Ask A Counselor: Can We Talk About Domestic Violence?

by Kay Bruner on April 14, 2015

suitcase“Would you talk about domestic violence on the mission field?”  That’s the question I got last month.  “Wow,” I replied, “I sure would.”  And then, my friend shared the story that follows.  I’m passing it along with her permission, and with a few changes made to protect identities.


There is a suitcase in my home where my dear friend, a fellow missionary, puts items she has sneaked out of her house in case she needs to initiate her “safety plan” and leave with her two small children, escaping her abusive husband.

From the time they moved to this area, I could see things going on that indicated probable relational problems. The wife had little freedom to make decisions, even little ones. The husband restricted her finances and her activities. There was significant imbalance in the weight of responsibilities. All the housework, taking care of and disciplining the kids fell to her. He was free to come and go and had copious leisure time and she had very little. He would often interrupt what she was doing and her conversations with others, causing her to stop what she was doing to do what he was asking her to do.

These would have been red flags in my American culture, but these folks aren’t American. I don’t speak their mother-language tongue to know what was being said. And of course, as missionaries, we’re taught to not judge cultural differences too quickly. My husband and I considered that their culture may have distinctly different gender-roles than those we are familiar with. But something felt wrong.

In time my relationship with the wife deepened. I began to see signs that she may, in fact, be being abused. She lived as if she was unworthy of having any wants, desires, or needs of her own. She blamed herself for their marital difficulties; she sincerely believed that if she could fix herself or God would do a work in her life (to change her), then their marriage problems would be resolved. She defended her husband and protected him, at times taking responsibility for his shortcomings and bad choices. She was afraid of displeasing him, and so on.

My husband and I read the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. It gave us invaluable insight into what was going on, and we knew that she was being abused. Eventually, I was able to suggest that my friend read the book. She did, and she began to recognize the abuse for herself. That was the beginning of something new. So very hard, but good.

I’m going over and over the events that have transpired, and aside from all the grief I feel for my friend and the sadness at the likelihood of her leaving, I’m struggling with guilt that I didn’t say something or do something sooner. I feel this huge weight that there are probably other missionary women out there in abusive situations and other friends like me who don’t recognize abuse, who don’t do something about it for a long time, and who may have even enabled the abuse!

These are some of the things that I think would be helpful for missionaries to be aware of:

  • Abuse can be hidden behind culture and language. We’ve got to trust the voice of the Holy Spirit when He prods us with the sense that “something is wrong here.” Even if certain cultural norms are generally accepted, practices that oppress women or other societal groups should absolutely be questioned and measured against Scripture.
  • Abuse hides and even thrives behind Christian doctrine on gender roles. This topic is a mine-field, isn’t it?
  • Abusers are masters of maintaining their public reputation. Likeable men who contribute to ministry can be abusers. So we all need to be able to recognize the signs of abuse and be familiar with different kinds of abuse. *
  • On the mission field, abused women have little access to resources. In their home countries, they could flee to a family member or friend’s home. Overseas, escape can be very difficult, especially if a woman is financially dependent on her husband.
  • There is one thing I should have realized a long, long time ago. If I (and others in the missionary community) are tip-toeing around a man, expending effort to avoid any kind of disagreement or confrontation with him because I am afraid of inciting an angry or unpleasant response, there is a good chance that his wife and children are afraid of his responses too.
  • We are concerned with justice for those we are ministering to, but can so easily miss (or ignore) the injustice happening right under our noses. By not addressing, questioning, or confronting the abuser for injustices carried out in public, we have been enabling the abuse to continue.

I am so thankful we’ve been able to receive some help from an American counselor with extensive experience working with abusers and the abused. He and his wife were able to spend some time with my friend (but not her husband). We learned from him that this is not the first case of domestic abuse that he has encountered in our organization in this region.

The story continues to play out. The family is returning to their home country; the elder board of their home church is calling them back. They don’t see or acknowledge that there is abuse going on; they only see my friend’s emotional instability. Our hope and prayer had been that the husband would agree to work with the counselor I mentioned, but he refused.


*For more information on the signs of abuse, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Here is a resource that identifies how power and control contribute to various types of abuse.

Here’s a Mud Stories podcast from a woman who survived domestic violence overseas.


Let me just share a few notes with you on how domestic violence is usually treated in the States.

  • Domestic violence may include verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. Economic abuse is often a factor in these scenarios, when a woman is not allowed the financial independence that might lead to her escape.
  • It’s extremely important to understand that issues of abuse are NOT conceptualized as “marital problems.”
  • While we understand that the victim of the abuse is not a perfect person, abuse is never an acceptable response to any provocation whatsoever.
  • Abuse is something for which the abusive person needs to take responsibility and seek treatment.
  • Therefore, abuse is not primarily treated in couples counseling.
  • If someone recommends couples counseling when abuse is part of the relationship, this is not best practice.  Seek help elsewhere.
  • The abuser would usually attend a Batterer’s Intervention Program.
  • The victim would benefit from attending a group for battered women (often offered at local woman’s shelters) and personal counseling for trauma recovery.
  • Women’s shelters are available in many communities, and many shelters provide services for accompanying children as well.
  • Separation is a very common and healthy boundary during treatment.

I have been asked by clients if I believe that domestic violence is grounds for divorce, and my answer to that is yes.

I do believe that domestic violence is grounds for divorce.

While divorce is never what we hope for, sometimes it is the most just and merciful outcome we can humanly facilitate.

The church has been careful to tell people that the only ground for divorce is adultery, and I am aware that this is the boundary stated in Mosaic law.

