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How Do I Know If I'm in an Abusive Relationship?
On the surface, they looked like a perfect Christian couple. Always together, with his arm around her waist. Her friends would admit to feeling a bit jealous. Abby never goes anywhere without Jake; he’s so attentive. I can barely get my husband to notice that I’m in the room! Even as a trained counselor, I’ve sometimes been surprised to discover that people I know are in an abusive relationship. When we think “abuse,” we picture the classic signs of domestic violence—sunglasses to hide a swollen face and long sleeves to conceal bruises. While this type of domestic violence is certainly a real issue, we also need to recognize that abusive relationships take many different forms. In fact, even those in abusive relationships often wouldn’t identify the relationship as such.  A partner can be abusive emotionally, financially, verbally, physically, spiritually, or sexually. Unfortunately, unbalanced religious teaching around submission, a wife’s “duty” to give her husband sex, or the permanence of marriage can reinforce or normalize an abusive dynamic in marriage. I want to communicate with the strongest of terms, God did not design intimate relationships (including marriage) to ever be abusive or coercive! Any seemingly biblical teaching that appears to encourage such dynamics is taken out of context.  In this blog, I want to share with you four warning signs that you may be in an abusive relationship: fear, secrets, control, and blame.   Fear The Bible says, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Of course none of us loves perfectly, so there will always be elements of fear in close relationships. What if I disappoint him? What if she leaves me? What if he rejects me once he knows the truth?  Marriages sometimes go through rough patches when conflict makes the relationship feel emotionally tenuous. But in an abusive relationship, fear becomes a learned response, sometimes evidenced physiologically.  Every time my husband pulls into the driveway, my stomach is tied into knots. I quickly scan the home to make sure everything is in order. I literally broke out in a cold sweat standing at the bakery counter for thirty minutes afraid that I would get my wife the wrong kind of cake for her dinner party. We learn to fear when we erratically or predictably experience pain or danger. Whether the threat is physical or emotional, interactions with an abusive partner train your body to prepare for the worst. “I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells.” “I have to measure my words very carefully…” “The only time I can truly relax is when I am away from her.”     Secrets Intimacy implies secrets. Lovers have a history they carry together: memories of sexual fun, inside jokes, and the promise to lovingly guard each other’s faults from a critical world. Marriage becomes destructive when either husband or wife publicly flaunts the other’s vulnerabilities and foibles. Indeed, love covers a multitude of sins.  The secrets in an abusive relationship do not emanate from such love, but from fear. In an abusive relationship, there is a spoken or unspoken rule that no one can know what happens behind closed doors. One of the reasons it’s so difficult for people to recognize abusive patterns in a relationship is because there is no opportunity for a reality check on what’s normal. How does a normal couple fight? Do they ever swear at each other? Throw things? How do normal couples navigate differences in sexual desire or finances? Is it normal for one person to insist on always getting his or her way?  You need “eyes” on your marriage. This is not about sharing secrets but about the accountability and wisdom that keeps us healthy. If you or your spouse have colluded to keep certain things private, even forbidding help from a pastor, counselor, or friend, that is a serious red flag.    Control The opposite of freedom is control. God Himself knows that love is true only when it is chosen. This is why He allows us to wander away from Him and even reject Him.  In an abusive relationship, gestures of love are not freely given but demanded. Friends and family become a threat, and so there are rules around how often you can see them. In a facade of “unity,” everything you own belongs to your spouse, and you have no voice in how to steward your life. You don’t have the freedom to decide how to spend your time or money. You work or don’t work according to his desires. You spend or don’t spend to avoid her rages.  Control can be subtle. Often no demands are made up front, but there is a cost to be paid on the back end if you make the wrong choice. My wife wouldn’t even make eye contact with me for a month when I made a decision she didn’t like.   When I don’t meet my husband’s expectations, he makes a big show of expressing affection towards the kids but in the same moment, tears me to shreds.    