How do you defend yourself from an increasingly violent wife?

Someone emailed this real-life story:

I knew in my heart that the violence would eventually become physical – I just didn’t know when. Each verbal assault got more intense than the last and the insults, threats, and accusations became increasingly hurtful. Her tirades were now up to several hours each. At the same time, it was taking less time for her angry voice to start ringing in my head like a migraine. There was no reasoning with her, and no option to hit the pause button so we could talk about it later. I would ask her if we could continue the “discussion” when emotions were not so high, but this request was always denied, and often met with an additional threat. At first, I tried to stand my ground by deflecting verbal punches. When I realized this was futile, or that it just fueled her anger, I did my best to sit still and wait for the storm to pass. People always say that emotional pain is the worst pain of all. I always believed that, until the hatefulness of her words cut so deeply that I found myself clutching at my heart. The emotional pain was so intense that it became physically unbearable at times.

The kind, loving woman I married would surface briefly between blowouts. When she hadn't taken offense to something I had done, or something she was convinced I was thinking, she was a wonderful person who was always very sorry for her words. Her anger was rooted in a horribly abusive childhood. This made it easier to have compassion on her, but it didn't lessen the pain of her hatred toward me – a hatred that could dissipate as quickly as it could flare up.

The latest incident could fade from her mind in a matter of minutes. She would expect me to get over it just as quickly, but before I could recover from the last assault (as long as several days and as few as several hours), I was again dealing with a brutalized eight-year-old in a 35-year-old body. Even my inability to bounce back as quickly as her could send her into another fit.

I often thought about suggesting counseling, but I knew this idea would have to come from her. For me to insinuate that she needed help was like pouring gasoline on an already-out-of-control fire. She realized that her actions were wrong, but she justified them because of the ways she believed I had hurt her. She was very sensitive because of her own past hurt, so if I did something that was simply inconsiderate, she perceived it as me being horribly abusive.

From my perspective, her reactions were extreme. From her perspective, she "needed" me to feel the same pain she was feeling so I wouldn't hurt her that way again. I was not a perfect husband, but some of the things she accused me of were so absurd that I had to shake my head in astonishment at times.

Even when I was doing everything I could to honor and cherish her, she seemed unable to accept that my love was true. To her, she wasn't abusive. She was just protecting herself from what she perceived was me abusing her. To me, it was a cage that was closing in – a place where it was almost impossible for me to do anything right. A place where even my best attempts to show her love were often taken as me being intentionally hurtful.

I began to prepare myself for her threats to become real. I theorized that if she actually broke my nose like she had talked about, she might realize how deep her problem was and finally seek some counseling.

For this reason, I decided not to resist or even flinch; to “take it on the chin”, like I believed Jesus would. The first physical assault was instigated by me answering a business phone call during one of her attacks. It wasn’t that I took the phone call; it was that I assumed a measure of composure for it. I still haven’t figured out why this upset her. I just know that she glared at me for the entire call. When I hung up, she took her wedding ring off her finger and threw it in my face as hard as she could. As per my resolve, I didn’t even blink. God protected me, and the ring glanced off the side of my nose and bounced off the wall before it hit the ground. She yelled, “You’re a jerk!” as she grabbed a chair and slammed it into my knee. She broke the skin, but again, I didn’t flinch or react. I just looked at her, as I thought (at the time) Jesus would have.

I was hoping that if she became physically violent it would jolt her into realizing that she had a serious problem. Instead, it increased the severity of her accusations as she continued to blame me for her progressively hateful actions. Her ability to twist situations to her favor was truly mind-boggling. She would spend hours railing on me for things she accused me of thinking with next to no awareness of the hurtful things she was actually doing. I knew I was living with the judge and the jury, but it began to occur to me that I might also be living with the executioner.

The violence escalated from slapping, to punching, to biting, kicking, scratching, spitting, and death threats. Eventually, she started swinging anything she could get her hands on. Even a peaceful Bible study could end with a backhanded Bible across my face. I gave up the no-flinch approach, because it was obviously having no effect. I am not a weak person, but I remember crying myself to sleep from the emotional pain, and the fact that I couldn’t close my hands because my forearms were so sore from blocking punches. If I tried to leave the room before things escalated, she would pick up a glass or a candlestick holder and threaten to smash my face in.

I could have forced my way past her, but I would have had to harm her to do that, and it was my resolve to defend myself as passively as possible. Mostly, this was because I saw it as my role to protect her regardless of what she was trying to do to me. In the back of my mind, I also knew that the law would be very much on her side if I ever physically harmed her, even if it was in self-defense. I tried locking myself in the bathroom one time, hoping she would get tired of yelling through the door. But she actually broke through the door and I was forced to defend myself in a very awkward space.

