By Brad Hambrick
What do we mean when we say “non-criminal” abuse? It can be easy to think that all abuse is illegal; or that if something isn’t illegal, it’s not abuse.
To say that there are forms of abuse which are not illegal in no way minimizes how wrong these forms of abuse are. It merely indicates who has jurisdiction over the consequences for these actions: the civil authorities for matters that are illegal and the church for matters that are immoral within their congregation.
It should be noted that there are some forms of verbal abuse which are illegal, such as making terroristic threats. If you are in doubt, you should consult with a law enforcement officer.
If you’ve ever tried to research a definition for emotional, verbal, or psychological abuse, you’ve doubtless been frustrated. Unfortunately, there is no consensus amongst experts. This doesn’t mean emotional abuse doesn’t exist, it just means it is hard to objectively define.
Rather than giving a definition, it is more beneficial to describe a constellation of qualities that constitute verbal or emotional abuse: control, humiliation, manipulation, intimidation, contradictory demands, lies or threats, isolating someone from family and friends, blame shifting, not granting a spouse access to funds or forcing them to ask for money, and making one-sided application of Scripture to demand, control, or condemn.
The more of these qualities that are present, the more toxic the relationship. Reading the list, each adjective seems clear enough. But imagine trying to convince someone who doesn’t want to admit it, that what they are doing is actually abusive. Now, imagine your well-being depended on getting them to admit it and change their pattern of behavior. That is the life of someone living in an emotionally abusive relationship.
All of this begs a question, “What is the point of differentiating ‘garden variety problems’ from emotionally abusive dynamics? Should anything be done differently?” Yes, but in the case of emotional abuse, the answer is not “call the police.” So, then, what do we do?
We arrive at an answer by asking three questions.
Question One: Is the emotionally abusive person present for pastoral care? If the answer is yes, then pastoral counseling needs to become individual rather than marital or familial, and it needs to focus on:
(a) raising self-awareness about the nature of the abusive spouse/parent’s actions
(b) garnering ownership for these actions once they can be acknowledged without minimization
(c) developing strategies for dealing with irritating or distressing situations more effectively.
The rationale for discontinuing marriage or family counseling is that relational counseling validates the idea that there is joint responsibility for the abusive behavior. Instruction given to the marriage or family will inevitably be used against the oppressed spouse or children in the home environment resulting in pastoral guidance, inadvertently validating and empowering the abusive behaviors.
Question Two: Are we only talking to the emotionally abused person? Often this person feels very stuck. Things are “bad enough” that their home life is undoing them, but things aren’t “bad enough” that any legal steps can be taken. They wonder, “Am I exaggerating? Will anyone believe me? Can anything be done?”
In these instances the first two responses to physical abuse are still relevant: believe what the person is saying and connect them with an experienced counselor, if they are willing. However, a vital need that the church is uniquely positioned to fill is social and spiritual support. Connecting the individual with a friend who is understanding and supportive in the midst of the relational angst is invaluable.
Prior to disclosing the emotionally abusive dynamics, this person lived in two worlds: home life and everyday life. These two worlds were so different it made them feel crazy. After engaging counseling, the person begins to live in three worlds: home life, everyday life, and counseling, where they feel understood. But a friend, instead of adding a fourth world, is a companion who is aware of each sphere in which the person lives.
Question Three: Is the emotionally abusive person a church member? When the emotionally abusive person is a church member, it affords some additional types of intervention that can be wisely engaged.
But to reiterate, the church should not confront the abuser until the oppressed spouse is ready for it. Also, a safety plan should already be in place before this kind of meeting is attempted.
When the oppressed spouse is ready, an initial conversation should take place with the allegedly unruly spouse, the concerns should be raised, and their response heard. Only the most tangible examples should be used in this meeting. When weak or subjective examples are used, then those are the ones that will be countered and by negating the weak examples, the spouse will feel that they have nullified the entire concern and “won the argument” being raised against them.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.