Constant Blame It might be said that every close relationship probably has moments that could be classified as abusive. In the heat of an argument, you may have spoken cruel words to one another. You’ve probably withheld affection, manipulated to get your way, and lost your temper at some point in your marriage. These interactions are unhealthy and harmful to intimacy. But an abusive relationship has a pattern of such interactions with no awareness or effort to seek genuine change.  When a normal couple gets in a fight, they work toward “repairing the breach.” Even if they may not know the words to say, they are both able to take responsibility for being irrational, losing their temper, or being demanding. A hallmark of dysfunctional relationships is when one person will never acknowledge or own up to his or her failings. Even a move towards an apology ends up being a backhanded accusation. “I wouldn’t have screamed at you if you had cleaned the kitchen like you were supposed to!” If a couple like this finds themselves in counseling, the abusive spouse may charmingly and effectively convince the therapist that the problem is really the other person’s fault. As soon as the counselor begins suggesting otherwise, the abusive partner will bail on counseling by discrediting the therapist.    What should I do?  If you have identified your relationship by one of these red flags, please reach out for help! This is not something that you can address on your own. Whether you identify that you are the one who is controlling and demanding or the one who is on the receiving end, you need help. You need wisdom and support from those who care about you as well as from people who are trained to identify abusive patterns. You are not doing your spouse or your children any favors by avoiding the issue.  I also want to encourage you, friend. God loves you. The Bible tells us that He is close to the brokenhearted and comes to our aid when we call on Him. Addressing abusive patterns in a relationship is not an easy process. You might feel alone and overwhelmed. All you need to do today is take the first step of reaching out for help.    Here are what some first steps might look like: Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TTY); this is a crisis intervention and referral phone line for domestic violence. www.TheHotline.org Read about How to Choose a Wise Counselor (Juli's blog) Use the Focus on the Family Network of Christian Counselors to find a licensed, Christian professional in your area. Listen to Java #372: How to Recognize Domestic Abuse (exclusive content )with Dr. Ramona Probasco   Photo by Canva
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3 Ways To Help Your Wife Feel Fully Known and Fully Loved
by Zack Skarka  My guest on the blog today is my favorite human, Zack Skarka! After I shared my struggle with body image last week, I invited Zack to tell his side of the story too. If you need to share this blog with your husband, please know that I'll be praying for you! Ask God for wisdom, courage, and the right timing. (Presione aquí para leer en español) I thought I had all of the answers. Whenever my wife would come to me with her issues, I would give her a three-step plan to overcome that issue. I thought I was so helpful … until I found out I wasn’t. Joy and I were on a walk in one of our favorite parks. She was pouring out her heart to me, and I was beginning to tell her how to fix her problem. Then she stopped me and gave me the most important lesson in our relationship. She said, “When I share things with you, I don’t want you to fix my problems. I just want you to listen.” In the moment, I thought this was crazy talk. “Why wouldn’t you want to solve your problems instead of just talking about them?” Instead of sharing this thought, I decided to trust Joy’s words and listen. I’m glad I did because it was the most loved Joy had ever felt while sharing her struggles. Joy and I have a phrase we love (that is also on a shirt Joy loves) that says, “Fully known and fully loved.” This is what we all desire, and it is key for husbands helping their wives in their healing journeys.   Husbands can help their wives by listening. The primary way that a wife can have confidence that she is fully known is having a husband who listens. I did not start off the best in this department with Joy. Our first date was at a Starbucks in Dallas and I did what I do best: talk about myself. Joy would tell me later that, while she was happy to get to know me on that date, she was considering having it be our last date. I have since learned that my ability to listen is not only critical for our relationship, but also for Joy’s healing journey. When Joy is facing temptation, she knows she can talk about her struggles with me and be heard and loved. When she has negative thoughts about her body, she can share those thoughts and know she will be loved and affirmed. If I am not willing to listen, Joy might feel like she needs to keep those thoughts to herself, leading to shame and a continuing spiral of negativity. By listening, I can give my wife what she really needs, the opportunity to be fully known and fully loved. About two months ago, I had a pretty serious health scare. I passed out for the first