Counseling for the Difficult Times
Christian counselor Jonathan Holmes talks about the challenges of counseling a spouse experiencing emotional or physical abuse. He also tackles the problem of dwindling desire in marriage, and asserts that intimacy problems are typically spiritual problems and symptomatic of deeper issues. He also shares how he would counsel a couple experiencing spiritual differences.
About the Guest
- Author and family therapist Dr. Ramona Probasco tells what it's like to be married to an abusive man because she's been there. (27 min. podcast) https://www.familylife.com/podcast/familylife-today/the-big-secret/
- Pastor Justin Holcomb explains while physical abuse is definitely a part of domestic abuse, mental, emotional, and financial abuse are just as devastating. (26 min. podcast) https://www.familylife.com/podcast/familylife-today/what-is-domestic-abuse/
- Nancy Murphy talks about the domestic abuse she endured at the hands of her former husband. (25 min. podcast) https://www.familylife.com/podcast/familylife-today/the-abuse-begins/
- Has the FamilyLife Today® podcast and resources helped you? Learn more about becoming a Legacy Partner, a monthly supporter of FamilyLife. https://www.familylife.com/legacy
Christian counselor Jonathan Holmes talks about the challenges of counseling a spouse experiencing emotional or physical abuse. He also shares how he would counsel a couple experiencing spiritual differences.
Counseling for the Difficult Times
Bob: Is it possible you are in an abusive relationship and have never called it that? Jonathan Holmes says it is.
Jonathan: I was speaking with a woman—she’s been married for 35 years—she began describing to me just what daily life looks like for her in the home. Again, she’s not even mentioning it in the context of abuse; but it’s clearly abusive. I just raised up the question, “Has anybody ever mentioned to you that you might be in an abusive relationship?” She kind of just paused—and I could tell I caught her off guard—she goes “Well, no.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, August 28th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. How do you identify an abusive relationship? What do you do if you’re in one? We’re going to talk about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We are tackling some pretty tough stuff.
Dave: These are like the big five.
Bob: I remember talking to a pastor, one time, who said to me, “If we took our pastoral staff and asked, ‘What are you spending your time on?’, they would say, ‘More than
50 percent of our time is spent dealing with people, who are in marital distress—going through a divorce or recovering from a divorce.’” Then I said, “How many classes in seminary did you have on that?” They said, “Maybe, half of one,”—right?
When you get to the reality of what’s going on in our churches, and what are the issues, there are very few people scheduling an appointment with the pastor to say: “I’m struggling with whether this was active voice in the original language or whether it’s past tense. [Laughter] I’m really trying to understand the eschatological implications of the Olivet discourse.”
Dave: You know, Bob, in 40 years of ministry, I’ve never had a single conversation about that.
Bob: [Laughter] Right.
Ann: And yet, “My spouse cheated on me,” “My spouse looks at porn,” “My spouse isn’t a believer,” “My spouse is abusing me in frozen intimacy,”—I have those conversations, continually, in the church.
Jonathan: Yes; right.
Bob: The person, who is saying, “Yes,” and “Right,” is Jonathan Holmes, who joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Jonathan, welcome.
Jonathan: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Bob: Jonathan is the pastor of counseling at Parkside Church. He has written a book called Counsel for Couples: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Marriage Counseling. You listed off the big issues/the most common issues. We’ve talked, this week, about infidelity and a little bit about pornography; but what about the issue of abuse?—both physical abuse and also emotional abuse. Emotional abuse, I know, gets a little squishy because, “My husband got mad at me yesterday, so I was emotionally abused,”—I’m not trying to minimize that. How do—
Ann: I’d like to define that actually—of what that is.
Bob: What is emotional abuse?
Jonathan: Well, when we talk about any kind of abuse—whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual—any kind of abuse—you can’t talk about abuse without talking about power and control. Those patterns of control and power: “Is it in withholding finances?” “Is it within endangering a woman’s life?” or “Is it withholding resources?”—or “keeping them from talking to family members?”—or “berating them, consistently, as a means to belittling the image of God in another person?”
