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What Should Counselors Do When Encountering a Domestic Abuse Situation?

How to address the immediate and long-term needs of your counselee

Jonathan Holmes

Clearly, abuse is not something new or modern. It has been one of the results of sin in our fallen world from the very beginning. Tim Lane and Paul Tripp write, “The Bible is not about an idyllic world full of noble people who always make the right choice. The Bible describes a world we recognize, where very good and very bad things happen, and where people make wonderful and horrible choices. The Bible describes a world that sometimes makes us laugh, but often makes us cry.”1Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, How People Change (Greensboro, NC: New Growth, 2008), 98. 

The Bible condemns abusive violence of all kinds. The Bible not only describes abuse and narrates tragic stories of abuse, it also clearly and unequivocally condemns abuse of all kinds (cf. Ex. 21:12–27). Abuse of authority or power is always a sin. It is never an acceptable dynamic in any relationship, especially a marriage relationship. The psalmist writes, “The Lord examines the righteous, but the wicked, those who love violence, he hates with a passion” (Ps. 11:5). Does that language surprise you? Aren’t we told hate the sin, not the sinner? Not always so. Here the Bible speaks loud and clear—God hates those who love violence. 

The Bible speaks honestly of abuse, condemning abuse and those who practice violence. But most importantly—and what your counselee needs to hear—is this: God hears the cries of the abused, the oppressed, the torn down, the battered, and the beaten.2Cf. Abigail and Nabal in 1 Samuel 25:3, 17, 24–25, 38 and the Israelites in Jeremiah 50:33–34.  Psalm 10:17 states, “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.” The abused have a God who is never deaf to their cries for help.3Cf. Psalm 5, 7, 10, 55–57, 140.  Ed Welch writes, “If she [he] looks for words to say in the Psalms she will find that God especially invites those who have enemies and oppressors to come to him.”4Edward T. Welch, “Living with an Angry Husband,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 24, no. 4 (2006): 47.  

Indeed, our Savior is someone who understands what it means to be afflicted and oppressed: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isa. 53:3). 

In marriage, all forms of abuse must be addressed and taken seriously by the counselor. As referenced in chapter three, when abuse is taking place in a marriage, the marriage counseling needs to come to an end. At this point, individual and separate counseling for the abused and the abuser is necessary.5The level of competency needed to address issues like domestic violence and abuse are most likely beyond the scope of the average pastor. That does not mean the pastor is absolved of responsibility, but in instances of abuse, pastors should probably help develop a network of care, accountability, and counsel.  Winston Smith writes, “It’s important to identify the presence of abuse in marriage because, undetected, these patterns can sabotage the counseling process. A fundamental dynamic of marriage counseling is helping spouses examine their own behavior so that each understands his or her contribution to shared problems, but this very process can unwittingly play into patterns of abuse rather than stop them.”6Winston Smith, “When NOT to Do Marriage Counseling,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 27, no. 1 (2013): 73–74. 

In counseling husbands who are abusive, it must be made absolutely clear that biblical headship does not entitle a husband to treat his wife in a violent or oppressive manner. At the heart of most domestic abuse is the sinful use of a husband’s leadership to exercise control over another individual.7One of the dynamics that can lead to outbreaks of domestic violence in marriages is an upside-down view of complementarian headship, i.e., that the husband is the head of the wife. A husband can wield such authority in an ungodly way. Jason Meyer states, “Hyper-headship is a satanic distortion of male leadership, but it can fly under the radar of discernment because it is disguised as strong male leadership. Make no mistake—it is harsh, oppressive, and controlling. In other words, hyper-headship becomes a breeding ground for domestic abuse.” Jason Meyer, “Hyper-Headship and the Scandal of Domestic Abuse in the Church,” April 28, 2015. The Gospel Coalition: https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2015/04/28/ hyper-headship-and-the-scandal-of-domestic-abuse-in-the-church/. Another dynamic that can lead to women being called to submit to such abusive headship is a high view of marriage that leads to a “marriages must be saved at all costs” mentality. Both must be balanced by a biblical understanding of Scripture.  Biblical headship is described as sacrificial servanthood, not unlimited authority (Mark 10:42–45). Let’s not confuse terms—when a husband demands his own way or dominates his wife, we do not call this biblical headship, we call it what it is—selfishness and abuse of power. 

In light of this, what should we do as counselors? Two immediate priorities emerge: identify immediate needs and plan for long-term care. 

Identifying Immediate Needs

The first immediate need in any domestic violence situation is to prioritize the safety of the abused.8Brad Hambrick has a helpful post on the triage of complex counseling cases: http://bradhambrick. com/triage2/.  Often this is primarily a matter of physical safety. Make sure they have emergency contact numbers at hand. As a counselor or pastor, you should not be their first phone call in case of emergency. Here are a few helpful numbers and tips. 

If they are in an abusive relationship, help them develop a personal safety plan. Here are several helpful templates available online: 

Seek an assessment of the situation to differentiate abuse from everyday relational conflict. Using the definition of domestic violence provided by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, a number of issues can help you understand the difference between abuse and everyday conflict:9Holcomb and Holcomb, Is It My Fault?, 57–58. 

Understand that abuse typically escalates. Yes, there might be days and weeks when the abuse recedes into the background, but over the balance of the relationship, abuse tends to escalate and intensify without intervention. Make sure you are not sending the abused back into an environment unprepared. 