time in almost nine years and we were worried that my brain cancer had come back. Joy was incredible. She drove 100mph to the doctor with her passed out husband, called every specialist in town, held my hand in the emergency room, and took care of me during my time at home. Thankfully, we soon found out that I am still cancer-free. In the middle of that season, Joy shared with me how hard it was for her to be the strong one. She told me about how worried she was. I listened. After she finished pouring out her heart, I told her how incredible she was and thought about how blessed I am to have a wife that is willing to share her heart with me. If you want to do a better job listening, schedule a time when your wife knows she will have your undivided attention. Joy and I have this time when I get home from work. During this time, we share the good things and the hard things from our day and enjoy the opportunity to be known and loved.   Husbands can help their wives by validating. Admittedly, I do not always agree with all of the things I listen to, especially Joy’s negative thoughts about her body. I will often joke with her and say, “No one talks to my wife like that!” While I may disagree with Joy’s thoughts or feelings, it is still important for me to validate those thoughts and feelings. When she says she needs to shave her legs when I can’t see any leg hair, I could say, “You’re crazy!” Instead, I tell her to let me know when she is done so I can join her for the rest of the shower.  When Joy shares her struggles and her feelings, she does not need to hear that her feelings are bad. Joy needs someone to say, “That must be really hard, I’m sorry you are going through that.” In addition to not agreeing with everything I listen to, there are often things I do not and cannot understand. In less serious situations, I will jokingly tell Joy, “I fully know and fully love you, but I do not fully understand you.” Unfortunately, we have faced a lot of serious situations in our time together. The pain that Joy experiences from the scars on her stomach, both physically and emotionally, is something that I cannot understand. (My big scars are on my back where I can’t see them.) The only thing I can do is validate her feelings when she talks about that pain. If you want to do a better job validating, try to pay closer attention to your responses. When your wife shares her thoughts and feelings with you, do you affirm her feelings or do you invalidate her feelings? Also pay attention to her response to your response; if she feels closer to you based on what you said, good job. It took me a long time of seeing Joy feel worse after my responses to learn that my responses need to affirm her thoughts and feelings.   Husbands can help their wives by loving their inner beauty. I know. Talking about somebody’s inner beauty is usually a backhanded compliment, but it is a biblical compliment. Proverbs 31:30 says, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The Hebrew word that is translated ‘fleeting’ is hebel, the same word used in Ecclesiastes 1:2. “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” This word, in its most basic sense, means vapor or breath, something that is there, and then it is gone. While I firmly believe that Joy is the most outwardly beautiful woman in the world, and I tell her that every day, I know that our bodies will change. I want Joy to know now that I will love her just as much then when those changes happen. I try my best to remind Joy that the reason I fell in love with her in the first place was not her good looks but her great heart. Joy has been blogging since 2013, so when I met her in 2015, there was plenty of evidence of her fear of the Lord on that blog. I saw a woman who loved God and others and was serving those people through her words as she still does today. While I love and affirm Joy’s beautiful physical body, I also want to give her the assurance that I first fell in love with the heart I saw on that blog. For that reason, she can be confident that she is fully loved, no matter what. If you want to do a better job loving your wife’s inner beauty, write down five things that you love about your wife besides her body. This could be the way she loves you, your kids, the fun you have with her, or how hardworking she is. Then, over time, share these things with your wife so she can experience being fully loved by you. Husbands, I hope that my story and my insights are helpful for you as you walk through life with your spouse. By listening to your wife, validating your wife’s thoughts and feelings, and loving her inner beauty, you will be a great help in your wife’s healing journey. Want to learn more? Here are a few more resources you might like: Preorder Juli's new book God, Sex, and Your Marriage Java #406: Every Couple Has a Sexual Dance. What Does Yours Say About You? Java #394: Debt-free In the Bedroom: How To Heal from Sexual Pain A Secret For the Guys (Juli's blog)
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3 Ways That Loving Your Body Builds Intimacy in Marriage
