A Conversation on Spouse Abuse


Church leaders have consistently spoken out against spouse abuse. For example, in an October 1998 general conference address President Gordon B. Hinckley said:

“We condemn most strongly abusive behavior in any form. We denounce the physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse of one’s spouse or children. …

“No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to hold the priesthood of God. No man who abuses his wife or children is worthy to be a member in good standing in this Church. The abuse of one’s spouse and children is a most serious offense before God, and any who indulge in it may expect to be disciplined by the Church” (“What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 72).

The proclamation on the family also contains a forceful condemnation of abuse: “We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 102).

Ensign staff members recently spoke with several Latter-day Saint professionals about this issue. John C. Nelson, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist, is on the board of the American Medical Association and is the spokesperson for the AMA Alliance SAVE (Stop America’s Violence Everywhere) program. He is a member of Salt Lake City’s Monument Park Second Ward, Monument Park North Stake. Anne L. Horton is an associate professor of social work at Brigham Young University and is a licensed clinical social worker whose practice focuses on domestic abuse. She is a member of the Ensign Third Ward, Salt Lake Ensign Stake. Brent H. Bartholomew is an attorney experienced in representing abused spouses and children. He is a member of the Lakeridge 12th Ward, Orem Utah Lakeridge North Stake.

Defining Spouse Abuse

Ensign: Some think spouse abuse includes only acts of a physical nature. Thus, how should the term be defined?

Anne Horton: Many experts define spouse abuse as the maltreatment of another in an attempt to control him or her. Spouse abuse may be physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual. This type of abuse behavior between parents sets the tone for the rest of the family. It has severe ramifications on children as well as spouses because it traumatizes the children and may lead them to imitate that behavior later on.

John Nelson: Spouse abuse involves inappropriate acts of one spouse over the other. It may involve coercive acts in which an abuser forces a person to do something that he or she normally would not do, with no particular concern for the victim. Abuse may also include the use of threats, name calling, yelling, and intimidation.

I believe that there are people, women particularly, who are abuse victims but wouldn’t describe themselves as such. They can’t go out of their homes, they have to be back at nine o’clock, they can’t go to lunch on Tuesday because they didn’t get permission from their husbands, and so on. It may not necessarily involve being beaten up, but it is still abuse and is outside the bounds the Lord has set for marriage.

Brent Bartholomew: Spouse abuse is behavior that is destructive to the body, mind, or spirit. In fact, long after any possible physical injuries heal, the emotional scars of abuse may still persist.

Ensign: What are some signs of spouse abuse that are not as obvious as bruises or other physical marks?

Anne Horton: There are usually many signs of abuse rather than a single isolated sign. One may be when an individual shows fear at times when this would not be expected. For instance, a person may be afraid to speak without the spouse’s permission. Abuse victims may be isolated a lot; they may not be allowed to take part in community activities, and the people they see and how their time is spent may be closely monitored by the spouse. Those are some indicators we worry about. However, we do not want people to see abuse where none exists.

Brent Bartholomew: It’s important that we don’t encourage witch hunts against others in any way because abuse is not a part of the vast majority of marriage relationships. But when abuse does occur, the problem needs to be addressed constructively.

John Nelson: One possible sign of spouse abuse is an abrupt change in behavior. For example, a person who is typically outgoing and happy suddenly becomes withdrawn. The combination of warning signs sometimes clarifies the picture.

Ensign: What are some reasons abuse occurs?

Brent Bartholomew: Abuse may be part of a learned behavior pattern. In some cases there may be a biochemical imbalance or medical problem that contributes to a person’s abusive behavior. In other cases the abuser may be involved with drugs or alcohol. There is no single reason why abuse occurs; many factors can contribute to abusive behavior, and abusers can come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

John Nelson: Ultimately the abuser is responsible for his or her behavior. It is not the alcohol, for example, that makes people abusive. They are abusive first, and the alcohol may be a facilitator.

In some cases abusers misunderstand or misapply the concept of leadership in the home. I want to make it very clear that it’s not the concept of a presiding leader in the home that is wrong; it’s the misapplication of it. The 121st section of the Doctrine and Covenants speaks of that specifically: “The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, … but when we … exercise control or dominion or compulsion … in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves” (D&C 121:36–37).

Changing Abusive Behavior

Ensign: How likely is it that abusers will change?

Brent Bartholomew: If they genuinely want to change and if they seek appropriate help and put forth the required effort, they can be successful. No one should say, “Well, this is just the way I am.” It may take action by a Church disciplinary council because disciplinary councils are set up to help people repent and change. Through sincere, sustained effort on their part and by the Savior’s atoning power, they can receive a mighty change of heart, repent, and be forgiven.

