How do we know what's abuse and what's not? On FamilyLife Today, join hosts Dave and Ann Wilson as they speak with counselor and author Darby Strickland about her book, "Is It Abuse?" to understand its complexity and how to recognize it.
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Counseling Abusive Marriages. She has written two booklets on abuse and worked with a team to develop the curriculum, Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused, a free web-based training for leaders who minister to abuse victims.
How do we know what’s abuse and what’s not? Counselor and author Darby Strickland helps us understand its complexity and how to recognize it.
Bob: We tend to think of abuse in a marriage relationship as being something physical, domestic violence of some sort. Darby Strickland says there are a lot of categories of marital abuse.
Darby: I’m just thinking of a client of mine, who came in, and she was slowly beginning to talk about the ways that her husband just would perpetually ignore her. He didn’t talk to her at dinner ever; I don’t think he talked to her five minutes in a week.
We just have to go slow and begin to label things: “God’s Word says these things are wrong. It’s not Darby saying these things are wrong, or them saying these things are wrong: but God has called this man to live differently.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, February 25 th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. What makes a marriage an abusive marriage? What has to be going on for it to be considered abusive?—and are you in an abusive marriage? If so, what do you do? We’re going to talk about that today with Darby Strickland. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to tackle a tough one today; aren’t we?
Ann: This is a tough topic.
Bob: I think to myself, sometimes when I am in front of our church, and I’m looking out at our congregation, I’m thinking, “Probably, without me realizing it, there is domestic violence happening somewhere in the homes in [this congregation].” We’d never believe it if we knew, but it’s one of those things that I think is more prevalent than any of us recognize.
Ann: It’s a secret, and I think a lot of people are holding onto that in shame. I think—as a congregation, as lay people, and even as pastors—we don’t always know how to tackle that.
Dave: Yes; and I think, like you said, Bob, I think it’s the secret in the church too. In fact, one of our mottoes in the back room/the green room is: “Never underestimate the pain in the room”; I’ve never forgotten that. Because you’re looking out there, and you’re thinking—you sort of put on a covering; you sort of pretend everything’s okay—and yet, there could be that kind of pain/abuse pain, right there in our seats. I bet it is.
Bob: Darby Strickland is joining us today on FamilyLife Today. Darby, welcome.
Darby: Thank you for having me.
Bob: Darby is an author/a counselor. She is associated with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation in Philadelphia. She has written a book called Is It Abuse?, where you have tackled this subject. It’s a subject you’ve tackled because the secret comes out when people call you and say, “Here’s what’s going on in my marriage”; right?
Darby: Yes; actually, in fact most of the time, they don’t tell me what’s going on in their marriages; I’ve had to discover it. More often than not, when I have a young woman, or a young married, or an older married woman, they’re coming to me for something peripherally. They’re actually saying to me: “Darby, I’m having really bad anxiety,” “I don’t feel like I respect my husband,” “I’m having problems being intimate with him.” They’re not even recognizing that they’re being mistreated and either being abused—they have so much confusion.
Even in cases where there’s physical abuse—right?—their oppressor makes it feel like it’s their fault: that they’re deserving of the treatment, that they need to be disciplined, that they’re not right with God, that their spouse is right to be that angry and frustrated with them.
Ann: Is this going on in the church?
Darby: Sadly, it is. Statistics in the world are about 25 percent of marriages are oppressive or abusive. When I first heard that statistic, I really struggled to believe that; then, doing further research, the same statistic is true in the evangelical church, which I was falling off my chair; and I was struggling to believe it. Then I sat back and I thought about the marriages that I knew in my church, and the women that I was helping in my church, and the support group I was leading in my church; and it quickly filled up the numbers, and it matched.
I’d say for a lot of people who disbelieve the statistic, that’s okay: cut it in half, cut in thirds, cut it in eighths; it’s still a problem, and we really need to address it; because any abuse is intolerable.
