This is the third in a series of blogs on the sexual abuse of women in marriage. My goal is to help counselors and pastors to recognize when a wife is being sexual abused by her husband and then offer appropriate help. In the first two blogs, I described what marital sexual abuse is and discussed why women might not realize what is happening to them. In this third installment, I offer some thoughts on how to help women in this situation.
When God places women in our care who have been sexually abused in marriage, he is entrusting us with a tender and clear mission. These women face tremendous suffering and need us to care for them with gentle wisdom. They also need us to be strong—calling evil acts what they are—evil. This is not a comfortable calling, but it is a critical calling, one after Jesus’ own heart (Luke 4:18-19). Often it means we, ourselves, need to acquire additional wisdom and learn what it means to embody Jesus to these dear sufferers. The last thing we want to do is to inadvertently hurt them when we try to help. So, let’s start with the basics. We know we are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), especially when someone is facing evil (Rom. 12:9-12). We are to be compassionate, gentle, and patient in our care (Eph. 4:2; 1 Pet. 3:8). In addition to these basics, here are some practical ways to walk alongside and minister to these women.
1. Ask. Sexual abuse in marriage is frightening to reveal. Sadly, a large percentage of my counselees who experience physical and verbal cruelty are also experiencing sexual abuse. It is not something that women usually disclose because shame, stigma, and confusion contribute to silence. But speaking about it and receiving support is crucial to safety and healing. One way to help victims is to bring up the topic. I usually say something like: “More than half of the women I see in oppressive marriages experience hard and difficult things in their sexual relationship. Are there ways that you struggle with physical intimacy? Things that make you uncomfortable? Do you experience any unwanted sexual activity? Do you ever feel pressured?”
Sometimes victims are only ready to say “yes” to these questions but are not comfortable discussing the violations themselves. Do not press, just periodically check in asking them if they are ready to talk or have questions.
Consider, especially in a church setting, inviting a woman to bring a female friend and supporter with her to counseling. It can be overwhelming to discuss such abuses with a pastor or other church leader and the tangible comfort provided by such a person will reduce her sense of isolation and vulnerability.
2. Listen. Abuse is not something you can solve with words; there are complexities and evils that our words are inadequate for. Do not feel that you need to say something to make it better—you can’t. Sit with the suffering. Your presence alone is powerful, lifting shame. Keep in mind it is good and right for the victimized to feel hurt, fearful, and angry. Do not sanitize their speech but trust that, in time, God will shape their lament. Right now, the important thing is for them to tell their story. No matter what it sounds like, they are bringing the terrible secrets of their life into the light which is a beautiful act of trust and faith.
3. Listen for ways they wrongly feel responsible. Husbands who abuse their wives in this way are master blame-shifters and convince their victims that everything is their fault. With sexual abuse this is particularly damaging, so it is important to be consistent in reminding them that they are never responsible for another person’s sin (Mark 7:20-23). Oftentimes, bad teaching from Scripture sets them up to believe their husbands’ lies. Be alert for ways that the misuse of passages like 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 (sex is their “wifely duty”), has compounded their guilt and suffering.¹ Clarify that marriage does not equal consent to unlimited sex or unlimited types of sexual acts.
4. Let victims know repeatedly that the abuse is not their fault. Once you discover the ways they feel responsible, work to lift shame and guilt. Never tire of making these declarations and affirming this truth.
5. Protect their story. Do not to ask too many questions about the details. Questions can cause further exposure and shame. Go at the woman’s pace by asking broader questions, taking her cue as to what and when she is comfortable sharing. Consider your role. What will it be like for her if you know details? This is especially important if you are a pastor or elder. Sometimes in a church context, it is necessary to share information, so be clear about who you will tell and what you will say. To the extent possible, do not expose the tender details of her story. Ask her who she is most comfortable with knowing. To honor her story, ask those whom you tell to make an effort to connect with her. Even if it’s via a note, they should acknowledge the woman’s suffering. I have heard from too many victims that silence from those in church leadership who know their story is excruciating; it feels like rejection and disgust.
