This particular topic has come to me three completely unrelated ways in the last week, so I decided to write an open letter to church leaders. I hope it’s helpful.
Dear Church Leader,
If you’re like me, you grew up in the church and heard many teachings about the sanctity of marriage, about what’s an acceptable reason for divorce and what is not. Guidelines. If we stay in them, we’re safely in God’s will. To start with, I don’t think that’s the best way to read the Bible. I agree 100% with my pastor, who preached recently that “It (the Bible) is not nearly as good at telling you want you can and can’t do as it is at telling you what the heart of God is.”
That said, what I heard over and over was the divorce is okay if there’s been adultery (Matthew 19:8-9), if there’s a non-Christian spouse who wants to leave (I Corinthians 7:15), or if there’s been physical abuse. Note that I did not list a scripture for that last one. Because there isn’t one. Have you heard or even taught that? Christian teachers throw that one in because… we love the people we’re teaching and we know in we hearts that some behavior is just not okay, whether you can find a passage in the Bible that spells that out plainly or not. But that’s as far as we’ll go outside the lines that are clearly drawn in scripture. If there are no bruises… well, we’re in a gray area there. Marriage is sacred and we absolutely need to press into the pain and difficulty, fight for our relationships.
Consider that you may have a blind spot. That physical abuse may not be the Most Awful Thing that should push us past the boundaries of Bible-based guidelines, but simply one manifestation of something more insidious. It’s a blind spot I had myself until I went through my own divorce and started hearing the real stories behind other people’s divorces, the stories that they’re often reluctant to voice to counselors or church leaders, the brutal truths they’re shy to bring to the light. The stories whispered to me accompanied by a “I’ve never told anyone this, but…” Consider that by not really seeing these situations, we may be unintentionally burdening people with relationship guidelines.
Let me tell you about what a hard heart in a relationship can look like. Whenever I read that passage, I think of Pharoah, whose heart was hard. Who used and abused the Hebrews until they were empty shells of people. Who paid a high price to keep them with him because he could not bring himself to relinquish power. Do not discount that even though Christ has come, some hearts can still be hard like his, even hearts of people in the church…
It comes down to this: there are spouses who will use their partner’s willingness to sacrifice themselves for the relationship to destroy the person and destroy the relationship from the inside. There are people who are in the marriage with no intent to honor their spouse. Not just in the heat of the moment, but as a state, as a trajectory. Often, they get something out of preserving the marriage (respect in the community, free child care, or maybe divorce will cause them to lose their business or a lot of money–I see that one a lot). Sometimes, preserving the relationship is just about enjoying the power of it. They mistreat their spouses verbally but convince the abused spouse that it’s the victim spouse’s fault they’re not being treated honorably.
So you have a hard-hearted spouse who knowingly causes pain with no intent to rectify or repair the relationship and an abused spouse who leans into the relationship in spite of pain because when you’re married that’s what you do. The spouse who leans in may not know the pain-causing spouse is lying to them. (Sometimes to the extent of leading a double life.) The abusive spouse USES their goodwill and desire to work on the relationship in spite of the difficulties to get what they want.
The really insidious thing is that if the abused spouse doesn’t know the facts about the situation, doesn’t realize the abuser is lying, the relationship problems look on the surface like normal relationship dysfunction. One sermon I heard talked about yelling at each other, and that if you think you’re emotionally abused because you’re being yelled at, you’re mistaken. The fact is, sometimes it isn’t abuse, but sometimes it IS. If it’s being used to cover lies and cover patterns of behavior that are incredibly damaging to the abused spouse and to the relationship, it’s probably abuse. If it’s being used to control someone it IS ABUSE. Abuse is about power, about using whatever tool is available to maintain power in the relationship for selfish ends. Even physical abuse is about power. There are marks and bruises, but the real toll of it is that the physical beating hammers home lies in the victim’s mind that enable the abuser to maintain control.
Think about the Hebrews under hard-hearted Pharoah again. Imagine giving the Hebrews conventional boss-employee relationship advice. “Sometimes a job will require you to sweat and strain in the sun. That’s just what it takes sometimes to do right by your employer, to do your job. Man up and do what needs to be done.” It’s not untrue. But applied in the wrong situation, it could be incredibly damaging.
Be careful when you give blanket relationship advice. Of the people in these situations I’m describing, who do you think is listening to your teaching? Really hearing it with their hearts? The people who use marriage to get what they want while dishonoring and tearing down their spouses? Or the people who desperately want the relationship to work and keep trying anything they can find to make things better, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for it and do it again and again? It’s the latter. Emotionally abused spouses (often not aware they’re being abused) read all of the books, go to therapy (often by themselves), listen to the sermons–they try EVERYTHING. And all the while the abuser is telling them the dysfunction is their fault. So they’re trying everything and blaming themselves for failure when the relationship is actually failing because the abuser is tearing it apart. Conventional relationship advice given to abuse victims can actually enable the abuse by layering shame on top of the psychological power the abusers already hold.
The worst part about this situation is often that it ends up being the abused spouse who has to pull the trigger on the divorce. Abusers are in the relationship for a reason, and they aren’t looking for a way out. Why should they? They’re having their cake and eating it too. This is particularly awful in the church. Abuse victims already feel bad because they think the relationship problems are their fault. They stop being able to cope–sometimes without really understanding why–and feel compelled to divorce. Since the abuser is good at appearances and lying, they shame the abuse victim for seeking divorce, often using the church leadership or teaching as a weapon.
There is unfortunately not an easy way to discern when this is going on. There’s no set of rules you can apply that will magically root out when someone is abused and when they’re simply tired of dealing with the difficulties that everyone encounters in marriage. I wish I could provide some. I will simply suggest the following:
1. Don’t be quick to judge or assume. Unless you know the person really well already, is HIGHLY unlikely you know enough to give practical advice. Remember those “I never told anyone this before, but…”s? In my experience, those almost always come out AFTER the separation or divorce.
2. If you don’t have a close enough relationship with the person coming to you for advice, build one. Speak life into the person, speak God’s truth, be kind. If her heart needs softening toward her spouse, God will do it. If her spouse’s heart is open to softening, God will do it. If there’s abuse that is hiding like I described, being reminded of her value in God’s eyes will help her recognize it and speak up about it. Love and truth will eventually push everything that is not love and truth to the surface.
After all, the heart of God is relationship, isn’t it? Draw near to Him and to each other. All of the other laws hang on that.