In physically healthy marriages, each spouse respects the physical boundaries of the other: the right to safety, privacy, and protection of their own bodies. They honor the other’s right to move around peaceably as they wish, care for the physical needs of the family, protect weaker members, and keep the family safe.
On the other hand, people who are physically abusive view others as a means to meet their own selfish needs and have no respect for the physical needs or boundaries of others. They use physical strength to inflict pain, humiliation, degradation, and terror to keep others under control.
Physical abuse is prevalent in 98% of abusive relationships. But physical abuse does not always leave a bruise. The creative abusers find ways to terrorize a spouse that leave no mark—except the gaping wound in her heart. The following techniques are some well-used ways to intimidate a spouse and others.
Physical abuse tactics:
- Punching, hitting with an object, slapping.
- Shoving, grabbing, holding, twisting, shaking, hair pulling, pinching.
- Strangling, choking, scratching, biting, spitting.
- Pushing downstairs.
- Denying medical care (especially when she is sick, pregnant, elderly, or otherwise vulnerable).
- Denying basic needs (especially when she is sick, pregnant, elderly or otherwise vulnerable).
- Abandonment (such as forcing her out of the car, leaving her, and driving away).
- Physical restraint (not allowing her to leave or get away from the abuser).
- Accidents resulting from reckless or intentional acts.
- Throwing objects (lamps, balls, and other hard surfaces).
- Hitting objects (hitting walls, doors, etc.).
- Child, elder, or animal cruelty.
In sexually healthy marriages,sex is a physical way to express affection and to bless each other. Healthy sex requires mutual vulnerability, openness, generosity, respect, emotional and spiritual intimacy, and love for the other. It is always respectful of the other person and giving (not taking or demanding). Healthy marriages are monogamous.
In contrast, a person who is sexually abusive views sex as a means to gratify himself without respect for the needs of the other person. The partner is something to be used for his own sexual satisfaction without concern for her. Emotional intimacy or love on the part of the abuser is not involved. Abusers usually have multiple partners and multiple affairs.
Sexual assault occurs in approximately two-thirds of abusive relationships. It’s one of the most devastating forms of abuse because it takes what was created by God to be a sacred, life-giving act and twists it into a dehumanizing, humiliating experience. It is no wonder the Bible treats sexual sin with harsh penalties to protect us from this particularly distressing type of abuse.
Below are some of the most often used forms of sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse tactics:
- Sexual infidelity.
- Demanding sex in exchange for money.
- Aggressive sex.
- Sex involving chains, ropes, or other restraints.
- Addiction or regular use of pornography.
- Filming sex videos or taking illicit photographs.
- Withholding physical affection except for sex.
- Shaming his partner about their sex life (in private or public).
- Sex on demand (even at inconvenient times).
- Pouting, brooding, or threatening if she doesn’t comply.
- Intentional pregnancy when spouse does not want a child (often to force spouse into staying).
- Coerced sex.
- Sex as a weapon (rape).
Spiritual abuse is a well-kept secret. An abuser who knows his spouse’s faith is important to her will twist Scriptures to justify his abuse, mock her beliefs, criticize her for not living up to the standards of her faith, and keep the spouse trapped in the relationship. Instead of using the Bible to encourage and uplift his spouse, it is used out of context and distorted to become a tool to bludgeon the spouse into submission.
The following are the well-worn tools of spiritual abuse that distort the true meaning of Scripture, contrasted with God’s truth below each one.
Spiritual abuse tactics:
- Claims he is the “head of the household,” therefore, his wife and children must obey.
- Jesus requires leaders to be servants and requires a husband to love his wife like Christ loves us (Ephesians 5:25, 33).
- Claims the wife must submit to him and his every whim.
- We should defer and honor each other. Women are not meant to be doormats (Ephesians 5:21).
- Claims his wife must satisfy his sexual desires whenever he wants.
- Husbands should be considerate and respectful of their wives (1 Peter 3:7).
- Claims the partner must forgive and forget past abuses.
- “If your brother…repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). But forgiveness does not require that we forget the sin, say the sin is okay, trust someone who hurt us, or reconcile with someone who chooses to continue to sin without repentance.
- Claims he should suffer no consequences for his offenses.
