Dr. David Clarke: Am I Being Abused?
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Dr. David ClarkeDavid E. Clarke, PH.D., is a Christian psychologist, speaker, and the author of fifteen books, including I Don’t Want a Divorce, My Spouse Wants Out, and I Don’t Love You Anymore. He is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. He has been in private practice for more than thirty years, focusing on marriages in crisis. He and his blonde wife, Sandy, live in Tampa, Florida. They have four children and four grandchildren (so far; they have asked for...more
“Am I being abused?” Psychologist Dr. David Clarke helps identify red flags in a friend’s relationship or your own and what to do when you see those signs.
Dr. David Clarke: Am I Being Abused?
Ann: Today, we are going to continue our conversation that we started yesterday about abuse. It’s a heavy topic; and if you find yourself in this situation, we really hope that you will get help.
David: The abuser won’t say much about his family, typically, other than: “It was the greatest family in the world,” or “It was horrible”; but these are generalities. If you hear the words—“My dad was abusive,”—okay; red flag. The caveat would be, if he can talk through what happened, and he’s gotten therapy, and he is different; okay. But if he just hates his dad, and can’t believe he was abusive—no—that would be a red flag.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: So I’m not sure I know what you’re going to say, but have you ever counseled a wife to leave her husband?
Ann: Yes, I have. I’ve done that several times, actually.
Dave: When? Why? I don’t want names, but there has to be a big reason.
Ann: The first time that I did this I felt really bad because I missed it.
Dave: By the way, when I say leave her husband, I don’t mean divorce her husband—
Ann: Yes; to separate.
Dave: —but to step away for a while.
Ann: Yes; it was a woman in my Detroit Lions’ Bible study. She was amazing—I loved her—funny, great. Her husband was incredible. He was one of our favorite guys—just really personable, charismatic, just fun—we loved him.
I noticed that she was coming in with her sunglasses on quite a few times at the Bible study. I asked her, “Did you have some eye thing done? Are you okay?” She took her glasses off, and she had a black eye. I didn’t think anything about it. It makes me feel bad; I never questioned her more. Later, I found out that he had been beating her and abusing her.
You remember—we were shocked—just because this guy is the greatest. I’ve had other cases like that where, now, I could recognize it more easily. I will even say this, at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, from the stage/from the front: “If you are in an abusive situation, get out,”—to separate and get safe—“because the loving thing you can do for him/is this will wake him to think, ‘This is an issue, and we need help.’”
Dave: You sound like Dr. David Clarke. I’ve heard him say that. [Laughter]
Ann: I know!
Dave: I’ve read it in his books. He is sitting right across the studio from us. Welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
David: Hey, great to be here.
Dave: Is that what you were thinking when she was saying that? It’s like, “Man, I’ve said that a thousand times.”
David: I was mouthing the words. [Laughter] As Ann indicates—and you’ve both seen this too—these are the greatest guys in the world to the outside world:—
David: —“He helped me,” “He’s funny,” “He’s godly,” “He’s on the church finance committee, for heaven’s sake,” “He’ll do anything for me.” They are shocked to find out that, behind closed doors, different story. The wife is living the nightmare; nobody knows. Your usual, Christian wife: “I don’t want to tell anybody. This is my husband; I love him.” “The kids—what’s going to—you’ve got to tell somebody and get out; you just have to. You have to build up a support team and get out.”
Dave: Well, you do this every day—you’re a psychologist, a writer—15-plus books. You’ve written a book called Enough Is Enough—great title—A Step-by-Step Plan to Leave an Abusive Relationship with God’s Help. A lot of people will look at that subtitle and think you are telling them to get divorced; but you really are saying what Ann said: “No, sometimes, you need to get safe. It’s a wake-up call for the abusive spouse; and maybe, change can happen.” The dream is that you come back together and have a whole different marriage and family.
But talk about the red flags—because if I am a wife, or I’m in a marriage and I’m not sure: “Is he really an abuser, or is he just a selfish guy that sometimes messes up?”—how do I/what are the red flags? How do I put that in that category, where, “Wow, I probably do need to get safe”?