Bob: Let’s talk about the definition, because there are times when somebody will say casually, “You know, my husband is abusing me. He won’t let me buy what I want to buy.” You go, “Wait, hang on. That might not be abuse.” Do you have a way to differentiate between what’s legitimate abuse and what’s “I’m not getting what I want”?
Darby: I think that’s actually one of the hardest things to differentiate, particularly if people are on the outside, hearing a story from a wife and a husband. I think we always want to be really careful; we want to go slow. Abuse is a big word: it’s a category; it just means misuse.
One of the things I tell people I want them to do is I want them to describe with accuracy, using all the verbs, not just one incident—right?—I want to hear there’s this perpetual domination of control. A one-off story or a one-off incident can happen in any marriage; but there’s this perpetual nature of domination, and wounding, and punishments. I want people to be able to say: “He was cruel,” “He was manipulative,” “He lied,” with great accuracy for each incident.
We also recognize that abuse happens on a spectrum; right? There are people whose experiences of abuse are more mildly controlling, and there are people who have been terrorized and threatened with lethal violence. In this area, we want to be extremely accurate with what’s happening in a particular case with a particular couple. No two cases of abuse are the same; so we really have to go slow, know the person, know their story, know exactly what’s happening in that relationship.
Ann: You’re talking about, not only a physical abuse of hitting or punching, you’re also talking mental kind of domination.
Darby: Correct. What that would look like: it would be isolating somebody from friends, family, relationships. The thing that I tend to see more in my church cases would be women who are monitored. A friend of mind actually found her husband had her whole cell phone being replicated on his laptop, and then he’d have complaints about how she spent her time and her day. He would dictate and control her through electronic surveillance.
The other large portion is just coercive control, just trying to get somebody to live their life the way they want it at their wife’s expense. You don’t have to use physical force to do that: you can withdraw from someone; you can ignore them; you can be cruel.
Dave: Talk about that control. I don’t have Ann’s cell phone on my laptop, but I do know what she’s spending money on. Did you know that, honey?
Ann: I do know that, because you bring it up. [Laughter]
Dave: Again, we both do that, back and forth. But you know, when does it slide into this coercive control, which is bad?
Darby: I think we all have healthy desires—right?—and we’re all sinners. There are certain things that we like and prefer. Then all of us: sometimes there’s a descent of a healthy desire, and it becomes a need, and then it becomes a demand. That can happen in a bad marriage and a good marriage. I can want my husband to do certain things for me and be upset when he doesn’t, and that’s not healthy: that’s not loving him; that’s not kind.
What I’m about as abuse is I’m willing to wound and punish another person to get what I want; so you create a coercive environment, where someone’s actually enslaved to meeting your desires.
Ann: But the perpetrator necessarily think: “I am going to coerce you,” or “I am going to punish you.” They’re not thinking that; are they?
Darby: I would argue some are and some aren’t.
Darby: That’s what’s really difficult. Again, abuse is on a spectrum. You do have some oppressors, who tend to function more like a chess master; and they’ll play more mind games. They’ll say: “I never said that,” “You didn’t do this.” They might gossip about you at church, purposefully trying to erode your relationships. They’re much more strategic.
Then you have other oppressors, who just want their world the way they want it. They don’t even recognize that what they’re doing is wrong and cruel, and they feel so self-justified in it. Even among oppressors, it’s confusing; because most women will say to me, “Does he understand what he’s doing?” We don’t always know, and that’s very difficult.
Dave: Often, you’ve said: “The man/he’s doing this.” Is it predominantly men that abuse? I’m not just talking physical, but even coercive control; or is there a balance?
Darby: No, I think that’s a great question; thanks for the clarification. Certainly, in my experience with women in the church, it’s much more prevalent to have women as victims. But domestic abuse is gendered; most victims are women. However, men can be victims of domestic violence. Women can do the same gross things that men do to women. We see that with child abuse; right? Women are capable of having the same corruption.