There is a little bit of a difference between a husband, who will get mad at his wife, or a wife, who will push back on her husband occasionally, than some of these habitual patterns, where they’re exercising power and control over another individual.
Bob: Physical abuse is one of those hidden sins and, yet, more prevalent, maybe, than we realize?
Jonathan: Absolutely. One in every four women, at some point in their life, will be a victim of domestic violence. When we think about domestic abuse—like you were saying, Bob, it sometimes can stay hidden—but violence can occur in a number of other ways. As we’ve already mentioned, emotional abuse/financial abuse, where you’re exercising power and control over another individual, where you are belittling or trying to take away the image of God in another person, without ever even touching them. It can be through public intimidation; it could be through the withholding of finances—a variety of different things.
Bob: My experience has been, if it’s a wife who is being abused, she feels like there is something wrong with her even bringing up that she’s being abused. She feels shame or something related to confessing this.
Jonathan: Yes; exactly. I was speaking with a woman, earlier this weekend—she’s been married for 35 years—she began describing to me just what daily life looks like for her in the home. Again, she’s not even mentioning it in the context of abuse; but it’s clearly abusive. I just raised up the question, “Has anybody ever mentioned to you that you might be in an abusive relationship?” She kind of just paused—and I could tell I caught her off guard—she goes, “Well no; I don’t think that.”
What had happened was—her husband had so consistently used power and control over her to really put her into a spot where she really had no personal agency/where she really had lost a lot of personhood as a wife and an individual. She didn’t even know that.
Bob: Does this ever happen the other way around—
Bob: —where a husband is being abused by his wife?
Jonathan: Yes; and I would say that’s an even more hidden epidemic. I think, a lot of times, when we think about abuse—again, we, a lot of times, think about a wife, who’s being abused; but in my own counseling practice, I’ve seen a number of cases, where a husband is being abused.
Ann: Well, what are the next steps? How did you advise that woman?
Jonathan: The first thing that we always do is—we want to prioritize personal safety, and that is a biblical concept. Whenever we look at Scripture, and we see that people are in danger/when their lives are being personally threatened, we don’t say, “Stop and read this verse,” or “Pray for strength to get through it,” or “God will provide a way of escape.” We see God telling Hagar, “Leave”/”Get out.” We see Joseph, when he’s in the midst of a sexually-abusive situation, getting out/leaving the situation. We see David fleeing from Saul in a time when his life is being endangered. The movement of Scripture is to prioritize personal safety, and so we want to make sure that that happens.
Now a caveat with that is, when after we’re counseling an individual, who is in an abusive situation, we don’t want to counsel them to just leave immediately; because that actually represents the greatest point of personal endangerment to them. For instance, if I told that wife, “Hey, you need to go home, pack your bags, and just high tail it out of there,”—that actually could have represented a significant point of danger for her. Let’s say her husband comes home, while she’s packing her bag, and says, “Hey, what are you doing?” and she tells him. It could have gotten very violent and could have escalated.
When we talk about prioritizing personal safety, we want to do things like make a safety plan: “Who would you call if things got out of hand or things were to escalate? What emergency authorities would you call?”
Ann: We’re talking about physical abuse here?
Jonathan: Yes; physical abuse. Prioritizing that personal safety—seeing if they have somebody’s house that they could go to. Is there a domestic women’s shelter that’s nearby that they could go to? One of the things, when it comes to counseling abuse cases, that I would encourage pastors, counselors, lay people in the church is: “Never do this alone.” The church, unfortunately, in a number of cases, has not dealt with abuse well; or we can minimize abuse; we can cover abuse. We can theologize, in a way, as it were.