I had made the mistake of buying her an expensive knife set for the kitchen when we got married. A policeman had once told me that a knife is more deadly from 20 feet than a handgun, so I started to mentally prepare myself for what measures I would take if she started swinging one of them.
By now, I had developed a sixth sense of when her verbal abuse was going to become physical toward me. I had also discovered that if I could yell louder than her and "freak out" on myself or the walls of the house, she would actually calm down instead of becoming more violent. It was like it soothed her to have finally uncovered the "true violent me". As a sensitive person who rarely got angry in the past, I hated the craziness of the person I was becoming. Destroying the house or harming myself was still less painful, however, than the alternative of my wife beating on me and threatening to kill me.

I could see that the situation was dangerous and insane, but I couldn't see any other option. I grew up with the Biblical belief that I was stuck in this relationship for life. I had made my bed and now I had to sleep in it . . . even if it meant not waking up one day.

She thought she had discovered my true violent nature, and I was beginning to believe this myself. As a desperate attempt to figure out if my "freaking out" was in violence or preemptive self-defense, I determined to react differently the next time her anger began to escalate. I don’t remember the exact issue, but I do remember it was just a difference of opinion on something that didn't have a right or wrong answer. Instead of my recently developed freak-out response, I kept a calm composure, and politely stood my ground on an issue that, with anyone else, should have been a pleasant exploration of differences. The fact that I was unwilling to agree with her opinion was all it took to put her into a mode of escalating fury. The "discussion" moved into the kitchen, where there was a 12-inch carving knife beside her on the counter. I continued to stay calmly engaged in what, from her perspective, had now become an argument. Although it was difficult to imagine her actually attacking me with a knife, something inside me was telling me to brace myself for the worst. In the middle of a sentence, in a sequence of events that probably took less than a second, the woman I had tried so hard to love was rushing at me in a rage with the knife above her head.

Things happen very slowly when one's life is about to end. Her elbow was bent, and all of a sudden the knife didn't look very long any more, because it was pointed directly at my head. I knew that unless the Lord was with me I was about to feel the blade enter my face or chest.

I don't know what women do if the man is the attacker in these situations. I guess that's why there are thousands of women who are beaten to death every year by their husbands. For whatever reason, God allowed me to protect myself without serious physical harm to either of us. My heart goes out to all the battered spouses who are not as able to protect themselves as I was.

No one had taught me how to deal with a violent spouse. All I knew is that I had made a commitment to cherish and protect my wife. Despite my advantage in size and strength, I did my best to defend myself in a way that would not harm her. My job was to protect her, and biblically I believed I was bound to endure anything she did to me short of being “unfaithful”. I had become accustomed to waking up with her interrogating or yelling at me. I was trusting God that He would protect me if I woke up with a knife to my throat.

The confusion, degradation, and rejection made it increasingly difficult to imagine that it would ever stop. I found myself going for long walks along the highway and struggling not to step in front of the next big truck. I remember talking to a good friend, at a particularly hopeless time, who was able to convince me that I still had a reason to live.

I felt I was stuck in this situation for life unless she committed an act of adultery. But I kept myself from hoping for a sinful resolution to this problem. She had accused me of some of the most horrible sins in the Bible. She would often describe, in detail, other men she wished she had married. She even met with one of these people without telling me. But in all of this, she remained what I thought was biblically “faithful” because she never committed what Jesus called “unchastity” (Matthew 5:32) or “immorality” (Matthew 19:9 - New American Standard translation).

I cried out to God for help, but I was dying from the inside out. My spirit had been crushed so many times that I was losing my will to live. My mind was so confused from the constant accusations that I had begun to believe it really was my fault. My body was suffering the effects of severe depression and I was beginning to look like I was hooked on some horrible drug.


By this time, we had spent a significant portion of our savings on professional Christian counseling. She recognized that her violence was wrong and destructive, but she maintained the belief that if I could get my act together, the problem would be solved because she would have no reason to react.

Much to the disapproval of Christian friends and family members who said we were being a "poor witness" by separating, we spent many weeks apart in hopes that the situation would improve when we came back together. Being separated was always a time of safety, but it did nothing to improve the relationship.