David: One thing is it’s not stopping, and it has been years. Couple of months: okay; young man and new to the marriage. My first year of marriage, I was not very impressive as a husband; I was selfish. My mother—“It’s my mother’s fault; she had spoiled me.” [Laughter] I said that to Sandy; I expected all of these things from her.
Here is one of the key differences: we’re eight months into our new marriage. She sat me down—I think it was more like three—and she said, “David, this is ridiculous. I know you are the baby, but I cannot cook every meal. I’m working/I’m working at the Dallas Seminary switchboard, and I can’t keep this place clean without…”—I was doing nothing. She said, “Here is the way it is going to have to be. You’re going to have to do the laundry from now on. You’re going to have to help with the meals.”
I loved her; I thought, “Whoa!” Did I change?—yes, I did.
Ann: So you’re saying, “We do dumb things when we first get married, but that’s not the definition of an abuser.”
David: No; everything changed because I love my wife, and I am normal. I thought, “Whoa! I’m just a selfish pig.”
So when you see change—and not just: these guys/the abuser will change for a couple of days, maybe a week or two, and then go right back—if it’s consistent change, and he is really growing as a man, and he is learning, and he is meeting your needs. My job is to meet Sandy’s needs: when she is happy, of course, I’m happy; and everything works out.
Abusers don’t think that way: “It’s all about me,”—so they do not change, not in the context of a reasonable marriage—you can’t do anything with a person like that. Then I say, “Ladies, look. Look, I’m looking at you, and we’re talking through. I see there is damage being done. Let’s look at what is happening to you.”
That’s one of the key red flags—all kinds of physical problems—you’re 35 years old; you’re 45; you’re 50: you’re falling apart. Why is that? It is because the stress of the trauma of the emotional abuse you are experiencing.
Ann: Are you talking physical?
David: Physical/physical damage: heart problems; kidney issues; all kinds of emotional/panic disorders; you’re depressed all the time; you’re anxious—all these things are happening—your self-esteem is being stripped away. You’re not as close to God—there is a spiritual impact too—you’re distant from Him; because you are wondering, “Why has He put me in this situation?” You’re not serving Him, because you have no energy. You’re physically exhausted all the time.
Then I say, “Let’s talk about your kids,”—because if I can get the mamma bear energized, maybe that/if you won’t do it for you, maybe, you’ll do it for your kids—your kids are also suffering. The abuser will turn your own kids against you. He’ll spend decades poisoning them against you.
Ann: How do they do that?
David: Something happens, and you’ll be criticized right in front of them at the dinner table: “This isn’t a good meal.” I mean, literally: “You burned this,” or “This wasn’t done,” or “I told you I don’t like fish!” I mean, just harsh—kids are sitting right there, front row seats—what the wife does. Usually, the wife will just take it: okay, pattern established: “Something is wrong with mom.” If you don’t challenge that idea—the theory that you are crazy, or a poor cook, or whatever else—he’ll do that in so many different areas, sometimes right in front of you; and a lot of times, outside of you—so the kids think, “Something is wrong with Mom.”
Ann: So they will start disrespecting her?
David: They will; oh, yes. They are not listening to you. They know they don’t have to, because the abuser will come in behind you; he wants to be the hero.
When Sandy—she was raising our four kids, mostly—I’m trying to build my practice. When I came home and she said, “Here is what’s happened, and I want you to back me,” every time, I back her. I believed my wife. The abuser won’t do that—he sees a chance to win and get the kids on his side—and say, “No, you can stay up until
9 o’clock, watching TV.”
I’ll tell these ladies: “Have you noticed they are not respecting you? They are not listening. They are not following through on your consequences, because they know they don’t have to.”
