Eric Dishongh, PhD
Connecting others to Jesus and His church as a husband, dad, minister, counselor, professor and friend
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The soon-to-be released movie Fifty Shades of Grey has resulted in much awareness pertaining to sexual abuse within relationships. The supporters of the movie would say that this is simply sex between two consenting adults, not abuse, and that this is simply a story about an average woman’s fantasy with an exceedingly above average man. However, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation thinks differently: “The Fifty Shades of Grey book series and franchise promote torture as sexually gratifying and normalize domestic violence, particularly violence against women. This type of material cultivates a rape and sexual violence culture and is now permeating our society” (http://endsexualexploitation.org/fiftyshadesgrey/). Blogger Matt Walsh agrees as demonstrated by his recent article titled, “To the Women of America: 4 Reasons to Hate 50 Shades of Grey” (http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/07/25/women-america-4-reasons-hate-50-shades-grey/).
Although sexual abuse against women is a prevalent problem that needs to be addressed in today’s society, I believe there is a much more prevalent problem in today’s relationships, including Christian marriages: emotional abuse.
I wrote the following “research paper” a few years ago in which I addressed the topics of emotional abuse and biblical submission from the perspective of a Christian therapist. It’s a bit lengthy, but I’m hoping it can be helpful to you…
Abuse within marriage is a phenomenon that negatively affects families, so therapists need to be prepared to effectively treat clients with abuse as a presenting concern. However, the abuse literature is skewed towards physical abuse and away from emotional abuse. This can be explained by the difficulty in defining and measuring emotional abuse (Hines & Malley-Morrison, 2005). Furthermore, the literature concerning emotional abuse within Christian homes is lacking because of the embarrassment of wives and the difficulties concerning the biblical topic of submission.
In Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home, Alsdorf & Alsdorf (1989) meticulously explain the prevalence of abuse in Christian marriages and the reinforcing roles of the church in the continuation of violence. Wives are often encouraged to submit to their husbands with intent that the abuse would cease (Lundquist, 2001; Collins, 1988). In an attempt to be consistent with the Bible, Christian friends and church leaders encourage wives to endure suffering as Christ experienced on the cross (Ruether, 1995) and to “go back home, to be more submissive and loving, and not to do things that stir up trouble” (Strom, 1986, p. 51). Alsdorf & Alsdorf (1989) write, “Those who endorse a wife’s remaining in the home until the abuse becomes “severe,” and those who would not consider violence as a justification for breaking the marriage commitment, appear to hold the primacy of marriage commitment over the sanctity of a woman’s life” (p. 158).
What does the Bible say about power and authority in marriage? Should the notion of wifely submission be abandoned? What is an appropriate biblical definition of submission? These questions are not easily answered. In fact, congregations within the same religious organizations are not always in harmony with the issue of submission (Christianity Today, 1999). With this in mind, this paper will discuss the two prevalent interpretations of submission in the Bible; identify emotional abuse patterns within Christian homes; and provide treatment strategies to assist Christian couples in which emotional abuse is present.
Theological Construct of Submission
The church has difficulty with abuse in the home, especially with emotional abuse. A distorted understanding of submission results in the Christian husband thinking he is the tyrant in the family (Collins, 1988). An examination of the biblical literature is needed to counter these distortions. There are two prominent interpretations concerning the biblical notion of submission.
Wifely submission is the interpretation which historically has been the most popular. Biblical passages such as Ephesians 5:23 and I Peter 3:7 are utilized for support. Wifely submission entails the wife submitting to her husband, and the husband not submitting to his wife. The husband is the “head of the house” just as Christ is the head of the church.
In the Bible, the following six references of submission to principal authorities are mentioned (Douglas & Tenney, 1987): God, (Hebrews 5:9), parents (Ephesians 6:1), teachers (Proverbs 5:12-13), masters (Ephesians 6:4), government (Romans 13:1-7), and husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24). These relationships are never reversed (Grudem, 1994). For example, parents are never told to be submissive to children; governments are never told to be submissive to citizens; and husbands are never told to be submissive to wives.
