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A Phased Reopening of a Formerly Abusive Marriage

by Dr. Jim Newheiser

 

During the COVID crisis, restrictions have been put in place which have sometimes kept people apart for the purpose of safety. For counseling cases in which there has been marital abuse the victim often must be separated from the abuser for the sake of safety. During this time, we counsel the abuser separate from the victim as we seek to lead him to faithful biblical repentance (2 Cor. 7:10-11). This often is a slow, hard process. We usually hope for the ultimate restoration of the marriage. We also must ensure that the mistreated spouse and children are safe. It is hard to know when the husband and wife are ready to move again towards each other. As Chris Moles often says, “If you have seen one case of abuse, you have seen one case of abuse.” Wisdom is required as they move towards reconciliation (James 1:5).

As I have observed how government leaders have implemented phased lifting of restrictions during the COVID crisis, it has occurred to me that a similar process might be appropriate as separated couples seek to safely remove restrictions on their interaction. Rather than moving instantly from separation to total restoration of privileges, a phased approach might be a wise approach. Just as there is flexibility (depending upon the data) in implementing the phases of lifting restrictions from COVID, certain factors (data) in a marriage may indicate that they should move forward to the next phase, or remain in the present phase for longer than anticipated, or even go back to a previous phase.

Phase 1 – Just as the COVID crisis began with an almost total lockdown (businesses being shut down and people being ordered to stay at home), a couple in crisis because of abuse may need to be totally separated for a period of time. During this time the abusive husband[i] should receive biblical counsel in order to deal with the heart issues which have led to his oppressive controlling behavior. His church leaders would work with him seeking to bring him to a comprehensive recognition of the categories of his sin so that he could repent first before God and ultimately towards the family members he has harmed. His spouse also may receive individual counsel as she processes biblically her experience of having been oppressed and betrayed by the man whom she should have been able to trust.  During this phase, contact will be limited to that which is essential (i.e., necessary interactions about children and finances). Mediation and accountability will probably be necessary to ensure that the abuser doesn’t try to exercise coercive control or to go beyond the agreed parameters of their interactions.

Phase 2 – Just as governors gradually lifted restrictions on individuals and businesses in the second phase of reopening after certain benchmarks had been met, a separated couple might take initial steps towards greater interaction if they and their counselors sense that they are making progress. The most important factor would be that the abuser has grasped the severity of his sin and is repentant before God and his spouse. An equally important factor is the assessment of the wife regarding his continued behavior. A counselor would be wise to take the wife’s preferences and understanding into consideration as they develop a plan. (see the repentance card)[ii]. Some of their interaction during this phase would involve the guilty party seeking forgiveness. The couple might initially agree to speak over the phone for an hour or two a week in order to try to rebuild their trust. One of the benchmarks during this phase would be the patience of the abuser (1 Cor. 13:4-7). This is evidenced by him not pushing ahead or demanding more time and attention than has been agreed, or insisting that he be trusted and allowed home before his wife and her counselors believe the couple is ready. Putting pressure on her and violating the agreed parameters of their discussions may keep him in phase 2 or even put him back into phase 1. When this phase is going well marriage counseling could be initiated while individual counseling might also continue.

Phase 3 – The benchmarks which indicate that it may be safe to move to phase 3 include humility and patience on the part of the abuser, and a sense on the part of his spouse that it is safe to move forward. Phase 3 could include going out on weekly dates, sharing meals together with the children, or enjoying fun family activities together. Some of the time together might include serious conversation about their relationship with the Lord and each other. Much of their time together could be just enjoying each other and rebuilding friendship. This phase also would provide benchmarks for the abuser’s spouse and her counselors. Is the former abuser treating her with respect and not harshness (Col. 3:19)? Will he accept “no” for an answer? How does he handle disappointment? Is he thankful for the fact that his wife is open to rebuilding their broken marriage? As with the other phases, progress could lead to the next phase and regress could leave them in this stage or even force them to revert back to a previous stage. Ideally their counselors would help them work through any setbacks. It is important for both spouses to have realistic expectations. A repentant man will be characterized by biblical love, humility, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit, but he will not be perfect. He may sometimes struggle with selfishness, impatience, or self-pity. Hopefully, these failures will be much less dramatic than before and he will be quick to truly repent (not just using an apology as a “get out of jail free” card).

Phase 4 – Assuming that phase 3 has been going well for a period of time, the couple may consider entering into a phase 4. There is no “right” answer for how long this should be in weeks or months.  Sadly, some situations may not progress at all. This phase could involve allowing the husband to come home for a couple of days a week – i.e., on weekends. The purpose of this phase would be to see how the couple can readjust to sharing life together. Hopefully, having him back in the home will confirm the new patterns of godliness, servanthood, and grace (reflecting the fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-23) in the former abuser which would then increase the wife’s confidence that she is doing the right thing to move towards full reconciliation. On the other hand, if the husband begins to revert to some of his former patterns of oppressive controlling behavior, this phase may be put on hold or may revert back to an earlier phase. It is important that relational expectations and parameters (boundaries) are made very clear, agreed upon and enforced during this phase.

Phase 5 – When the wife is confident that new patterns have been established, the husband may move home, hopefully once and for all. They probably should still receive marital and individual counseling which would cover issues such as agreed biblical procedures for dealing with conflict, how the wife can speak up and gently correct her husband (Gal. 6:1) with respect, and how the husband can learn to be a Christlike servant leader (Mark 10:43 John 13:1ff). They may even choose to reaffirm their marriage vows in celebration of what God has done.

Summary

It could be said that the church has experienced an abuse pandemic. A lot has been written about the need to separate an abuser from his victims, but not much has been offered about how to bring a family back together. I am fully committed to preserving the safety of the victims of abuse. I also am committed to not pushing too fast towards reuniting a wife with an abusive husband.[iii] I also find great joy seeing the power of the gospel which transforms selfish, angry, oppressive men into humble servants (Phil. 2:3-8), and enables those who have been hurt to offer Christlike forgiveness (Eph. 4:31-32). We are presently walking through phased reconciliation with some couples whom we have been counseling. We rejoice to see gospel-based progress for which God alone receives glory.

 

 


[i] I refer to the husband as the abuser because the great majority of abusers are men. We do encounter cases in which the wife is the abuser, in which case the same principles would apply.

[ii] https://ibcd.org/product/domestic-abuse-study-cards/ https://jimnewheiser.com/counseling-cards-english/

[iii] Sometimes in our experience it is the wife who is in too much of a hurry – eager to take him back before he is truly repentant.