Tag Archives: #relationships

Why aren’t there more divorced people in our churches?

Here’s an interesting thing – based on the 2016 census, there is 12% of our population who are separated or divorced. Based on the 2016 National Church Life Survey (NCLS), 6% of our church population is separated or divorced. Half! Does this mean that churches are amazing at supporting marriages? Or does it mean that people feel that our churches are not welcoming to divorced and separated people?

Is there a stigma attached to divorce? And if there is, does that come from the church congregation, or from the church leadership and culture?

My personal experience is to have felt as though I was morally tainted in some contexts, and welcomed and supported in others. In the former, I think this was brought into sharper relief by my own feeling of failure. A divorced person is highly sensitized to any sense of rejection, moral failing and stigma. It’s hard to walk into a church as a single-again. If it’s your own church, then it’s a very public declaration that you are now on your own. Everybody knows (or at least can see the evidence of) your business.

If its a new church you’re going to, one of the first questions is always about your family situation. What do you say? Will they judge me? You become acutely aware of being a lone parent checking your kids in at kids church. You become super paranoid that people can see the paler band of skin on your finger where your wedding ring used to be.

In addition, churches are largely set up for families. 65% of the church population is married (NCLS) compared to 48% in the general population. So what is “normal” in the world, is “abnormal” in the church. You stick out.

So, if people are even remotely cold or seeming to lack in grace, the separated person will go running for the hills.

In some ways, its understandable. Throughout all cultural changes and world movements, the church has remained steadfast. With no-fault divorce and the explosion of divorce rates subsequently, the church remained focused on the centrality of the family and marriage as the bedrock of a Christian community. That’s a good thing. Our churches cannot move with the times just “because”. We have to stay true to what we believe.

But one of the things we believe is grace.

If churches are havens of the broken, why are there not more single-agains in them? Churches should feel like a safe space for the lost. And yet they are not – or at least, not seen as being so.

There is a biblical phrase that has been bandied around very unhelpfully. “God hates divorce.”  This comes from Malachi 2:16 which is translated either as ““The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”” or as ““I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence”” The context of this passage is covenant breaking on the part of the priests that Malachi is rebuking. Notwithstanding, it provides a clear indication of what God appears to think of divorce.

But here’s a thing everyone should know – all divorced people understand completely why God hates divorce. Because its terrible. It’s painful and torturous. It hurts whole families. It is horrible for the children. It tears up families, friends and can even split communities. We know intricately and agonisingly why God hates divorce. We know better than anyone.

When Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, he relates his answer to Genesis and comments “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate” (Matthew 19:6). When asked about this unequivocal stance when Moses allowed divorce, he says “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8) Divorce was never the plan. Perfect harmonious relationships are the plan – but we are human. So divorce is not a gift, but it is a gracious provision in the face of our human rubbish-ness.

Now that doesn’t mean we should be like the world and dash about marrying and divorcing with impunity. It does mean that we need to treat each other with grace because we are imperfect.

Unfortunately, church history and tradition have over-layed the “God hates divorce” thing. For the Romans, divorce was terribly functional. Like the dissolving of a business partnership that no longer worked, divorce had no moral taint attached to it. In the early church, there was a speedy move to the indissolubility of marriage except in certain circumstances (on the basis of Jesus’ teaching), but they didn’t really get involved unless one of the parties wanted to re-marry. As the church gradually took over jurisdiction of marriage, by the early Middle Ages, divorce became far more regulated and commented on. Divorce was even deemed to be criminal. That attitude pervaded until at least the 19th century and we still have hangovers of it today.

Divorce is a very public “sin”. If you are divorced, you must have done something wrong. There is a presumption of sin and sinful behavior. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you let it happen. You failed.

Here’s what Kevin deYoung said of divorce: “Is every divorce the product of sin?  Yes.  Is every divorce therefore sinful?  No.”

Its a helpful reminder. We can never assume what the story is. Undoubtedly there has been sin somewhere but we do not know what and by who. We cannot and ought not, to assume guilt. Assuming guilt throws shame on the broken. If there is sin, then surely we must walk with people to help them repent? People don’t repent because they’ve been judged by other humans. They repent because their hearts have been moved by God. If there is no sin, then we must envelope them with the love and warmth of Christ.

Above all, we must help people to know that they have a place in our church, that they are welcome there, that they belong.

I would gently challenge churches to consider how a single-again would feel if they turned up to your church for the first time. What is the culture? Would they feel welcomed as though they had a place there? What about if one of your parishioners marriages imploded? What support mechanisms are there? Would they feel they can talk freely and honestly?

