My husband gets very stressed and sometimes loses it with me, though he usually says sorry the next day. He doesn’t mean to hurt me, it’s just that I say the wrong things. I aggravate him and often don’t get it right, however hard I try. He has bruised me several times before and a few times I have lost my balance on the stairs when he is shoving me, but it is only because I lose my footing because I am upset. Last week he said my spending was out of control. He was furious that I had bought a new outfit for a family wedding. When I tentatively pointed out that he spent far more than I did he shouted ‘shut up’ and slapped me hard across the face. The next day was Sunday and he took the kids to church like nothing had happened (he is a deacon at the church which we have attended for over ten years). I couldn’t go, I felt numb. That evening after the children (aged three and six months) were in bed I told him that we needed to talk. He said the row was my fault, that ‘It was only a tap anyway’ and that he was under lots of pressure at work, though he did sort of apologise. Most of my friends are at church and they think he is wonderful, and, to be fair, he can be very loving, generous and is a good dad. I’ve been forgiving him for three years for lashing out at me and try to submit to him as the head of our marriage – am I doing the right thing before God?
You need to start seeing this differently: not as a problem you have control over through you not ‘aggravating’ your husband and ‘getting it right’, but rather as a problem he has, that he needs to get control over and get some help for. It is not right that any person should physically hurt another person, irrespective of the provocation. This is defined in the law of our land, which only allows us self-defence. The law applies as much to a marriage relationship as any other.
His apologies need to lead to actions that stop this behaviour in the future, just like Zacchaeus’s repentance was more about actions than words. In order for him to get help, you are going to need to be brave and bring this into the light. The Bible encourages us to live lives ‘in the light’ and not keep things hidden ‘in darkness’. It uses ‘darkness’ as a metaphor to describe sin that is hidden and therefore allowed to continue. Instead, God is depicted ‘in the light’ where things are confessed and open. Ephesians 5:11-13 says “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them…Everything exposed by the light becomes visible.”
This is hard as it can bring with it fears of what people will think as well as fear of how your husband will react. However, there is usually more to be lost by submitting to the fear than by finding wise ways to conquer it. Pick someone you trust to talk to who has more authority in the church than your husband has and let them know how it really is at home.
Be mindful of any tendencies in yourself to minimise what happens when your husband ‘loses it’. You are not going to help any of you by downplaying what goes on. I can hear by the way you wrote to me that you over blame yourself and I wonder if this is how he talks about incidents and has trained you to think? When you have been subjected to these dynamics for several years as you have been, it undermines your self-esteem and confidence. I want you to hear that when he lashes out at you, it is not your fault. Please don’t believe all that he says. I know that you are not perfect because none of us is, but he still has a responsibility to control his own ‘stress’. Please stop blaming yourself, speak out the facts and let others bring some truth into this. Remember John 8:32 where it says: “…the truth will set you free.”
I also realise that some women in your situation are rightly worried that if they do confront this sort of behaviour, it will cause it to get worse and they may become really vulnerable. If this is a fear of yours too, then listen to this fear and channel it into doing something constructive to protect yourself, rather than letting the fear paralyse you. In every area of the country there are organisations that advise, support and protect people who are worried about partners who are being aggressive. Phone your local council and ask what domestic violence services there are, Google it or ask in your doctor’s surgery or library. Don’t be put off by the phrase ‘domestic violence’, it is just a label that will help you get through to talking to people who can help, even if you don’t relate to the label. Often people outside your network of friends can bring an objective perspective and be of more help, so don’t feel you should necessarily handle all this within your church relationships.
You ask about forgiving and submitting. ‘Headship’ in marriage is not a licence for sin, but a responsibility to take the lead in excelling in love “as Christ loved the Church” (Ephesians 5:25). We are not called to submit to sin, but to Godly leadership.
The danger in you continually forgiving him is that it perpetuates the deception that him hurting you can be accepted into the rhythms of your relationship. Before God that is unacceptable; it is not what the scripture defines as marriage. 1 Peter 3: 7 commands: “Husbands, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life...” Forgiveness in this situation, I believe, is about not becoming hardened and bitter towards his behaviour, but helping him get the help he needs by bringing it into the light.
It is also important to think about this beyond the confines of just your married relationship, but rather to look at the whole family dynamics, as you also have a responsibility to protect your kids. Think about what environment you want them to grow up in: even if they do not see the outbursts directly, all the studies on families with this going on show a huge detrimental affect on the children’s emotional health, self-confidence, attitudes and ability to concentrate on their own growth and development. You would be surprised what they pick up through walls and sense in the atmosphere. They are highly tuned to their care givers and this can create long term dysfunctional abilities to attach to loved ones that can hugely affect their future. Many of these attachment patterns are laid down in the baby and toddler years, so it is not the case to think that because they cannot talk at an older level then it doesn’t matter. If you struggle to be motivated to challenge this behaviour to protect yourself, then do it for your children.
But the truth is, God weeps every time you get hurt, whether that is bruises in your heart or on your skin and he longs for this to be brought to an end and for your husband to be held to the challenge God has laid down for husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church...and to present her to himself...without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish...husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25-28).