What’s happening—little boys, who grow up in this kind of home, with an abusive dad and a mom that takes it—they are abusers-in-training. They are learning their lessons 85 percent of the time; that modeling is so critical. And the little girls [are] the abused-in-waiting; they are going to be drawn to a guy who is abusive. They are going to marry him, and the whole generational sin thing never stops.
We have to stop it. You only stop it is by saying, “I’m getting ready. I’m following these steps, and I’m getting out.”
Dave: Yes, and sometimes—I mean, you even said earlier that, when you were first married to Sandy, it was a couple of months; and she let it go. But if I’m a wife, who is being physically abused, you don’t wait a couple of months—
David: No! Exactly.
Dave: —because, physically they and their children, you can’t give them too much; you can’t give them a week. You’ve got to stop right now.
David: No, I agree. Physical is different; I want them out. With emotional abuse, they just can’t quite pull that off. But the physical—yes, it’s today—there are shelters; you’ve got to circle the wagons: family, friends. “Yes, today is the day. Get out.” Even ladies like that, they find it, obviously, very hard to do. Hope springs eternal.
Ann: Well, and we don’t feel like we’re as spiritual if we do that; because Jesus conquers all. I think we put ourselves in that position of: “But/but God can save this.” You’re saying, “He might; but in order to save it, you have to get out first.”
David: Right. I will tell them, “On the authority of Scripture,”—and I’ll read them the passages—“Jesus is telling you, ‘Get out. I want you to get out.’”
I think of my three precious daughters—and if one of their husbands, or more than one, was abusing them, as a loving father, what would I do?—“Well, sorry, you’re just stuck in that situation,” and “It’s probably your fault anyway,”—like many pastors might say. No! I would do anything to get them out. Well, God is even more loving than I could ever be. He is not in favor of that kind of ongoing suffering and, frankly, destruction. No, no; He wants you out.
Dave: How do you convince a couple—maybe it’s the wife if the husband’s the abuser—that separating for a time—and you don’t know how long that could be; it could be a long time; it may not ever come back together—but we hear that, and we hear defeat. We think, “I’m giving up.”
But you’re saying: “It is the opposite. You’re not actually giving up; you’re [making] a move. You’re making a move that God is going to use in a much better way.” Help us understand how that is victory rather than defeat.
David: I say: “Look, your pattern is so strong: it’s been ten years,” “It’s been fifteen; am I right? How long have you been married?” “Twenty,” “Twenty-five”—whatever—“Fifteen.”
“It’s like a monster; you are feeding it. If you stay together, it will never go away. It’s too strong; it’s too much for you. Plus, if you stay together, the only plate you can spin right now is getting yourselves healthy. You’re not healthy. He needs the space to work on his abusive tendencies/his abusive behavior—figure it out—he can only do that apart. Plus, we’re motivating him.”
You’ve got to restore your life. You’ve lost your voice; you’ve lost your identity. You don’t know who you are. Your kids have turned against you. You’re falling apart. Your healing is just as important as his. You can’t do that when you’re interacting with the person. I’ll say, “Your marriage is right on the edge. You can’t one more time of this happening. It’s not one more time; it might push you over the edge. We’ve got to create some space. It’s the best chance you’ve got to actually make this work.”
Dave: Now, I’m guessing someone could be listening, thinking, “I’m not married. I don’t want to have this kind of marriage. What red flags should I be looking for if I am dating or I’m in a relationship with a guy or a gal? Are there signs? Should I be able to see that this guy/this gal could be a problem?”
David: Yes, there are almost always red flags. The hundreds of ladies I’ve talked to, looking back, say, “Oh, I saw those; but I was in love with him. I thought he would change.”
Always take a look at the guy’s family. See them together; spend a weekend. Women are intuitive; you can pick up a lot from what goes on in a home. You’re going to quiz this guy—that the abuser won’t say much about his family, typically, other than: “It was the greatest family in the world,” or “It was horrible”—but these are generalities.
“What was it like in your home?” Well, if you hear the words—“My dad was abusive,”—okay; red flag. Now, the caveat would be, if he can talk through what happened, and he has gotten therapy, and he is different; okay. But if he just hates his dad, and can’t believe he was abusive, that would be a red flag.
