Ask a Counselor: How much abuse is too much abuse?

by Kay Bruner on May 7, 2015

smashed glass

After last month’s column addressing the question of domestic violence, a reader asked these questions in the comments section:

How much abuse is too much abuse?

How much abuse constitutes grounds for divorce?

My quick answer was:  ANY abuse is too much abuse, and ANY abuse constitutes grounds for divorce.

The reasons I think this?

  1. Abuse doesn’t happen outside of an abusive system.

By the time we have overt behavior that we can recognize as abuse, there is probably a whole world of covert abuse under the surface that has to be addressed with very serious boundaries.  This often includes separation, as a time for the two parties to work on their individual issues (Batterer’s Intervention or other therapy for the abuser, trauma recovery and healing for the victim) and to decide what is to be done about the marriage.

  1. When there is abuse, the marriage contract is broken and the victim of the abuse gets to choose what happens next.

In the interest of justice and mercy, we have to allow for those choices to include separation, divorce, reconciliation–whatever the victim, after adequate time for recovery–feels is appropriate.  When we limit the victim’s options, we end up like the Pharisees, weighing out our dill and mint and cumin, and laying heavy burdens on people that we’d be unwilling to bear ourselves.  When abuse is in the picture, the rest of us need to step off and support the victim to choose what is safe for her. 

Having said those things, let’s back up a little bit and address this question:

What’s the difference between a “normal” conflict, a “normal” hurt, that can occur in a healthy relationship, and actual abuse that occurs in an abusive relationship?

The first factor that you need to construct an abusive relationship is power.

The person with power can be someone who is physically bigger or stronger:  a parent, a husband, an older sibling.

The person with power could also be someone who is emotionally or spiritually bigger or stronger:  a boss, a husband, a pastor, a counselor.

Now, in a healthy system, a more powerful person could inadvertently hurt a weaker person.  A counselor could make a remark that hurts her client’s feelings.   A dad could turn around quickly and step on his daughter’s foot.  Apologies would be spoken; amends would be made; the relationship might even be stronger afterward.

So, getting hurt by a powerful person isn’t enough, in and of itself, to constitute abuse.

You need one more set of connected factors:  an abuser who fails to take responsibility, and a victim who carries the blame.

“There is no such thing as a perfect family or church where people don’t ever get hurt.  But the difference between an abusive and non-abusive system is that while hurtful behaviors might happen in both, it is not permissible to talk about problems, hurts, and abuses in an abusive system.  Hence, there is no healing and restoration after the wound has occurred, and the victim is made to feel at fault for questioning or pointing out the problem.”  Jeff VanVonderen, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse (emphasis mine)

In an abusive system, when a client brings up problems in the counseling relationship, the abusive counselor makes excuses and places blame on the client, stating that her method has worked for lots of other people.  An abusive father steps on his daughter’s foot and then yells at her for being in the way all the time.

In a non-abusive relationship, hurts may occur, but they can be worked out. 

In an abusive relationship, the abuser does not admit fault or make amends, but instead blames the victim.

One final question:  if you are being hurt in a relationship, what should you do?

BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING, consider whether you feel safe talking to the person about your hurt. 

IF YOU SUSPECT YOU WILL BE UNSAFE AT ANY TIME, make a safety plan and execute it when necessary.   Read more about safety plans here

If you have already endured physical violence from the person, the sad reality is that talking about problems is unlikely to solve them.  The abuser needs intervention from an outside agency, possibly law enforcement.  The victim needs safety.

However, if you feel that you are physically safe to have a conversation with the person, you might try something like this.

Step One:  Bring up the problem with the person, and see how they respond.  Are they able to own their part of the problem and work toward healthy solutions?   Or do you get blamed for having the problem in the first place?  Does talking about the problem cause more drama, blaming, and escalation rather than resolution?

Step Two:  Be honest with yourself about whether the relationship is healthy, or if the other person is more interested in power and control than a real relationship.  Remember that behavior is a very important language!  An abusive person may speak all sorts of charming, sorrowful, even spiritual-sounding words, but you have to measure the ACTIONS against the WORDS.  Does the person actually DO the right thing, or do they just SAY the right words to keep you engaged in their craziness?

Step Three:  Consider your boundaries.  What do you want in your life?  What is unacceptable in your life?  What steps will you take to remove things that are unwanted?  What steps will you take to bring healthy habits and healing behaviors into your life?  Boundaries will never control another person; they will only help us take control of ourselves.

Think about the relationships and systems you’re a part of. 

What power dynamics do you observe?

Are you in systems where you can’t speak up about problems and hurts?

Are other people able to speak to you about hurts and problems they have with you?

How much voice and value do you feel that you have in your relationships?

What boundaries do you need to draw in relationships that leave you voiceless and valueless?

