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What Not to Say to a Woman in an Abusive Marriage

What <i>Not</i> to Say to a Woman in an Abusive Marriage

I love the "big C" Church. I believe it is the vehicle Christ uses to bring his love to the masses, one person at a time. I believe it is supposed to be the safest place on earth, the place we can go to heal. But I believe we can do better on an issue very close to my heart, and that is how we sometimes treat women who are in abusive or addiction-fraught marriages. We not only can do better; we must do better.

My overall experience with my church (walking me through my difficult marriage, slicing-open reconciliation attempt, and painful separation and divorce) was positive - as positive as something like this could be. But now that I moderate two private Facebook communities with almost two hundred women combined, I am hearing more stories of how churches have handled these grey, and often messy, chaotic situations. Some good (we’ll hit on that next time) and some not so good.

Let me first admit that I am only hearing one side of the story. But in a group of strangers, there really is no point in doing anything but being truthful to the best of our abilities, and that’s what I believe I’ve been privy to.

I share these things not to bash the Church. Not for one moment. I share only to highlight the voiceless. My hope for sharing all this is that if you are a pastor, or an elder, or a deacon, or on a church staff, or a small group coach or a small group leader, or simply a friend, and you are walking a woman through a painful marriage with either abuse or addiction issues rattling the cages, that you would read this, and strain to hear what she may wish she could say to you but doesn’t have the words for. That you would see her through new eyes. That you would not necessarily assume what works for some will work for all; in this world there are good marriages, there are hard marriages... and then there are marriages with abuse and addiction in them, and they are in a league of their own. My personal experience, my research, and listening for six months to the stories of these two hundred women tell me that what works for a couple whose marriage is hard will not always work for a couple where abuse and addiction take center stage.

So, picture with me a hurting woman. She may be flourishing on the outside, with a good job, great kids, her house in order, always put together, and she’s serving away. And she comes to you to talk about her marriage, which surprises you because you thought things were just fine. She tells you that her husband calls her names, won’t let her use the checkbook, looks at pornography on a regular basis, and comes home several nights a week drunk. All the while he attends church every Sunday, goes to a men’s Bible study, and serves on the ushering team. She is ashamed. She is desperate. She prays for him. She begs him to get into a couples’ group and to go to counseling. She doesn’t know what else to do. You are her last resort. 

Here are some things that the sweet women in my dear Facebook communities have shared with me that have been said to them when they sought out Christian help. (In a few of the examples, I’ll follow up with how it made them feel to hear the advice.)

From a pastor’s wife: “If you had more faith and weren't wavering in your emotions, God would change and heal this marriage.”

(“It made me feel like I was the one at fault and {my husband} had no responsibility for his actions and drug addiction.”)

“Love him to life. No matter what he does or how he treats you, you should just love on him and eventually he will come around.”

(“Yeah, that has worked the last twenty years.”)

A mentor: “You are doing all this counseling on your own but your marriage is still the same. Doesn’t that tell you something?”

(“I was only going to counseling by myself because my husband told me he wouldn’t be doing any more counseling, and I still needed the help. And yes, it tells me that the abuse and his addiction still haven’t been addressed; that’s why the marriage is the same.”)

A friend, when asked specifically to remind her that God was faithful: “You lack faith and you’re too needy.”

(“She minimized my pain and trivialized my request for help to refocus on God. I no longer turn to her when in need.”)

A mentor: “I would encourage you to not get too worked up about all of {his} lying.”

(“Well, someone should be getting worked up about all his lying. Last I checked, lying is a sin and ruins relationships.”)

A pastor: “I believe God doesn't give us more than we can handle."

A pastor, when approached by a woman who was about to marry her daughter’s father, even though he had already gone to jail for physically assaulting her: “You’re already 'yoked' so you might as well marry him.” 

A family member: “You’re better off dead than divorced.”

A pastor/friend: “Obviously if he is still treating you badly then you are not doing everything you can to change.”

