Not all abuse evidences itself in bruises, and not all abusers manifest their desire for control with fists. Domestic abuse is often hard for those on the outside to see. Abusers know how to cover their tracks well. They are often very gregarious and outgoing in public, they are well-liked by many of their peers. Yet, the so-called “polite abuser” is particularly recherché. Polite abuses, however, can be just as devastating to its victims. It’s important to remember that abuse may look different from what you expect.
Abuse stems from sinful desires for power and control. Often we think of this in terms of physical domineering, intimidation, and active aggression. There is, to be sure, plenty of that occurring in homes all across the world. Yet, power and control can be attained through a variety of means, many of which may be deemed “respectable.” In fact, if it can be attained without the use of violence it is often much preferable to abusers, since there is less risk of discovery. Abuse is far more intentional than we often think. The picture of the man so overwhelmed by his anger that he “loses control” and hits his wife or children is not the reality. Abuse is very intentional, even physical abusers often know precisely where to strike someone so that the marks are not normally visible to others. If power and control can be attained without force it is much preferable to the abuser. This means, then, that where “respectable” forms of manipulation and intimidation can be utilized abusers will seize full advantage of them. The goal is to obtain power and control and keep it, polite abusers have the best advantage.
This type of abuse manifests commonly within Christian homes, where certain theological views are held in high esteem. Homes where “male headship” is celebrated find that abuse can easily be justified. While this view is not a cause of abuse, it can be a good cover for abusers. In such homes three common forms of polite abuse may be seen: parenting a spouse, spiritual manipulation, and false humility. A quick look at each form will help to delineate the nature of the abuse. Since my experience in counseling abusers has been limited exclusively to men I will speak of abusers in masculine terms and abuse within masculine demonstrations. Abuse by women towards men is a serious problem too, I am just less familiar with it at the present.
Parenting a Spouse –> In some Christian communities, the idea of male headship looks less like a sacrificial leader and more like a controlling parent. Some communities even advocate spanking of a wife for disobedience. It may more commonly appear as an exercise in “male privilege.” This type of abuse views women as inferior and dim-witted (some use 2 Tim. 3:6 as a proof text applicable to all women). They are unable to determine what is best, and need a man’s “guidance.” As a result of this type of thinking, abusers will justify their exclusion of wives from decision-making. They will determine what is best apart from any input from their wives. This often leaves wives feeling inferior, incompetent, and unable to do anything. They are utterly and completely dependent upon their spouse for everything. The lack of any independent capability leaves the dominant spouse in control, and prevents their victims from leaving or making decisions contrary to the desire of the abuser. Often the abusive spouse will paint a picture of “protection,” stating that they are merely doing what is best for their wife and attempting to keep her safe or not overwhelm her with responsibilities. In reality, their simply trying to maintain power and control.
Spiritual Manipulation –> This particularly gross form of abuse uses the Scriptures to manipulate a spouse into doing what the abuser wants. Husband will often be quick to assert that wives are to “respect and obey” their husbands (1 Peter 3:1; cf. Eph. 5:22, 33). At other times they will admit their sin but immediately assert that the wife is required to forgive him (Eph. 4:32). In one case a man had sinned against his wife in multiple affairs, he freely admitted this was wrong. Yet, each time he would sleep with another women he would confess it and tell his wife that she was required to forgive him. The wife, in turn, felt confused and frustrated, even angry at God, because she felt trapped to forgive his constant betrayals. Interestingly enough, the focus is often on the wife’s responsibility with minimal attention to the demands and calls upon husbands, except where texts can be used to demonstrate their authority. Often they will involve God in their decisions, asserting that God told them to do something, or that they had not received confirmation from God to do something. In these cases hearing from God is entirely subjective and dependent upon the abusers interpretation of God’s will. No objective authority is used to determine what God wants or says. The goal is not to be spiritual, but rather to use spirituality as a cover for their pursuits of control and power.
False Humility –> Like the case just mentioned, often the polite abuser will admit that they are a “sinner.” They will “own” their sinfulness, though it is usually in generic terms rather than specific. They will apologize, ask for forgiveness, and make promises to change, but nothing ever does. They pretend to defer to the interests of their spouse, pretend to be remorseful, and may often weep. Yet, they use this feigned repentance as a means to maintain control. Not infrequently their apologies will come with strings. What they give with one hand they will take away with the other. So, on the one hand a husband may apologize for spending money on a luxury item for himself, but then quickly shift gears to “encouraging” the wife to be more frugal with her grocery allowance. He may often speak of working on his own spiritual growth, but he says this as a means of avoiding conversations and accountability. So, in the middle of an argument he asserts, “I am working on that.” Or he may say, “God has been revealing that to me, I don’t need you to bring it up.” Or he may state that he has already addressed an issue with God and been forgiven, therefore he no longer needs to discuss it. This is not real humility. Accountability often has an earthly face. If I am unwilling to address issues with those I have wronged, and unwilling to be held accountable by others, then I am not really willing to be held accountable by God. False humility lets a man maintain power and control in “respectable” ways.
In these cases a man may not be physically abusive at all. Those around him would never suspect him of such manipulation, wicked intent, and oppression in the home. In fact, when a wife attempts to point out what is wrong with their relationship she may often feel confused, unable to pinpoint the exact problem. It is often hidden in plain sight. Polite abuse is a real form of abuse and it needs appropriate attention within the church. The issue lies in the heart of the abuser. His behaviors are not fundamentally the problem, it is the heart that drives them. In fact, the way we counsel an abuser may lead them to become polite abusers. Chris Moles warns us:
I’m not suggesting that we avoid discussions about anger, but rather that we place it in the proper context, especially when we are addressing domestic violence. If we only address anger and anger cues we run the risk of leaving the heart untouched, encouraging “polite” abusers or patterns of control that are nothing more than “respectable” forms of abuse. (The Heart of Domestic Abuse, 11)
The heart desire for power and control can utilize even good things to do great evil. We must look at more than simply external behavior if we are going to seek to identify abuse in the home. We must hear the pleas of desperate women, take them seriously, and do the hard work of confronting the hearts of their seemingly polite husbands. Abuse can hide in plain sight. It may often look very different from what you’d expect.