Her rampages continued and were provoked by any little thing. This included if I disagreed with an insight she had "received from God" while she was reading her Bible. I could sense the escalation of her tone one day and knew where it was going. I had lost all hope of reasoning with her, and the only thing I could think to do was lay still without moving a muscle. She tried hitting me, but I did not respond. I laid perfectly still for half a day, knowing that even the slightest response could turn the next few days into another nightmare. In that desperate place, I prayed something that I had only prayed one time in my life before. I asked God to "set me free". Within hours, she came into the bedroom and told me I needed to leave.

After three or four months of separation and the rest of our savings spent on counseling for both of us, she told me during one of our phone conversations that her violence was inexcusable, but that I had "abused and victimized" her. I had long lost any feelings for her, but I was still holding on to a very faint hope. I believed that she would one day realize that I was just an imperfect but decent guy who was doing my best to care for her. This last accusation completely deflated any lingering sense of hope that I might ever be able to live with her safely.

At the same time, the extended break from her confusing world had allowed me to reestablish a bearing on what was acceptable in a relationship and what was not. I was renting a room from an old friend of mine. He left me to myself, for the most part, because he realized how badly I was broken. I was always surprised that when we disagreed about something, it never resulted in an argument or a fight. I was rediscovering "normal", and by contrast, I was slowly able to see how messed up the previous two years had actually been.

I knew that if I got together with my wife, there was a good chance that she would kill me or I would kill myself. At the same time she had never, to my knowledge, committed adultery, so divorce was not an option either. I prayed to God and asked Him to show me something, anything, in His Word that would help me know His will in this situation.

I was not looking for a reason to divorce my wife. I believed the Bible clearly stated that this was not an option in my case. I just wanted to be free from what felt like a death sentence. I was virtually bedridden at this time due to the toll on my body from the last two years, so I was very thankful for the ability to search for information on the Internet.
90% of what I found about the issue of abuse was written by Christians who confidently condemned divorce in any situation except adultery. These people would typically state that there are only one or two causes for divorce in the Bible. Some would quote Jesus as saying that adultery is the only cause (Matthew 5:32). Others would also quote Paul as saying that if an unbelieving spouse leaves you, you're no longer bound (1Corinthians 7:15).

I believed that both of these quotes were true, but it seemed strange to me that Paul would give an additional cause for divorce when Jesus seemed to clearly state that there was only one. If adultery was the only exception, was Paul's teaching in contradiction with the teaching of Jesus? "If so," I thought, "this whole thing is a joke and it doesn't really matter what the Bible says about it."

"On the other hand," I thought, "maybe there is an explanation that takes both of these teachings into consideration. Maybe it is only an apparent contradiction that just requires a deeper understanding of the culture or the original text". I asked God to reveal the reason for this apparent contradiction to me. After weeks of searching, I found a small number of more sympathetic websites that seemed closer to the heart of God. Unfortunately, these websites frustrated me just as much because they were unable to adequately support their position with Scripture. I continued to seek God fervently on this issue, but I was unwilling to accept any teaching that was inconsistent with His Word.

By God's grace, a compassionate pastor with a doctorate in ancient literature had begun studying the issue of God's heart for the abused spouse about a decade before I began my search. Dr. David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House England, had been compiling 2000-year-old marriage and divorce certificates and information from ancient sources such as the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. He had pieced together an undeniably accurate picture of life in the first century and reread the biblical teaching on divorce in the context of first century culture. The result was an understanding that, among other things, resolved the apparent contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and Paul on the issue of divorce and remarriage.

When I found the extensive work of this gentleman, it was like someone had cracked open the window of my prison cell. To say that God used Dr. Instone-Brewer's work to set me free is an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that it may have saved my life. His book has been reviewed by dozens of reliable Christian journals, and has been referred to as "arguably the best biblical study on the question of divorce and remarriage" (Trinity Journal Spring 2003) among other things. He has diligently created different versions of his findings so they can be accessible to everyone from a layperson like myself to an expert in ancient Hebrew. As I read through his work, I began to rediscover a compassionate God whose heart is truly for the oppressed; a God whose "perfect law" includes provision for battered husbands and wives.

My previous belief was so deeply ingrained that it took me another two months of diligent Bible study and prayer to finally accept that there were other grounds for divorce besides adultery. I was fully aware that my circumstance could easily sway my convictions, so I tried to overcompensate by actively attempting to disprove what he was saying. In the process, I found that it was very easy to poke holes in the commonly held "adultery-only" grounds for divorce. In contrast, every question I had about Dr. Instone-Brewer's work had an answer that was consistent with the Bible as well as God's heart for the oppressed. Through his research, I was able to see how the Old Testament grounds for divorce, in the case of abuse or neglect, were consistent with the teachings of both Jesus and Paul. It just took a willingness to understand the specific 1st century legal and cultural issues that Jesus and Paul were addressing.