“If there is no visible bruise and if no clothes are removed, {it’s not abuse and} it doesn’t matter.”

“A good wife knows how to meet his needs in a way that he won’t feel threatened.”

On getting help for being repeatedly falsely accused of infidelity: “People don't suspect things without good reason. You must have failed to show the love of Christ {to your husband} in some way."

A pastor: “Prostrate yourself before him and humble yourself before all his questions and continue to answer him."

A pastor: “Well, I'm so relieved that you don't want me to take any disciplinary action against him! That would’ve been difficult."

I hope you are sick to your stomach as you read this. I hope this makes you so very sad. I don’t think any of these people meant to hurt the women to whom they were speaking (at least, I hope they didn’t). Probably these people are speaking out of fear, out of pride, or simply ignorance of these types of situations. 

I need to reiterate: this was not my overall experience. My overall experience with seeking help from my church was very positive. But as you can see, there are women who are coming to our churches and they are asking for help and this is what they are sometimes being told. You have perhaps said words like this to a woman in need. And well-meaning as it might be, I would bet, if given advice like the above, these women are not coming back for more. So they are either heading to other places for potentially unbiblical help, or crawling right back into their marriage pits for another round of abuse, lies, control and fear. They are scared. They are confused. They need us to really hear them, to really understand them, and to really step in and help them.

So if a woman comes to you, here are a few of my layperson’s don’ts:

Don’t shame the woman into doing couples’ counseling immediately after an abuse incident. She will not feel emotionally safe in a counseling session, and odds are, if her husband fits the profile, he will acquiesce to counseling to placate everyone, and he will be able to charm his way through the actual sessions, only to have things blow up afterwards. They should do individual counseling for a time first. (Not everyone will agree with this, but I know some who would…see this post from Leslie Vernick on emotional safety.)

Do not only address the women’s sin issues. Trust me, the abused woman already knows she’s a sinner. She’s been told that for years and she has belittled herself in every way possible. I read of a woman who even wrote out a prayer of confession in her journal for wanting to go back to school in the helping profession because her spouse told her it was wrong of her. God hadn’t told her it was wrong, her spouse did; but she felt it was sin and needed to be confessed. The abused woman, for the most part, is already very aware of her own issues and is working on them tirelessly. The husband’s issues of abuse or addiction must be addressed simultaneously or you are just throwing her to the wolves and adding on to her shame with a new list of things to work on that won’t change the marriage.

Don’t continue to counsel her if you have no experience working with abuse or addiction. This is a whole different animal and you may end up unintentionally doing more damage or prolonging the process to healing if the real issues aren’t addressed. So please be humble enough to know when you’re in over your head and pass her/them over to someone who knows how to work with these delicate issues.

So, I’m pleading with you, please take the testimonies of these women as one huge cautionary tale of what not to say to a hurting woman in an abusive or addiction-filled marriage. Next time we’ll talk about some of the good stories and what you can and should say to help her get to the healing place.

Elisabeth Klein is mom to Sara (16) and Jack (14-1/2).  She loves spending time with her kids, her friends, reading and writing.  She is the author of At the Corner of Broken & Love: Where God Meets Us in the Everyday; One Girl, Third World: One Woman’s Journey into Social Justice; He Is Just That Into You: Stories of a Faithful God who Pursues, Engages, and Has No Fear of Commitment; In Search of Calm: Renewal for a Mother’s Heart; and Calm in My Chaos: Encouragement for a Mom’s Weary Soul.  All these books can be purchased on in paperback or Kindle.

Visit her website and her blog.

You can follow her on Twitter at @_elisabethklein or friend her on Facebook.

If you are in a difficult marriage or find yourself going through a difficult divorce, I have created two private groups on Facebook that I would like to invite you to. Simply email me at, let me know if you're interested in the married group or separated/divorced group, then send me a friend request on Facebook. If you're in need of some encouragement, I invite you to join us.

Elisabeth is a proud Member of Redbud Writer's Guild.

Publication date: January 10, 2013