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The Dynamics of Domestic Abuse

Category: Abuse

This is an edited excerpt from Darby Strickland’s book

Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying and Helping Victims of Domestic Abuse.

You will recognize them by their fruits. 

Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? (Matt. 7:16)

Matt and Sarah routinely fought about how to spend their weekends. Sarah valued her extended family and wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. Matt desired more dedicated time when their family of four could enjoy one another. It was hard for both of them to compromise because they each feared giving up something that they valued, and they often argued about what they should do on a given weekend.

While I was unpacking things with them in counseling, I learned along with them that while Sarah enjoyed her husband and children, she was also afraid of missing out on experiences with her larger family. Once she was able to work through this fear, she was more willing to give up events in order to spend time with just her immediate family. And after some wrestling and praying, Matt saw that it was not only the case that he wanted alone time with his children; he realized that he wanted quieter weekends—to be able to watch sports on TV without interruption. He did not like having so much asked of him relationally. Seeing this selfish tendency in himself allowed him to confess it to Sarah. This greatly blessed her. 

They began prayerfully asking the Lord to help them to discern how best to love each other and spend their weekends. What Sarah and Matt each wanted (shared family experiences and downtime) was not inherently sinful; it’s when each of their desires became demands that they both sinned against each other. When they prioritized their own longings over caring for each other, things got ugly. But was this an abusive situation? Not at all. Matt and Sarah were both distressed by their disunity. They were willing to reflect on their own hearts, negotiate their differences, and trust God with what was hard about loving each other well.

Matt and Sarah are an example of a typical marriage conflict. When both spouses in a marriage are willing to work and grow, counseling can address the dynamics of their shared relational struggles. If both spouses work to make Christ central, trust him, and repent of their allegiances to other things, their marriage improves. Because this is the case, when I first started counseling couples, I looked to see how each person’s sin patterns were playing off and entangling the other. 

When one of my first counselees, Jenny, reported that her husband showed little interest in her, I naively spent fifteen minutes brainstorming things she might do to rekindle their connection, such as planning a date night or searching for a joint hobby. I presupposed that she was a contributor to the problem; perhaps she had let her interest wane. I wrongly assumed that her husband’s accusation—that Jenny was cold and failed to express love to him—was accurate and that, at root, he wanted a better marriage just as Sarah and Matt did.

But when Jenny sought to implement those ideas, the results were disastrous. I began to realize that my advice had made Jenny more vulnerable to her husband’s constant criticisms. Worse, it had caused her to believe that she was responsible for her husband’s cruel treatment. I had sent the unintentional message that if she pursued her spouse, she would be worthy of his love and would avoid rejection. I could not have been more wrong.

Why did my approach fail? It did not account for how oppression works. When a spouse is oppressive, his desires become demands— and he is willing to continually dominate the other spouse in order to get his world the way that he wants it. Oppression is so much more than an anger problem or a marriage problem. Oppression is about coercive control. Oppressive behavior is not provoked. It is behavior that accomplishes something for the abuser. It is an expression of pernicious entitlement.

What Is at the Root of Oppression?

We all know what it is like to feel entitled. It happens when our desires—even if they are desires for good things—turn perverse.

I demand. 

I am owed.

I have the right to insist.

What I want matters most.

For example, after a long day of homeschooling, I am tired. I’m eager to sit down for the evening after all the day’s tasks are done. All I want is to have thirty minutes to myself and to unwind. But when my daughter creeps out of bed at 11 p.m. with a request, those reasonable desires I have can take a turn for the worse. “I worked hard all day. It’s not fair that I must take care of this now. I am tired; I need time off! I just sat down!” It is so easy for these feelings to take over my attitude and to harden into a sense of entitlement.

But, in fact, there is a choice before me—whether I see it or not. I can give in to my belief that I deserve rest and can respond out of frustration and anger. Or I can set aside my desires and care for my child’s needs.

All of us can relate to this—we are all tempted to demand what we want from others. We can choose to give in to our sinful desires, or we can repent of them and seek to serve the Lord and one another. But some people never see that they have a choice. Oppressors see only one path: the path of fulfilling their desires. They will use whatever means are necessary to get what they want. In the example above, an abusive mother might berate the sleepy child with a long list of the child’s flaws or might frighten her into returning to her bed. Even if her child disobeys, an abusive mother’s self-interested response to this disobedience brings harm, not discipline and growth, to the child. Such a mother would be more concerned with her own comfort than with the comfort or discipline that her child needed. She would fail to see the pain that her behavior caused to her fearful child. Oppressors feel that their efforts to get what they want are so justified that they are blind or indifferent to the effects that their demands have on others.

