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Spouse Abuse vs. Family Abuse

by Patsy Rae Dawson

Adult children often blame the loving parent for not protecting them from abuse.

In recent years, I have heard so many parents lament that their grown children blamed them for the abuse that went on in the home, that I now believe this is common consequence of walking on eggshells with an abusive mate: Many children will grow up to blame the innocent parent for not protecting them better from the abuser.

After four decades of teaching on marriage, I now realize the expression "spouse abuse" addresses only half the problem and encourages naivete  about the damages from an emotionally abusive mate. A more correct term is "family abuse."

In every instance where I have firsthand knowledge, the abuser treated the children like the spouse. If the abuser failed to bond emotionally or show love and concern for the mate, then the children suffered from these same deficiencies. While the abuser blamed the spouse for everything and criticized continually, the children faced discouragement from an impossible-to-please parent.

One husband's parenting skills consisted of threats and hollering at his wife to make the children mind. She and the children constantly walked on eggshells trying to control his temper. Yet, people outside the home praised the man as a great problem solver--a common description of many hypocritical workers in our churches. Failures at home masquerading as servants of God.

The main difference between abused spouses and children

Abused spouses usually possess at least some adult skills and reasoning abilities while the children do not. Children faced with a screaming, threatening, and criticizing parent learn childish ways to survive. Often doomed to repeat the same mistreatment with their own families, they grow into abusers or rescuers who perpetuate the misery.

I now tell abused spouses, "Step out of your own misery and look at your children's pain. They have less ability to deal with their parent than you do. Then thank God every day for opening your eyes to the harm sin in your home is doing to your children so you can make intelligent decisions on how to protect them."

Christians' misunderstanding of how God hates divorce creates an environment where they try to save marriages at all costs. Unfortunately, the price is often the emotional health of the children who endure the family abuse and who keep the family secret. How Outrageous!

When I was a child, I used to speak as a child

In I Corinthians 13 on agapeo, love commanded of a husband and father, after listing the characteristics of love--patience, kindness, unselfishness, lack of score keeping, faithfulness--all missing characteristics in family abuse, Paul concluded in verse 11:

"When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things."

As a Christian hater and killer, Paul had to grow up and put away his childish problem-solving reasoning learned at home and in the Jewish synagogues. He had to embrace real love in his daily life.

Perhaps the place to begin growing up ourselves is by correcting our terminology. It is not spouse abuse. It is family abuse of the grossest and most ungodly kind. God may hate divorce, but he hates sin in the home even more.

Children often grow up to blame the codependent parent

I have observed that the greatest sufferers in these marriages are the children in various ways. The sinner usually focuses all his/her energy on manipulating the spouse. Since the children do not get this same attention to deceit, the children often see a lot of things the victimized spouse doesn't even realize is going on. However, the children suffer from the same unloving treatment as the parent because the abuser does not know how to love anyone. But being children, they adapt to the sin in the home in their own ways. Most grow up love starved to either marry someone like the abusive parent or to be abusive themselves.

I have heard so many parents lament how their grown children blamed them for the abuse that went on in the home, I now believe this is a common consequence of walking on eggshells with an abusive mate: Many children will grow up to blame the innocent parent for not protecting them better from the abuser. Yet during their childhood, the codependent parent thought he/she was creating a safe environment for the children given the circumstances. It is a no win situation for everyone. The damage to the children is horrendous!

Where do we write Christ's name?

Recently, while I made several long trips, I mentored on my cell phone a couple of wives in various stages of dealing with abuse. The husband of one had been a preacher for a while and the other a Bible teacher. It hit me the last two trips that every little town I slowed down for had a sign on Main Street saying, "Church of Christ, 2 blocks that way."

I reflected on how often I've heard sermons about how important our congregational name is, and it has to be called "church of Christ." But then many of the husbands don't act anything like Christ in their homes when Paul told them to imitate Christ:

Ephesians 5:1-2: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. ...Ephesians 5:23-30: For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body."

Instead, we obsess over the wife being submissive to the husband as the answer to every marriage problem. It has gotten so bad that we even tell the wife to be submissive to the husband's sin without a second thought. At the same time, many fundamentalist husbands assume mega entitlements as the spiritual leaders to condone bullying their wives financially, verbally, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually. Many husbands in the church show little respect for women in any of these realms in contrast to Peter telling them to honor their wives as joint-heirs.

These two wives shared how angry their adult children are at their dads for their spiritual hypocrisy. Experience shows husbands fool their wives much easier than they fool their children. Wives are used to making excuses for mistreatment of both them and their children and have a natural tendency to blame themselves for everything that goes wrong. However, the next words out of a toddler's mouth after he learns "mommy" and "daddy" are nearly always, "It's not fair." Harder to fool children on what's going on in the home.

How outrageous that we pound the pulpit to put Christ's name on our buildings and road signs and neglect to put it in our homes to bless our wives and children.


Sin in the home produces terrible consequences that we often fail to realize the seriousness of, especially on our children, until we are way down the road from it. The warning that evil companions corrupt good morals applies even when the evil companion lords it over the family as a parent. May God open our eyes and wake up our compliance with sin in the home.


Learn better how to love your mate and children. Don't ask them if they know you love them. Ask them if they feel your love. Look them in the eye. Do you see love or fear? I see fear in the eyes of too many wives and children--the families of religious leaders who cannot teach what they do not practice at home. Consequently, many of our congregations are emotionally bankrupt.


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