Anne Horton: Change is possible, but it isn’t easy, and it doesn’t take place over just a few counseling sessions or progressive steps. It takes time and commitment.

Abusers need to know their behavior is a choice. Every time they hit someone, every time they slam a door in someone’s face, they’ve made a choice to do that and they need to take responsibility for their actions.

Of the many resources we have for dealing with the problem of abuse, the greatest resources are gospel teachings and our Church leaders, with their commitment to help us strengthen our families.

How Church Leaders Can Help

Ensign: What kind of help can abuse victims receive from Church leaders?

John Nelson: If things are going on that ought not to be, members have the right to go to their local ecclesiastical leaders for help. Bishops or branch presidents, who are encouraged to conduct a private interview with the injured spouse, have the right to receive revelation regarding the abusive situation. There are times when bishops may not know how to deal with the problem. In those cases bishops most likely would seek professional guidance, possibly from LDS Family Services. Instructions on dealing with abuse are found in The Church Handbook of Instructions, which is available to local leaders. There are many avenues. It is not incumbent upon bishops to be trained counselors to provide help.

Brent Bartholomew: I think most bishops realize their own limitations. They can give spiritual guidance and spiritual help, but additional assistance may be required. In some severe cases victims may need to be temporarily outside of the home, so they may need short-term housing and assistance in that respect. They may need counseling that is more intensive and more frequent than the bishop can provide. In severe cases where physical abuse is involved, they may need legal help to get a protective order. A bishop can let them know where to go for the type of help they need. People who are being victimized by abuse should not wait until the problem becomes dangerous before seeking assistance.

John Nelson: We need to understand that the Lord has called the bishop to be the steward over the members of his ward. I know the Lord can bless those leaders with the inspiration they need.

Anne Horton: The Church produces spiritually directed resources that bishops can share with people who may need them, for example, Preventing and Responding to Spouse Abuse (pamphlet, 1997). The bishop can put individuals in contact with therapists who have been identified as being responsible and trustworthy. If these individuals cannot afford to pay the entire cost of counseling, the bishop can help arrange for financial assistance.

John Nelson: If people are not comfortable going to their bishops at first, they may consider talking to their physician or some other health professional they know.

Becoming Informed

Ensign: Initially some victims may want to obtain information anonymously. Where can they go for this information?

Anne Horton: In addition to the Church pamphlet Preventing and Responding to Spouse Abuse, much useful information is available in bookstores and libraries, though people should be selective in choosing materials that are in harmony with Church policies and practices. Many towns have crisis centers for women and children where victims can call or walk in and speak with counselors who may provide them with literature or other resources. Victims don’t have to sign their names or be photographed; confidentiality is closely observed. Other resources are the local police department and the department of human services, both of which should be listed in the local telephone book. They can provide helpful telephone numbers to call. And usually the front section of the phone book will list community services that are offered. One may want to approach LDS Family Services for information and direction in areas where this is available, although this is generally done with a bishop’s referral.

Information is usually more readily accessible than most people think.

Ensign: When someone believes that a family member or friend is in an abusive situation, how can they appropriately help that person?

John Nelson: One of the most important things a person can do to help an abuse victim is to listen. When we offer counsel for problems we do not fully understand, we may only exacerbate the problem. But when we listen, the very fact that someone is acknowledging that what is going on is wrong may be the first step in the victim’s realizing that the abuse must be stopped. We need to listen carefully, we need to listen nonjudgmentally.

Brent Bartholomew: If you have strong evidence that someone you know is experiencing spouse abuse, you might say to the person, “It sounds like there might be a problem; may I help?” That’s a direct approach. You might offer to take your friend to see the bishop. It might not be so intimidating for your friend to talk with him about the problem if there is somebody supportive to help. If it’s someone you don’t know well, or if you feel it may be dangerous for you to get involved, you can say to your ecclesiastical leader, “Next door here’s what I’ve observed; they seem to need some help.” Staying silent only makes the problem worse. However, it is absolutely crucial that it be done in a confidential manner.

The Seriousness of Abuse

Ensign: Leaving the home may seem like a drastic step for someone deeply committed to a marriage. What would make this action necessary?

Anne Horton: Safety issues—especially when physical or sexual abuse is occurring—always come first in a crisis. After people are safe, other relationship issues can be addressed.

Brent Bartholomew: The marriage may still be workable, but sometimes there needs to be a separation so that the abuse can stop and the healing process can start. During this time, a couple may seek counseling to learn how to deal with problems effectively without resorting to abuse. But both parties must be committed to the change; otherwise, change is almost impossible.

