This is the second 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 sexually abused by her husband and then offer appropriate help. In the first blog, I described what marital sexual abuse is. In this blog, we will talk about why women might not realize what is happening to them. And in the third installment, I will offer some thoughts on how to help women in this situation.
Over the years, I have had hundreds of conversations with women who are being sexually abused by their husbands but do not realize it. They know something is wrong but do not know what it is. In fact, most of these women come to me seeking help for something else, usually anxiety, depression, or even a desire to foster a richer marital relationship. As I sit with them and learn more about their marriage, it’s often plain to me that they are being grossly mistreated. But they are confused, and often struggle to call the things they endure abusive or sinful—let alone evil. They worry they are exaggerating, believe they are responsible for what is happening, and doubt their own memory when recounting an abusive episode.
These women need us to help them understand the reality of their situation, but the fact that they do not perceive or portray it accurately can be a barrier to that. If you follow their lead, you will miss the larger abuses that might be taking place and focus on the personal problems they present. It is important that we work to cut through their confusion and see what lies behind it. If you suspect that abuse is occurring, continue to ask questions. If you discover sexual abuse, then great care must be taken to explain how these violations go against God’s design for marriage.
This task is challenging but important. Proverbs 25:26 cautions us, “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.” We need to speak clearly about the things the Lord hates, lest we, too, muddy the waters leaving room for abuses to perpetuate and the wicked to prosper. Our goal needs to be bringing victims the pure and refreshing living water from Scripture—lifting misplaced guilt and bringing clarity. God’s healing words will tend to their wounds.
To help you see past the confusion in these situations, let’s turn now to a discussion of the pressures that bring it about. There are two main sources to the confusion experienced by women who are victims of marital sexual abuse. Together, they create a powerful dynamic that can make it difficult for them to understand what is happening in their marriage.
The first is the pervasiveness of bad and unbiblical teaching about sex in marriage. These teachings have placed the responsibility for a man’s purity on his wife’s ability to provide unlimited sex. But it is not a wife’s job to keep her husband from sin—each person is responsible for his or her own sin (Luke 6:45). Yet, women have been told:
- Men need sex,
- Withholding sex is always a sin, and
- Your spouse has rights to your body any time and in any way.
Imagine how these teachings play out in the mind of a wife who is sexually abused by her husband. God’s call to a healthy, willing mutuality is ignored and sex-on-demand is made to sound like God’s will. This produces false guilt, and wrongly portrays a God who is not just indifferent to her suffering but sanctions it. This creates a wedge in a wife’s relationship with God when she needs him the most.
Sex is not simply an act or a need; God created sex to be an expression of relational and spiritual intimacy. When abuse pollutes that relationship, the physical expression of intimacy is also corrupted. We, as counselors, need to be clear on God’s design for sex so we do not add to the chaos that is already occurring in a victim’s heart and mind.
The second contributor to a wife’s confusion is the manipulative tactics employed by her husband. These men want their wives to be off balance and disoriented. If wives believe they are responsible for the distress in the marriage and feel sorry for their husbands, they are easier to dominate. We need to be on the look-out for these tactics and be ready to intervene with counsel and care to counteract them.
Here are four common ways sexually abusive husbands manipulate their spouses.
First, after an abusive incident, there is often a period where an abuser appears calm or even expresses remorse. He might use gifts or affection in an attempt to repair the relationship. It is important to understand that these seemingly remorse-filled actions are usually not true acts of lasting repentance grounded in godly sorrow.¹ Instead, they are attempts to reset the power and control dynamic. The abuser’s focus remains on what he wants—his world back to the way it was with him in control. If an abuser was truly horrified at his actions, he would seek help to stop being oppressive. The counselor’s goal here should be to help victims discern the difference between godly sorrow and manipulative apologies and actions. Teach them how to refuse these counterfeits.
Second, abuse is not always constant. On quieter days, an oppressor will be helpful and even kind. This is very confusing and disorienting. In these lighter moments, the wife often feels badly for not having loving thoughts towards her husband. She may wonder if she is exaggerating things and making a big deal out of nothing. In periods of peace, a wife might have a hard time recalling the darker memories and not understand why she now feels cold towards her husband. During these times, she might even desire physical intimacy or enjoy sex with him. She may wonder, “How can I be abused if I desire or enjoy sex?” Though it is natural that she will still feel hurt by what happened in the past, her newer, more positive memories make the situation even harder to understand. To help a woman combat this, have her keep a journal of abusive incidents. This can help her overcome these disorientations, lifting guilt and confusion.
A third way that an abuser generates confusion is by using coercion to get his wife to consent to his demands.² For example, if a husband asks for sex repeatedly and his wife knows that if she does not comply that he will lecture her for hours and be frighteningly harsh with her children, she might give in to the demand so as to avoid an escalating punishment. What is confusing about coercion is that if she acquiesces, she believes: “I agreed to it.” It is then very difficult to have clarity about what happened prior. So, she might feel defiled but thinks that it is unreasonable to feel this way. We need to combat this by helping these women to identify coercive tactics and by making sense of the emotions that they are feeling.
The fourth way that an abuser generates confusion is to make his wife feel sorry for him. Abusers are master blame-shifters and are adept at finding excuses to avoid taking responsibility for their demandingness. They blame alcohol, a stressful job, the temptation of pornography, their jealousy—but especially their spouse. Wives report being told things such as:
- You are a prude; sex is no fun for me. I have to push your limits.
- You never want to have sex with me. I cannot bear the constant rejection. I have no choice but to force you into it.
- Since you have let yourself “go,” I am tempted all day by beautiful, put-together women. You could at least watch porn with me to help me get aroused and keep me faithful.
- You have no idea what is it like for me to married to the only woman on the planet who doesn’t desire me.
- You just spent all afternoon nagging me. How about showing me that you don’t hate me?
By claiming to be a tortured sufferer, a sexually abusive husband preys upon his wife’s kind heart, hoping she will feel sorry for him and then do what he wants. If that does not work, he may use threats of adultery, porn use, and even self-harm to gain sympathy. These men are very convincing.
Keep in mind that they will also work on you, the counselor, pleading their victimhood in an effort to distract you from the ways that they are sexually domineering. Be wary of this and do not shift your focus off the effect that an abusive husband’s behavior is having on a victim. Untangling his excuses and threats will help free up his wife from believing it is her job to meet all of his sexual demands.
Is it any wonder then that these wives are vulnerable to confusion about their situation? As their helpers, our goal should be to carefully dispel and dismantle the myths that ensnare them. To do this, we refute the bad teaching, expose the manipulation, and reconnect them to a rescuing God who grieves with them and desires their protection.
¹ Godly regret is focused on how sin offends God and produces true repentance (2 Cor 7:10).
² I discussed coercion in the first blog as well. I repeat it here because it is a key source of confusion for abused wives.