Every marriage experiences some degree of conflict. Most marriages experience strong differences of opinion. Arguments are not uncommon. Spouses are occasionally grumpy and unkind to each other. Spouses lose their tempers and can sometimes blow up at each other. Everyone is capable of being hypercritical or falsely accusing his or her mate. Small skirmishes for control over a particular issue can break out from time to time. These are all a part of the normal tension and conflict that inevitably arise when an imperfect man and woman join their lives together in a marital relationship.
Marital abuse, whether or not it involves physical violence, is very different. One key difference is that marital abuse is a one-sided, oppressive relationship where one spouse establishes a pattern of unhealthy control. Even though there might seem to be times of peace and affection, these good times linger in the shadows of the subtle or not so subtle controlling tactics an abusive mate uses for the purpose of getting his or her own way.
For example, an abusive spouse may prevent his (or her) partner from seeing family members, going out with friends, or going back to college. He may try to regulate the people his spouse talks to, where his spouse goes, or how and when his spouse spends money. He may demand all of his mate’s attention. He may put his spouse on an irrational guilt trip for talking to or doing things with other people. He may consider his spouse’s needs as an infringement on or a betrayal of his own needs. He may act insanely jealous and falsely accuse his partner of cheating on him. He may constantly monitor and check up on the whereabouts of his spouse. Many are known to lash out and belittle their spouse when they don’t get their own way or when they feel betrayed or abandoned. Others threaten to divorce or to physically hurt their spouse or destroy a cherished possession, all in an effort to intimidate and punish their mate.
While normal marital conflict can at times seem far worse than what it really is, it tends to lessen in time because of the loving foundation of the relationship—“love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). That important foundation is painfully missing in a marriage marked by abuse. Because of the extreme levels of selfishness at work in the heart of the abusive spouse, marital abuse, if not confronted, will only escalate and get worse over time.
Another important difference is that normal marital conflict and marital abuse require different levels of intervention. While some married couples who experience normal conflict may require help from an objective and wise third party, many can eventually work through their differences by themselves within an atmosphere of mutual love, consideration, and forgiveness. Marital abuse, however, is a different story. Due to safety concerns and an abuser’s excessive self-focus and chronic complaints of being a victim, addressing marital abuse and restoring the relationship is a much more difficult and complicated process. It requires outside help from those who can provide guidance, support, and protection for an abused spouse as the abuser is confronted and held accountable.
While most abusive spouses will insist on joint-marital counseling once their pattern of domination and control is exposed, this is thelast place to begin addressing marital abuse. For his or her own reasons, neither spouse is ready for the kind of honest and open conversation that is needed for marital counseling to be beneficial. Almost without exception, abusive spouses will derail the counseling process by trying to micromanage it. And most are far from being able to discuss their pattern of control without acting like a victim. On the other side, abused spouses will not feel safe enough to openly share their true thoughts and concerns, let alone admit to any faults they may have. They are understandably afraid that their partners will shut them down, twist their words, or later make them pay. Years of being controlled have also taught an abused spouse to see things mostly through the eyes of her (or his) spouse in order to avoid doing something “wrong.” Marriage counseling will not be beneficial until abused spouses recover the ability to think for themselves and the freedom to show up as a person in the relationship.
Abusive spouses who are truly serious about stopping their pattern of domestic abuse will agree to pursue a path of individual counseling (separate from their spouse). Their individual counseling is designed to increase their awareness and insight into how they try to control their spouse, the damage it has caused to their marital relationship, and why they feel such a deep and pressing need to dominate their partner and maintain a victim mentality. Joint-marital counseling is only possible once abusers stop playing the victim in the marriage, end all of their excuses, and consistently own up to their patterns of control and the harm it has caused. Only then are they ready to have honest conversations with their spouses and to continue their own journey of working through and finding healing and freedom from their own personal wounds and insecurities.