 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 www.kaybruner.com. 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: www.kaybruner.com/counseling
  • I was married to my first husband for 10 years. It was abusive. During that time I had vowed for better or for worse…we had made a covenant afterall. He would regularly tell me that he was the head of the household and that I could not ask a spiritual question from another man. I was blamed for making him angry and hitting me. I was often quoted that my body was not my own…attempted rape was ok. Me servicing him almost every night was my duty. I went to my church in confusion. They told me to read, pray, and obey. It was MY responsobility to submit to my husband. I had no where safe to go. The church 10 years ago failed me. I got kicked out because according to the ex I could not keep the house clean. Communion was taken away. I was homeless. Litereally staying at a homeless shelter because I had been brainwashed into believing that domestic violence centers were of the devil….Thank you for this article.. Please any one who reads this get help.

    • Oh oh oh. I am so, so, so sorry for the abuse you suffered, not just at the hands of your ex, but even more at the hands of “the church.” That is spiritual abuse on top of everything else you endured. I hear this kind of story from women all the time–that the primary concern when they report abuse is some sort of convoluted “interpretation of scripture” that requires the victim to stay and continue to be abused, rather than any concern for mercy for the victim and justice for the perpetrator. I hope you’ve found safe and supportive places for yourself–what you’ve endured is just heart-breaking. Thank you for speaking up!

  • help

    I am currently living overseas with my husband. He has used his physical strength against me in conflict before, but last week it reached an undeniable, unmistakeable, unsafe point. In the hours and days that followed, I moved out to a hotel and contacted a professional therapist through a crisis hotline for missionaries. I also contacted a local pastor and his wife that we work closely beside. They visited me later in the week, intervention-style, and said many things, three of which I’ll never forget: 1) “God chose this man to be your husband” (so this is God’s will for my life???), 2) “It’s your job to help your husband become the best man he can be, so now that you know he struggles with anger, it’s your responsibility to help him learn how to control it” (so the responsibility of ‘fixing’ his abusive behavior lies on me???) and 3) “Jesus forgave the people who beat him, so you need to forgive your husband now.” He then proceeded to call my husband home from work so that he could ask my forgiveness and I could give it, in their presence. I am still speechless as I write this – I told the pastor and his wife multiple times that I wasn’t ready to forgive my husband, I was just trying to figure out my life in 5-minute increments and trying to comprehend what just happened and what comes next – and they just kept saying I needed to forgive him and how my being at a hotel was breaking my marriage covenant. I just…. it’s bad enough to have to experience what I experienced, isolated thousands of miles away from my support system, try to make decisions about what happens next and keep myself safe, all while having this ‘spiritual leader’ and his wife try to coerce me into making it all just go away! It’s frightening. And angering. And wrong. And really unhelpful. Any thoughts on the concept of forgiveness in all of this? That’s one of the more confusing parts of all of this for me. What does forgiveness mean in the case of physical violence? What does it look like?

    • Oh my dear. My heart is just breaking for you! I’m so glad you’ve already taken good steps toward safety, and I would just encourage you to continue to do so. Your embassy (or embassy liaison officer, or an allied embassy–for me, that would have been the Australian High Commission) should be able to give you support and help as well.

      Please, please, please BE SAFE. That is the most important thing. In all trauma recovery, you need to GET OUT of the situation to safe haven so you can figure out where to go from here. My personal preference would be that you go home and get with good, safe people who will love you through.

      It’s just so awful to suffer violence at the hands of the person who has promised to love and honor you. And then when the church would send you straight back into that situation, with all kinds of spiritual-sounding explanations–I hate, hate, hate that so much. To me, it’s just indicative of a “faith” that’s built on a code of perfectionism, performance, and approval-seeking. Justice and mercy are way harder than keeping the rules, and that’s why the rules are so popular. They are the spiritual easy button. If you’d just go back into that situation, everybody could go back to thinking things are okay.

      But that’s a lie. And we are people of truth and freedom. Grab hold of those things, and never let go!

      You haven’t broken the marriage covenant. You just told the truth about what had already happened. Your husband, by his acts of violence, in direct opposition to what he swore before God, broke that covenant.

      Here’s my short word on forgiveness: Forgiveness is free, trust is earned. We only give our trust to trustworthy people. If your husband has been physically violent with you, he’s not trustworthy. If he ever wants to be trustworthy again, he’s got a lot of work to do.

      Forgiveness is really about weighing what your husband owes you (love, faithfulness, comfort, protection) against what he did (beat you up) and then allowing God to deal with him about that debt, rather than you trying to punish him for what he did.

      BUT, we have all kinds of problems with forgiveness in the church.