6. Share how their story affects you. Sexual abuse is isolating, and it can feel like no one, not even God, sees or cares about what is happening. Horrible things have happened and we need to embody God’s heart for them. God hates what is occurring and is grieved by it. Your heartfelt responses and tears can be healing for them.
7. Provide needed resources. They need to know that they are not alone. Offer to connect them with an advocate, pastor, counselor, medical care, legal support, another victim, or a trusted friend.
8. Speak beautiful truths. Being sexually abused comes with a special sense of shame. It can penetrate so deeply that the victim begins to believe horrible lies. The woman might come to believe she is repulsive, unlovable, dirty, permanently disgraced or even worse that her story will contaminate you. Remind her that she is a treasured possession (Deut. 7:6), chosen, holy (Col. 3:12), beloved (Deut. 33:3), God’s child (1 John 3:1), Jesus’ friend (John 15:15), holy, blameless (Eph. 1:4), and redeemed (Eph. 1:7).
9. Be patient. Sexual abuse in marriage is devastating trauma. Research has shown that it is harder to reveal and experience sexual abuse by an intimate partner than by a stranger. Worse, many women go on living with the husbands who violated them.² We do not expect sexual assault victims to have contact with their rapist let alone share a home and bed. It is quite unimaginable what they are going through, so be patient.
Trauma victims also tell repetitive and circular stories, and it can be hard for them to make decisions, or even consistently believe that they are victims of abuse. Keep in mind it is not always possible for them to face the trauma while they are living in it. Oftentimes, we have a greater sense of urgency about their situation than they do. To care for them well, we must live with this tension and proceed at their pace. This can be hard on us when we see the amount of pain and suffering they are enduring, but it is vital for them that we do this. God has never-ending patience with us, and never tires of communicating to us life-giving truths. Imitate him.
10. Do not tell them what to do or make decisions for them. Due to the power and control dynamics fueling abuse, these women often do not have the freedom to make choices at home. Hence, they do not need one more person telling them what to do. It is important and redemptive that they make their own choices, especially considering that they are the ones who must live with the after-effects. Whether they stay, leave, confront, or remain quiet, their choices will lead to more pain. Help them by providing wise options. Pray through the choices and process potential outcomes. Encourage them with the knowledge that God will supply the wisdom they need and let them know that they have your support.
11. Involve the necessary authorities. It is not always easy to discern how and when we should interact with the legal system so here are some guidelines. Rape within a marriage is a crime, but few women wish to report it and ultimately that is their choice. While this might leave us feeling fearful for them, we should remember that they have to endure the fall-out and be ready to take self-protective measures. Police know this so they usually require the victim to make the complaint (not the counselor) unless life-threatening violence is present. We do not have a legal obligation to report domestic violence, but we should be communicating the value and potential protection of involving the police. When a victim is ready to make a police report, help her through the process—it will be an extremely difficult experience.
A notable exception to women making their own decisions concerns children. Anytime children witness sexual abuse (or they themselves are physically or sexually abused), it is considered child abuse and we do need to make a report. Keep in mind that this will create a dangerous situation for the mother and child. The woman needs to know that you are reporting the abuse, and a safety plan should be implemented.
12. Lament with them. When unspeakable things happen, it is hard to even find the words to describe what has happened. For these women to pray, they need words—words to connect their hearts to God and others. Telling their story and sharing their heart is essential to healing. Help these women find the words. Help them speak to God and others (wise helpers) about their suffering. Locate passages of Scripture like Psalm 22, 27, 55, 109 and 140 that give words to their experience. Pray with them. Pray for them. Give them words they can bring to God—words that expose the darkness with light (Eph. 5:13) and that bring redemption and healing.
It is my prayer and hope that this list equips you. But more than that, I want it to encourage you to move towards women who have been violated by their spouses. You might already know who these women are, but it is far more likely that there are many unknown sufferers living in your midst. They need wise and gentle helpers who are ready with the compassion of Christ and words of God to guide them.
²While it might be best for a separation to occur, there are many reasons victims do not leave, which means, at least for a time, continuing to live with their abuser.