Bob: I want to ask you about that. First, let me just say—we’ve got on our website, at FamilyLifeToday.com, links to podcasts on this subject/articles on this subject. We have dealt with this before. People who are in this and need help—we can help you think through a plan and get to safety—the things you’re talking about here. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for that.
But Jonathan, what about the person, who says, “I went to my pastor” or “I went to an elder in our church and they said, ‘Well, you know, the Bible says turn the other cheek’”?
Ann: —or “submit.”
Jonathan: I would say that, “That’s wrong counsel/that’s unbiblical counsel.” I would say that, in charity and in love, not in a way that would demean the pastor or the person that had offered that advice. I would want to take them to Scripture; I would want to show them how God prioritizes the care for the person. He looks out for the weak; He is caring about the oppressed.
When you look at the Old Testament prophets, specifically Isaiah and Jeremiah, one of the issues for the Israelites had been that they had overlooked that type of thing—they had overlooked oppression. They had applied band-aids to people’s wounds—it said in Jeremiah—and God takes them to the proverbial woodshed—He says [paraphrase of Jeremiah 6:14]: “Woe to you for doing that. You have tried to heal people’s wounds lightly. You’ve tried to put a band-aid on their wounds and shame on you for doing that.”
Dave: And yet, the woman or the guy who’s being abused is also trying to forgive. I’ve had people in our church say, “I can’t leave because I’m supposed to forgive.” What do you say to that person?—because there’s that balance of safety; yet, they are still called to forgive. Talk about that.
Jonathan: And that’s where I think, sometimes, we can do ourselves a disservice by trying to rush that forgiveness too quick when there hasn’t been confession and repentance.
Before God, in that vertical dimension of forgiveness, we can bring that before the Lord; and I think bring it before the Lord, really in community, because I find very few people, who are in abusive situations, are even able to pray those things. They need help; they need support; they need strength. They need people to come alongside and support them. But we wouldn’t want to unnecessarily or too quickly rush and offer forgiveness to an abuser when they’re not repentant or they haven’t confessed that.
Bob: I want to ask about an issue that comes up, regularly, when we’re talking with couples at Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways—that’s the issue of the lack of desire for intimacy in a marriage relationship.
Dave: So Bob, we’re just going to go to another light topic. [Laughter] Is that what we’re doing?
Ann: Yes; this is nothing.
Jonathan: Abuse to intimacy; yes.
Dave: Yes; what’s the story to that?
Bob: Well, and this is a situation that I remember 20 years ago—I would often hear about it from husbands. More and more, I’m hearing about it from wives, who say, “My husband does not have interest in intimacy”; and some couples, who would say: “It’s been two years/three years since we’ve been intimate in our marriage. We’ve just kind of walled that off, and we’re just going on with that absent from our marriage.” First of all, what’s going on there?!
Jonathan: I always say intimacy problems are spiritual problems; right? If a couple is having problems with physical intimacy, I can almost guarantee, there’s spiritual intimacy issues; right? A wife and husband are not going to be able to have a fruitful, God-glorifying sex life: if they can’t talk to each other, if they can’t communicate, if they can’t resolve conflict. So trying to understand that, oftentimes, sexual intimacy—and the lack thereof—is symptomatic of deeper issues that are going on.
Bob: We say it’s not the thermostat—that intimacy doesn’t adjust the temperature of your marriage. It is a thermometer that helps diagnose what’s going on.
Jonathan: Yes; love that illustration.
Ann: Well Bob, I would agree with you. Over the years—and we’ve been speaking for FamilyLife®Weekend to Remember for almost 30 years—but there has been a real shift, where I hear so many women saying, “My husband isn’t interested in sex.” Why is that happening?
Jonathan: And again, I don’t want to blame everything on pornography; but I would say I think the role of pornography has played a significant role in that.
Another issue would just be I think our culture—the way it’s oriented towards work and towards a lack of rest. We just don’t make time for it; we just don’t prioritize it. I mean, a couple going to bed at night—half the time, not even together at the same time—because of priorities, because of kids, of just demands on their time. We don’t prioritize protecting that aspect of our relationship.