The difference is it’s rarer, because you have to have power and differential in the relationship. In some relationships, that’s easier to establish: if you have a husband, who is disabled; or you were the breadwinner; or you had more family relationships, you might have more natural power in that relationship. It’s not just a cruel behavior; you also have to have the ability to have that power in that relationship.
Dave: I was just thinking, “Okay, if I had one time hit her with the back of my hand across her face, even though I’d never done it again, that is abuse,”—just one time. Is that the kind of thing you see, or is it more of a pattern?
Darby: Typically, if we see one incidence of physical abuse there are probably other forms of coercive control happening. There might have been one incidence, where someone was struck; but then there would be other incidences, where we’d go back and we’d look at how is he valuing her, speaking to her, caring for her.
Oppression is not an incident. Typically, someone who uses physical violence—unless they’re, immediately, distraught/broken, saying, “Get me help; I never want that to happen again”; that’s a person, who has insight and sorrow for what he’s done—oppressors typically do not; they feel very justified.
Dave: You said, often, women come in/they don’t even realize. How do you get them to realize what’s really going on, that they are being oppressed?
Darby: That’s really difficult—because they love this person; they love the Lord, often—they want to do everything they can do for their marriage. Oftentimes, these women come in with their little notes on pieces of paper, trying to tell me, trying to make sense of their world. They’ve read every marriage book; they have prayer journals for the way that they’ve prayed for their husband.
When they start to trust you, and they start to reveal more of the story—I’m just thinking of a client of mine, who came in; and she was slowly beginning to talk about the ways that her husband just would perpetually ignore her: he didn’t talk to her at dinner ever; I don’t think he talked to her five minutes in a week—then she started telling me stories about how he would come in, paying so much attention to the children—bringing them dinner when she was sick and couldn’t cook—but didn’t provide a meal for her.
I just create a category of indifference. I pick a theme for a particular person; and then we just start to wrap those stories, and then they can begin to see that. But then, when they begin to see it, then they also kind of back up and say, “Oh, no, no; but I haven’t told you all the wonderful things about my husband! He’s a great provider…” So they’re very confused in their experience.
We just have to go slow, help them gain insight and begin to label things: “God’s Word says these things are wrong; it’s not Darby saying these things are wrong or them saying these things are wrong. God has called this man to live differently.”
Dave: One of the questions I would have is: “You’re a professional, and somebody’s coming to see you; but a lot of times, this is going to be somebody coming to a friend: I’m the friend; Ann’s the friend; you’re the friend. Coach us—if we’re a friend and somebody starts, or we start to see symptoms—what do we do?—what do we not do?”
Darby: One thing that the oppressed often do is they often float a story. They want to know: “Can I trust you?” One that I often hear of women that have come to see me is they’ll say, “Yes; early on, I was at a women’s Bible study; and I asked another woman/I said, ‘How often does your husband want sex?’” Oftentimes, a lot of my clients have sexual abuse. I just see a lot of that in the church; so here they are—they’re fumbling; they’re wanting to know, “Is this normal?”—but they’re not saying to you: “This is what’s happening in my home”; they’re just floating a question.
I think one thing: we want to be learners of anybody that the Lord puts in our lives, just to slow down and say, “Why did you ask? What’s going on that would make you ask that question?” So often, I think, we rush past people. We want to give people answers—we have good theology; we have good compassion—but we’re not great at slowing down and listening for further stories from someone.
Ann: I listen to you and I “Oh, this is so important.” As a leader of Bible studies for years, I’ll hear all kinds of stories. I’m realizing—after I read your book—I thought, “Wow; I probably missed a lot by giving an answer instead of really, as they float that question, kind of digging into that and asking a little more, and not making assumptions that all they need to do is do these two little things that will fix the problem”; you know? “Well, what’s it look like? How are you respecting him?” I’m realizing/I wonder if I shut some women down from being able to really voice what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing.
Darby: I think we all do that because we lack the imagination. What’s happening in these homes is so—
Ann: Well, we want to assume the best.
