Physical Abuse


My husband has been hitting me since we got married, but lately it’s gotten worse. I don’t see any way out, but I’m concerned for the safety of our children and me. I live in a small town, and I’m afraid of what the church will think if I leave him because he’s very well respected in our church and our town. I don’t know what to do… please help.


We have a saying when we work with couples in our marriage intensive program: the well-being of the individual is always more important than the well-being of the marriage. Jesus came to die for people, not marriage. Keep in mind that our life’s work is about saving marriages. We say that because we watch people time and again compromise their personal well-being for the sake of the marriage. This is not what we believe Christ desires for us. The greatest commandment in the Bible is that we are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and we are to love others as we love ourselves. We cannot love others if we do not love ourselves. Allowing someone to physically hurt you is not loving yourself. Therefore, we encourage you to set a very clear boundary with your husband. But when talking about boundaries, we see them differently than most people see them. Here is how we describe a Christ-entered boundary.

When a situation occurs that appears to warrant setting some sort of boundary, it is often difficult to know how to set or establish that boundary in an effective way. An effective boundary is one that will take care of you and your interests in a way that best accomplishes your overall personal and relational goals. Thus, the critical initial question is: “What am I wanting or trying to accomplish?”

The two most common answers:

  1. To protect myself from people or circumstances?
  2. To take good care of myself within ongoing relationships in a way that strengthens and builds that relationship?

If #1 is your answer, the typical response will be to build walls or barriers between you and the people or circumstances that are difficult or threatening (withdrawal), or to attempt to stop or change the behavior to a preferred behavior (control, manipulation).

Either response, withdrawal or control, hurt both relationships and individual self-esteem.

Answer # 2 speaks to a deeper question, “Ultimately, what does it look like to take good care of myself?”

Truly taking care of yourself requires aligning yourself with what Jesus said were the greatest commandments: to love the Lord with all you heart, soul, mind, and strength; to love others; to love yourself. The necessary posture to follow these commands, and thus, truly take care of yourself, is to allow love to flow to you and through you by maintaining an open heart. The heart is the avenue through which God’s love flows. God’s love is essential to nourish our soul and spirit, and is the essence of life. Therefore, responding to God’s commandments (which is the epitome of taking care of yourself by allowing the source/essence of life to flow through you) requires keeping your heart open to God, the source of life and truth; open to self, our fundamental responsibility of caring for our temple, the temple of the Holy Spirit; and open to others, the body of Christ which we were created to be part of.

Often, the difficulty with maintaining an open heart is that openness exposes our vulnerability and therefore is risky. Openness is actually the most natural state of being for humans, but painful experiences in life tend to encourage us to become defensive and protected (various states of “closed”). When we feel safe, however, we are naturally inclined to open because it is more comfortable and takes less energy. When two people who care about each other are open and close, intimacy occurs and God’s love flows easily and naturally in them, through them and between them.

Therefore, the ultimate goal for answer # 2 is:

To attempt to create a safe space that enables my heart to remain open to God, self and others.

The goal of maintaining an open heart is the essence of a Christ-centered boundary. It, therefore, must be accomplished in a Christ-like way. A Christ-like boundary will be characterized by love, honor, and respect. By setting a boundary with your husband around his abuse, you are loving and honoring you and your marriage by not allowing further damage to take place.

A Christ-like boundary will also be moving toward, rather than away from, relationships–toward growing, deepening, and improving those relationships in order to more fully respond to the greatest commandments. Therefore, it cannot involve withdrawal (that involves closing the heart and spirit), manipulation, or control. Any time we hear physical abuse, we encourage the victim to find a safe place, away from the abuse. This act helps to move the relationship forward by stopping the abuse. Remember, the goal is to create a space the enables you to keep your heart open to God, yourself, and to your husband.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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