Planning for Long-Term Care

A second priority is planning for long-term care. In cases where physical safety is a concern, a physical separation is advised. However, encouraging the abused spouse to separate from their abusive spouse must not be done lightly. “When church leaders act too quickly, questioning or confronting the abuser before the victim is ready, they can cause more harm than good, even putting the victim in greater danger. The victim may be silenced and punished by the abuser who now knows she spoke to an outsider. Ensuring the immediate safety of the victim is essential, but so is securing her long-term safety.”10Bruce Ashford, J. D. Greear, and Brad Hambrick, “4 Myths about Responding to Spousal Abuse,” May 2018, Christianity Today: https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2018/may-web-exclusives/4- myths-about-responding-to-spousal-abuse.html. 

Darby Strickland reminds us, “Keep in mind that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is fleeing abuse. There is no room for optimistic and naive thinking when it pertains to safety issues. It is incumbent upon us to be educated.”11Darby Strickland, “Counseling in the Brambles: How to Help Oppressive Marriages,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 30, no. 3 (2016): 37.  This is not a time to deliver a theological argument about divorce and remarriage. That can come at a later point. Right now the immediate need is the care and support of the abused.12For additional reading on the topic of divorce in abusive marriages, I would recommend Jim Newheiser, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers, 259–65; and David Instone- Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities, 93–106. The scope of this chapter does not allow for questions related to the biblical arguments for/against divorce/separation in cases of abuse. 

Yes, God calls us to endure suffering. Yes, he can redeem us through suffering and hardship, but those principles must be balanced and read in relationship to all of Scripture. God cares about the oppressed and seeks to deliver them. God cares for the individuals in marriage as much as he cares for the institution of marriage. You do not have a “high view of marriage” if you encourage spouses to endure abuse. This is actually a low view of marriage. 

Ask questions to help you gain a better perspective and understanding of the situation.13The Holcombs have a list of questions in their book Is It My Fault? on pages 32–35. Leslie Vernick has a downloadable survey you can use at her website: http://www.leslievernick.com/pdfs/Relationship -test .pdf.  At this point, some counselees might be fearful of retribution from the abusive spouse or feel they are betraying their spouse by answering your questions. Help the abused understand that sharing their story is not a betrayal of their spouse. Ed Welch notes, “It is not a betrayal of the perpetrator. Instead, one goal is to bring the perpetrator’s sin to light so he has the opportunity to turn to God and, as a result, turn away from God’s wrath.”14Edward T. Welch, “Living with an Angry Husband,” Journal of Biblical Counseling 24, no. 4 (2006): 48. 

If the abused decides to leave the abuser, utilize all the resources at your disposal (e.g., benevolence fund, deacon fund, etc.) to help them find food and shelter. Remember that our faith is an active faith, so wise words should be accompanied by good deeds (James 2:14). 

It is important that you do not handle this situation on your own. Early on, you will need to identify and get help from a variety of people, including: medical professionals, legal professionals, counselors, law enforcement, etc. 

And you should pray with your counselee. It might seem inconsequential to you, but this powerful act of prayer is most likely something they haven’t experienced before. Pray specifically, powerfully, and expectantly for God to draw near to the abused. 

Heavenly Father, 

I come to you this afternoon and ask for your help in the midst of Lucy’s trouble. Father, you know her, you created her, and you love her. Help her right now in this moment to sense your presence and care. I pray that she knows that you see her, hear her, and have a plan to rescue her from evil. 

Amen. 

When Spouses Remain in Abusive Relationships

What should you do with spouses who choose to remain in abusive relationships? First, do not condemn or shame. The dynamics of seeking to separate from an abuser are incredibly complex. Leaving an abuser does not necessarily mean that the abuse ends. Justin and Lindsey Holcomb note, “Domestic abuse does not end immediately with separation from the abuser. Over 75% of separated women suffer post-separation abuse.”15Holcomb and Holcomb, Is It My Fault?, 64.  

While separation from the abuser is recommended, that is not always what the abused chooses. Chuck DeGroat writes, “A decision to stay in a relationship with an abuser requires significant spiritual/emotional strength. They have an internal strength and sense of identity (rooted deeply in Christ, not in the devastating “arrows to the heart” from the abuser). This choice often comes after significant self-assessment in relationship with wise counselors and pastors. It also comes in the context of the community looking in on her well-being. When or why she should stay is not answered by filling out a checklist, but by working through some pretty heavy questions and with very wise counsel.”16Chuck DeGroat, “Identity, Abuse, and Cruciformity: Does ‘Being Like Jesus’ Mean Staying with an Abuser?,” May 25, 2005. https://chuckdegroat.net/2009/05/25/identity-abuse-and-cruciformity -does-being-like-jesus-mean -staying-with-an-abuser/. 

Abuse of any kind—emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, economic—is evil and wrong. Pastors and counselors must be unequivocal in condemning such behavior as it is entirely opposed to the sacrificial love of our Savior. Counseling those in abusive relationships is one of the most difficult situations we encounter in counseling, and it requires a pastoral counselor to marshal all the resources at their disposal to bring help, hope, and healing to bear. May God equip us well for this task.

Taken from Counsel for Couples: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Marriage Counseling (pp. 179-183, 186) by Jonathan Holmes. Copyright © 2019 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. 

Jonathan Holmes is the founder and executive director of Fieldstone Counseling. He also serves as the pastor of Counseling for Parkside Church Bainbridge and Green. Jonathan graduated from The Master’s University with degrees in Biblical Counseling and History and his M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of The Company We KeepCounsel for Couples, and the forthcoming Rescue Plan (P&R Publishing, 2021). He and his wife, Jennifer, have four daughters, Ava, Riley, Ruby, and Emma.