When you see his parents interact, if they are still together, then you—these guys can’t help themselves, even over the course of a weekend—there will be small things that you will pick up. Does she wait on him, hand and foot? Is he sharp with her? Is there criticism?
Of course, his relationship with you/his interaction with you—what these guys will do is the control starts very early on—they will begin to separate you from your friends, friends that you have had for a lifetime or key close friends: “No, I want you to be with me.” Well, you’re thinking, “He loves me so much; he wants to be with me.” No, no; he wants to control you. A normal man would never fool with your friendships. You can have both. He’ll start cutting you off from your family.
Other instances of control: the guy who has got a financial problem, and you check out his financial history. Some of these guys—they are either high-powered workaholics, who you are never going to see, and are driven in their career—more important than you’ll ever be—or they are slackers, and they don’t work; and you are paying for most of the meals.
If you date a man long enough—six, seven, eight months—and it’s getting kind of serious, if he won’t talk about any issue—I don’t care what it is, in a normal relationship—Sandy can bring up anything in the world, and I am to listen and understand. If it is about me, that is tough; but hey, I want to have the truth. This guy won’t do that. He might say a quick, “I’m sorry,” and you move on. He will not work through an issue.
“But we’ve never had a fight!” Are you kidding me? How many fights are you going to have in your marriage? You need to figure out how to do that right now. You want to see the abuser when he’s angry/when something hasn’t gone his way. That’s going to tell you what you need to know about the guy, because the abuser guy can’t handle it.
Dave: Well, the scary thing is, as you started sharing some of those red flags, I wanted to turn to Ann and say, “Wow; I had a lot of those,” which I think is a good discussion; because—no, honestly—I was thinking, “Well, you talk about my dad; you talk about my mom and dad; you come see my family.” I wouldn’t say my dad was an abuser, but there was a control; there was an emotional abuse. They were divorced. There were alcohol problems. We didn’t resolve conflicts—we sort of avoided them—because it was bad, and it was loud.
Anyway, as I was listening to you talk about that, I’m like, “Wow!” I think/well, I can ask you, “Did you ever think I was even close to being emotionally abusive to you or others?”
Dave: No, but I had some of those flags. So that is the question: “How do you—
Ann: Well, Dave, let me talk about the difference. Like as he was naming those, as I think back, you were always willing to talk about yourself in terms of: “This is where I came from.” You were vulnerable, saying: “This is what I feel…” “These are some of my insecurities…” You were strong in saying, “I never want to be like that.”
The thing I watched in you was your pursuit of Jesus, and your pursuit of other men and discipleship, and being under the authority of other men. Most of us have messed up backgrounds; but you were willing to look at it, and you were willing to have other men speak into it.
Dave: And that is the question. You’re an expert on this; you see this all the time: “What did I do different that would say, ‘Oh, you’ve got some brokenness; but you’re not an abuser—not even close—it’s not a red flag. It’s a flag, and you’re going to deal with that in your marriage,’”—and we have—but it’s not like, “Wow, this guy is in that category.” What separates the abuser from somebody who is just broken?
David: I think Ann said it beautifully—because I’m not that concerned about the fact that your background is a disaster—because, as Ann said, “Most of us have that.” Okay; it’s: “What you do with that?” If you bring it up—you’ve been to his house and seen his parents—or he’s talked to you about the problems, how does he talk about that? Will he talk about it in detail? Will he be vulnerable? “Here is what I have learned from this, and here is the work that I’ve done to not be like them”; okay, that is key.
The fact that he is talking about it at all will take away a lot of red flags—if he’ll have the discussion anytime you want—“I’m concerned about this…” “…concerned about that,”—anything in the dating relationship—“That bothered me, what you said this morning,” “You were 20 minutes late,”—it doesn’t make any difference; you’re testing, and he is always there listening. Okay, abusers can’t do that, not for very long.