- Sin always has consequences. Just ask King David (2 Samuel 12:11-14).
- Claims divorce is not an option because God hates divorce.
- In Malachi 2, God rebukes men for treating their wives treacherously and for doing violence against the wives they should protect. It does not prohibit all divorce but condemns a man who divorces his wife treacherously or out of hatred.
- Claims his sins are no worse than hers since all sins are equal.
- Claims his wife should not judge him.
- Spiritually mature believers discern good from evil and put that discernment into practice (Hebrews 5:14).
- Claims he is ethical and values family and integrity.
- Satan and his minions masquerade as angels of light (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). Look at his actions, not what he claims to be.
- Claims that unconditional love requires his wife to accept and stay in abuse.
- Godly love is “patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). As an exercise, replace the word “love” in this passage with the name of one’s spouse. If this passage in 1 Corinthians does not describe a husband, he is not loving his wife. Remember: Anytime someone starts a sentence with, “If you loved me you would_____,” he is manipulating you.
- Claims he has changed, “found God,” or will go to counseling—so she must stay or return.
- Abusers rarely change overnight. Be wise when one claims repentance or has changed.
- Before returning to an abuser, victims of abuse must require true repentance:
- A sincere public admission accepting full responsibility for his actions.
- Full restitution for the damage he has caused—if he has hurt her monetarily, he must repay; if he has damaged relationships, he must do all he can to repair them.
- Completion of perpetrator counseling and acknowledgement of need for ongoing accountability.
- A permanent change of heart and attitude evidenced by at least 12-24 months of consistent change (See Paul’s example in 1 Timothy 1:12-17).
- Attacks his wife’s kindness and grace.
- Offering kindness to a person who has rejected God will result in the abuser mocking, not appreciating grace and using it against the abused to harm her. “…do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6).
- Claims his wife is a horrible Christian.
If you’re in an abusive relationship
Please remember that people who choose to abuse are not emotionally healthy. Healthy people care for and protect those in their family, while abusers oppress and try to destroy. When we treat emotionally dangerous people as we would emotionally healthy people and expect similar behavior, it is to our peril.
Research tells us the vast majority (80-90%) of abusers have some form of “Cluster B” personality disorder, usually narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder (from where we get the terms psychopaths and sociopaths). The more severe and chronic the abuse, the more likely the prevalence of these disorders.
Among others, abusers share the following characteristics: lack of empathy, pathological lying and deceitfulness, lack of conscience and remorse, a sense of entitlement, arrogance and sense of superiority over others, exploitation of people to attain their own selfish goals, refusal to honor commitments, sexual promiscuity, cunning and manipulative, sadistic, and the view that the rules do not apply to them.
It would be a mistake, however, to excuse the behavior of abusers because of a mental illness. Unlike most mental illnesses in which a person suffers from unintentional, unwanted behaviors or beliefs that negatively affect them (such as depression or anxiety), abuse is a chosen behavior. They choose to injure others. And they do so without guilt or remorse.
In spiritual terms, we would label these behaviors and attitudes as evil.
Gentle reader, if this describes your marriage or relationship, know God did not intend His children to live in abuse. He loves us far too much for that. He designed His daughters and sons to be in life-giving, encouraging, healthy relationships that reflect His love for us. Domestic abuse is an abomination to God. God neither causes domestic abuse nor condones those who do. Please seek professional help from your local domestic violence organization and a counselor who specializes in domestic abuse.
1. M. Kimmel,“Gender Symmetry in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review,” Violence Against Women 8, no. 1 (2002): 1332-1363
Copyright ©2022 by Charlene Quint. All Rights Reserved.
Charlene Quint is a family law attorney in the Chicago area who focuses her practice on helping women overcome domestic abuse, and she is the author of the award-winning book, Overcoming the Narcissist, Sociopath, Psychopath, and Other Domestic Abusers (Redemption Press). Charlene is the founder of AbuseCare.org, a nondenominational, faith-based organization designed to provide hope and healing to women on their journey from victim to victorious, as well as to educate and equip church leaders. She is also a certified domestic violence professional, an advocate for victims of abuse, a facilitator of multiple support groups, and a domestic abuse survivor.