A Word About Polite Abusers

Abuse stems from sinful desires for power and control

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.


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.

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