In severe cases, counseling for both spouses may not be effective and may even increase the risk of further abuse. In such cases the most effective treatment may be court-ordered domestic violence counseling for the perpetrator.

John Nelson: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Washington, D.C., recommends specifically what they call an exit or a safety plan for people in physical danger. The safety plan is, if you cannot prevent being physically attacked, have in mind a place to go that is available day or night, rain or shine. You need to think about the details. You’ve got to have money, car keys, identification, prescription medication, clothing for the children, soap, a person who can receive you day or night or a key to get in, and a way to get there. A crisis shelter may be your best option because most have police protection. That’s a last resort, but that’s the kind of information that might make it possible to diffuse the situation, at least for the short term.

Ensign: Is false reporting of abuse a valid issue?

Brent Bartholomew: False reporting may occur on occasion, but a report of abuse should always be taken seriously.

Anne Horton: Even if abuse hasn’t occurred, a problem of some kind exists when someone would make that accusation, and the problem needs to be addressed.

John Nelson: If people say they’re being abused, believe them.

Healing through the Gospel

Ensign: How can the gospel help those dealing with abuse?

Brent Bartholomew: The Savior’s Atonement encompasses all suffering, not only suffering for our sins but also suffering as a consequence of others’ sins. The pain of those who have been abused can be eliminated through the sanctifying power of the Atonement and the pure and perfect love of Christ. Sometimes this healing process occurs more slowly when a woman has difficulty developing a relationship with our Heavenly Father due to the inappropriate manner in which she has been treated by male figures in her life. But through divine help, she can eventually be healed from the consequences of her spouse’s sins of abuse.

Now, I’ve used the term woman here because abused women are most at risk for serious injury or death. But men can also be abused by their wives. Such abuse is serious and can have lasting, damaging consequences.

Ensign: How can marriage partners exercise the forgiveness the gospel requires and yet avoid falling into the repeating cycle of abuse?

Anne Horton: Just as repentance is a process, so is forgiveness. Unfortunately many people think that forgiving equals forgetting and, therefore, are afraid forgiveness makes them vulnerable. But while the Lord commands us to forgive, He doesn’t tell us to forget any lessons we have learned or demand that we trust an abuser. We can forgive someone without putting ourselves in the position to be victimized again. Love can be achieved and so can forgiveness, but we still must protect ourselves.

Brent Bartholomew: It is very important to learn to forgive, but an abused spouse shouldn’t feel she has to return to a relationship with someone who is unwilling to repent of destructive behavior. When victims who have removed themselves from abusive situations forgive their abusers, it may not mean much to the abusers themselves. But it can mean a great deal to the people who have been abused. In some cases, the anger they feel is more destructive than the abuse they suffer. People need to overcome that anger and feel the Savior’s atoning sacrifice and power in their lives. It can be a difficult process, but it allows spouses who have experienced abuse in the past to move forward.

John Nelson: We need to make it very clear that victims do not need to ask for forgiveness for something they haven’t done. No one deserves to be a victim of abuse.

Preventing the Problem

Ensign: What can be done to prevent abuse?

Brent Bartholomew: In a general sense, youth as well as adults need to be taught correct principles on which to base their relationships with others, and they need positive role models to emulate. Caring priesthood and auxiliary leaders can help in this process.

If a couple is worthily married in the temple after becoming best friends over time, that greatly increases their chances for a marriage that is free from abuse.

It is important to learn to effectively communicate and problem-solve with your spouse because most abusers do not know how to solve problems. It is never acceptable to hit, belittle, or otherwise try to control a spouse in an attempt to solve a problem.

John Nelson: When two people are dating, they should watch carefully how the potential marriage partner reacts to children, other family members, pets, frustrations, and so forth. These actions often reflect the way a person will treat the spouse or other family members.

Brent Bartholomew: Here is another clue: a potential marriage partner who suggests that standards of personal worthiness be set aside in the name of love should be shunned. Abuse is a selfish act. People who invite someone they profess to love to participate in spiritually destructive behavior are acting out of selfishness, not love. Furthermore, those who currently have problems stemming from substance abuse, sexual immorality, pornography, or rage are much more likely to become abusive because they lack self-control.

John Nelson: I think we all ought to celebrate the good marriages we see. I know that not every aspect of these relationships is perfect, but we can learn a great deal from many around us who have successfully made gospel teachings a foundation for their marriages.

[photos] Photography by Welden C. Andersen

[photo] Experts on spouse abuse: John C. Nelson, Brent H. Bartholomew, Anne L. Horton

[photos] Anne L. Horton; John C. Nelson

[photo] Brent H. Bartholomew