The main thing here is to be aware of how over-sensitive single-agains can feel, and that perception may be out-weighing the reality. In which case you may have to over-compensate to change pervading attitudes and assumptions as to what the church thinks.

Also, lets think about how the world sees us. We know that we are havens for the broken. But the world often sees us as oases of homogeneity. We are either nice white middle class community centers for families with small kids, or we are stern ivory towers of judgement on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. That’s how we are seen. How do we change the perception, so that at the worst possible time in someones life, they know they can turn to the church for support and love?

I don’t have all the answers, but it seems to me that we need to think about this if we are to help the lost to feel as though church is a safe space for them to come and find belonging in the arms of Jesus and find his love in action in his community.


NOTE: Many churches are starting to offer Divorce Care. This is an excellent course and you can find a group here or even find more information on how to set up a group in your church.

Is a woman’s place in the home?

No. Unless you want it to be and it works for your family.

If you want to work, work.

If you want to remain in the home, remain in the home.

Neither makes you inferior.

Love God. Love your family. Outside of that, do what works best for your family context.

That is all.

PS I realise this is a broad topic. If you have worries or struggles or questions on our biblical “mandate” or what culture bombards us with, comment or message me and we’ll talk about it some more. Today’s McBlog is to remind you to have confidence in your situation and to be kind to yourself.

Dissecting emotional abuse and why it’s so easy to let it happen

Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,

This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.

It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.

Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.

Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).

Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.

It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.

“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.

At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:

  1. The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
  2. Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.

The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.

Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.

The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.

This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.

When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).

Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.

At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.

This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.

When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.

Some lessons for Mother’s Day from my great great grandmother

Mother’s Day can suck for a lot of people. For some it’s a beautiful and wonderful day with your own mum, and you as a mum. For others it’s a reminder of everything we don’t have.

As a single mum I find it a mixed blessing. It’s a day like any other because who else is going to take care of the kids? There’s no special breakfast in bed, or gifts, or lunches. It’s just the same old same old. Except with a gnawing feeling that other mums are getting something that I don’t.

Except this year. I’m determined not to feel that way this year. Here’s why.

My great-great-grandmother was born Sarah Ann Lee in Hampshire in about 1857. She married my great-great-grandfather (Henry) and they had about 6 children together. He was away at sea a lot – he was an engineer in the Royal Navy just as steam ships were starting to be introduced. Sarah Ann died of tuberculosis after the birth of their last child and Henry married the housekeeper by proxy to ensure there was someone to take care of the children (because I suppose that’s the kind of thing one did back in those days).

By all accounts the housekeeper was not very nice to the children. He was a very loving father though. He wrote a letter to each of the children individually, of which I have inherited one.

“Her children arise up and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Prov. 31:28.

A token from the father to the children.

In affectionate remembrance of a loving wife and devoted mother. She was the inspirer of all that is best in my character and I do pray her ennobling qualities may be reflected in the children. Patience and contentment with an exalted sense of truth and right pervaded her whole life which from childhood was one of complete trust in God. She always had a cheery word for those in trouble and the old folks of her acquaintance will ever remember her love for them and they with us all sadly miss her bright and happy disposition.”

It’s beautiful. As I reflect on these words, I note how many of the fruits of the spirit were in her. I don’t suppose that she was a perfect angel at all. This is Henry’s loving eulogy to their children, not an editorial comment about her every day behaviour. But there is much to admire here.

She was an inspirer of good in people around her, she was kind, patient, joyful, content, and above all had a complete trust in God. These qualities she, and Henry, prayed would be reflected in the children.

So this Mother’s Day, I’m not going to look at Facebook to see what gifts everyone is getting or what was delivered to their bedside for breakfast. I’m going to look at my children to see the many admirable qualities they already possess. I’m going to take a moment to self-reflect on the good qualities that have been passed on to me from my mum. I’m just going to take time to appreciate the beauty around me in the things that are not obvious, but are so tangible.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23). I see these already in my kids. I mean they also have the gifts of being forgetful, messy and really annoying, but that’s pretty normal! And one thing I know is how proud of them I am for their kind and innocent hearts, their love of God and their wide eyed joy.

Mother’s Day might suck – but we can choose to treat it differently. Switch off Facebook. Take some time. Self-reflect. Look at those around you and see what qualities you have inspired in them, and they in you.

Look to Christ Jesus because great-great-grandma Walker’s beauty was underpinned by a complete trust in God. He is the inspirer of all that is good in us, and what he grows in me, I pray I can pass on to my children, and always see it there, and praise them for it.