When a conflict regarding submission exists, Christians are commanded to “obey God, not men” (Acts 5:29). Wives are not to submit to husbands when he desires for to quit doing God’s will (Overton, 1991). In a similar way that children should only obey their parents when acting in accordance to Christian mandates, the same holds true for wives submitting to their husbands.
The wife’s submissive relationship to her husband can be compared to the Son’s submissive relationship to the Father. God the Father and Jesus are equal in deity and husbands and wives are equal in personhood; however, the roles are different (Grudem, 1994). The husband’s role as head of the house does not imply that the wife is not equally intelligent or capable as a person (Overton, 1991). From the example of Christ submitting to the Father (Philippians 2:6), submission does not imply superiority of husbands nor inferiority of wives (Bellizi, 1996). Rather, the husband serves as a servant leader in the home. The Lord established the wife’s role of submission for the protection of women and the harmony of the home (Christenson, 1970). The husband’s authority is expressed through protection from satanic ploys and the facilitation of a powerful prayer life and service to the family and others. Traditionally, this is expressed through being the breadwinner, making major decisions, controlling finances, and disciplining children.
However, submission does not necessitate complete passivity and non-decision making on the wife’s part (Grudem, 1994). The wife plays an active role in the midst of her husband’s loving and considerate leadership. In Proverbs 31, the worthy woman displayed “managerial finesse” (Bellizzi, 1996), which demonstrates an interaction with working inside and outside of the home.
Even within the wifely submission paradigm, there must be a distinction between submission and servility (Christenson, 1970). The wife is not a slave, and the husband is not a master. If this were the case, the husband/wife relationship would have been elaborated upon by Paul’s admonition to masters and slaves (Ephesians 6).
When wives exude a godly submission in the home, Winkler (1978) points out that wives will be like: Sarah, who respected her husband (I Peter 3:6); Elizabeth, who was righteous with her husband (Luke 1:5-6); Manoah’s wife, who maintained a sacred togetherness with her husband (Judges 13:14); Rachel, who desired motherhood and encouraged her husband (Genesis 30:1, 31:16); Ruth, who was a good in-law to her husband’s parents (Ruth 1); and Priscilla, who was a helper to her husband (Acts 18:24-28).
In response to the wifely submission interpretation, mutual submission has fostered popularity within the past century. As feminism fostered in the twentieth century, the idea of unique male leadership in marriage plummeted (Grudem, 2002; Sphar & Smith, 2003). Mutual submission suggests that wives are to submit to their husbands and husbands are to submit to their wives. The chain-of-command perspective is not a biblical or psychological pattern for marriage (Alsdorf & Alsdorf, 1989).
Several writers (Balswick & Balswick, 2004; Whipple, 1987; Marshall, 2004; Sphar & Smith, 2003) maintain that wifely submission is expressed under the umbrella of mutual submission. Paul’s writing occurred in the context of first century Rome, in which patriarchy was the norm and slavery was a vibrant aspect of society. Thus, the commands of children obeying parents, slaves obeying masters, subjects obeying rulers, and wives obeying husbands were parallel with the standard relationships of the day. However, today families “live within different structures and recognize a need for change from the first-century structures as a result of our continuing evaluation of society in the light of the gospel” (Marshall, 2004, p. 190). For example, the principle of submission pertaining to slaves and masters has been adjusted for contemporary relationships with employees and employees; however, Christian scholars today agree that slavery is not an acceptable aspect of society. Similarly, adjustments are needed within the relationship of wives and husbands. Since wives are not typically twelve to fifteen years younger than their husbands and since marriages are no longer arranged (Marshall, 2004), submission will manifest itself differently than in the first century. As wives and husbands love and respect each other, submission is no longer presumed as a one-way tract.
Behaviors often associated with mutual submission include the following: dialoguing about disagreements; honoring differences; communicating honestly; parenting together; admitting mistakes; becoming aware of personal faults; and apologizing (Balswick & Balswick, 2004). Proponents of mutual submission suggest that those who claim wifely submission only are most likely symbolic, not actual (Griffith & Harvey, 1998; Balswick & Balswick, 2004). A faithful Christian wife is “submissive” to her husband in her language; however, in her actions, she utilizes persuasion, influence, and occasionally manipulation to obtain what she desires. In other words, the behaviors associated with mutual submission are prevalent within families that claim mutual submission is the incorrect biblical interpretation of submission.