You’re absolutely right. I’m actually finding that to be true too, Ann, of more and more women coming and telling me that as well.
Bob: So the wife, who says: “I can take it or leave it. When it comes right down to it, at the end of the day, with the kids/with everything that’s going on, I would rather go to sleep than be intimate with my husband. I can live like that for months, and it doesn’t bother me.”
Ann: And husbands are saying that now, too; so what’s your answer?
Jonathan: One of the things I think is—it requires a little bit of teaching. Again, this can be done in the context of a discipleship relationship/a friendship relationship but to help them see sex as service—that there’s something about the sacrificial act of giving yourself to your spouse—that that’s actually the radical thing that Paul’s talking about in 1 Corinthians, where he’s saying, “Listen, you don’t own your body.”
Sex in ancient and near eastern cultures was very much about the body and just about pleasure; it was not about spiritual intimacy or unity. For Paul to tell a wife that she has control over her husband’s body or for him to tell a husband that he has control over his wife’s body would have been an incredible radical thing in first century Jewish culture.
When we think about sexual intimacy, framing it under the rubric of service in love, I think is absolutely important. Now, we say that; and it sounds a little bit like Christianese because, as JC Ryle says, “Familiarity with sacred things has a dreadful tendency to cause men to despise them.” We’ve heard that so much—we’ve heard sex being talked about as a way to serve your spouse that, I think, we’ve actually forgotten that. We need to reclaim that vision.
Bob: You also know that—if a wife’s attitude or a husband’s attitude is: “Okay; I will provide a service for you because I know I’m supposed to, and I want to be a good wife,” or “…a good husband,”—that’s not a recipe for a fulfilling sex life in a marriage relationship.
Jonathan: Right; absolutely not. I’m not meaning—I don’t want to communicate the wrong thing when I’m talking about service. It’s not in that sort of way but it’s more of an attitude. It’s a disposition and it’s an attitude that wants to see your spouse’s highest welfare in Christ—to see them become all that they can be in Christ. I think that’s an important attitude and disposition to have.
Bob: The person, who would say: “I just don’t have desire. I wish I did.” Is there a way to stir or reawaken desire in a person where it’s just dead for whatever reason?
Jonathan: In one of those things that it actually brings up is that there might be physical things going on as well. So part of a good counseling relationship is, not just spiritualizing everything, but also saying, “Hey, maybe you should reach out to your primary care physician or talk to your OB/GYN to see if there are also physiological issues that might be going on that are affecting your sex life.” We are not just souls walking around; we are actually physical beings. To attend to that part of who we are, as it relates to that type of struggle—I think is important advice that we can give to both husbands and wives.
Ann: We make sure that it’s not physical. Let’s say the spouse is thinking/our listener is thinking: “Alright, I’m going to pursue my husband” or “…my wife tonight”; but I’m rejected. Do I just continue to be rejected?
Jonathan: I think rejection is one of the most difficult things for any spouse to deal with. What I’ll try and counsel spouses, in that situation as it relates to sexual intimacy, is I’ll say: “What other ways do you feel like you are pursuing that?—where you’re pursuing love and service in meaningful connection outside of the bedroom. Are there other ways where you’re trying to show that, demonstrate that, and communicate that?”
And after a time, if there’s just continual rejection, I do think that’s where additional counseling can be helpful—where it’s probably risen above just where something maybe a friend or a mentor can help provide a context to work through some of those issues to say: “Hey, maybe you guys should try marriage counseling. Maybe there’s some other issues that are going on:”—things we’ve already talked about—“communication, or forgiveness, or conflict resolution that need to be attended to that are actually touching on this other issue.”
Dave: As you look at the culture we’re living in now, you said one of the reasons maybe desire is lower is: pornography, and busyness, and working our tails off—and we’ve been there.
