Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
Physical abuse in marriage is defined by more than someone beating their spouse — it’s all about control. If your spouse uses violence to intimidate you into going along with their wishes, that is physically abusive behavior. Many victims, especially Christian women, respond to this behavior in fear and confusion, leading them to believe they can’t do anything about their abusive situation. If you are being abused by your spouse, know that God does not condone abusive behavior and there are things you can do about your situation.
Table of contents
- How Physical Abuse Presents Itself in its Victims
- What Are Examples of Physical Abuse?
- Is it Abuse or Just an Anger Problem?
- What Does the Bible Say about Physical Abuse?
- The Submission in 1 Peter 3 Doesn’t Apply to Abuse
- What if I’m Being Physically Abused?
- How Do I Get to Safety?
- Escape from Physical Abuse Isn’t Easy
How Physical Abuse Presents Itself in its Victims
Leah saw Anna, slouching and downtrodden, walk gingerly into Bible study. As they took their seats, she asked Anna if everything was OK. Anna did not respond, but tears sprung to her eyes. Compassion filled Leah. She settled in next to Anna, quietly handing her tissues throughout the study.
When the study was over, Leah cautiously asked, “Anna, it looks like you’re in pain. What happened?” Anna only replied that she had fallen and was stiff but would be fine.
Then, Sunday morning at nursery drop-off, Leah ran into Anna and asked how she was healing. Once again, Anna could not find words, but the tears resurged.
Leah sensed something was wrong, but she didn’t want to push Anna to talk about it. So she asked how she might pray for her.
Anna opened up a bit, saying things were hard at home. Her husband has been more upset than usual because her injuries made it hard for her to keep up.
She said he woke her up at 4 a.m., yelling at her to get going, and did not stop screaming until they got to church. Leah then feared Anna’s injuries were not from a fall, but because of physical abuse by her husband.
“Anna, it’s not OK if your husband hurts you,” she said. “I want to help you.”
The Fear of Getting Care
Leah was able to persuade Anna to let a doctor look at her bruises. It was evident Anna was not healing, so maybe something was broken.
Leah and her husband took Anna and her baby to an urgent care center. They asked a deacon to tell Anna’s husband, Mike, that she left the church because she was in so much pain from her fall.
At urgent care, the situation became complicated. Anna grew agitated.
Anna did not want Mike to know she was getting help. She was afraid of what Mike might do. She wondered if she was overreacting and tried to excuse the incident because Mike had too much to drink that night.
Leah’s husband told Anna, “A husband should never hurt his wife. Your injuries are significant. It’s probably not safe for you to return home today.”
He gently told her that God does not want his precious daughters living in fear or being physically abused by their husbands. Then, quoting Proverbs 27:12, he encouraged her that it’s wise to flee danger.
Anna agreed that she would not return home that night, which gave them time to assess the severity of the physical abuse and make the appropriate plans.
If you’ve been injured by your spouse or suspect someone you know has been, it’s important to be informed about this type of abuse. Just what is physical abuse in marriage? It’s more than you probably think it is.
What Are Examples of Physical Abuse?
Physical abuse is a means of coercively controlling another through fear and intimidation. It involves intentionally or recklessly using physical force that may result in bodily injury or physical pain. It also includes other actions that lead to physical harm — such as refusing someone sleep or medical care. Physical abuse takes on many forms. Here are some examples of physical abuse in marriage:
- Throwing objects to hurt or intimidate you
- Blocking you in a room or car
- Destroying possessions or treasured objects
- Shoving or pushing
- Scratching or biting
- Pulling hair
- Slapping or punching
- Strangling or choking
- Hurting or threatening to hurt your children or pets
- Disrupting your sleeping to wear you down
- Denying you medical care
- Attacking or threatening to attack with a weapon
- Any threats or actual attempts to kill you
In what little we’ve heard about Anna, we see she endured various forms of physical abuse. It’s common for victims to make up stories to cover up the abuse, as Anna did, especially when they fear that addressing the abuse will make their life more difficult or dangerous.