Darby: Right, and we cannot assume that level of depravity and evil. Until I began to listen to these stories/these things that these women have told me, I could not have imagined that another human being, let alone one that’s pledged to love you, would perpetrate such acts on someone.
I think for the rest of us, who live in even lousy marriages or a wonderful marriage, like I do, we cannot imagine the horrors. I think it’s a problem of imagination on our end.
Dave: Here’s the question. I think a Christian woman—that maybe is in a marriage that’s physically abusive, sexually abusive, or just coercive control to a bad extreme—she’s living under: “I need to love him,” “I need to respect him unconditionally.” I’ve probably preached things that would make her think that: “I need to forgive him. Christ has forgiven me; I need to forgive him, so I just stay here and take it,” or at least, “I’m honoring God by doing that.” Is that a right perspective? Is that completely wrong?
Darby: Yes; I think that’s a complex issue—right?—because we don’t know how to respond to abuse. Sometimes we want to/we want victims to always bring things into light. If you’re being mistreated and sinned against, it’s actually a higher act of love to bring your spouse’s sin to their attention—and maybe that’s not safe, so that’s what makes abuse complex—but to bring it into the light.
But it also distorts your own relationship with the Lord. If you think that He’s subjecting you to be treated that way, it affects how you think about the Lord’s love of you and your worth as a person/as His precious child.
It is a balance of saying: “Yes, we try to be respectful; we want to love our spouses even when they’re sinning,” “But when there’s such brutal sin, we also have to think about safety; we have to think about exposing sin.” It gets really complex; there isn’t a simple answer.
Dave: Yes, I know that I have learned, over 30 years of preaching, and I didn’t know this early—Bob, it would be interesting to hear if you feel the same way, as a teacher of the Word of God—whenever I’m addressing the issue of forgiveness, I have to address that woman, or maybe that man. I always think of that woman, who’s listening to me, who’s maybe being abused, and all she’s hearing me say is: “You have to forgive. At some point, you have to forgive,” rather than saying, “You need to forgive, and that’s an issue; but you need to get safe first, if you’re in a home…” I have to say that every time.
Dave: “Just a footnote; I just want to make clear: if you’re sitting here, and you’re in a home and your husband’s physically abusing you, I’m not saying—you’re going to have to forgive him eventually—but you need to, right now, get safe. The first thing is get safe.”
Bob: When I was writing Love Like You Mean It, and got to the end of passage in
1 Corinthians 13 that says, “Love bears all things, endures all things,” and you have to pause and go, “What’s that mean?”
Dave: Bob, does that mean? You wrote a book on it.
Ann: Right; what does that mean?
Bob: Well, in moment, you knew you have to be able to say, “Time out. It does not mean you bear abuse.” I said I think pretty much what you’re saying here, Darby: “You’re not loving someone well when you’re enabling them to continue in a besetting sin pattern that is destructive to them and their soul. To blow a whistle and say, ‘We have to have help for you for this pattern that I’m being oppressed by you. You’re being an oppressor.’ That’s bold, courageous love. ‘Bear all things and endure all things,’ does not mean you continue to bear physical violence or endure physical violence.”
Darby: I like to encourage them and say, “If the Lord chooses to sanctify them, and they are redeemed, they will be grateful that you stopped the harm that they were doing.”
Ann: I would add the Scripture, Ephesians 5:22, about “Wives, submit to your husbands.” I mean, I always have to add that, too; submission does not mean that we let our husbands abuse us in any way.
Darby, you also talk about different kinds of abuse. Walk through some of those, because some I’ve never really thought about as being abuse.
Darby: Yes; I think one that we don’t tend to think about in the church, which is odd because it’s very prevalent in the church, is spiritual abuse. I remember one woman had about six kids; she’d come in and she was, again, just really struggling with depression. They thought maybe it was just the kids that were too much.
