What is Abuse?

What is Abuse?

By Leslie Vernick

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Abuse, in a marriage is about using one’s power to control another. I thought it might be helpful to give you a brief understanding of the ways a person can be controlled.

Physical Abuse
Physical abuse is characterized by hitting, slapping, spitting at, punching, kicking, yanking (such as by the hair or limbs), throwing, banging, biting, restraining, as well as any other acts of physical coercion or violence directed at another person regardless of the person’s age.

Many people who abuse others through physical force or threats of force attempt to control and intimidate others through violence as well as create an atmosphere or environment of anticipated violence. For example, he might punch a wall, wave a first or gun in someone’s face.

These kinds of behaviors are abusive even if they do not result in visible injury to the victim. Abusive actions demonstrate profound disrespect for the dignity and well being of the other person. If someone did these same behaviors to a stranger or in public, his or her conduct would unquestionably be considered abusive and the perpetrator arrested. Sadly physical abuse is perpetrated upon people in their closest relationships, behind closed doors.

Whenever there is physical abuse, there is always verbal and emotional abuse. Often sexual abuse is also part of the overall abusive pattern.


Verbal and Emotional Abuse
Words and gestures are used as the weapons of choice to hurt, destroy and control and dominate another person. We often underestimate the power of words to harm others sometimes we underestimate the harm done to those trapped in verbally and emotionally abusive relationships.

We say things like “Don’t let it bother you.” Or “Just let it roll off your back.” We all remember the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But God knows how words affect our emotional, spiritual and physical health.

For example, Proverbs says, “Reckless words pierce like a sword” (Proverbs 12:18), and “Wise words bring many benefits” (Proverbs 12:14). “Gentle words are a tree of life, a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4). “Kind words are like honey – sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” (Proverbs 16:24).

Most often we think of name calling, cursing, profanity and mocking when we think of verbal abuse. However, verbal abuse can also be more subtle and covert. Constant criticism, blaming, discounting the feelings, thoughts and opinions of another, as well as manipulating words to deceive, mislead or confuse someone are also abusive. Proverbs warns us, “The words of the wicked conceal violent intentions.” (Proverbs 10:6b).

Emotional abuse can also be characterized by degrading, embarrassing publicly, shaming or humiliating someone in front of family, friends or work associates.

Nonphysical abuse is not simply using words to hurt another. Emotional abusers systematically undermine their victim’s confidence and self-concept in order to gain control. Abusers weaken others in order to strengthen themselves. They know what matters most to their target (for example, her children, his work, her appearance, her family, his pet, her friends) and they seek to destroy it.


Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse occurs when a person forces someone into having sexual relations or perform sexual acts even within marriage. Healthy sexual intimacy requires consent. While teaching a class on domestic violence at a seminary, a student challenged my definition. The seminary student argued that 1 Corinthians 7 was biblical proof that forcing a wife to have sex with her husband could not be considered abusive because a wife was not allowed to say no. From his perspective, it was man’s God-given right to force his wife into compliance if she denied him.

Paul did caution husbands and wives not to deprive each other of sexual relations except under special circumstances. But Paul also wrote that husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25). And, Paul describes what that kind of love looks like: it is a giving and cherishing love, not a coercing, demanding, demeaning, or disrespectful love (Ephesians 5:1, Corinthians 13).

Forcing a wife to have sex against her will reduces her to an object to use regardless of her feelings or will. That is not only degrading and dishonoring to her, it is abusive and in some states considered to be marital rape.

Other forms of sexual abuse are touching someone sexually without their permission, pressuring someone to view or participate in pornography, talking to someone in sexually derogatory or humiliating ways, taking sexually explicit pictures without permission and making disrespectful suggestive comments.


Financial Abuse
Money is a powerful weapon used to control another person. In marriage, couples ideally decide together on a budget and both parties share power and responsibility for the management of the family funds.

When a wife (or a husband) is given no voice or no choice in the family finances, it’s abusive. When a wife (or husband) must be accountable for every penny spent but the other spouse is not, then there is an imbalance of power. The spouse that is accountable is being treated as a child instead of an adult. In addition, financial abuse occurs when one spouse (usually the wife who is home with children), has no idea how much money her husband earns, nor does she have any joint access to that money. She is given an allowance, much like a child instead of an equal partner.

Financial abuse serves to keep a spouse dependent upon the controlling spouse. If she displeases him, he punishes her by withdrawing financial support. It also can be used to keep her from getting necessary medical attention, counseling support, or educational advancement.

Spiritual Abuse
We read about leaders of cults who brainwash their members into subservience and unquestioning compliance. This brainwashing process creates people who cannot think for themselves or make independent choices without incurring the wrath or rejection from the group. When an individual, whether he be a cult leader, a pastor, or a head of a home requires unquestioning allegiance to his authority as the “voice of God”, spiritual abuse is taking place.

In addition, spiritual abuse is misusing Scripture to get one’s own way, to shame and judge others who do not do things your way, or to threaten and intimidate someone into compliance. The important component of abusive behavior whether it is physical, emotional, sexual, financial or spiritual is control over the mind, will, and feelings of another person. Abuse treats someone as if he or she were an object to control and use rather than a person to value and cherish.

Abuse of any kind is not only sinful, it is emotionally destructive and negates the dignity and personhood of the victim. A godly or healthy marriage is impossible when there is ongoing or unrepentant abuse.