Response to a Trapped Wife
Doug Wilson recently posted a second article in his Open Letter series, this time to a trapped wife. I’m not going to repost the entire thing here, but I did have a few thoughts on his post. Here is his original article: Open Letter to a Trapped Wife; and here is my response:
Couple comments/questions for you. After re-reading both your Open Letters – “Dear Kevin” and “Dear Jill,” I realized that the two letters are not two sides of the same coin. Jill is not Kevin’s wife. Your opening to Kevin implies that his wife has been complaining to you about his behavior for years and that now that you’ve seen it yourself, you can finally take her seriously. Yet your letter to Jill puts her back at the beginning of the process, and you acknowledge that you don’t know her situation at all. The entire first half of your letter to Jill is presumably exactly what you told Kevin’s wife for several years: you can’t take her complaints seriously until you see them yourself. You have changed the conditions from the first letter to the second. What I would like to know is, what are you planning to do to help Kevin’s wife now that you yourself can see that her years of complaints are indeed credible? It’s the same question I had with Kevin’s letter: what is the church going to do about him, and what is the church going to do to help her?
In the Jill article, you say that if she is confident that her husband is a straight-up bully, she should force the issue a la Abigail by moving out. I think you are right about forcing the issue; however, I would throw him out, not have her move out. He is the one who is behaving poorly; he’s the one who should go, not her. If they have kids, the children should not have to relocate due to Dad’s behavior if at all possible.
In the Jill letter, you talk about this forcing of the issue being a spark to get them into counseling, which she has wanted and he has rejected for years. But the Kevin letter is a different situation. The situations I know of like that involve the husband and wife already going to counseling separately and/or together for several years (he always quits after not long). You mention to Jill that she should be applying I Peter 3:1-2, and that her chaste behavior will win him or cause him to leave.
Doug, I think that might be a little (and by “a little,” I really mean “a ton”) out of context and completely inapplicable here.
I Peter 3 continues a discussion that begins in I Peter 2:11 of how to live in faith as foreigners and exiles. This was written to the early converts in the area, and the presumption is that Peter is writing to people who were already married when they converted but whose spouses did not convert with them. Peter tells wives in such a case to win their husbands by being a human, personal picture of Christ to their spouse: gentle, Godly, and chaste (as opposed to by preaching at him left and right or giving Christ a bad name by behaving badly). Husbands likewise should win their wives by treating them similarly considerately and respectfully (I Peter 3:7). The unbelieving spouses in question may have had either little to no actual exposure to the gospel or may have adopted the persecuting attitudes of the day themselves with no understanding of what Christianity really was, so Peter wanted the believing ones to behave as a living, truthful display of Christ. He wanted the unbelieving spouses to look at their husbands or wives and see Christ and thereby understand the true gospel.
This is not the situation in the Open Letters. The angry husband in your example is not an unbeliever with no understanding of the gospel who may be won by his wife’s gentle display of Christ. The man in your example knows the Scriptures inside and out, and frequently in these types of cases is consistently using the Scripture to deflect from his own behavior and bludgeon his wife (i. e. after a threatening episode she tells him his behavior is intimidating and she and the kids are scared of him, and he quotes I Peter 3:6 back at her saying she is sinning by being afraid. She is running a fever in bed all day, and when he comes home and asks what she’s making for dinner, she points out that she’s sick and asks him to order pizza, at which point he tells her Ephesians 5 says she’s supposed to submit to him in all things. This is not “washing with the Word”; it is waterboarding with the Word, and this twisting Scripture to use it as a weapon is prevalent in cases like Kevin’s. Listen for it when the wife describes the situation.).
The passage in I Peter 3 does not match your description of the husband in the Kevin letter. However, there are verses do that match your description of Kevin. Because modern terminology phrases his behavior as verbal abuse or emotional abuse or something along those lines and those terms don’t show up in Scripture, people frequently assume the Bible has nothing to say about the subject (these things are not quite the same as an “anger problem,” and I’ll get to the distinction in a minute). But Scripture does have plenty to say about this man. In fact, it describes Kevin often.
Kevin is found in Matthew 7:15-20. This man dresses like, speaks like, and adopts the posture of a sheep, but he is a wolf. He prophesies falsely to his own family and devours them at every turn. This man is in Romans 2:23-24 (and multiple other places that discuss blasphemy or blasphemers). He boasts in the law but even the secular world can see that his behavior in no way displays the love of Christ, and they blaspheme Christ because of him. If we hold that the husband represents Christ to his family, then he himself blasphemes Christ by his own behavior. He makes the Word of God an anathema to his wife and children by twisting it to gain his own ends. This man is found in I Corinthians 6:10 and I Corinthians 5:11 and 2 Timothy 3:1-5. He is the reviler, railing and abusing with his tongue. He is heartless, unappeasable, treacherous, without self-control, yet he carefully maintains the appearance of godliness. He directs this behavior primarily at his own wife, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. Because they are one flesh, he is an abuser of not only her but of his own self. His children see and turn away from Christ or become (or marry) the same themselves.
