Question: My sister is in an abusive marriage and I just don’t know how to help her. I see the toll it’s taken on her and the kids but she doesn’t want to leave him. What is my role here?
Answer: There is no more helpless feeling than to stand by and watch someone make decisions that you know are leading to more hurt and destruction. You cannot make your sister leave her husband, nor should you. That is not your place. However here are some things you can do to invite your sister make better decisions for herself and her children.
Pray: Prayer is a potent reminder to both you and her that God is in charge and that he loves both the abused and the abuser. God hates abuse every bit as much as he hates divorce. You can bring your sister, her husband and their children before God daily, asking Him to intervene in a way that we cannot imagine. Praying for your sister also strengthens her to fight this battle wisely because she has an enemy that is after her spirit and soul and her enemy is far more powerful than her husband is. Satan is out to destroy her, her children as well as her husband.
Pray God’s armor over her and the children so that the ugly words her husband uses will not penetrate into her spirit (Ephesians 6). Pray that she will believe truth over lies and respond with goodness rather than retaliate with more evil of her own. Goodness doesn’t mean that she allows someone to continually sin against her with no consequence, but it means she gains the courage to act in the best interests of her husband and her children, which may involve developing a safety plan, calling the police, and/or separating from him.
Validate her experience: When she shares with you what’s going on, she may have a tendency to blame herself. She might say things like, “I shouldn’t have made him mad.” Or “He’s just stressed out because I didn’t take care of everything ahead of time.”
What you say in response to her excuse making can begin to open her eyes. Say, “You know, I’m not a perfect wife either and my husband doesn’t treat me that way. You don’t deserve to be abused just because you can’t get everything right. Do you treat him that way when he upsets or disappoints you?” Her husband may have told her that if only she hadn’t done those things, he wouldn’t have gotten upset.
The tricky part of his argument is that there may be a grain of truth to it. However, the bigger reality is that there is no perfect person and people do upset us and let us down. People provoke us and irritate us. That never justifies or excuses our abusive response. When she takes responsibility for his abusive behaviors, she is not seeing things truthfully. Part of your role in her life is to help her see things more clearly by speaking the truth in love to her. She doesn’t deserve to be abused when she disappoints or upsets her husband, no matter what! Her husband is responsible for his anger, period.
Help her think clearly: Part of what happens in an abusive relationship is that the victim gets more and more isolated from outside opinions and help. The longer someone lives that way, they begin to lose their ability to think clearly and make their own decisions. Sadly, many Christian women have been taught that to have a different opinion or to make a decision contrary to their husband is not being submissive and is ungodly.
However, one right that God has given each person is their right to choose. When we give up that right to another person and stop thinking for ourselves, we are functioning as children, not adults. Abused women often lose their ability to make choices for themselves. The answer is not for you to step in and tell her what to do next but to help her think more clearly for herself.
Encourage her to make small choices of her own, even if it upsets her husband. For example, perhaps her husband doesn’t want her children to go to youth group or he doesn’t want her to attend bible study. She may need to say to him, “I hear your feelings on this matter but it’s really important to me (or for the kids) that I go to bible study and get some Christian fellowship.”
Sometimes women give in because it’s just easier than to learn to stand up for herself in a good way. Just because a husband is the head of the home doesn’t mean he gets to have his way all the time or to make all the decisions. That is an abuse of his authority and Jesus clearly tells those in positions of authority not to misuse their God-given positions. (Please read my free article on Biblical Headship, Submission, and Authority at www.leslievernick.com).
Love your sister unconditionally: It may be a long time before your sister gains the strength to begin to speak to her husband or stand up for herself. My book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship will give her some tools to do that if she’s ready to use them. It also will help her understand God’s perspective on abusive relationships and how she can take Biblical steps to turn her marriage around, or if necessary the courage to step back and allow her husband to face the consequences of his abusive behaviors.