      I think we have tended to wrap a whole bunch of stuff in with forgiveness that doesn’t really belong there. We assume that you’ll be emotionally healed as soon as you forgive, like waving a magic wand. We assume that reconciliation will naturally be a part of forgiveness. I think those are false assumptions! (Again, we just love an easy button! And we’ve made forgiveness into that.)

      I think healing is what God does for us, as we accept the truth and freedom he offers. Healing is a long, slow process. I think we can create a good environment for healing: remove ourselves from unsafe people and situations, and get with safe people; know the truth; accept grace and freedom.

      I think reconciliation is ONLY possible if the perpetrator REPENTS (changes!!!) and demonstrates trustworthy behavior over time, and IF the victim feels safe and happy and CHOOSES to be in the relationship again at some point.

      There should be grace and freedom and no single hint of coercion! The victim is free to choose whether to be in the relationship, or to walk away.

      I think when you’re right at the beginning, like you are right now, sometimes all you can do with forgiveness is turn yourself toward Love, and trust that God is enough for everything that’s coming down the line, even for figuring out how forgiveness works in a case like this.

      For me, it’s been leaning more and more into Love and trusting that Love is enough, even for all the things that people did that they shouldn’t have done. And the more I lean into Love, the less worried I am about getting back what I should have had.

      Forgiveness never keeps me from receiving grace and freedom, and it never keeps me from telling the truth.

      Here are a couple of things I’ve written about forgiveness on my personal blog.

      http://kaybruner.com/blog/2013/08/20/blood-on-the-floor?rq=forgiveness

      http://kaybruner.com/blog/2013/02/06/forgiveness-is-free-trust-is-earned?rq=forgiveness

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I always ALWAYS love the wisdom you share and the very thoughful way you share it. Thank you, Kay.

    • Thanks, Tara. I really appreciate your encouragement!

  • Recovered

    I remember asking this exact question about 7 years ago, when my husband went through some years of depression and anxiety (though he did not admit it at the time). He grew up in a very macho environment and arrived in Europe as an asylum seeker. His qualifications were not valid here so he has had years of unemployment, as he was too old to re-train in the field he worked in before, and I have been the breadwinner all these years. Sometimes he pushed me, sometimes making me bang my head on a door. He was not verbally abusive but hit out at me about once every 3 months if I said something “wrong”. One of the worst times was after I ranted at him in front of the children. After that time, I went to our GP and told him all about it, and he noted down the state of my bruises. I slept in the spare room for about a week until my husband finally apologized and promised never to do that again.
    It was at that point I wondered “how much is too much?” I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to continue the marriage, but decided that I couldn’t deprive the children of their father. He has fulfilled his promise never to resort to physical violence again. Sometimes I see the same flash of anger in his eye, but he goes off to another room to calm down. Lately he has found old friends from his old home town, and that has helped him not to feel so isolated. Last year he started another depressive bout, and went to our GP and got some tablets to help, which he took for a few months until it lifted.
    We are still in love and feel as if we have got past the rocky patches in our marriage. We now acknowledge that he has a tendency to anger and depression, and he has asked me to let him know when I spot the danger signs. He is also much more encouraged in his walk with God, which keeps him stable.
    So this is just to say, to anyone in the same situation, things can get better after an abusive episode. I heard from so many people that “once it starts, it will never stop”, but in our case it has.
    Praying for “Gurl” and “Help” who also posted comments.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your story. Such a valuable contribution to the conversation here. It sounds like you were able to feel safe enough to confront the problem, and he was willing to do his part and work toward resolution. His ability to recognize his own patterns with anger and depression, and his willingness to take responsibility for that in getting treatment, has made the reconciliation in your relationship possible. It’s really important to note that when you drew boundaries, he respected those and allowed your input to moderate his behavior. That’s ideal, really, and I think it’s so good for other women to hear this, because it helps measure where exactly their experience falls. Are they in a relationship that, like yours, has the potential for reconciliation? Or, are they dealing with a person who refuses to accept boundaries and who refuses to take responsibility for his own actions? That’s a question only the individual can answer.

  • Elizabeth Jones

    Thank you so much for this post, Kay. I am actively listening to and praying for a dear friend, S. She is currently going through some severe custody issues with a former husband (he was a former pastor, before his substance abuse came to the fore). They live in a rural area of a midwestern state where almost everyone in town shuns my friend because several years ago she filed for divorce because of her husband’s abuse and mental health issues. She still suffers from PTSD because of his physical/emotional/psychological abuse from several years ago. Now he and his manipulative family are upping the pressure against her because they want to control their children…the family wants the children to attend their oppressive fundamentalist legalistic church, and the two oldest teenage children do not want to attend their dad’s church any longer. His family is retaliating. Thus, the custody/CPS issues. Such a toxic, poisonous mess. @chaplaineliza

    • Thanks for being there to support your friend, for being the Body of Christ to her right now. My heart just breaks for her and her children.

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