And of course, Jesus. He not just says he is a man of God; and “I’m on the committee”; or “I go to church.” Will he spiritually bond with you? Will he pray with you on a regular basis? Will he open the Word of God? Is he leading you spiritually? Is he open to really talking about his spiritual life?—really following Jesus? Does he have accountability? Is he in a men’s group? Okay, that’s a guy we can live with.
Ann: Those are good signs.
Dave: Yes, and it sounds like—as I’m listening to you, it sounds like—and it is what Jesus does in a man or a woman’s heart: is He takes away defensiveness;—
Dave: —I guess it would be arrogance, narcissism. Where you are, now—and you might not have been before Christ—but Christ does a work on the heart, where it softens to the point, where you are like, “I have brokenness. I want to grow. Help me grow,” rather than anytime you point something out: “You are wrong!” That is the control side; right? There is humility and a lack of defensiveness that’s got to be there,—
Dave: —whether you are dating or in marriage. If that is gone, you’re looking for trouble.
David: See, they are not a work in progress—they are fine—they are perfect now, and “Don’t give me any input.” They’ll give some words that may say, “Well, I guess I messed up.” Oh, no, no; it’s very rare, and they move right on. That humility—if you’ve got a humble man, who will be vulnerable and say, “I messed up there. I hurt you”—period. Nobody gives a real apology in this society any more. An apology is: “I was wrong; I hurt you.”
And then, if it’s a woman—I hurt Sandy: I do it, I don’t want to; but a couple of times a week—then, not only am I sorry: “Blew it. My fault”—period—but then she is going to talk it out: what happened, and relive it to make sure I know what happened, and I get it. That’s how women operate.
The abuser won’t let you do that. If I’m going to give you an “I’m sorry,” that’s all you are getting. “Be thankful. I’ve handed you this stone tablet of apology, and that is it. Move on!” No, it’s got to be talked out. Women want to be reassured: “Do you really get it?” That’s how you bond. Abusers won’t do that; they won’t do it.
When I see an engaged couple—and it’s not very often—you can imagine why. What a surprise! I’m really hard on them, almost trying to break them up. I want them to have a real relationship before they get to the wedding.
Ann: Do you know what we say? We say, “You guys, you should go on a really hard mission trip because—
Dave: See them under stress.
Ann: Yes—“to see each other under stress, under no sleep, under hard living conditions.”
Dave: “How they treat others.”
David: Oh, I love that; that’s a—
Ann: It reveals a lot.
David: It is. You are sleeping on the hard ground. Are you kidding?
Ann: Yes, yes. [Laughter]
David: That is what I’m talking about. That’s good; [muck] it up.
Dave: Yes, this could be a scary action step for a married couple; but I’m going to say it anyway. I think one of the greatest gifts you can receive from your spouse is truth; and it’s hard, because we don’t want truth. We’d sort of like: “You’re awesome,” “You’re amazing”; but I call it a gift because, when your spouse speaks something, maybe that is hard for you to hear—like, “I see something in your life I would like to point out…”—and it goes both ways—that’s the moment of truth, where, “Am I going to resist this? Or am I going to go, ‘This is a gift; this might actually make me better’?”
Now, I know I might just have set up a couple to get in a huge fight right now; but I want to encourage you to be able to say, “Okay, honey, I want you to tell me something I need to know; and I’m going to listen to it and not get defensive.” See if you can do it!
Ann: Well, you might, Dave, at first—because we’ll do that—but then, we’ll come back to one another and say—I’ve said often to you, like, “Okay, I over-reacted, and I got really defensive. I’m sorry about that. Let’s talk some more.”
David: See, that’s a healthy couple. My Sandy—much like my mom—she is a tough cookie. She calls me out, but she has made me a better man—SO much better—
David: —because she is right. She is right every time. She lives with me. How could she be wrong? She’s experiencing me. I spent the first eight months thinking she was wrong, and I could always explain; that’s ridiculous.