But sometimes victims do not realize they’re being physically abused because they don’t recognize lower levels of violence are still abuse. Those lower levels of violence can include hair pulling, punching walls, and using purposeful, reckless driving to intimidate a spouse.
Is it Abuse or Just an Anger Problem?
Victims often dismiss violent behavior, thinking it’s an anger problem. Anna did this. She thought Mike acted out physically because he struggled with self-control, especially when drinking.
This is a dangerous misconception.
If we consider examples from Scripture of people who use violence, such as King Saul, Haman, or King Herod, we see that it’s not that perpetrators are “out of control.” Instead, they’re using violence to maintain their control and power.
When physical abuse occurs in a marriage, it’s vital to understand that the abusive behavior benefits the offender. Anna’s husband would shove her off their bed and punch her in the back for failing to keep up the home after their new baby’s arrival.
Anna exhausted herself to meet Mike’s demands because she knew there would be a price to pay when dinner wasn’t ready and the house was untidy.
Talk to a Counselor
Reach a counselor toll-free at 1-855-771-HELP (4357).
What Does the Bible Say about Physical Abuse?
God does not want us to value marriage more than we value a wife’s safety or a husband’s repentance. In fact, the Lord hates violence, “his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Psalm 11:5). No amount of violence is acceptable in a marriage.
Sadly, many Christian women have heard 1 Peter 3:1-6 misapplied to mean it’s good to endure abuse to win over their husbands. But God does not condone abuse in marriage nor did He include it in His original design for marriage.
In this passage, Peter was addressing a common problem at the time. Christian women were becoming believers before their husbands, and they needed to know how to handle witnessing for Christ in their homes.
The Submission in 1 Peter 3 Doesn’t Apply to Abuse
Peter’s instruction about submission here is good. But when taken out of context and applied to abuse, it’s dangerous and wrong. Here’s why:
- Suffering physical abuse in marriage does not accomplish redemption. Only Jesus’s suffering on the cross does that.
- God would not want us to overlook what He hates. God doesn’t want wives subjected to violence, ever (Colossians 3:19).
- God desires wives to bless their husbands who do evil by getting them the help they desperately need for their depraved sin.
- Husbands need to be gentle with their wives. Peter implores husbands to “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (verse 7).
Nowhere does this chapter suggest a wife should endure physical abuse.
So being married does not require enduring violence or any other form of coercive control. When a husband abuses his wife, he desecrates the image of God in her. This is a severe pattern of sin that grieves the Lord, and He wants his people to seek help (Ephesians 5:11). (See “Does the Bible Say Women Should suffer Abuse and Violence” in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, 2014, pages 9-21).
Addressing abuse is loving for the offender because oppressors are in a dangerous spiritual position. But how should we think about handling a victim’s safety?
What if I’m Being Physically Abused?
The Bible teaches us that it’s good to take steps to procure our safety. Recall that when Jesus could avoid suffering, He did.
- When the Pharisees were colluding to kill him, Jesus fled (Matthew 12:14).
- When the Jews picked up stones to stone him, Jesus hid and slipped out (John 8:58-59).
- And when people plotted to take Jesus’s life, He no longer moved publicly and withdrew to the wilderness (John 11:53-54).
Taking steps to address abuse will be frightening. Knowing who you can trust and how your spouse will respond to being confronted is hard. Here are some guidelines:
- Do not confront your abusive spouse. You’ve already discovered that confrontations often lead to more volatile, if not dangerous, situations for you.
- Pray about disclosing your abuse to someone who can help you seek wisdom and safety as you seek to address it. Remember wise and loving people will take the time to listen to your entire story. Like Jesus, they will enter in. They will not minimize, dismiss, or excuse what you tell them. They will connect you to people or resources that address physical abuse.
- Evaluate the level of danger you are in using a safety assessment tool such as this one from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Ideally you would do this while working with someone familiar with domestic violence.
- Consider how your children will be impacted, if you have children. Ninety percent of children living in a home with domestic abuse are aware of the abuse, and forty percent of children are also victims of abuse.
