Spouse Abuse in Religious Families

Some myths and realities

Myth:  Every marriage has a few fights now and then.  Crying “abuse” is just a way to get attention.

Reality:  Abuse is not the same as normal marital arguments.  Abuse is an ongoing pattern of power and control that progressively limits the thoughts, words and actions of the victim, out of fear of the abuser.  Abuse is like addiction:  it never gets better by itself and it requires in-depth work by the abuser to change his/her way of relating to others.  When there is abuse in a marriage, couples counseling cannot help until there is first a change in the abuser and he or she stops the abuse for good.

Myth:  If the abused person would just change or try harder, the abuse would stop.  “It takes two to tango.”

Reality:  Although normal marriage is a two-way street, in this case experience shows that “trying harder” will escalate the abuse.  Abuse is the responsibility of the abuser.  No matter how annoying or difficult one’s spouse or children are, that is never an excuse to abuse and hurt them.

Myth:  Women abuse their husbands just as much as the opposite.

Reality:  About 5% of the time the man is the primary victim of spouse abuse (and is usually less likely than a woman to tell anyone).  Generally, when there is abuse, it is the wife who is abused by her husband.  Wife abuse is one of the main reasons for women to be seen in hospital emergency rooms.  When women hit or scratch, it is often in self-defense.

Myth:  If the abuse isn’t physical, it isn’t really so serious.

Reality:  We know that words can wound more deeply than blows.  Ona’as devarim [pain caused by words alone] is a serious prohibition in the Torah.  Emotional abuse kills the spirit.  Furthermore, physical abuse is always accompanied, and often preceded, by emotional abuse.  At the extreme, emotional abuse can cause physical illness, loss of the will to live or death by suicide.

Myth:  Abusers are generally unpleasant or angry people.  I could certainly tell if someone were an abuser.

Reality:  Abusers are not monsters:  they are often some of the most charming and helpful people around.  Abuse is about control, not anger; the same person who claims his wife made him hit her because she “pushed his buttons” wouldn’t dream of acting that way to a boss, a policeman or a rabbi he respected, no matter how angry he was.

Myth:  If the abuse is kept quiet, it won’t affect the children.

Reality:  Children always know when something is wrong.  Spouse abuse has demonstrable physical, neurological, emotional and social effects on children of all ages, including infants.  Over 50% of the time, when a spouse is being abused, the children are also direct victims of child abuse.  About 2/3 of children who witness spouse abuse end up in abusive marriages when they grow up.

Myth:  If a spouse is abused, she or he has no choice but to get a divorce.

Reality:  While divorce is one halachic option, there are many reasons a person might choose to stay in an abusive marriage.  Some of these are: hope that things will get better; financial worries; concerns for children; family and community pressure; fear that one will not be believed; lack of confidence in oneself.  Often the abuser has threatened to hurt himself and/or others if the spouse leaves.  The way a victim chooses to deal with abuse is up to that person.

Myth:  If the abuser promises to do teshuvah, we should let bygones be bygones.

Reality:  Teshuvah [repentance] is a long, in-depth process that requires that the abuser take complete responsibility for his or her actions.  It certainly involves much more than a mere intention or statement that the abuser won’t do this again.  Teshuvah is possible, but the process of healing cannot generally be done without the help of a competent and informed rabbi and a therapist who understand the dynamics of abuse.  This is an area that involves many halachic questions; it is essential that this process not be attempted on one’s own.

Myth:  What goes on in other people’s families is private.  Why should I deal with this problem?

Reality:  Abuse in our community will begin to disappear when we no longer allow it.  This means acknowledging the problem openly, giving concrete and emotional support to the victims, offering help to abusers if they want it and urging them to get help.  Abuse is not a private issue.  It affects future generations by passing on the message that abuse is normal in marriage, and it sometimes alienates victims and their children from Judaism when they see that what the Torah says about family life can be violated with no apparent outcry from the community.  Abuse in our families is a Chillul Hashem.  It is up to us, as a community, to stop it.

“Myths and Realities” provided by NISHMA Hotline of Ezras Bayis, a project of the Orthodox Counseling Program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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