Marriage counselling where there has been abuse

I’ve been planning to write something about divorce and re-marriage in the context of abuse cases for the past couple of weeks. It arises out of some of the discussion following on from the case of church discipline reported from Grace Community Church.

One question that has been raised is whether the Bible permits separation and divorce where there has been domestic abuse.  The reason for this question is that when you look at Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 19 and Mark 10, this seems to restrict divorce strictly to cases of sexual immorality with the assumption being on the part of many that this refers to marital unfaithfulness (adultery). 

I will come back to that specific question a bit later on and you can start to explore the possible answers with a read of this paper. However, before I do, I wanted to look at a case study that my eye was drawn to.   The case study was from a collection of examples put together by Jay Adams, the father of the modern Biblical Counselling Movement.  I am tempted to start to look at a few of these case studies in a bit more detail. 

Here’s the case study

Jay E Adams, The Christian Counsellor’s Case Book, 14.

And here are the discussion questions suggested by Adams.

Jay E Adams, The Christian Counsellor’s Case Book, 15.

I actually would advise that if you do use this case study as a training/discussion exercise that you don’t bother with Adam’s discussion questions. I’m not sure that they are particularly helpful and that might highlight a few areas where I think his own counselling approach falls short.

Instead, here are some things I’d like to pick up on in discussion.

What do you make of the description of the affair?

I was struck by the way that the narrator capitalised it as THE AFFAIR along with the use of the definite article.  There is of course a risk with second guessing authorial intent but I do find that capitalization a little surprising and concerning. Certainly, from a reader’s perspective, it carries the same feel as “scare quotes.” Is there an implication from the observer here that they consider “the affair” to be something that has been built up in the mind of one of the participants, a distraction if you like from the real issues. 

You see, there seems to be something about the way that the case is narrated which implies that the primary issue here is a lack of sex within the marriage and therefore that responsibility for reconciliation and recovery lies primarily with the wife.

Of course, if we just think in terms of the husband’s affair, then we may miss a lot of what is going on but I want to suggest that this is central to the issue here because it is a single event which amplifies the state of his heart. We know that he is a violent man. Here, we see that he is at heart a murderer. He was willing to kill their relationship, he was willing to kill love.  If you think it strong language to describe him as a “murderer at heart” them remember that this is how Jesus talks in the sermon on the mount and in other places in Scripture. External actions point to our heart attitude.

Are we at a point of forgiveness?

I was surprised not to find a question in the discussion asking whether or not you agreed with the counsellor’s approach. The implication in the reporting seems to be that we should be happy with it so far.  Yet, I suspect that many of us would be deeply uncomfortable with how the counsellor handles things.

His response of: “Eric you are going to have to ask Sharon for forgiveness and Sharon you will have to forgive him if you expect to put this marriage together again” seems rather incongruous with the situation we have just had reported to us.  It appears that Eric is simply being told to ask forgiveness and Sharon to give it, hopefully with at least a word of apology but there is little attempt here to stop and talk about what exactly it is that Sharon is being asked to forgive.  Is it simply the affair, or is it the broader situation in terms of Eric’s drunkenness and violence? Or indeed, what about the point where Eric immediately identified the problem as “she’s frigid.”  Doesn’t that phrase quickly encapsulate his attitude to women, marriage and sex.  It seems that Sharon is viewed as an object there to service Eric’s needs.

So, we have moved quickly to talking about forgiveness without talking about sin and repentance -which incidentally, given that we are talking with non-Christians means that we are already off on the wrong foot because we have started the conversation a long way away from the Gospel. The suggestion that they might need to sort out their relationship with Christ feels like it’s tagged on as an afterthought.

There is a risk that we let Eric off the hook far too early here.  Before we can even start to talk about asking for and receiving forgiveness, we need to talk about the seriousness of his sin here which in fact is also criminal behaviour.  Is Eric serious about change in his own life or does he simply wan tto get Sharon back so that she can meet his sexual needs.


Notice too that there is a third, pretty much overlooked person in this scenario, the son Billy. We don’t know much about him except that he is afraid to be in the same room as his father due to dad’s drunken, violent behaviour. We do not know whether or not Billy has himself been hit at all but Billy at least fears that this is a risk.

As a minimum, a counsellor at this point has a duty of care to identify the risk to the son and to pass this on to the relevant safe-guarding personnel.

Sharon’s fear

The discussion questions do get us to talk about Sharon’s fear.  The question quickly takes us to whether or not we should encourage Sharon to move back in. It does seem that in the GCC case which followed a similar counselling approach that the wife was under pressure to move back in with her husband and be reconciled.

There are I think two things to consider here. First, all the evidence at the moment points us towards recognising that Sharon’s fear is legitimate and that she is making a wise and reasonable decision in deciding not to put her and her son back in harms way. 

Secondly, Sharon’s point that “you can’t have good sexual relations when you are scared to death…” is illuminating. It’s illuminating because Sharon the unbeliever has stumbled upon Biblical truth.  As I red her words, I am immediately reminded of John’s words where he describes how fear and love don’t mix but that perfect love drives out dear.  Moreover, it is illuminating because it is helping us with our diagnosis. Sharon has kept bringing the conversation back to that theme of fear. In counselling and coaching we sometimes talk about such repeated language as a manhole cover -something we need to circle back to. We really need to life that manhole cover and see what is underneath.

It is possible that when Eric describes frigidity, he his not merely using pejorative language about abstinence but rather that Sharon does in fact freeze at thought and mention of physical and sexual contact with her husband. Who can blame her?  So, there is a real possibility here that Sharon is suffering from PTSD. If so, then this too is going to need to be addressed.

This is important because I detect a tendency to seek out examples of sin that needs repenting of in both parties whenever these case studies bring two people to the counselling room. The assumption seems to be that we are all sinners so there is never an innocent victim. Well Sharon is a sinner and she needs Christ but that doesn’t mean she is culpable here. It is possible to be the victim in a certain content. It is not always a case of “six of one and half a dozen of the other.”  We may conclude after probing further into the case that Sharon is in fact blameless.

Now, it may well be that as you become aware both of the seriousness of Eric’s behaviours and of possible PTSD from Sharon that you also begin to ask whether you have the expertise and experience to actually counsel them through those issues. There is a tendency among some in the Biblical Counselling movement to insist that you can and that it is some kind of abdication to hand over to experts. I disagree. Being competent to counsel does not mean I’m competent to counsel in every situation.


The gut feeling I get as I read the case is that it sounds as though the counsellor is a little too eager to get things wrapped up. It would be neat wouldn’t it if Sharon and Eric say sorry to each other, forgive each other, hug and walk out of your office hand in hand saying they’ll make a go of it. You can then check it off as a success for your counselling.

If you do that, then in all likelihood, one of two things will happen. Either Sharon will conclude that you are not to be trusted and so she will not come back and indeed, the next you will hear is that she did get a divorce from Eric or they may start coming along to church, they may profess faith even, they may stick together without coming to church.  You may or may not get to hear this but what will then happen is that the cycle of abuse and unfaithfulness will continue and escalate. 

We need to be prepared for the possibility that a neat and tidy resolution isn’t possible or even right. This includes the possibility that this marriage has ended -we will talk about that more in a future post.  This means we need to be patient, ready to acknowledge our own limitations and ready for a lot of mess.

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