One of the most difficult questions I face when counseling an emotionally abused woman is whether or not she should temporarily separate from her husband. More conservative evangelicals are suggesting that abuse counts as abandonment or desertion of the marriage or that it’s a third reason for divorce besides adultery and abandonment, but it’s not a slam dunk debate. All counselors, secular and Christian, recommend separation when physical abuse is alleged, but because of our high view of marriage, it’s a more difficult question for biblical counselors.
Consider two Scripture passages.
Romans 12:18 (ESV) If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Proverbs 22:3 (ESV) The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.
It’s not always possible to live peaceably with someone, and a prudent person gets away from evil. They hide. These verses aren’t specifically on marriage, but they speak to the realities of some marriages. Some wives no matter how hard they try cannot live peaceably with their abuser. He won’t allow it. And in those cases, even if only for verbal assaults, it may be prudent for her to get away from the danger.
Some counselors that work through the difficulty of this question claim that the safety of the victim is more important than maintaining the marriage. Diane Langberg says, “We have misled people with our very narrow, limited interpretation of what God hates. We respond as if God hates the dissolution of a marriage but can tolerate abuse, harshness, manipulation, and threats in a relationship that is meant to look like his relationship to his bride!” Is the sanctity of marriage more important to you than the safety of the wife and children?
I don’t believe advocating divorce in these circumstances is what a biblical counselor should do, but a temporary separation can be helpful. John Piper says, “Let me say at the outset that I am aware—painfully aware—that there are sins that spouses commit against each other that can push forbearance and forgiveness across the line into the assisting of sin and may even warrant a redemptive separation—I choose the words carefully: a redemptive separation.”
But, it’s not a simple decision especially when considering emotional abuse where no physical or sexual abuse has been alleged. However, verbal abuse can be as destructive as physical abuse. Bethlehem Baptist has developed a statement on domestic abuse that sees an equivalence between four types of abuse:
We, the council of elders at Bethlehem Baptist Church, are resolved to root out all forms of domestic abuse (mental, emotional, physical, and sexual) in our midst. This destructive way of relating to a spouse is a satanic distortion of Christ-like male leadership because it defaces the depiction of Christ’s love for his bride. The shepherds of Bethlehem stand at the ready to protect the abused, call abusers to repentance, discipline the unrepentant, and hold up high the stunning picture of how much Christ loves his church.
More Christians are recognizing the devastation that verbal/emotional abuse cause. They recognize that sometimes it’s necessary for the victim to get away from the perpetrator. Indeed, it may be the prudent decision.
John 2:24 (ESV) But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people
Jesus has done miracles in Jerusalem during the Passover, and some have believed in His name (2:23). Not saving faith, but some type of belief in his healing powers. But Jesus doesn’t entrust himself to them. As D.A. Carson says, “Unlike other religious leaders, he cannot be duped by flattery, enticed by praise or caught off-guard in innocence.” So Jesus doesn’t give the benefit of the doubt when he knows that is misplaced. Jesus doesn’t put himself in their care. Brad Hambrick says of this verse, “Jesus was exceedingly gracious but no doormat.” By telling women to go back to their abusive husband, are we encouraging them to be doormats for further abuse?
In an article specifically addressing verbal abuse Leslie Vernick, a Christian counselor, says,
Why would we advise a woman or man who is being emotionally abused that he or she must stay in their marriage because being pummeled by words is not serious enough to justify a biblical separation? If this same person were being regularly pummeled by fists or stabbed by their spouse, most pastors and church leaders would not only allow for biblical separation, they’d advise it.
Separation is a no-brainer when talking about the physically or sexually violent spouse; I think most, if not all, pastors would agree. However, many pastors would not encourage a temporary separation for verbal abuse like I’m suggesting. One reason might be that they really don’t think verbal abuse is all that serious or that it’s as destructive to the husband-wife relationship as it really is. However, it really is devastating to a wife. Many victims claim that verbal abuse is worse than physical abuse. Physical bruises heal, but verbal wounds last a lot longer.
I believe that a temporary separation in cases of verbal abuse can be a wise, prudent, and biblical action. And I believe it has at least two benefits.
It Can Help the Abuser See His Sin.
It seems to take some extreme event before an abuser wakes up and realizes how awful his sin is. For physical abuse or sexual abuse that event could include arrest (legal consequences can wake him up). For emotional abuse that event could be church discipline and/or separation (often the wife walking out is what drives the abuser to seek help).
The husband’s response to separation is typically surprise because he sees separation as going from 0 to 60 in three seconds. “How did we end up at a temporary separation?” he says. “It seems so sudden.” But that’s because at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 miles per hour he wasn’t paying attention. He never understood how damaged his marriage was. He always thought his wife was overplaying it. He is characteristically blind, and when separation is the obvious next step to protect her and wake him up, he thinks it’s the first step. That’s because he hasn’t been paying attention to all the other steps.
The fog of a verbal abuser’s sin is so thick that it seems a dramatic step is needed to clear it away. Verbally abusive Christian husbands often don’t get serious about their sin—in fact they don’t even see it—until their wives leave the home for a period of time. Until then the husband goes through the motions of getting help and participating in counseling, but he really believes that his sin isn’t that bad and his wife is more at fault.
Leslie Vernick says, “At other times, separation may be implemented as a severe consequence for certain sinful behavior. As a Christian counselor I do not say this lightly. Yet at times this is the only gift of love that convinces a spouse to consider his or her destructive behaviors seriously.”
It Can Help the Victim Exit a Fog of Confusion.
A wife that is so confused she cannot make decisions or cannot understand truth is often indicative of emotional abuse. An abuser gaslights his wife so that the victim is in a state of confusion, and he controls and keeps her from family and friends. Her world gets shrunk down to just her husband.
The victim’s confusion is frustrating to those around her, including you as a friend or counselor. You will point her to God’s Word, but she will seem to be in a fog. Even the most sensible suggestions will be difficult for her to process. She cannot seem to make the most basic decision for her safety. It’s pretty amazing how long term abuse can disorient a woman.
Separation can help lift this fog. You can actually see pretty significant improvement in her understanding and decision-making when she no longer is under his verbal assaults.
I pray God gives you wisdom if you are experiencing verbal abuse (I’ve written on it here and here). But I especially hope that if you are helping someone that is being emotionally abused, you at least consider the help a temporary separation could offer. It’s easier to send her back to her abuser, but she’s the one that has to live there. Are you really expecting her to endure it?