In conversation surrounding Simcha Fisher’s piece on why the Fr. Luke Reese criminal trial is something the community needs to know about, a related topic came up: What role do victims play in their abuse?
For some perspective, Fr. Reese is charged with carrying out an 18-hour ordeal in which, at its peak, he dragged his wife in front of the altar (Fr. Reese is a married priest, yes the Catholic Church has them) and beat her there.
There are no counter-charges that Mrs. Reese was in some way abusing her husband and he was merely physically defending himself. This is not a case of brawling. This is assault and battery.
And yet — and the argument is even more deeply entrenched in cases of emotional abuse — some people labor under the idea that abusive behavior is “provoked” by the victim.
This is false.
Why the confusion?
We know a few things about healthy relationships:
- You can make your relationship stronger by being kind, considerate, and generous.
- You can help each other grow in virtue and avoid sin by making an effort to avoid tempting yourself and others.
So, for example, if you want to get along better with your workmates, greeting them cheerfully and completely your work promptly can help you all form a better team.
If you and your date are determined to remain chaste, choosing to avoid actions the other finds alluring can make it easier to abstain.
If you and your neighbor want to live on good terms, observing quiet hours can make it easier to get along.
These things work when everyone involved wants a healthy relationship.
It is the nature of abuse to try to pretend there is a “good reason” for the abuser’s behavior. But there isn’t.
It is normal to get a little frustrated at other people’s faults. A normal married couple might argue over who should do the dishes. A normal married couple will not physically assault each other over who should do the dishes.
That’s what makes abuse different from normal behavior: The action or reaction in no way matches the circumstances.
How to Have a Better Marriage
If you and your spouse are both desiring a happier, more joyful marriage, there are things you can do to help with that. You can pay attention to your spouse’s preferences, and find little ways to show consideration. Maybe that is by taking on a chore your spouse finds tedious, or by giving attention to some detail that other people might not care about, but which especially pleases your spouse.
She likes tulips not roses, so you bring her tulips. He hates cilantro, so you serve it on the side. Of course you do these things, because you love each other and you want to please each other. You might go so far as to choose an outfit that your spouse particularly admires (and which you agree is becoming on you and fitted to the occasion), even though left to your own devices you yourself wouldn’t spend so much time on your appearance.
An abusive person is not abusive because you brought the wrong flower or served the wrong meal. An abusive person isn’t going to be “cured” by your selecting a nicer outfit next time. Healthy people don’t beat their spouse over failing to coordinate the day’s plans, or failing to keep the house clean, or failing to make the children settle down. Healthy people don’t kidnap, rape, and beat their spouse even over suspected infidelity.
Healthy Responses to Very Bad Behavior
If you thought your spouse was cheating on you, healthy, proportionate reactions might include:
- Asking your spouse to explain his or her behavior.
- Attending counseling, with or without your spouse (or both).
- Asking your spouse to cut ties with a specific person he or she committed adultery with previously.
- Refraining from intercourse if there is reason to be concerned about sexually transmitted diseases.
- Insisting your spouse be transparent about internet and social media use.
- Considering whether a civil divorce or other legal action is a necessary way to handle the fallout from marital infidelity.
Some of these actions are very serious responses to very serious concerns. None of them involve assaulting your spouse.