As I stood in front of the mirror, I counted the number of scars displayed across my stomach, splattered across my belly like a toddler with a crayon. How could I ever feel beautiful again, let alone sexy? My thoughts were interrupted as my husband came up behind me and put his arms around my body. He whispered in my ear, “You, my Joy, are so beautiful.” (Presione aquí para leer en español) In the span of three months, I had three surgeries and many procedures, turning my stomach into a landmine of imperfections. Yet, through it all, my husband has loved me in ways that have helped me to confidently give my body, heart, and soul to him.  My value as God's child is not dependent on how my stomach looks, or any other insecurity I may have. The same is true for you. To begin to heal, I first had to discover the lies I believed about myself and begin to see myself how God sees me. Through counseling, I discovered that I believed the lie that my physical worth was dependent on what my body looked like, not my identity in Christ. Believing my worth was found in my appearance turned out to be my greatest source of insecurity—and it was hurting the intimacy in my marriage. But as I began to find my source of security in God, not in what I look like, I also grew in intimacy with my husband.   Intimacy grows through addressing the source of our insecurity. After all of the medical trauma I had walked through, I knew I needed to go back to my counselor. My trauma brought up new insecurities that actually pointed to deeply rooted lies that I believed. My new scars led me to believe I was no longer beautiful or worthy of love, reinforcing the lie that appearance matters most. As I’m learning to address this lie, I’m discovering that intimacy grows as I name my insecurities and find scriptural truths to counter them. For example, when I doubt my value, I meditate on Galatians 4:7, “So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” My value as God's child is not dependent on how my stomach looks, or any other insecurity I may have. The same is true for you. Part of “feeling beautiful” includes giving myself a pep talk and believing this truth. Every day when I wake up and look in the bathroom mirror, I see a sticker that says, “This is a good body.” I need this reminder because I often feel like my body has betrayed me. Because of my health issues, my body can feel like my enemy. But I must remind myself: my body is good. God formed me and knit me together perfectly in my mother’s womb, and He says, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).  As you begin to feel safe revealing your insecurities to God, then you might begin to feel safer sharing them with your spouse.   Intimacy grows through encouraging one another. You don’t have to look perfect to have great intimacy with your spouse. In fact, as you age, your body begins to change and will never look like it did when you first fell in love with your partner. If you’ve experienced changes in your body, true intimacy can be nurtured through encouraging one another, working through your insecurities, and praying with your spouse. For as long as I can remember, I struggled with confidence about my body. My stomach was too big, my leg hair grew too fast (I’m Italian), and my nose always felt just a little too big. Yet, since I met my hubby Zack, it was as if when he looked at me he saw a completely different person than the one I saw in the mirror.  We’ve been married for about 5 years, and I’ve grown in confidence about my body. Now, even with the imperfections and scars, I’ve become confident in who God created me to be through meditating on scripture and believing the words of my husband. My husband helps me see a glimpse of this truth in real life. The more he uplifts me with his words, the more beautiful I feel. I’m able to feel sexy because of his love and words that continue to lift me up.  My husband’s encouragement has grown my body confidence, which has deepened our intimacy. This reassurance takes place not just in the bedroom, but during regular day-to-day moments. He cheers me in the mornings while I’m still in my pj’s, hair up in a bun, and pouring my coffee. He encourages me as I’m in work clothes, right before an important Zoom call. The more we encourage one another during normal aspects of life, not just in intimate moments, the more we will believe it.  It’s not enough to simply hear our spouse’s encouraging words, we have to BELIEVE them. Sometimes, we want to deny our husband’s compliments. (I know I’ve done this.) We might respond with, “No, I’m not beautiful,” or “Really, you like this dress? I was thinking of getting rid of it.” Instead, we have to believe the encouraging words we receive and also encourage our spouses in the things they may feel insecure about. I try to encourage my husband, Zack, by praising him for a job well done at work, complimenting him on his physical appearance, or thanking him when he serves our family.   