Different marriages experience different challenges. Couples assume roles in marriage primarily based on their personality. There are overfunctioners and underfunctioners in every marriage relationship. Overfunctioners take up dominant roles, while underfunctioners assume submissive roles. Neither of these roles is bad or good. Overfunctioners may exhibit competence in fixing big things around the house. Underfunctioners might take the role of straightening the little details. Hence, there is a balance. Maladaptive or dysfunctional behavior is the problem. Overfunctioning or underfunctioning can become a behavioral problem if it leads to abuse in the relationship.
Abusive marriages are detrimental and can take different forms. Counselors consider the term domestic violence and abuse to include numerous behaviors which can range from ongoing “negative behavior” or one-time events all the way to continual harmful, controlling, destructive, and violent abuse.
Abuse can be physical, psychological/emotional, or verbal. Physical abuse means physical violence or brutality. Psychological abuse results from the actions or inactions of one’s partner, such as withdrawal or non-active-involvement intended to punish the other; it can also arise from sexual violence against a partner. Verbal abuse is the use of harsh or unfriendly words against a spouse. All forms of abuse have negative impacts on both the victim and on the relationship. They lead to traumatic experiences, anxiety, loneliness, and lack of trust.
As adults, every couple seeks to form an attachment figure with their partner. We all want to feel heard, appreciated, motivated, valued, admired, and loved by our partner. We all want to experience compassion. We all want to feel confident. We all want to feel respected. We all want to maintain our sense of self-worth. Abuse in marriage destroys all positive expectations of a healthy relationship, thereby creating disappointment and a feeling of loss in the victim.
Most abuse in marriages begins early in the relationship. Research shows that, “in dating relationships, 80% of young adults experience psychological abuse, 20% experience physical abuse, and 10% experience sexual abuse.” 1
What causes abuse?
Obviously, most abuses arise as a result of one individual attempting to exert control over the other. Individuals with a dominant personality style find it hard to change. In order to have their way, such persons adopt abusive behaviors as a control tactic. They intimidate their partner, sometimes using fear to strip their victim of their self-worth. They make them feel sorry even when such victims are not guilty of any offense.
Most abusers are said to have experienced abuse growing up. Such individuals often witnessed violence and abusive language in their childhood environment. They become used to physical and emotional violence as authentic ways of expressing themselves.
Abusers have anger issues. They see it as normal to vent their anger. They become defensive in their conversations. Such persons present strength externally while protecting their weaknesses internally.
What are the effects of abuse on its victims?
Individuals brought up in an abusive environment feel its negative effects. In a report released by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “College students use alcohol heavily and habitually: 59% of full-time college students drink regularly, 39% binge (having five or more drinks on one day in past month), and 13% drink excessively (binge drinking more than 5 days in past month; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 2014). Moreover, college students are at risk of suicide—it is the second leading cause of death among college-aged adults (18–24 years old), and its prevalence has increased from 12.60 deaths to 13.23 deaths per 100,000 from 2010–2014.” 2 That means abusive relationships can have disastrous consequences. Abusive marriages experience high rates of separation and divorce.
Why do victims not always seek help?
Some abused spouses don’t want to open up about their relationships for various reasons. They have often become mistrustful. They wonder if they can ever find “normal” – or if they even deserve it. Questions arise: Am I talking to someone who can help me? What are the chances that things would actually change? In most cases, the dilemma for women is how their man would perceive bringing their dirty laundry into the public eye. There might be other reasons to hesitate to seek help. Maybe in their cultural background, marital problems are not discussed openly. Then, there could be a religious question: does it make me look like a bad person to discuss with someone else my struggles in my marriage? From experience, most men would prefer not to talk about their marital situations and rarely initiate talks about what is or isn’t going on in their relationship.
Most couples live an avoidant style whereby things are shoved under the carpet. Some pray to God while keeping problems in a hidden “untouchable” box. Such spouses dread having an open conversation mostly because of the consequences. They avoid stoking the emotional fire because the abuser will always get defensive. Such relationships merely accumulate dirt that clog the wheels of a healthy marriage.
Can Catholic couples seek therapy?
Yes, Catholic couples can seek therapy. One caveat -- men generally have different opinions about themselves and about seeking couples therapy. Whereas women often willingly volunteer for therapy, men are generally reluctant to seek help. Women will suggest therapy, even if they are the victim of their husband’s behavioral problems. Men might accept therapy as a last resort for their own behavioral problems. Psychologists say, “Men also “drag their feet” when it comes to couple therapy. Men are consistently slower than women to recognize a relational problem, decide upon the need for help, and contact a provider.” 1 Men don’t like to talk about stress because it deflates their ego. The fact is this, “When female partners suggest couple therapy, men who endorse traditional masculine norms may reject therapy in an effort to save face or retain power.” 1 This is especially true in a patriarchal social structure where men are viewed to be in authority over women in most aspects of society.
Couples must recognize when to seek help and when to change certain behavioral patterns in their relationship. Seeking therapy is a good way to search for genuine solutions to abuses in marriage, especially with Christian therapists. Therapists help couples “to recognize a relational problem severe enough to warrant professional help and overcome any cultural bias, stigma, and/or anxiety” 1
What can be done?
The first truth is the truth about the self. In psychology, attachment theorists call it a “working model of self or view of self.” It is the individual’s perception of himself/herself and how this view of the self affects the individual’s functioning in relation to others. I have noticed that most men see their ego only in relation to what others think about them. Such men treat their wives well in public only because of what others may think or say about them. In the eyes of outsiders, they seem to be the best husbands. When alone, however, they treat their wives much differently. An example of this was a couple who came to me struggling to get along. I met with them individually to try to determine the source of their problems. When speaking with the wife, she warned me to be aware of a trick her husband often performed, which was to shed tears to gain sympathy for his side of the story. When I met with him, that is exactly what happened. His actions confirmed what his wife had said, that he was not actually upset but trying to gain sympathy. To be true to your “self, ” each spouse must have integrity in their dealings with each other and act the same towards each other in public as well as in private.
Meanwhile, prayer is a big component in the marriage relationship. When couples struggle, there is a great need to recognize the presence and the impact of God in their lives. Couples commit to each other and to God in their covenant relationship. Seeking God’s help becomes a way to deepen their relationship with each other and with God – their source of divine sustenance. Prayer helps the individual to appreciate the need to be humble, present, and compassionate with their spouse in an open and selfless manner. In prayer, couples seek the greatest “therapy” in their relational problems.
Dealing with abuse implies dealing with one’s abnormal behavior. Couples must recognize the negative impact of their behavior on the relationship. To deal with dysfunction implies dealing with the false ego. Unnecessary reliance on the ego contributes to suffering among couples. False ego breeds pride and arrogance. It presents a distorted image of the self. It does not admit wrongdoing and does not accept corrections. However, once you are able to subdue your false ego, you can begin to deal with your anger issues.
Hey, abuser, you need help! You are sick! Heal from your anger! Seek help in prayer and in therapy.
Parnell, K. J., & Hammer, J. H. (2018). Deciding on couple therapy: The role of masculinity in relationship help-seeking. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 19(2), 212–222.
Sunami, N., Hammersley, J. J., & Keefe, K. M. (2017). The role of alcohol problems in the association between intimate partner abuse and suicidality among college students. Psychology of Violence.Apr 27 , 2017, no pagination specified.