God desires us to live in such a way that we seek to love him and others above ourselves. Oppressors demand that others love and serve them. While we all struggle with entitlement, oppressors exhibit patterns of demanding and punishing that are entrenched, unbending, and unrelenting. Ordinary entitlement becomes pernicious when it leads a person to punish those who stand in the way of their demands. 

A toxic, entitled person

  • deflects all blame
  • admits no wrongdoing
  • rationalizes punishing behaviors as being an appropriate response

Entitlement can harm any relationship—but especially in a marriage, pernicious entitlement creates a climate of fear, in which one spouse works hard to keep the other from being angry and punishing. Even if the oppressed spouse makes a change, it will not improve the marriage and can empower further oppression by feeding the very fire she is trying to extinguish.

Entitlement in an Oppressor

Much confusion related to abuse comes down to misunderstandings about why a person acts oppressively toward another. It is vital to understand that pernicious entitlement is at the core of oppression. Oppressors are so invested in their own needs that they believe that the primary reason other people exist is to fulfill their demands. When those people fail to do so, they penalize them. Some use aggressive tactics such as yelling, name-calling, throwing objects, or worse. Some use passive tactics such as lying, ignoring their victims, or withdrawing. Either way, they use domination and fear to get power so they can live the lives that they want. They seek to control and hurt the “offending” person.

In each of the following examples, notice how the entitled person’s response to the problem is intended not only to punish or blame but also to control the outcome.

  • A husband is struggling to fix his wife’s broken bicycle. He erupts into a tirade of profanity, begins throwing his tools around, and tells his wife it is her ineptness that led to this moment of rage. She learns not to ask him for help.
  • A couple is talking about hiring a technician to do electrical work. When the wife asks about affordability, the discussion escalates into an argument. The husband is so annoyed by her questions that he abruptly storms out of the house, thinking, “How dare she question me!” The husband establishes that he is not to be challenged.
  • A husband comes home from work on Friday afternoon and explodes when he sees a messy entryway and hears music playing. He berates his wife for her housekeeping skills and her character, then ignores her all weekend. The wife learns that she must keep the home tidy.

Oppressors believe that they are the center of the world around them. They are largely unaware of the concerns, needs, and significance of others. They earnestly believe that their view of life and relationships is true and right. But, of course, this is a distorted sense of reality. I want to help you detect when one spouse has a pernicious sense of entitlement so that your counseling takes into account the actual dynamics at play in the marriage.  I have included questions that will help you unearth entitlement below. If you want to have a robust list of screening questions for domestic abuse, you will find many more in my book,  Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. We have only begun to touch upon the dynamics of abuse here, but I hope you learned how vital it is to detect the presence of abuse.  We need to know what we are speaking into if our counsel is going to be effective. 

Questions That Unearth Entitlement

When you first suspect that oppression might be occurring in a marriage, you can screen for it indirectly by attempting to see if one of the spouses is displaying signs of abusive entitlement. The following questions can help you to begin to get the lay of the land. They will give you a way in that doesn’t require you to mention that you suspect abuse. They can also serve to help you become aware of the climate of the marriage—something that is often challenging to assess from the outside. 

  • Are you afraid to disagree with your spouse?
  • What happens when you try to share an opinion that differs from your spouse’s?
  • Does your spouse ever ignore you? If so, for how long and when?
  • How can you tell when your spouse is angry? Be specific. What does his anger look like? What does he say? Do?
  • When you are talking about hard things, what are some ways that your spouse expresses disagreement? (Mocking you, walking away, rolling his eyes, throwing things?)
  • Do you feel that there are two sets of rules—one for you and one for your spouse?
  • Do you feel pressure to do things you do not want to do?
  • Does your spouse remind you of times when you sinned against him? When and how?

Darby Strickland is a counselor and faculty member for the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation. She is the author of Is it Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims. She is also a contributor to the free web-based training curriculum Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Darby has a Master of Divinity degree in Counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary, where she currently teaches a course on counseling people in abusive marriages. She and her husband John have taken great delight in homeschooling their three children. 

Posted on April 28, 2021