Intimacy grows through praying with your spouse. Since we were first married, my husband and I shower together every night (that’s a different blog!) and pray together every night. No matter what happened that day, even if we ended the day in conflict, we hold hands across the bed and pray. We’ve discovered it is hard to stay mad at someone for too long if you know you’re going to pray together before going to sleep.  Forming healthy patterns and habits like praying together can grow your intimacy. If you struggle with body image issues that impact your intimacy in marriage, here are some things you can begin to pray for together: Pray for your sex life. Pray that you will be able to love and value your body. Pray for God to reveal the deeper lies that could be the source of your insecurities. Pray and thank God for the body He has given you. As I grow in intimacy with my spouse, I also learn to trust him more. I believe him when he compliments and encourages me. The same is true with God. Building intimacy in spite of bodily imperfections boils down to this question, “Do I really trust God with all that He allows to happen in my life and to my body?” Even though I don’t understand why things happen, I can trust God that His plans are perfect, and I can have confidence in this verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). If you struggle with loving your body because of imperfections, be encouraged! You can grow and deepen intimacy with your spouse by addressing the root of insecurity, encouraging one another, and with prayer. You can get to the point where you are thankful for your body, even with its imperfections. I don’t think I will ever look at my scar-covered stomach and think, “Wow! That is attractive,” but I do look at it and believe, “This is a good body!”   Come back next week for a special guest blog from Joy's better half, Zack! In the meantime, learn more about a healthy body image with these resources: Java #402: If God Made My Body "Good," Why Does It Cause So Much Pain? Being Sexy Has Nothing to Do With Your Body (Juli's blog) Java #381: "Show It Off" or "Cover It Up": Messages That Shape Our Body Image   Image by Canva    
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"God Doesn't Care" and 3 Other Lies You Might Believe About Sex
I’ll never be able to kick porn for good! I hate sex. I’ll never be able to enjoy it with my husband. I’m damaged beyond repair. I can’t have a great sex life if I don’t have a beautiful body.  Have thoughts like these ever crossed your mind? If so, where do you think they come from?  Sex is a spiritual battleground. We can see obvious ways that the devil is at work through evils like sex trafficking and sexual abuse, but many of his most effective schemes are more subtle (like the examples above). In fact, you may be in the middle of a spiritual battle and not even know it.  Jesus said that Satan is a liar and that his native language is to lie to us. One way to discern the nature of the spiritual battle in our lives is to identify his lies. Think of it this way: When you look at the strongholds in your life, you will always find Satan’s “calling card” of lies.  Underlying Satan’s more subtle deception are a few foundational lies that impact how we think about God and sex. Below, I want to share with you four of these lies that often represent a stronghold in our lives and marriages.   Lie #1: God doesn’t care about sexuality.  Over the past several decades, we have witnessed a change in attitude about sex and sexuality. Rather than viewing sex as something that is tied to marriage and procreation, we treat it as simply a form of recreation and self expression. Rather than gender being rooted in a biological reality, it is now often considered a subjective experience.  Even many Christians think about their sexuality as a personal category of life that God doesn’t have much to say about. Christian singles have sex with little thought of God, and married Christians assume that as long as they are not having an affair, God has little to say about what sex should look like between them.  Having studied this topic for a decade, I can say without any hesitation that God cares deeply about your sexuality. In the Garden of Eden, when Eve interacted with the serpent, he asked her the question, “Did God really say…?” You may be falling for that same strategy. Yes, God really did say that sexuality is sacred and that He has a will for your sex life.   Lie #2: God’s design for sex isn’t for your good.  You may not wrestle with the truth of God as much as you question the goodness of God. Why would a loving God: Give me a desire and then say I can’t act on it? Tell me that I can’t marry the person I love? Want me to stay married to someone I don’t love? The God of the Bible just seems cruel if He limits sexual expression to a man and a woman in a lifelong, committed relationship. Just think of all the people this excludes! The crafty serpent in the Garden of Eden also used this ploy. He tempted Eve by causing her to doubt the goodness of God’s command. “God is holding out on you!” I once heard a pastor say, “There is nothing good outside of God’s will for you.” Do you believe that?  