SOURCE: Leslie Vernick
As biblical counselors our goal is to help marriages stay together but we must be careful to not be like the priests in Jeremiahs’ day who healed God’s people superficially by saying peace, peace, when there was no peace.
When working with couples in destructive and abusive marriages, I think it’s important that we understand what it takes to put their marriage back together in a godly way. And, if one of them won’t do the work required, then what? Do we encourage them to stay legally together even if they’re relationally separated or divorced?
God gives us a means for healing damaged relationships, but his blueprint is not unilateral. Healing a destructive marriage can never be the sole responsibility of one person in the relationship. It always takes two people willing to work to achieve godly change. There needs to be forgiveness sought, and forgiveness granted. There needs to be amends made and a willingness to rebuild trust. There needs to be constructive feedback given and willingly received. When one person refuses to participate or take responsibility for his or her part, healing or restoration of the relationship cannot fully take place.
As biblical counselors, working with individuals and couples in destructive marriages, I want to give you a few mile markers that will help you identify where you are on the healing journey or whether or not you’re even on the right path toward getting there. [I’m] going to talk about the importance of safety.
Safety in an intimate relationship such as marriage must never be underestimated. You cannot put a marriage together in a healthy way if one person in the marriage feels afraid of the other. Without question, whenever there has been any kind of physical abuse, destruction of property, and/or threats against one’s self or others there is no safety.
Shirley e-mailed me. She wrote, “My biblical counselor says that I must allow my husband back into the home if we want our marriage to heal. He said, ‘How can we work on our marriage when we’re not living together?’
“What are your concerns about him moving back home?” I asked.
“We’ve been separated for over a year after he gave me a black eye. It wasn’t the first time he hit me, but it was the worst. I never pressed charges or called the police, but I told him he’d have to move out. Honestly, I haven’t seen any real change in him. My counselor says that Ray is changing. He hasn’t hit me for a long time. I agreed, but his underlying attitudes of entitlement are still there.”
“Give me a few examples,” I said.
“He badgers me to give in to him when I disagree. When he visits with the kids at the house and I tell him I’m tired and I want him to leave, he says I’m selfish and only thinking about myself. He thinks it’s okay if he walks into our house without knocking even though I’ve asked him not to. If he won’t respect my requests when we’re separated, how will he do it if he moves back home? “
“He won’t. ” I said. “Either he’s not willing to respect you or he’s not capable of doing it but either way you are not safe until he learns to do this. Please, stick up for yourself with your counselor. Before you can work on the marriage, your husband need to value the importance of your safety and demonstrate that he can control himself and honor your feelings and boundaries without badgering or retaliation. If he won’t do this much, you cannot go any further to repair your relationship. ”
There are other issues of safety that also must be resolved to some degree if a marriage is going to be wisely restored. For example, Kathy still loves her husband despite his sins against her. She longs for Jeff to be the man she knows he could be. Yet she must not throw caution to the side and be fully reconciled with Jeff without the proper safety measures in place. She knows Jeff has a problem with sexual addiction. He has a long history of pornography, affairs, prostitutes and one night stands.
Does God ask Kathy to ignore these dangers to her health and safety in order to reconcile her marriage? Or, is it both in her and Jeff’s best interest that she stay firm and not resume sexual intimacy with Jeff until he gets a clean bill of health as well as demonstrates a change of heart and some progress in his change of habits?
In a different situation, Gina’s husband, Matthew, feels entitled to keep his income in a separate bank account with only his name on it. He gives Gina an allowance each week for household expenses but requires her to give him give a detailed account of everything she spends. Gina is an RN, but she and Matthew agreed it was best for her to stay home with their four children. Gina does not feel safe financially or emotionally. She feels like a child when she has to give an account, yet Matthew refuses to let Gina know what he’s spending. He says it’s his money. Gina feels vulnerable and scared whenever Matthew travels, especially overseas. What if something happened to him and she ran out of cash? When she’s expressed her concerns to Matthew, he tells her not to worry, nothing will happen to him.
Legally Gina is an adult and considered an equal partner in their financial responsibilities, yet she has no voice, no power, and no idea what is happening with their assets. Should she submit to Matthew when he says she’s not allowed to have a credit card even though she’s never been irresponsible with money? Gina’s observed Matthew being deceitful at times in his business expenses. What if Matthew has been deceitful in other ways? What if he has underreported their income tax? Gina would be held equally responsible even if she didn’t know. What if he is not paying their mortgage or their home equity loan faithfully? The financial consequences of his irresponsibility would fall equally on her shoulders. Gina and Matthew will never have a healthy marriage if these issues aren’t discussed with the underlying imbalance of power and control changed.
I’m dismayed by the number of people helpers, pastors, lay counselors, marriage mentors and professional counselors who don’t understand safety issues must come first. There can be no constructive conversation about other marital issues nor can there be any joint marital counseling if one person has no say or isn’t safe to tell the truth or disagree without fear of physical, emotional, sexual, financial or spiritual retaliation.