I just asked her, “How is your husband”—he was a pastor-in-training at the time—“praying for you?” She just told me, “He rehearsed this prayer over me that just was saying, ‘Help me tolerate what God cannot stand. You’ve given me this wife, who is wasteful, is not tending to her little sheep.’” She went on for ten minutes with Scripture quotes infused—
Ann: —that he would pray over her!
Darby: —that he pray over her. That’s who she believed she was—just a disappointment to the Lord and a complete failure—it was so difficult, because she could see those words in Scripture.
Ann: did you say to her?—like do you get riled up inside?—I would. [Laughter] I’m sure you don’t, because you’re professional.
Bob: You are, right now, riled!
Ann: I am!
Bob: It’s like, “Let me at him!”
Ann: I know, but you wouldn’t; so how do you respond to that?
Darby: I think it does depend on the person: sometimes, I’ll just say, “That’s not okay”; sometimes, I’ll just have tears streaming down my face: “This is breaking my heart”; other times, I have to go really slow, because I can see a victim’s blindness. If I push too hard, that’ll have her clam up.
It really is; it’s hard, because there’s everything in me that wants to be a rescuer—and pick them up and say, “Get out, at least for a time being, and get safe; and know that the Lord loves you, and this is wrong,”—but it usually takes me about probably eight months to a year.
Ann: Wow; what happens when she sees the light? Is there a point, where you think, “Oh, she has it”?
Darby: When she can tell her story in a coherent way, using consistent categories—not making excuses/not blaming herself—that’s usually a really good sign that she sees: “This is not my fault. This is not how God designed marriage, and I need help.”
Dave: In that she is enlightened to the point that she can see what her husband’s doing; but he doesn’t, so he’s going to keep doing it—what happened? Did she leave him for a time? Did she stay and just—
Darby: In this particular case, she didn’t. We spent a long season in prayer. I always say, “We really want to ask the Lord; you’ll know what to do when you’re confident the Lord is calling you to do it.” It just took her awhile, again, to have the courage to speak. What we eventually did is—we sat with her pastor; we told him the story—and then they started discipling her husband a little bit at a time. After six months, he became really resistant to that. Then it was clear that a separation was needed for him, actually, and his spiritual walk with the Lord.
Bob: You identify different categories of abuse in the book. We’ve talked about physical abuse, about emotional abuse, about financial abuse, which is interesting; we’ve talked about spiritual abuse. We’ve had an extended conversation about sexual abuse, which is something you’ve referred to. In fact, if our listeners are interested, they can go online at FamilyLifeToday.com and listen to that conversation, which we thought was more appropriate to have off-air rather than on-air. I think these categories are so helpful.
Ann: I think this is a great topic to discuss; because a lot of us, as women, are involved in Bible studies or are leaders of Bible studies. We have great friendships with women, and I think it’s good just to be aware of this topic. This could be going on; and we need ways in which, not only can we pray, but we can look at this book and say, “These are some things that I could do to help my friend.”
Bob: Yes; the book is Is It Abuse?: A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. We have Darby’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. This is a book that will be helpful for pastors and counselors, but I think it’s also helpful for any of us who have friends; or maybe we’re trying to determine if our own relationship is actually an abusive relationship. Get a copy of Darby’s book; go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order your copy, or call us at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You these are important conversations to have. I wish those of you who listen regularly to FamilyLife Today could be here, when we have conversations like this, to read the emails/to hear the voices of those, who contact us and say, “What you were talking about today is what I’m living with, and thank you for being there for me. Thank you for providing clarity and hope. Pray for me,”—and we do pray for people, regularly, who are going through stuff like this—“Thank you for the resources you make available.”
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We hope you can join us, again, tomorrow when we’re going to continue talking about abusers—or the biblical term, an oppressor—someone who is an oppressor in a marriage relationship. Darby Strickland will be back with us again tomorrow. I hope you can be with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch. We got some extra added help from Bruce Goff; and of course, our entire broadcast production team was involved. 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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