Taking a step back, we need to understand that romantic love and sexual expression have been elevated in our modern culture from good things to absolute essential elements of a fulfilled life. God seems cruel only if sex and romance are crucial to happiness. You will not understand God’s goodness in His design for sex if you don’t understand the goodness of God’s design for humanity.  God did not create you for sex, for self-actualization, or even for marriage. He created you for intimate fellowship with Himself. The greatest thrill of your life is not meant to be your wedding day (or night), but the daily journey of knowing that your life matters because you are connected to the eternal God of the universe. You were created to be a world-changer! Only when we see the bigger story of life can we appreciate the goodness of sex, but also accept that we can live fulfilling lives without it.   Tweet: God did not create you for sex, for self-actualization, or even for marriage. He created you for intimate fellowship with Himself. The greatest thrill of your life is not meant to be your wedding day (or night), but the daily journey of knowing that your life matters because you are connected to the eternal God of the universe. @drjulislattery   Lie #3: God won’t forgive sexual sin.  During temptation, the devil works to convince you that sexual sin is no big deal. After you’ve sinned, he will work just as rigorously to convince you that you must now live in perpetual shame. Russell Moore observed, “The devil works in two ways: by deception, ‘You will not surely die’ (Genesis 3:4), and by accusation, ‘who accuses them day and night before our God’ (Revelation 12:10) ... No one is more pro-choice than the devil on the way to the abortion clinic and no one is more pro-life than the devil on the way out of the abortion clinic.”1 Yes, sexual sin is serious. It often has significant physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences—never take these lightly.  Likewise, don’t fall for the concept that Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” In other words, don’t step into sin with the safety net of knowing that God will forgive you. That is an affront to Christ’s sacrifice! However, if you have confessed and turned from your sin, God’s will is that you walk in freedom. Not only freedom from your sin, but freedom from the shame and condemnation of your past.  Do you believe that God has separated your sexual sin from you as far as the East is from the West? That He does not hold it against you? That you are “cleansed from all unrighteousness”?   Lie #4: I’ll only be safe if I hold onto my anger. God hates bitterness as much as He hates sexual sin. Your spouse may have been the one to look at pornography, but you have responded by developing a critical and resentful heart over time. Paul tells us that Satan wins when our righteous anger sours into bitterness and unforgiveness. While it is sometimes very appropriate to feel angry, you also have to be careful that it doesn’t harden your heart. “'In your anger do not sin': Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:4). Anger is like milk. It has a shelf life before it spoils into something quite rotten.  Recovering from infidelity and other forms of betrayal is a long, arduous journey. Marriage experts estimate that it takes most couples between two and five years to fully recover (many never do). Whether or not there is reconciliation in a relationship, it is essential for your own spiritual health that you release your anger. That may not (and probably should not) happen right away. But we often end up hanging onto anger because it becomes our form of protection.  You may believe that anger and bitterness are the only barriers that will keep people away from that tender wound in your heart. You become convinced that holding the grudge will keep you safe. Neither of those things are true. You can set up necessary boundaries without nurturing your anger when you trust the Lord to be the God who sees all, who cares deeply for you, and who repays according to His justice.  David was deeply wounded and betrayed by friends and even his own son. Yet, he continually chose to find protection and shelter in God. “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge” (Psalm 31:1).   Friend, we need to recognize that lies can feel a lot more powerful (even more true!) than the truth. Your heart is a great spiritual battleground. Are you aware of the lies that keep you from experiencing the freedom that God offers you in every area of your life, including sexuality?  Authentic Intimacy exists to help you understand God’s truth about sex so that you can identify and fight against the lies that keep you stuck. If you are ready to take the next step, here are a few helpful resources: Why God Cares About Your Sexuality video series (exclusive content) Not a member? Get the first video free. Passion Pursuit - join an online book study today! What's the Purpose of Your Sexuality, Really? (Juli's blog) Three Things To Remember About Sexual Sin & Grace (Joy's blog)   1 Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore Photo by Canva