This is a huge issue, I know. A few years ago I presented a workshop on family abuse in the hospital where I was chaplain. Medical personnel and clergy are often the front-line in confronting abuse in families. Abuse crosses all economic and ethnic lines. It can be perpetrated on spouses, children, and dependent elders. I know that there are many readers out there who have questions about relationships, and because we ourselves are traditional people, I want to make it clear that conservative, traditional churches do not condone abuse and control of others in any way. If a church does give permission for abusive situations, then its leadership is not following the way of the Lord.
Abuse can be manifested as emotional, physical and verbal abuse. It is an unethical control over another person or persons. Usually, if one form is present, the others will follow. Abuse always escalates unless there is intervention.
Emotional abuse is controlling another person through shame, guilt and humiliation. It can take the form of whining and complaining, or allegations of neglect. Passive-aggressiveness is a form of emotional abuse.
Here are some typical statements of emotional abuse:
“If you do that, you’ll break my heart!” ‘That’ can be anything from a spouse going on a business-related trip, to a child contemplating leaving home for college. It is disproportionate to the event.
“You never do anything for me!” or “That’s not fair!” In a normal relationship, both partners are equals in maturity, and understand that they share equally in responsibilities and advantages. This is a childish protest to get one’s own way, understandable in children, and ludicrous from an adult.
“That’s all right – do what you want, I don’t need anything.” Self-pity is manipulative, and this sort of statement is meant to force the other person to change his or her mind.
Refusing to follow through on promises made is passive-aggressive. Neglecting one’s duty as a deliberate punishment for some transgression by the other is passive-aggressive. So is refusal to discuss important issues, and then acting unilaterally.
Emotional abuse often takes the form of verbal abuse. Verbal abuse is insults, shouting, profanities, and public humiliation. Name-calling is never acceptable in relationships. I mean terms such as “stupid,” “idiot,” “b**ch,” and so on. When this is a repeated aspect of a relationship, then it is a serious form of abuse. Belittling is a form of verbal abuse: “Why can’t you do anything right?” Funny insults are still insults. Making one’s partner or child the butt of a joke isn’t funny – it’s abusive. When this happens publicly it is especially harmful.
The partner or parent (and sometimes the adult child) who tries to overpower the dispute with a family member by shouting and screaming is exercising verbal abuse. Raising the voice is always aggressive. It is a threat, just as the loud bark from a dog or the loud screams from an ape are signs of an intended attack. When this is done in public, it is meant as a form of humiliation. The intention is to get the other person to back down and give in.
Sometimes verbal abuse can take the sophisticated form of verbal correction. The partner can do nothing right, and has to be told continually how to do everything. This goes beyond ordinary instruction and reminder, and is meant to belittle, accompanied by statements such as “You couldn’t do anything without me,” or “My wife can’t remember the simplest things,” or “That’s all right, dear, you don’t have to think, do you?” This puts the humiliated spouse (or family member) in a state of dependency.
Eventually the verbally abused will come to believe what is said about them. It’s brainwashing. They’ve heard it so many times, and never been able to disprove it, that surely, they think, it must be true. I am stupid. I am silly. I am weak.
No one spouse should make all the decisions unilaterally, without consulting and discussing. While we think of women as susceptible to this kind of abusive control, it is happening more frequently to men, I believe. We used to say things like, “She wears the pants,” or “He’s quite the milquetoast.” But women are not just more assertive now, they are more aggressive, and sometimes that aggression is taken out on family members. Television especially is responsible for the kind of “humour” that is subtle put-downs and humiliations, making men look weak and foolish and women look authoritative. Television comedy gives the impression that parents are bumbling fools, and the children must run the household themselves. This distorted view of family life contributes to modern verbal abuse.
Physical abuse is the most obvious form. Physical abuse is slapping, kicking, punching, pushing, pulling, scratching, throwing objects with the intent of harm, hair-pulling, biting, burning and spitting. Spanking of young children is not physical abuse unless it leaves bruises or the blow is anywhere but the buttocks. Children should not be spanked above the age of ten at most, and I think that no object should be used but the cupped hand. I did not like to spank my children, and don’t remember administering more than one or two spankings.
Fighting is glorified in films and television events. It is ugly fighting, not the rule-bound and regulated contact sports of football, hockey, rugby or boxing. It is brawling, street-fighting elevated to a pseudo-sport. Professional wrestling, with its cartoon-like heroes and dramatic conflict, led the way. Martial arts, once a sport of almost no real contact, has become a means of inflicting pain. And UFC, a weird amalgamation of boxing, martial arts, kickboxing, and wrestling, is a futuristic gladiatorial match of blood and injury. In these Hollywood-generated “sports,” strength is the only real power, and power is the only real goal.
Physical domination is thus a sign of power and status. It becomes a seemingly valid way to settle a dispute, and this is going to infiltrate family life. It is not just men who use physical force to dominate. Women can be just as guilty, against men much bigger than themselves who will not fight back, or against children and elders who cannot defend themselves.
No relationship can survive abuse. The abuser needs to receive counseling to change the behaviour and understand the reasons behind it. While the Bible is sometimes used to justify unreasonable control in families, it is certainly not what the Lord taught us. Jesus Christ taught us to be gentle in spirit, meek, and self-sacrificing, not dominating and abusive. Clergy need to step up and address this when they see it, insttead of ducking the issue and looking the other way. Husbands should be instructed to be understanding and responsible, standing in the place of Christ in their families, and respectful of their wives, and wives need to be led to be humble and loving, honouring their husbands as head of the family. Children, as Christ did, are to be taken into our arms for nurturing and protection, to be brought up in the way in which they should go. Abuse and control have no place in the Christian family.