Here’s a shocking thing.
A recent study of 122,000 women found that over a third had been in abusive relationships. But of those 65% of remaining women who said they hadn’t been in an abusive relationship, almost two thirds had experienced problematic, harsh and potentially abusive treatment from a partner.* We tend to think of “abuse” as something visible that those other horrible people do. What this kind of study shows is that many are well into the grey-area of abusive behavior in their relationships – and may not even know it.
A study as far back as 1997 found that over a third of married women had been sexually coerced by their husbands. The reason this is important is that this is not just rape. This is not just coercing particular sexual acts that a partner is not comfortable with. This can be actions that people don’t even realise are abusive. “Coercion” can include exploiting a woman’s sense of duty, expecting sex after spending money, bullying, repeated pressure or humiliating women into unwanted sex.** This can be particularly difficult to gauge because men and women are created so differently. There is the old joke that men are toasters and women are slow cookers. Women need some encouragement whereas (generally), men need far less encouragement. But when does “encouragement” become “coercion”?
How do we know? How can we tell? And then, how do we approach it better?
The Sydney Diocese drafted in 2017 (and formally accepted at synod in 2018) a document called “Responding to Domestic Abuse: Policy and Good Practice Guideline.”*** It is a great piece of work. At one point, it quotes a clinical psychologist and clergy wife:
“When you haven’t personally experienced abuse, it’s easy to listen with an attitude of
assessing whether what is being reported is really abuse. ‘Would I find that abusive?
Doesn’t everyone argue sometimes?’”
This is the trap that we (and those with their toes in the abusive end of the swimming pool) can fall into. Those listening to the victim’s story may mentally evaluate whether they would find that behavior abusive and judge the story on their own response. The question that has to be asked is not “Would I find that behavior intimidating?”. This is not about you. This is about how the victim perceives the behavior and emotionally responds. The question to the victim must be “Did you feel safe in that confrontation?”
You may not have found that behavior unacceptable. But you’re not the person living that life. When a person has been repeatedly subject to bullying and abuse over a long period of time, their capacity to deal with any situation is far less than someone who has a normal threat response.
Even worse, people can judge their own behavior as acceptable because they themselves would not find it intimidating, scary or abusive, or, have enough cognitive dissonance to not believe that of themselves when called out on it. I have heard a well-educated middle class male state, regarding an incident in which the police were called, say afterwards that the incident couldn’t be counted as part of his behavior pattern because he was upset. Here’s the newsflash. Hardly any abusive person thinks they are abusive – they think they are justified. Saying “You can’t count that, I was upset” is about as cliched as it gets unfortunately.
We hear about domestic abuse on the news a lot and yet things don’t seem to change. Is this partially because we are not yet having a conversation about worrying or inappropriate behavior before it becomes a news story? Do we need to talk more about the kind of behavior that dabbles in that gray-area? Do we need to look more closely at just basic appropriate behavior within our relationships?
This issue requires great humility and honesty and repentance from us all if we are to change this. The first place to start is God’s word:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23
Gentleness and self-control. The cause of much pain and conflict is pride and power. How much might be avoided if our interactions with our partners were marked not by pride and power, but by gentleness and self-control. This would mean regulating our natural negative emotions and processing them through our discipleship growth.
Anyone can do a marriage course (and they should!) but we can fall into the trap of making our discipleship a personal goal which is compartmentalised from outward interactions. The fruit of our journey in Christ-likeness must be shown in our interactions – and particularly our conflicts – with others.
What we need is for our churches and ministers to have discussion groups and seminars and courses on appropriate behavior in marriage. What does it look like? I mean, really look like? Get down and dirty with the truth. Are there some basic things that could come across as intimidating just because of physical differences? Are there things that we personally do that could come across the wrong way? When we get angry (which is natural), how do we process and regulate it so we can respond with gentleness? Or do we let it come out, un-filtered, in our words, tone, pitch, vocal register, our physicality, facial expression and stance. Are there things that your partner finds intimidating but doesn’t say? We need to find opportunities to talk about these things outside of conflict.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) This doesn’t say “Attack is the best form of defence.” This doesn’t say “You must prove yourself right.” This definitely does not say “If they don’t agree with you, they are by nature wrong.” What this boils down to is gentleness and self-control.
What this can also boil down to is just don’t be a jerk. This does not just go for men. This is also women. Women can be jerks too. Our discipleship growth is not the only answer, but it sure starts laying a good foundation for some long-term cultural shifts. We need to not respond to these harsh truths with hurt pride, but with humility and willingness to work together – and work hard.
What this also needs is a conversation. Because there is some pretty awful behavior happening that ends up in very bad places. It also ends up with people in our churches crumbling on the inside and needing things to change and needing someone to love and protect them.
Just because we are grown up doesn’t mean that we know everything. There may well be some behavior that needs to be repented of. At the very least there should be conversations within relationships and groups about what this might mean. And if you’re going well (which most are!), be a support to a brother or sister. Help them to understand and help them to course-correct.
There should be a commitment to learning and growing together – which is exactly what the Bible exhorts us to do anyway. We will not be finished until the last day, so in the Spirit, let us lift each other up, not pull each other down. But please, just don’t be a jerk.