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Marriage 911 07/17/18

The Church Must Respond to Emotional Abuse

We expect a lot from the Church, often forgetting it is simply "us" gathered together. We expect the Church to provide a safe place for us to gather and to protect us if we encounter marital danger, which is the case when it comes to emotional abuse.

That said, we have some hard facts to face: 35 percent of married women experience some or all of the following aspects of emotional abuse:

  • Constant criticism
  • Excessive jealousy
  • Use of power to control and overwhelm
  • Intimidation and threats
  • Control of finances
  • Authority/spiritual abuse
  • Isolation from family/friends
  • Punishment if she doesn't comply with his wishes

You would likely not know if a friend were experiencing these problems. These issues are covert, rarely talked about, even in places of safety – like at church. While the presence of emotional abuse is the greatest risk factor and predictor of physical violence, it is often denied, kept secret. The statistics are probably greater than reported and they do exist in the Church.

To get help for your marriage from Dr. Hawkins and his qualified staff, please visit The Marriage Recovery Center website or call 206-219-0145.

The first place a woman will often go for help is her church. She expects leadership to provide the context for healing, surrounding her family with correction, support, accountability, and love by shepherding them to health and godliness. Sadly, this often does not occur.

Paul Hegstrom comments on situations like this in his book, Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them: Breaking the Cycle of Physical and Emotional Abuse: "It is a sad state of affairs in the Church when a woman has been abused. It seems that the congregation, her friends, and the clergy shy away from dealing with the situation. She feels forsaken by those she should be able to lean on the most."

When it comes to the topic of emotional abuse in the Church, however, it is time for us all to review our beliefs. It is beyond time for us to listen to those being abused. Not just those abused in the past, but perhaps the person sitting next to us in the pew, who is being abused now.

It is all too common for those in a Christian environment to send an abused wife the message that being godly means enduring more, praying more, and letting God handle it. Many believe that God alone is the one to convict the man of abusive behavior, that the wife has no right to speak out against the abuse.

The problem here is that we all have a responsibility to work for an emotionally healthy culture both in ourselves and in our churches, understanding emotionally abusive conduct. Churches can no longer ignore the severity and magnitude of this issue. We must take steps to make the Church a safe place, where survivors and their abusers can find grace, love, and healing.

What are some steps churches can take to deal effectively with the issue of emotional abuse?

1. Validate her (or his) feelings.

Validation goes far beyond simply listening, though it certainly begins with active listening. Validation means conveying that a woman's anger about mistreatment is understandable and even expected. Validation means listening intently, seeking ways to show we understand her feelings to the fullest extent possible.

2. Take a keen interest in a survivor's story.

Actively listening to her story shows we care. Asking questions and encouraging her to tell her story will be healing, remembering she has probably kept quiet about these problems for a long time. Simple platitudes and dismissive comments, of course, cannot occur. She must experience compassion and care and assisted with a plan of action.

3. Learn all you can about narcissistic and emotional abuse.

The Church, which includes all of us, must learn all we can about the hidden epidemic of emotional abuse. It is only in learning about this problem that we can truly assess appropriate steps to be taken.

4. Determine the danger of her situation.

Emotional abuse is psychologically damaging and we must convey that we understand the danger in her situation. The situation is urgent and we must prepare for action. We must convey that we recognize steps must be taken to ensure her well-being.

5. Find her expert counseling and ongoing emotional support.

Frightened and alone, the emotionally abused need expert counsel and lots of caring support. She needs to know she is not alone and she will be assisted in creating safety in her home.

6. Hold abusers accountable for treatment.

Encourage and insist that they seek professional help to end this problem. The Church taking a stand on this issue will send a loud and powerful message about the importance of this issue. Assist the couple in creating an environment of accountability, so that the emotional abuse stops and ongoing change occurs so the abused can feel safe as the situation is considered.  

7. Develop a study on family and marital violence in the Sunday School curriculum.

The Church can help expose marital violence and abuse by offering training on the subject. Many are eager to learn about covert and overt emotional abuse.

Does your church need to learn more on the topic of narcissistic and emotional abuse? The Marriage Recovery Center works extensively with couples struggling with this issue. We'd also love to hear from you. Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at [email protected] and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center and my Marriage Intensives on my website www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com. You'll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, as well as information about my books on narcissistic and emotional abuse.                           

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