How Do I Get to Safety?
The story of Abigail also provides some helpful ways to think about taking steps toward safety. When her husband, Nabal, made an unwise and selfish stand against David, he placed her and her entire household in danger.
Abigail wisely disregarded her husband’s unrighteous actions and sought protection. Because God honored her bravery, and she saved her household (1 Samuel 25).
If you’re in a dangerous situation like Abigail, notice how she took action.
It’s important to highlight that Abigail went behind her husband’s back and against his authority, humbly asking David for help. You, too, will need to be furtive and cautious. Take these steps:
- Carefully prepare to leave by creating a safety plan. For a safety plan that addresses children’s safety while the victim remains in the home and fleeing abuse see: Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims or contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
- Assume that your spouse monitors your cell phone, computer, and other electronic trails.
- Leaving is the most dangerous time, so it’s best if you have help and logistical support from someone experienced with domestic abuse.
Escape from Physical Abuse Isn’t Easy
Keep in mind, fleeing danger does not necessarily mean divorce. It can mean many things, including separation or a temporary escape.
The important thing is to secure your safety and your children’s immediate safety. Violence always picks up where it leaves off — it’s an entrenched sin pattern. You and your children cannot afford you to respond out of what you hope might happen; You must face what is happening.
It took Anna a few days to decide what to do. But after a safety assessment, it was clear that returning home was dangerous for her.
She made the difficult but God-honoring choice of fleeing physical abuse, hoping that her husband would repent. In the meantime, she faced many challenges, including finding a place to live, caring for an infant alone, being judged by friends, and not having enough money.
She was tempted to return many times. Her church helped her see it was not wise to return home until Mike fully repented for a sustained period of time.
They connected Mike to a counselor and helped meet Anna’s practical needs. Amid the storm, Anna often feared that the Lord would not provide, but good friends like Leah helped her cling to God’s promises.
What if I Am Afraid to Get Help?
If you’re not ready to talk to someone you know, remember one fundamental truth: God delights in rescuing and redeeming His people.
Though your situation feels impossible, nothing is impossible for God. Begin by talking to God and asking Him for help. If you’re not ready to address the abuse, there are five things you can do now.
1. Keep a Log of the Physical Abuse
Keep a log of the physical abuse, including photos. You might need them one day to prove what has happened, but it also helps you keep track of the times your spouse escalates the violence.
2. Call for Help
You can call anonymously to the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE; or chat online at http://www.thehotline.org/help/), or Focus on the Family 1-855-771-HELP (4357) weekdays from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (Mountain Time).
Perhaps your spouse throws things or traps you in rooms to lecture you. Ask yourself, at what point will I get help? The sooner you act for your safety the better, but you are the one who must walk out the many complex challenges that come with addressing abuse.
4. Get Professional Counseling
Perhaps you have compelling reasons to stay with your oppressor: lack of resources or support, fear of retaliation, hope for change, concerns about your children, belief that you should stay, love for your spouse, or the desire not to disappoint yourself and others.
Remember, getting help for the abuse does not necessarily mean you have to take action. It’s good to get support for your suffering, gain clarity about the reality of your situation, and seek the wisdom you need to navigate a tremendously troublesome marriage.
5. Pray to Your Father in Heaven
Pray about who to confide in. Ask for God’s guidance. Talk to the Lord about your distress. Living with a spouse who treats you like an enemy is brutal.
The Psalms are full of examples of how to pray when you have an enemy (Psalms 55, 56, 57). Sometimes we pray for our enemy’s judgment and deliverance. Other times we pray for their sanctification. It’s good to talk to God about all your needs.
Addressing physical abuse takes courage. Be comforted to know that God’s heart is always for the oppressed. He tells his shepherds to care for the oppressed, and He stands against those who oppress (Exodus 3:7-10; Psalm 9:9; Ezekiel 33:1-8; Ezekiel 34:1-25; Micah 2:1). Even though you cannot see it, God is at work planning your rescue and enlisting the people you need to help you.