What about intimacy?—are we living in a culture, where because of social media and because we’re connected and, in some ways, we’re intimate, online—and I don’t mean looking at porn—but we’re sharing our lives; feels like we’re intimate with a lot of people; yet, we’re not at all. Then we get home and then there’s this wall or fear.
Maybe I’m talking about myself. [Laughter] But you know, I’m just wondering, “Do you see that as well?”—because, now, to be sexually intimate is really a scary place to go.
Jonathan: Absolutely. You see that picture—right?—in Genesis 2, where it says Adam and Eve stood before each other what?—naked and unashamed. There’s a beauty and a simplicity to that phrasing in Genesis 2 that stands in such stark contrast to where we’re at today.
That word you picked up, Dave, about intimacy, I absolutely think is true—that we are living in a world where we have curated this vision of who we want other people to think that we are. We don’t want people to see us as we really are—and not only in a spiritual or in a vulnerable way—but in a very physical way too. In terms of sexual intimacy coming from, also, just a lack of vulnerability and intimacy in just everyday life, I definitely think that could be a cause.
Bob: Okay; last question. We’re just going to squeeze this in because we only have a little bit of time. [Laughter] A husband comes to you and says: “When I got married, I thought my wife’s level of spiritual interest was higher than it has proven to be. I miscalculated. I thought she was on fire for the Lord and, now, she doesn’t want to go to church. I’m wondering if she’s even a believer at this point,”—or maybe—“She said, ‘I used to believe, but I don’t anymore,’ and it feels like part of our marriage has died. How can I be one with somebody who doesn’t share what is the most important thing in my life?”
Jonathan: It’s a common issue that comes up, where we find couples, who are in unequally-yoked relationships or where, like you said, maybe, they go into the relationship both espousing and holding on to certain beliefs but, over time, those beliefs dissipate and begin to disappear. The spouse who’s in that position/the believing spouse in that position needs a lot of encouragement; they need a lot of hope.
The one thing I’ll tell them is: “God has you there for a reason. This isn’t a mistake.” I’ll tell couples a lot of times, not only in this situation: “The person to whom you are married is the person to whom God wants you to be married to right now. This is God’s will right now for your life. So what do you do with that? How do you make the most of it? How can you take what God has stewarded to you and use it for His glory?”
One of the first things that I try to help spouses realize, as it relates to their unbelieving spouse, is: “You can’t control them. You can’t do the work of conversion; that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in their life, and so that’s what we pray towards.”
One of the biggest things—as we know, not only in this situation, but in many other marriage counseling situations—is we want to change our spouse; right? [Laughter] We just wish that we could change who they are, what they do, or bad habits, etc. When it comes to things of faith, of course, this is the ultimate: “I wish my spouse believed what I believed and held the same values that I did.” In counseling that person to understanding what’s within your control and what’s outside of your control. The best thing that you can always do is to live a life that’s worthy and pleasing and honoring to God. That is your best apologetic—not only to an unbelieving world—but to an unbelieving spouse.
Dave: “Do I try to get them to go to church with me or do I just pray and live my life?”
Jonathan: I think that you can do both. Sometimes, you go through seasons where maybe you have a lot of things you want them to do and participate in; and it can, maybe, turn them off from church—you know, you’re always at church and encouraging them to come to church. And then, there’s other spouses, who take a little bit more of a hands-off approach and: “Well, I’m just going to let them do whatever they want, and I’ll pray about it.” I think it’s probably a mix of both.
Bob: Well, 1 Peter 3 does speak to this with wives—that you win your husband without a word. Your behavior is a part of what does it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t encourage friends to pray with you or to come alongside you in this situation.
Jonathan: Yes; and one other dynamic, just really quickly; sometimes, I’ll see is—sometimes, in unequally-yoked marriages, is that the believing spouse will almost kind of leave their other spouse just kind of out there; because they will become so devoted to the church, that they’ll neglect their marriage.