In summary, there are valid arguments for both interpretations pertaining to submission. However, regardless which interpretation is chosen (this author favors wifely submission), neither wifely submission only nor mutual submission justifies the emotional (or physical) abuse of husbands to their wives. There is no example in the Bible that permits the “head of the house” to be abusive to his wife (Strom, 1986).
The feminist movement and anger of women in general is rightfully justified not because of God’s plan for marriage, rather because of the unchristian treatment of wives by husbands (Hobby, 2000). Husbands who justify their abuse with the biblical account of submission have ignored the surrounding verses of the submission passages (i.e. Ephesians 5:21-33). The responsibilities of a Christian husband include loving, sanctifying, washing, cleansing, glorifying, nourishing, cherishing, and cleaving (Thomas, 2000). Husbands cannot simultaneously abuse their wives and maintain all of these responsibilities. In her comments pertaining to the husband’s role of loving his wife as Christ loved the church, Whipple (1987, p. 255) says, “Contrasting this exhortation to self-sacrificing love with the brutal tyranny of her husband be a real eye opener.”
A Misunderstanding of Submission Resulting in Emotional Abuse
An insensitive, authoritarian approach to submission is not supported by Scripture (Bellizzi, 1996), although emotional abuse is often justified by a misunderstanding of submission (Lundquist, 2001). An abusive husband “sees his easy chair as his throne, his television remote control as his scepter, and his house as his personal castle” (Sphar & Smith, 2003, p. 181). Despite the husband’s responsibility to love his wife as Christ loved the church, husbands typically possess non-Christ attributes (chauvinistic, manipulative, etc.).
As previously mentioned, emotional abuse is difficult to define and measure, especially within Christian homes. However, there have been some valiant efforts in attacking this dilemma. The following section of this paper will discuss two prominent models of classifying emotional abuse. The first section identifies Murphy and Echardt’s (2005) four types of psychological abuse, and the second section identifies Garbarino and Eckenrode’s (1997) six types of behaviors associated with psychological maltreatment. There is some overlapping between the two lists; however, they are both worthy of consideration. Within each description, this author provides ideas directly related to emotional abuse within Christian homes, which is often a manifestation of a misunderstanding of submission.
Dominance/intimidation “involves behaviors that share similarities to physical assault and appear intended to produce fear or submission in the partner” (Murphy & Echardt, 2005, p. 15). Threats and intimidating looks are apart of this category. Interpersonal problems are at the core of this form of emotional abuse. In the name of submission, churches have the tendency to reinforce husbands’ dominance and wives’ passivity and/or dependency (Whipple, 1987).
In Christian marriages, dominance/intimidation is the most common form of emotional abuse utilized by husbands. “Submit” or “submission” are the words most frequently expressed. The Apostle Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24). A husband whose masculine security is directly related to his wife’s level of submission has ultimately, and ironically, surrendered control to his wife (Balswick & Balswick, 2004)! A disobedient or noncompliant wife questions the husband’s ability to be controlling, which leaves him in a desperate situation.
Denigration “involves belittling, critical, and humiliating acts intended to attack or damage the partner’s sense of self-worth” (Murphy & Echardt, 2005, p. 16). This form of abuse creates long-term detrimental effects on the partner’s self-esteem. Interpersonal problems are also at the core of this form of emotional abuse.
Denigration is the result and continuation of the misunderstood biblical notion of submission. The Bible says, “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (I Peter 3:7). The “weaker partner” or “weaker vessel” is utilized by husbands to create notions of powerful self-worth and as a result weak self-worth for wives.
Restrictive engulfment “involves efforts to track and monitor the partner’s whereabouts and isolate the partner from important social contacts or self-enhancing activities” (Murphy & Echardt, 2005, p. 16). The intent is to increase the partner’s dependency and to eliminate potential threats of sexual faithfulness. Intrusiveness and a fear of abandonment characterize restrictive engulfment.
