Your Christian counselor may destroy your marriage (Abuse series part 8)

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Here are links to this entire series:
Part 1: My story of abuse (Introduction)
Part 2: Seven things you need to know about abusers
Part 3: Dealing with victims of abuse
Part 4: It started with a crossword puzzle
Part 5: Getting help for an abuse victim
Part 6: Taking the next step
Part 7: My church’s initial response to abuse
Part 8: Your marriage counselor may destroy your marriage
Part 9: Cutting off communication
Part 10: How to choose sides in an abusive situation
Part 11: The strangeness of a spring break
Part 12: Filings for divorce and early rumblings at church
Part 13: What are those deacons good for anyway?
Part 14: The “repentance” game
Part 15: Isolation
Part 16: When the church goes off the rails
Part 17: When the church goes off the rails even further
Part 18: Final church problems
Part 19: How to neutralize an abuser
Part 20: The saga concludes
Part 21: Updates
Part 22: The very end

About a dozen years ago, my family went through a very hard time that involved a case of depression and we went searching for answers everywhere. That is when I got introduced to nouthetic counseling. Nouthetic counseling in a nutshell is a conservative Christian style of counseling where modern psychology is rejected and answers for all psychological problems (including mental illness) are supposedly found in the Bible.

Some of the greatest damage my family ever experienced has come from nouthetic teaching. I remember buying a particular popular DVD series (in conservative circles) and then watching as that family member struggled with being told by the teacher that her depression was a result of sin and unbelief. I bought into that rubbish too and only when I was able to personally change did that family member get the help she needed. I will not deny that some depression cases could be a result of sin but her problem was not sin. It was a medical issue and when we approached it that way, she was quickly on the way to getting healed.

Looking back, I can see that period of my life changed my perspective on certain things and my eyes were opened. I began to see how conservatism can be a dangerous thing if the wrong things are being conserved. I started to see that the church (at large) has a tendency to conserve horrific, extra-Biblical traditions in some cases, eschewing modern advancements in areas such as psychology and medicine and essentially enslaving people to bondage for no reason.

Remember this: conservatism is only good when it is conserving things that deserve to be conserved.

To be fair, some modern psychology IS garbage. Also, not all nouthetic counselors are so extreme as to discard everything modern psychologists say. For example, some of them recognize that some mental issues can be medical in nature rather than sin. Some of them don’t throw guilt on victims and cast the blame on them for all the problems in their lives. However, nouthetic counseling in general leans too much toward blaming the oppressed for me to recommend it a lot of the time.

The way this plays out in abuse is this: when a victim goes to a nouthetic counselor for help, especially if she is a woman, she is likely to be told that the abuser needs to fix the sin in his life but the problems in the marriage are her fault too. She is not nice enough, not respectful enough, not obedient enough, not submissive enough. The woman goes back into the fray determined to try harder. No one tries harder to fix a broken marriage than an abuse victim.

However, because of the nature of the abuser’s problem, those renewed attempts backfire and here is why. Nouthetic counselors think the abuser is just struggling with sin but in fact, that is often not the case. They are often struggling with psychological issues too. An abuser very often has a psychological condition where his need for admiration, attention and respect is never sated. When the wife gives more, he simply moves the goalpost and demands more. The only change is that the victim now feels even more guilt.

Those last two paragraphs are very important. In a nutshell, that is the difference between the way secular abuse professionals approach abuse and the way nouthetic counselors approach abuse. The secular world knows that the abuser is 100% responsible for his abuse while nouthetic counselors often try to assign the blame to both abuser and victim and put both parties on the same plane. The secular approach takes the power away from the abuser while the nouthetic approach empowers him further.

When my friend got to Michigan, we knew she needed a good counselor and we started ransacking the state looking for one. There were three criteria we decided on:

  • The counselor had to be Christian and approach things from a Christian worldview.
  • The counselor had to be experienced with abuse situations and victim psychology.
  • Any counselor that did not know enough to avoid blaming the victim for the abuse would be disqualified. In other words, no nouthetic counselors would be considered unless they were way on the less extreme side of nouthetic counseling.

Michigan is a big state and there are a lot of Christians in Michigan. You would think we would have no problem finding a counselor that fit these three criteria but you would be surprised. We ransacked websites and made calls. We looked for referrals and called friends.

After a week, we had found exactly two possibilities in the entire state.

Fortunately, one of those counselors was perfect and she helped my friend start to see things clearly. If any of you need help, email me and I will forward her contact information.

You might wonder about the abuser’s counseling. The victim required him to get professional help and he did what abusers do. He went a few times and proclaimed himself cured. However, he still got informal help from someone else. That counselor, a former executive at a conservative Christian college, is a close friend of the former pastor of the church we attended and his counseling is decidedly nouthetic.

I do not think it is overstating it to say that that nouthetic counselor put the final nail in the coffin in regards to that marriage. He believed the abuser (a foolish decision on his part), never reached out to the victim to get her story, and without any evidence whatsoever, told the abuser that the victim was largely responsible for the marital problems. At one point, he got the victim on the phone under false pretenses (to say “hi”) and then started interrogating and lecturing her on what she had done wrong, again without even knowing her story.

The result of that counseling? The abuser got what he wanted: someone to minimize his failings and allow him to shift the blame to his victim. In fact, while the abuser had been admitting to abuse before that point, he changed his tune and has never admitted to abuse since. Even just recently, he quoted that counselor in a sermonizing email to the victim, telling her that the failure of their marriage was a result of her sin.

The extreme side of nouthetic counseling is dangerous. Be careful if you ever find yourself helping in a situation like this. If you are a Christian, I would recommend you start your search by looking for CCEF counselors, understanding that there is wide latitude in beliefs in that group too and some of them will lean nouthetic.

Also remember that with Skype and FaceTime, you can very probably work with a counselor anywhere in the world. There is no reason not to find the very best option for you regardless of where they are. In our case, the victim really wanted in-person counseling but that may not always be possible for everyone.

One of the first things my friend’s new counselor told her was to cut off almost all communication with her husband. I will talk about the importance of that next.

Read on: Part 9: Cutting off communication