You classify this as an anger problem, which implies intermittency (“fits of rage” as you say in one place to Kevin), but this is instead a constant, oppressive time-bomb situation that his wife has been desperately bringing to your attention for years in an effort to garner some relief (which you also notice in the Kevin). None of this fits into the category of “marriage problem” because the man in the case you have outlined is not interested in loving his wife or family better. What he wants is control, and he has demonstrated for years that he will do anything to keep it or at least the appearance of it. He uses his perceived authority to oppress. The Bible has quite a lot to say about oppressors (Psalm 72:4, Psalm 146:7-9, Psalm 10:17-18, half of the rest of Psalms, multiple other places in Scripture). The Lord consistently defends the oppressed and has sharp things to say about people who fail to do the same. Look at the verses in the last couple of paragraphs again. The wolf, the blasphemer, the reviler, the oppressor – what do these verses say should be done with them? Not only do they not inherit the kingdom, but we are to have nothing to do with them or even to eat with them. God crushes oppressors, destroys blasphemers, and protects his people from wolves and revilers.
The last thing goes back to what you said to Jill about being confident that her husband is a straight-up bully. From both what I’ve read on this type of situation and the women I’ve known in the middle of it, confidence is something the abuser effectively erodes through means that are very consistent in almost every abusive situation. A man who behave this way will consistently denigrate his wife’s assessments and judgement and demand that she substitute his superior opinions in place of her own.
By the time the situation gets to be utterly intolerable for her, the loudest voice she hears is his voice telling her that his behavior is right, that what she is seeing and complaining about isn’t really what is happening, and that she is foolish for even thinking such things. By the time you see her, she may seem so utterly conflicted, muddled, and confused that it will be easy for him to point to her and claim that she is crazy and you shouldn’t trust anything she says. And in a way, he will be right.
Over the course of many years, he has effectively inserted his voice into her thoughts instead of her own. When you question her veracity or insist on other witnesses (non-family, of course) or on seeing his behavior yourself, the voice she will hear in her head will be his voice telling her she is imagining things and betraying him, and she will likely cave or fall apart in your office. This is easy to misinterpret as her overstating her case, exaggerating, or even lying if you are not listening carefully or do not know what you are looking for (Leslie Vernick and Lundy Bancroft are good starting places for reading up on this stuff). It will take years for her to be able to know and trust her own thoughts again and to be able to hear any voice, even the Lord’s, that doesn’t sound like his.
In her current state, she is a member of the body that seems to be weaker, yet is deserving of greater respect (I Cor. 12:22). She will not appear confident and often will not even understand what is happening to her. She will say she “feels like she’s going crazy” (more indicative phrasing to listen for). Since she will probably not recognize the hallmarks of what her husband is doing to her, you must be able to see and understand the signs if you want to have any hope of helping her or providing her with justice. She will need an amazing amount of gentleness and strong people surrounding her for support.
“For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me; then I could hide from him. But it was you, a man my equal, my companion and acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God in the throng.” Ps.55:12ff
“For your Maker is your husband; Yahweh of Armies is his name. The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. He will be called the God of the whole earth. For Yahweh has called you as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even a wife of youth, when she is cast off,” says your God.” Isaiah 54:5,6
In your letter to Kevin you mentioned that his wife had been complaining about his anger for years. In your letter to Jill, you mentioned that you are not permitted to simply believe charges with no corroborating evidence. Instead of beginning by telling her that you might not believe her, may I suggest leading off by offering her safety and hope. After listening to her story, then decide whether she seems credible or not.
With that in mind, I do appreciate the he said/she said aspect you are referring to, but I think there are other possible evidences to listen or watch for as corroboration of her story. If a family member has been frightened enough to call an intervening authority like the police or an elder, if the wife has researched restraining orders or visited women’s shelters or resources for information or advice, if the wife has either kicked her husband out before or left unannounced herself (probably with the kids) after a particularly bad episode, if there are older children (like older teenagers maybe) in the house who are corroborating her story, if they have done any marital counseling and it has dragged on for years with no change in the man’s behavior, if she has gone to a counselor herself who can corroborate her and she would be willing to have the counselor talk to you about her situation — then you may assume this is not a garden-variety marital disagreement that will respond to typical marriage counseling.
Wives who feel their husbands “just don’t understand them” don’t think about restraining orders or calling the police. They don’t take off without telling their husband where they are going because they are afraid. Their children don’t defend them in altercations. They don’t say they feel like they are walking on eggshells all the time, as you mentioned in your letter (more extremely common wording abuse victims use describe their situation). If things like that are going on, then you probably do not have a he said/she said issue and should take her complaints far more seriously even if you have not seen the behavior yourself and even if his story doesn’t match hers at all (which it won’t). This man is a wolf who has been hiding in your church making a good name for himself due to his finely-crafted sheepskin camouflage.
This is not something to be solved by repeated marital counseling. This is a man who actively tears apart his own home, his wife, his children. This is a man who slanders Christ by his behavior to the very people to whom he is called to display Christ most clearly. If, as Reformed theology preaches, we are to hold with the idea that the leaders of the church represent Christ to the body in a similar way to how the father represents Christ to his family, then is it not the church’s responsibility to step in and be the loving, protective, faithful representation of Christ to the wife and children that the husband is failing to be? And if we do not, is not our guilt and failure to represent Christ to her then just as great as his? This woman is our family in Christ. She is our mother, sister, daughter, friend. We have a responsibility to her. What practical steps come next for Kevin and Jill after the strongly-worded letters?
Thanks very much for your time.