Is It Abuse? And What Should I Do?

The disagreement turns into a screaming match – again. This time, he throws a coffee mug that shatters near her feet. She retreats into the bedroom, fearful that the next item that he throws will hit her. He yells obscenities as he slams the door, and drives off, squealing his tires as he leaves. Three hours later, he’s back, apologizing and promising that “it will never happen again.” She takes him back, trying to reassure herself, “that’s just how he is.” After all, she tells herself, all couples argue, and he didn’t actually put his hands on her. Yet, damage is being done.

Struggling to name it

One of the saddest dynamics present in an abusive relationship is the doubt that creeps in, that leads a victim of abuse to question whether or not abuse is actually happening. Wives may wonder if his temper rises to the level of abuse. A husband might be reluctant to label his wife’s mistreatment as abusive, fearing the stigma of being a victim of abuse. It can be overwhelming and frightening to name behavior as “abusive” because the fallout might seem far worse than maintaining the status quo.

Making excuses

Consequently, those who are caught in abusive relationships will avoid naming the relationship as such. Instead, they will justify violent outbursts (“He’s just been really stressed at work lately”), they will defend or minimize the actions (“Her words really aren’t that bad – only sticks and stones may break my bones…”), or they may just redirect attention away from the negative behaviors (“I know he really cares for us – he’s always provided for us, so I know he must love me”).

However, these responses do not deal with the potential severity of these damaging behaviors, and they only enable a person to continue abusing – and quite possibly escalate – harmful actions. Abuse is a cancer in a relationship, and the sooner that it’s identified and named, the sooner proper interventions can be taken and the greater likelihood there is for a positive outcome. For that reason, it’s important to identify abuse early on. Let’s consider what abuse is, and how to respond.

How abuse might look

There are numerous definitions of abuse, but what most of them have in common is the misuse of a person’s power or position in a way that brings harm to another person. In a marriage, spousal abuse is using one’s role as a spouse to control, manipulate, or hurt their partner for personal advantage or gain. In other words, abuse doesn’t necessarily mean that one person is using their size or strength to harm the other person (though that certainly may happen) but they are using their role as a trusted partner to damage the other person. It should be noted that the legal definition of abuse will be more specific, and may vary from place to place. That said, there are a number of categories of abuse:

Physical abuse

Physical abuse involves bringing injury to a person’s body (whether or not it leaves a mark or an injury). This can include pulling hair, slapping, closed fist hitting, or pushing a person to the ground or against a wall.

Verbal abuse

God’s word reminds us of how potentially damaging our words can be. Proverbs 18:21 reminds us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue”, and indeed, our words can be used to belittle, demean, or shame others – including our spouse. Verbal abuse is the use of our words to bring “death” to another person by way of our tongue.

Emotional abuse

God created us for being in relationship, and we all have emotional needs that are met in fellowship together. These needs include the need to feel safe, to receive affection, and to feel secure in our relationships – particularly in our marriage relationships. Emotional abuse is controlling or attempting to control a person by threatening to withhold emotional and relational security. This can mean withholding or threatening to withhold affection, it can include “gaslighting” (leading you to question your actions or blame yourself when they have done something wrong) or intentionally humiliating you in public.

Financial abuse

Our money affords us the ability to meet our needs for food, shelter, clothing, and transportation. For this reason, we are vulnerable if our spouse undermines our ability to secure or use financial resources. For example, preventing a spouse from accessing banking information, or pressuring a spouse to quit a job (or insisting that they may not have a job in the first place) qualify as abuse because they limit the ability of one spouse to secure financial support for themselves and creates dependency that makes it difficult for them to leave.

Sexual abuse

Even in a marriage, it is possible for one partner to sexually abuse the other. Sexual abuse is coercing or demanding sexual activity that is unwanted or undesired. You are being sexually abused in your marriage if your spouse is forcing you to engage in sexual activity that you have said you do not wish to engage in, or if you are being forced to have sex against your will.

God wants better for us

God hates abuse in all forms. Ephesians 5:21-33 presents God’s pattern for marriage – a love and respect for one another that is a mirror of Christ’s relationship with his bride, the church. The spousal love that God demonstrates for us is a love that sets aside his own needs in order to serve his beloved, even though that came at great pain and cost to himself. In other words, the gospel pattern for marital love says, “I will give of myself, no matter what it costs, in order to meet your needs.”

Understanding the gospel message

Abuse perverts the gospel, twisting it into its very opposite. Abuse demands that the other person meet my needs, no matter what it may cost them – their freedom, their dignity, their security, or their safety. The pattern of the gospel says, “I will give my life to serve yours” but abuse insists, “your life for mine.” Abuse, then, is an attack on the gospel message. Rather than use the position and the role God has given a person in a marriage to serve, cherish, nurture, and love their spouse, abuse uses that position to control, manipulate, and conform that person to meet their demands. God hates abuse.

If you are in a relationship where you are experiencing abuse, your first step is to get yourself and those entrusted to your care away from immediate harm. When you and your loved ones are safe, seek justice. Commit to bringing in boundaries and accountability for your safety to require the abuser to take responsibility for their actions. Invest in professional counseling resources to care for yourself and create healthier relational dynamics.

If you are in a living situation today where you are feeling anxious or unsafe, know that God loves you and desires your safety. Safe Church Ministries offers additional resources to help you discern the health of your relationship. Reach out for help. The domestic abuse hotline is 1-800-799-7233 and can direct you to resources. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). God will enact justice for those who cause harm, and care for those who are endangered. Our God has compassion for those who suffer injustice and abuse. He hears the cries of those who are oppressed, he is near to the brokenhearted and he saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). May God guide you to safety and bring healing to your relationships.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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