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

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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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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:

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