I'm quite familiar with the feeling of God's discipline in my life. He promises to correct us any time we are out of line (Hebrews 12:7). As I was walking toward the decision to divorce my wife, I prayed many times for Him to discipline me if I was taking a step in the wrong direction. But instead of His discipline, I was experiencing a whole new level of His provision in all areas of my life. Intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, it all lined up. When I finally made the decision to put an end to the madness, it felt like I had just stepped into the sunlight from my cold dark prison cell.

It has been three years since I decided to seek a divorce. Since then, God has blessed me with the return of my health and a deeper intimacy with Him than I have ever had. As a child, I learned that the letter of God's law kills, but the spirit of His law brings life (2 Corinthians 3:6). As an adult I experienced first hand that following the letter of the law (as understood from the New Testament only) literally almost killed me. Understanding the spirit of God’s law about divorce (in the context of the New and Old Testament) has now brought me new life.

In the same passage as Jesus talks about divorce in Matthew 5:31+32, He also says some important things about "the law". This was near the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and long before Paul or any of the apostles wrote the books of the New Testament. In other words, when Jesus spoke about "the law" He was referring to what we now call the Old Testament. In this passage He gave a stern warning to anyone who would add to or subtract from this law. He said that He didn't come to abolish this law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). He said that anyone who changed this law – or, I'm assuming, ignored it – would be called the least in the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:19). Understanding how the Old Testament law applies to our lives today is not an easy task. The tendency is to "keep it simple" and limit our knowledge of this law to the Ten Commandments. That was my understanding for years, until I realized that the Ten Commandments are only the first of many. The rest of the commandments go on to give us an even clearer picture of what is sin and what is acceptable in God's eyes. Dr. Instone-Brewer has taken this complex body of information and presented it in a way that anyone can understand. He has made it available for free on the internet, and he has included condensed summaries so a person can read the basics in as little as five minutes. He has shown how Jesus and Paul's teachings in the New Testament are consistent with this Old Testament law, and therefore consistent with each other.

Dr. Instone-Brewer's work offers a biblical understanding of God's heart for the abused or neglected spouse. At the very least, his work casts enough doubt on the traditional view that we must revert to God's character on this issue rather than stand firm on a contradictory teaching. At best, Dr. Instone-Brewer has finally pieced together a puzzle that for centuries has left many pieces (and people) without a proper fit.

Jesus said that God will judge us in the same way we judge others (Matthew 7:2). I am concerned for anyone who would judge those who are divorced or considering this option. These people confidently place lifelong restrictions on other people's lives by telling them that God allows divorce for adultery, but never for life-threatening physical abuse. As concerned as I am for the people who judge, however, I am far more concerned for so many battered spouses. These people need to know that God's love for them is more than warm feelings of consolation. They need to know that He has also provided them with a means for their safety, freedom and joy.

“O LORD, You have heard the desire of the humble; You will strengthen their heart, You will incline Your ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed, so that man who is of the earth will no longer cause terror.” (Psalms 10:17+18)


Timothy said...

The woman described in "How do you defend yourself from an increasingly violent wife?", likely has Borderline Personality Disorder. It is described well in layman terms in a book containing "Walking on Eggshells" in the title.

I am curious to know if Dr. Instonebrewer has encountered this disorder in his ministry.

David IB said...

I've only once personally met an abused husband like this.

Ralph said...

Many (many) studies, since the 1980s, have indicated that as many husbands are abused by wives, as visa versa. Obviously, since men are bigger and stronger the abuse they render will cause worse injury--and so will be more obvious. Socially too it's more shameful for a man to admit being beat up by a woman....hence, we don't hear about it. I think also the feminist movement's portrayal of married women as victims...may also affect our perceptions.

Anonymous said...

Ralf, I appreciate your compassion . . . . but a husband does not need to be "beat up" to be abused. Anyone who has not been in a similar situation would not easily imagine the scenario, but an abused husband can feel the responsibility to protect his wife even while he is deflecting her kicks and punches. His objective is to calm her down without hurting her, and in the process, absorb physical and emotional abuse.

James D said...

I feel as though he is telling my story. I dont know what to do. My wife is exactly the same. Last murder threat was only an hour ago. This time because I brought her the wrong beer and didnt want to drink with her.

Record your opinion:

In what circumstances do you believe a Christian may divorce their partner? (tick one or more)