In an admonition of older women providing guidance for younger women, the Apostle Paul writes, “Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:4-6). “To be busy at home” creates justification on the husband’s perspective that the wife should live in isolation from society and self-enhancing activities.
Hostile withdrawal involves “aversive escape or avoidance behaviors intended to help the abuser ignore the partner’s concerns and punish the partner through withdrawal of attention or affection” (Murphy & Echardt, 2005, p. 16). This results in a heightened sense of insecurity and anxiety in the relationship. Interpersonal avoidance and coldness characterize hostile withdrawal.
In a passage intended to strengthen marital relationships, the Apostle Paul writes, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (I Corinthians 7:3-5).
Spurning is the first major type of psychological maltreatment (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). It is characterized by hostile rejecting and/or degrading which is expressed to the loved one either verbally or nonverbally. Examples include belittling, ridiculing for normal emotions such as affection and grief, and public humiliation.
Spurning is probably the most prevalent amongst Christian couples. By abusing biblical scriptures (Ephesians 5, I Peter 3, Titus 2, etc.), Christian husbands have the capability of spurning their wives with a clean conscience. Examples of Christian spurning are “you need to submit and obey me” and “I am the head of this house.” As a result, wives are left questioning their self-worth as a Christian, wife, and individual. Public humiliation is not common, however, because the Christian husband desires for everyone else to believe that he has the perfect Christian mate.
Terrorizing is the second major type of psychological maltreatment (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). It is characterized by threatening behaviors that is conducive to hurting, killing, abandoning, and/or placing the loved one in dangerous situations. Examples include placing the loved one in unpredictable or chaotic circumstances, setting rigid or unrealistic expectations, and perpetrating violence against the loved one or someone close to him/her.
Terrorizing is taking spurning to the next level of detriment. Although not as common as spurning, terrorizing is evident in Christian couples when the husband is struggling with emotional issues himself. There is no biblical justification whatsoever for threatening harm to a spouse. Setting rigid or unrealistic expectations is the most applicable within this category to abusive Christian husbands. For example, some husbands expect the wife to work all day; have dinner cooked; help the children with their homework; put them to bed; and then have energy for sex.
Isolating is the third major type of psychological maltreatment (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). It is characterized by behaviors that deny the loved one opportunity for interactions and communications with other people. Examples include placing unreasonable limitations on the loved one’s freedom within his/her environment and placing restrictive measures on social interactions.
Isolating is more common than terrorizing amongst Christian couples. Utilizing biblical notions, the Christian husband attempts to keep his wife isolated. For example, a wife is not allowed to work or to have a “girl’s night out” because the husband is fearful that she may form relationships with others, including men, that would impede her ability to be a faithful spouse and caretaker of the home.
Exploiting/corrupting is the fourth major type of psychological maltreatment (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). It is characterized by the encouragement of inappropriate behaviors. Examples include encouraging antisocial behavior; permitting developmentally inappropriate behavior; forcing abandonment of autonomy through intrusion or dominance; and restricting cognitive development.
Exploiting/corrupting is not common within Christian marital relationships. A Christian husband desires for his wife and family to remain faithful to the Lord. Although he may incorrectly understand the biblical concept of submission, he realizes that antisocial behavior should not be tolerated. Thus, he would not encourage his wife to engage in prostitution, pornography, criminal activities, or substance abuse.
Denying Emotional Responsiveness
Denying emotional responsiveness is the fifth major type of psychological maltreatment (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). It is characterized by ignoring the loved one’s need to interact and showing no emotional interaction. Examples include being detached due to incapacity or lack of motivation; interacting when necessary; and withholding affection from the loved one.
Denying emotional responsiveness is problematic in Christian and non-Christian marital relationships. Men, in general, have difficulty grasping the need for emotional responsiveness (in most instances, they are not even aware of the need). Husbands have the tendency to be emotionally distant. This may be due to long work hours away from the home, continual television/internet usage while at home, or a variety of other reasons. For example, this type of husband would only express affection with the intention of sex. When the sex is denied by the wife, the husband would then begin other forms of maltreatment such as spurning or terrorizing.