While the Mosaic law may be well-meant as a deterrent to divorce, to abusive people it becomes a boundary that allows them to skate on the side of “righteousness” while perpetrating all kinds of sin and abuse on their families.

I believe that we are held to a higher standard than the Mosaic law.  We are held to the standard of justice and mercy, as Jesus warned:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.  You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”  Matthew 23:23

“And you experts of the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.”  Luke 11:46

Justice and mercy matter most.

May we never forget.

Photo Credit (changes made) 
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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Kay, thank you for this and to your friend as well. Excellent reminders and encouragement about what to be watching for and how to respond. I agree with you 100% – abuse is grounds for divorce. It is grievous to me to see abused women being asked to stay by their clergy or community.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Agreed – I think it is critically important to remember that abuse means the abuser has not kept their vows. They have been unfaithful. Perhaps not sexually, but definitely they have broken the sacred vows of marriage to honor, to love, to care for, to PROTECT. Thanks Kay, for bringing up a hard topic.

      • Kathy

        Yes exactly – the abuser has broken the marriage covenant.

    • Yes, I don’t know how anybody can tell an abused woman that she must return to the man who beats her. I can’t compute that into justice and mercy in my mind. It’s not justice and mercy for the victim, and it’s also not justice or mercy for the abuser, who desperately needs intervention. Imagine the damage to the soul of a person who perpetrates that kind of sin on his family. Why would we ever want to cover that up?

  • M Ganz

    I agree that abuse is grounds for divorce. The covenant (at least in a western marriage) is to love and protect, as well a to be faithful. If that covenant is broken, it can only be restored through repentance and restoration. If that cannot be accomplished, then divorce is allowable in my mind.
    To me, this applies to any part of the covenant of marriage.

    • Yes, I agree. My “net” on what constitutes the covenant of marriage being broken gets bigger and bigger, the more I work with women who are just desperate for some kind of mercy in their marriages. It’s heart breaking.

  • Kathy

    Great article and SO necessary. A couple of things stood out to me…the cultural aspect – so easy to overlook sins and abuse under “not understanding the cultural differences”. The other thing that struck me was the comment about how if we are tip-toeing around someone so they don’t get angry then odds are definitely high that his wife and kids have to do this constantly and abuse (at least in the form of unhealthy control) is most likely taking place. I like all your comments Kay -especially about this not being “marital problems” that need couples counselling. Great point!

    • We did a marriage and family study overseas years ago (men separate from women), and one of the men, a really nice guy we liked a lot, asked Andy, “When do you hit your wife?” Andy said, “Never.” And the guy said, “But how do you get her to do what you want?” Weeeeeeeeeeeell… hmmm…

      • Kathy

        This just makes me feel sick inside…

        • Yes, but our culture was the same not so long ago. 1850 was the first law against domestic violence in the US–Tennessee was the first state to pass that law. Go, Vols.

  • Holly Lovegrove

    EXCELLENT article, and that book is really very helpful indeed. This subject does need to be discussed more within the Church. The Church especially seems to have a hard time recognizing and responding correctly to emotional abuse, even providing “biblical” support for it. I have known cases where the abused wife was asked, “Well, but he’s not beating you, is he?” and when the answer was “No”, the was was told that she therefore had no right to leave him. I hope your friend gets out in time.

    • And I’ve had women say to me, “I wish he would just hit me. Then I could leave.” Gnats and camels.

  • Anna Wegner

    I was so sad to read the story, but glad you are sharing it. We don’t like to think that this is possible, but we do all need to be aware. Thank you for making the point that abuse is never OK, no matter the provocation and the distinction that abuse is different than marital problems requiring couples counseling.

    • We absolutely do all have to be aware, otherwise overseas life can all too easily become a haven for abusers.

  • guest

    How much abuse is abuse? How much abuse is grounds for divorce?

    • These are such difficult questions, because they’re not just theoretical, right? These are actual questions with actual real-world consequences. Here’s what I think: I think ANY abuse is abuse, and I also think ANY abuse is grounds for divorce. Abuse means that there is a person with power–physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, cultural–and that person uses their power to injure others. Abuse is different from a regular disagreement in a relationship, because in a normal disagreement, both parties can work things out. An abuser just becomes more difficult and abusive when confronted, and everyone ends up walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting the abuser. By the time someone begins to abuse another person, serious lines have been crossed in terms of entitlement and objectification, and it takes serious, serious work to rewire all those patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior. I think separation is often a very good boundary to begin with, if there is abuse of any kind. I think the perpetrator needs time to decide if he would rather be a perpetrator or a trustworthy person, to become a trustworthy person, and to demonstrate that he is a trustworthy person. By trustworthy behavior, over time. I think reconciliation is always the prerogative of the victim; only she knows if she will desire to enter into a relationship again with that person.

  • I was glad to see that you feel that abuse is grounds for divorce. For those that want to cling to OT laws to insist that it would not be, I would remind them that if those laws had been in effect for the abusive husband, in many cases he would have been stoned for his behavior and she would have ended up a widow. So a divorce would obviously not have been necessary.

    Another frequent situation of abuse is when daughters of missionaries grow up and marry nationals. It occasionally works well but the majority of cases that I have known personally, at least in the culture I am in, have resulted in violent situations that are very hard for the wife to escape due to her status as a foreigner.

    • Thanks for this reminder as well, Bettie. The abuse of women is an all-too-common practice around the world, and we can’t allow ourselves to be ignorant of that reality.

  • I am so glad that I stumbled on your blog via an FB link. I totally agree with couples counseling NOT being appropriate in this situation. I wrote an article here explaining why –

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