Are your coping mechanisms actually sabotaging you?

As children, all of us find ways of surviving in our environment. We develop learned behaviours to manage situations we find ourselves in, or avoid certain situations all together. These are coping mechanisms. They’re the means we develop to protect ourselves.

For example, some learn from an early age to over-compensate. If your stressor revolves around a fear of failure and how people will react to you when they do, you may tend towards perfectionism – trying to go out of your way to help people and please people and not disappoint them. So you might go overboard to organise and make everything okay.

Other may compensate for areas they feel a failure in by covering it up and throwing their energies into another (apparently more successful) area of their lives, like work. Others deny their feelings. Some repress fears or impulses. Everyone’s is different and can be a combination.

All of these are the natural means we have developed in response to our environment from our earliest days to manage stress. As we get older, they become our emotional and behavioural norm.

But sometimes we find ourselves in situations that our defence mechanism is powerless against. When under stress, we work harder and harder in our natural defences. We spin our wheels faster and faster because that’s all we know. Why isn’t this working? We listen to our inner voice that tells us what to do and say and how to feel because that is the only inner voice we’ve had since childhood.

When the walls come crashing in, and our defence mechanisms don’t work, we find ourselves defenceless, scared, helpless and vulnerable. We can even find ourselves exhausted and hopeless. When you have no defences, all you can do is pray for the safety of Jesus’ arms to take you to a place where you don’t have to fear any more.

At best, you might burn out. At worst, the trauma is so relentless, and the lack of defence so palpable, you might just lie listless and hollow, praying for death.

In either of these situations, and everything in between, we need our Christian sisters and a trusted professional. Because it takes time and help to find a new voice to listen to – a new voice that can help us cope without leading us into old (and unhelpful) habits.

Consider this, your coping mechanism might be hyper-vigilance which is usually a learned behaviour in response to prolonged trauma. This means that your threat response is intense and ever-present. You may have taught yourself that the way to respond to stress is to be “on” all the time – 24/7 and 360 degrees. Your inner voice tells you to be looking for threats everywhere all the time so you can be ready to defend yourself and those close to you.

This is our coping mechanisms on steroids. This is our inner voice at its most over-active.

I’m not saying we’ve all learned wrong. Most inner voices are fine and help us cope on a day to day basis without any drama. What I have learned recently though, is that the inner voice of an over-active coping mechanism is not one that is helpful. We have been stripped bare. Our defences are down. All we know is to keep trying the same defences and hoping desperately that it will protect you.

Except it doesn’t. So we need a new inner voice.

As Christians this becomes so much easier for us. Don’t worry, I’m not going to say something trite like “just read your Bible and pray and Jesus will become your new voice”. Firstly, it’s just not that easy. Secondly, the voice has to be your authentic voice – not someone else’s.

What it does give us though is a foil for our own current voice. In the face of trauma, do we really think that Jesus would tell us to be “on” 24/7 and never let up for a second? I don’t think so. That would be a terrible thing to advise someone. Which means our voice is flawed, handicapped by our own learned behaviour. Standing back and looking at our voice like this, helps us to see it for what it is.

What would Jesus tell us? I have no idea. But if I am in the Word as often as I can be, my instincts and discernment will be shaped in a God-ward direction, in his strength and his resolve and his faithfulness. If I am in prayer, asking the Spirit for wisdom, clarity and peace, I will be moulded. I will be alert to what my old instincts were telling me and more equipped to hear a fledgling new voice – a voice that is coming from my new resilience.

It’s a process of allowing God to re-configure us in a manner that has just enough capacity to absorb difficulties when they arise.

Jesus warned there would be tribulation, but that we may have peace in him because he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Paul, in writing to the Philippians, tells them that in staying close to God in prayer, God’s peace, which transcends all understanding will guard their hearts (Phil. 4:7).

We know these things. But there is no silver bullet here. We can abide in Christ, and seek his help in understanding the unhelpful coping mechanisms that are actually sabotaging us. And then, in him, we can gradually move to re-calibrating our learned behaviour as we build a new resilience.

Just don’t be a jerk

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.

 

* https://www.businessinsider.com.au/two-thirds-of-women-dont-realise-they-experience-abusive-behaviour-2018-5?r=US&IR=T

** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12477095

and

https://truthout.org/articles/its-time-to-confront-sexual-harassment-within-marriage/

*** https://safeministry.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Responding-to-Domestic-Abuse-Policy-Guidelines-and-Resources.pdf