Mental Health, Medical, and Educational Neglect
Mental health, medical, and educational neglect is the sixth major type of psychological maltreatment (Garbarino & Eckenrode, 1997). It is characterized by the failure to provide the necessary treatment in these areas. Examples include refusing to provide treatment for emotional/behavioral problems, serious physical health problems, and serious educational problems.
This category is extremely applicable to families when the Christian husband is psychologically abusive. Emotional/behavioral problems with the wife are interpreted by “lack of faith” by the husband, thus treatment is not even considered. Rather, she needs to pray more, read the Bible more, and “be a better wife.” Medical neglect, however, is less common. A Christian husband recognizes the need for treatment for concerns such as colds, flu, or diseases such as cancer. Once the physical complaints turn into emotional ones, the husband no longer is concerned. Educational neglect is expressed by not allowing the wife to finish college or attend graduate school. The husband’s fear is that she will become less dependent upon him, and as a result, would more likely consider leaving him.
The four concepts of emotional abuse identified by Murphy & Echardt (2005) and the six concepts identified by Garbarino & Eckenrode (1997) are prevalent amongst Christian marriages, especially when the husbands justifies his behavior by misapplying the concept of submission. In therapy, the therapist needs to adequately assess the levels of emotional abuse. “The high rate of undetected partner violence makes it imperative that all therapists assess for the possibility of domestic violence with every family they see” (Stith, 2000). If abuse is suspected, the therapist could distribute “The Revised Conflict Tactics Scale” (Straus, Hamby, Boney-McCoy, & Sugarman, 1996), which distinguishes between psychological aggression and physical assault. This is particularly important when physical abuse is not present.
Typically, Christian husbands, especially those who serve as elders, deacons, and/or ministers, are more vulnerable to the abuse of biblical references concerning marital roles. As a result, the wife’s presenting concerns are manifestations of dominance, denigration, hostile withdrawal, restrictive engulfment, spurning, terrorizing, exploiting, denying emotional responsiveness, and/or neglect pertaining to health or education. The husband’s blanket responses to his wife’s complaints (which led to therapy) include “she doesn’t like to be submissive,” “she doesn’t like it when I put my foot down,” and “I am the head of the house.” These expressions, unfortunately, are the result of honest, God-fearing men who have misunderstood biblical scriptures.
From this point, the therapist and the couple should sift through pertinent biblical passages (Ephesians 5, I Corinthians 7, I Peter 3, Titus 2, etc.) and notice these passages within their contexts. For example, in Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul admonishes the wives to submit to their husbands, but also for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. If the love in this passage is manifested in a marital relationship, the couple would not be in therapy. Thus, the therapist’s role, through a psychoeducational process, is to provide insights as the couple understands these passages together.
Some husbands maintain the notion that wives should be unquestioningly obedient in satisfying his every demand. If this does not occur, the husband has a God-given right to take whatever measure necessary to force compliance (Strom, 1986). To effectively engage Christian clients, including abused wives, therapy must encompass biblical notions that God is not pleased with abuse (Whipple, 1987).
Therapy focuses on liberating the wife from the belief that she is the source of her husband’s abuse. To aid in this endeavor, the therapist provides time for the wife to read “For the Abused Woman” (Strom, 1986). The wife’s sense of self-worth and levels of self-esteem are grossly disturbed in the context of an emotionally abusive marriage. The therapist should pay careful attention to the husband’s verbal and nonverbal communication to ensure a safe environment as the wife engages in activities intended to heighten her self-worth and self-esteem.
In conclusion, this paper discussed the two prevalent interpretations of submission in the Bible; identified emotional abuse patterns within Christian homes; and provided treatment strategies to assist Christian couples in which emotional abuse is present. To effectively treat the couple, the therapist must engage the clients’ worldview concerning submission and marital roles, even if they differ from personal beliefs. Regardless of the interpretation concerning submission, the Bible never justifies emotional abuse.
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