She says, “Look, I’m a reasonable person. I have a degree in college. I’m living with you! And you are an idiot some of the time.” Okay, but as I’ve taken that—of course, I love her—it has to be done anyway; but I’ve changed and matured. Abusers don’t do that.
Ann: If your adult daughter is dating someone, heading toward marriage, and you as a parent are seeing these red flags, what do you do? You have adult children.
David: Yes, I do. They married wonderful young men; but if that wasn’t the case—that’s a good point, Ann—this is like a one-time operation, because they can marry who they want. However, like Dave said, truth—you sit down with that girl—if it’s the dad; it can be the dad and the daughter. I like, one on one, because if it’s both of you as parents, it’s too much.
Ann: —ganged up on.
David: Exactly—not a restaurant; that’s a social place, can’t talk—she [waitress] is filling my water glass—whatever. Private place—and it’s a one-way statement—I think the best way to do it is: “We’re not having a dialogue in this first meeting. I’ve got something to say to you. I’m going to say it, and I just want you to listen. I don’t want any response.”
We can get by the defensiveness that’s going to be right there—“I love Bob. Bob would never!”—“Honey, listen to me. I’m going to lay it out, and give you specific examples. I’ve got a concern. I’m just saying, ‘At least, think about these issues and postpone the wedding, and he has got some work to do. I’m not saying you can’t marry him; but let’s see if he changes. Think and pray about this, honey.’”
If she starts to respond—[say] “Not now, in a couple of days,”—maybe, there is a better chance she’ll actually think about it, and then you can have another conversation. It’s worth a try. She could say, “No”; but at least, you have made the attempt.
A lot of parents—well, I’ve heard so many times:
- [Child] “Well, we’re getting married in three months,”
- [Parent] “Maybe, you’re not; it is not against the law to cancel.”
- [Child] “Oh, the money! The people! The wedding invitations!”
- [Parent] “Who cares? You’re on the verge of marrying a dirtball/a potential dirtball. Let’s make sure that he’s not!”
- [Parent] We’ve lived longer. [We] pick up these things; [we’re] not wrong.”
- [Child] “Oh, you’re right. You are seeing things…”
- [Parent] “In the throes of love, you can miss it.”
David: That’s what parents are for. I’d try that, one on one—lay it on them—and hope they think, and pray, and get back to you.
Shelby: I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann’s conversation with David Clarke on FamilyLife Today. His book is called Enough Is Enough: A Step-by-Step Plan to Leave an Abusive Relationship with God’s Help. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We have FamilyLife’s president, David Robbins, with us today. David, tell us about what has been on your heart as you’ve been reflecting lately.
David Robbins: I just want to take a moment to thank those of you who are Partners of FamilyLife and help give to keep FamilyLife Today reaching as many families as possible, and bringing the timeless truth of God’s Word and helping it meet real everyday life. I wanted to share this message that the FamilyLife team received from a listener and wanted you to know how your contribution is helping people.
Woman: Let them know how much I appreciate their authenticity, their dealing with truth with forgiveness and kindness, bringing up topics that are so relevant/so needed. [Emotion in voice] I haven’t felt that with other Christian programs—they are lecturing to me—but they don’t lecture to the person, who is hurting and needs healing from a bad, abusive 50-more years of abuse in marriage.
David Robbins: As I hear her tender heart, it just reminds me that your gifts help meet people right where they are, and help them experience God exactly where they need to experience God today. Your gift really matters.
Shelby: Yes, it really does. Again, this week, when you give a donation of any amount, we want to send you a copy of my book called What’s the Point?: Asking the Right Questions about Living Together and Marriage. This will be a helpful book for the young adult in your life, who might be struggling with different views on dating, and marriage, and cohabitation, and all the confusing stuff surrounding that topic. Again, you can give easily online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call with your donation at 800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Do men and women have different roles in marriage?—how about the church? Well, next week, Dave and Ann Wilson will be joined by Kevin DeYoung to talk about men and women in the church. Oh boy! It’s going to be a good one.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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