Again, it sounds like a little bit of an ironic thing—where you really have a high view of marriage—but yet your spouse, who doesn’t share your beliefs, doesn’t really feel that/doesn’t actually see you living it out: “You’re at church every single night, serving; and you’re not here, present, at home with the kids or with me.” Sometimes, the best testimony, I think, for an unbelieving spouse is to see their believing spouse engage with them—to actually share the gospel/ to preach and live life with them and not outside the home.
Dave: And you know, another tool—Bob, you’re going to agree with this—that’s a phenomenal tool for an unbelieving spouse is to get to something/an environment that would help your marriage, that’s based on Christ, called the Weekend to Remember. [Laughter]
Bob: The Weekend to Remember.
Dave: How many people come to Christ at that weekend because they just get there?
Ann: A lot.
Bob: We see three to four percent, a year, who come to faith at a Weekend to Remember getaway. We designed it so that it would be friendly; it’s not designed, specifically, for an unbeliever; but we designed it so it would be as friendly as possible for an unbeliever so that, at the weekend, they’re going: “You know, I’m okay here. I’m glad we’re here. They’re talking about the Bible and God; I’m okay with that.”
I mean, if they’re hostile toward the Bible and God, it’s going to be a turnoff. But, if they’re kind of okay hearing about that and they know it’s a Christian deal, they’ll feel comfortable—the speakers are relatable. That’s a big part of what the Weekend to Remember is all about. We want it to be a place, where a wife or a husband can bring an unbelieving spouse and have a great weekend/a great getaway, and hear marriage framed in a gospel perspective.
I’m just sitting here, looking at what we haven’t had a chance to talk about; right? [Laughter] I’m looking at issues like:
or like “Miscarriage,”
or “Infant Loss,”
the number of couples that divide after “A Child Has Died”;
I’m looking at issues like: “Kids: ‘We’re not on the same page with parenting,’”
or “Communication Has Broken Down”;
there’s “Anger in a Marriage Relationship.”
This book that you’ve written, Jonathan, Counsel for Couples is a treasure. “It’s a gift,” I’ve said to the church, to pastors, to all of us who are involved in marriage ministry. Having the time to talk to you about it this week has been a great blessing. Thank you for being here.
Jonathan: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an honor.
Bob: We’ve got the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Again, the title is Counsel for Couples: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Marriage Counseling by Jonathan Holmes. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Number to call to order Counsel for Couples by Jonathan Homes is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
This is one of those times when we kind of wish we could sit down and have a cup of coffee with each individual listener; because the President of FamilyLife, David Robbins, is here with us. This is one of those times for a heart-to-heart with listeners, where we need them to be a part of what God’s doing here.
David: Yes; it is such a treat to get to be a part of what God’s doing. I’d just like to take a moment to talk straight to our listeners to ask you to join us/to ask you to come alongside FamilyLife. If you enjoy, and appreciate, and believe in the practical biblical help and hope that we bring to you and to others, we want to expand that reach; we want to increase that impact—we want to take it to more people.
That is what I, as a president, am really consumed with. I really do believe that families are one of the most untapped resources on the planet to be able to help fulfill the Great Commission, and cause societal change. Getting practical biblical help to more people is really what we’re about. We have this opportunity, with this match, and I want to invite you to participate. If you can give, in any amount, it’s so helpful. I want to invite you to give and be a part of the movement of FamilyLife.
Bob: Well, and we try to make that as easy as possible. You can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to donate: 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, keep in mind your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, this week; and we’ll send you, as a thank-you gift, a copy of Dennis and Barbara Rainey’s book, The Art of Parenting, either to keep for yourself or to pass on to someone you know. Thanks for standing with us and for helping to expand the reach of FamilyLife all around the world.
And we hope you can join us again tomorrow. Nancy Guthrie is going to be with us to talk about how we can teach our kids to pray and how we can more effectively pray for them. That comes up tomorrow. I hope you can be with us.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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