Saeed Abedini, Franklin Graham, and the Manipulative Abuse of Couples Counseling

Saeed Abedini, Franklin Graham, and the Manipulative Abuse of Couples Counseling February 16, 2016

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Naghmeh and Saeed Abedini. In that post, I outlined Franklin Graham’s response to the abuse allegations Naghmeh Abedini levied against her husband, Saeed Abedini. If you remember, Saeed was an evangelical pastor imprisoned in Iran until from 2012 until last month. Naghmeh spoke of Saeed’s abuse in emails to supporters last November, and an evangelical magazine made these allegations public. Despite of the fact that Saeed pled guilty to misdemeanor domestic assault in 2007, consistent with a history of abuse, Franklin Graham took to his public faceook page to insist that there were “two sides” to the story.

With this background, let’s turn to a post Saeed published to his public Facebook page on Valentine’s Day:

Saeed Abedini

Text is as follows:

Warm Greetings Dear Saints!

We Love because He first Loved us. (1John 4:19)

This is my first post on Facebook after 4 long years of imprisonment. I see there is a LOVE story between us as I went through hardship of imprisonment by you showing your support with sending hundreds & thousands of letters of encouragement and LOVE to the prison. 1000’s of cities and countries and locations gathering for pray vigils, sending gifts to my wife and children, etc.. .
You created a LOVE story that even Muslims in Iran talked about.

My beloved sisters and brothers, I want you to know how much I LOVE you and how much Your prayers and support changed my situation and how much I am thankful for your heart and Care.
I am grateful for marriage counselors who have been helping me but my wife’s relationship with me is not good at this point, so we need prayer that she joins this counseling process with us.

Free By Christ For Christ
Saeed Abedini

Note the way Saeed frames the issue in the bold section above. Saeed portrays Naghmeh as the problem, and asks his Facebook followers to pray that she “joins” the counseling process. Naghmeh has alleged abuse. She should be the one setting the parameters of the counseling process, not Saeed. It is manifestly dangerous to allow an accused abuser to set the terms of the reconciliation process. If Naghmeh is willing to give the relationship another chance—and that is completely up to her—Saeed needs to be listening to her, not the other way around.

Even more than that, if Saeed were interested merely in winning Naghmeh back and not in controlling public perception of what is taking place, he could simply have said “pray for my family,” or even “pray for my marriage.” Saeed appears to be less interested in the restoration of his marriage than he is in ensuring that his followers see him as the good guy, and his wife as the problem.  Saeed’s public Valentine’s Day post reads like a page out of an abusers handbook, down to the inclusion of pictures of himself with his children, designed to elicit sympathy.

A straightforward reading of Saeed’s Facebook status suggests that one of two things is happening. Either Naghmeh does not want to remain married to Saeed, or she is not happy with the counseling process Saeed is pushing for.

If Naghmeh wants to leave Saeed and start a new life without him, that is completely her prerogative, and Saeed should let her go gracefully. She spent three years of her life fighting to secure his release from prison in Iran—surely he owes her that much. On the other hand, it is possible (likely, even) that Saeed is pushing for a counseling process that Naghmeh is not comfortable with. Given Franklin Graham’s involvement and his statement that there are “two sides” to the story, this would not be surprising.

In too many cases, evangelical pastors use couples counseling to guilt women into remaining in abusive and unhealthy marriages. Similarly, in too many cases evangelical husbands use couples counseling as a weapon against their victims. Many abusers have an uncanny ability to manipulate counselors and turn the counseling process against their victims. This is only magnified in evangelical circles, where counselors already hold toxic ideas about godly marriage dynamics, grounded in ideas of male dominance and female submission. Victim blaming is sadly common, and the word of a man is too often given more weight than that of a woman.

In some cases, evangelical pastors will ask an alleged abuser if the reports of abuse are accurate, and then believe their denial without a shred of credulity. It should also be noted that couples counseling is not recommended in cases where there has been abuse. Unfortunately, many evangelical pastors approach marriages like Saeed and Naghmeh’s exactly the way Franklin Graham has, looking to find fault in both parties instead of focusing on confronting the abuser and protecting the victim.

After writing the above, I read blogger Julie Anne Smith’s post on this topic. Julie Anne spoke with Naghmeh about the situation to confirm some of the details, and adds further information that confirms my concerns above.

Naghmeh confirmed to me that she has indeed been and is currently seeking individual counseling. . . . She also mentioned another well-known therapist/author with whom she has been in touch for additional counsel. Naghmeh has also stated publicly that her pastor, Bob Caldwell, is aware of Saeed’s abuse and of the appropriate boundaries she has sought to put in place.

Now, some may wonder why Naghmeh is only seeking private counseling versus marital counseling. Keep in mind that a few months ago, Naghmeh revealed that during most of her marriage, she has been the victim of abuse by Saeed. Is couples counseling the best choice of action for a marriage in which there is abuse?  Abuse experts are in agreement that couples counseling is not appropriate when there is abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an article, Why We Don’t Recommend Couples Counseling for Abusive Relationships, and offers further explanation:

In order for couples counseling to be successful, both partners must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and make adjustments to their behavior. Abusive people want all of the power and control in the relationship and will focus on maintaining that imbalance, even if it means continuing unhealthy and hurtful behavior patterns. Many callers to the Hotline have related stories of trying and “failing” at couples counseling because of an abusive partner’s focus on manipulating the sessions to place blame, minimize the abuse, and attempt to win over the therapist to their side. If the therapist tries to hold the abusive partner accountable for these tactics, they will often refuse to attend further sessions and may even forbid their partner to see the “biased” therapist again. The abusive partner may even choose to escalate the abuse because they feel their power and control was threatened.

We can see evidence of this type of control in Saeed’s public comment. He minimized the abuse by never even mentioning this topic and, as mentioned earlier, he also put blame on Naghmeh for not seeking counseling.  Saeed displayed common tactics of abusers.

Julie Anne also notes the following:

Ok, now with regard to my conversation with Naghmeh, I think it is important to note that Saeed has not personally reached out to Naghmeh since he has been back in the US. It has only been through Franklin Graham, on Graham’s initiative, not Saeed’s. It should be noted that the post from Saeed on Facebook was really the first time Naghmeh has seen/heard anything directly from Saeed on the subject.

Franklin Graham has been the one to push “marriage counseling.” Why is that? Franklin Graham has not demonstrated any expertise on abuse issues that I am aware of. He has no business putting himself above this couple and telling them how to solve their issues. Why has he intervened to take a pastoral/oversight role here? Why isn’t he backing away from the situation and allowing Pastor Bob Caldwell, their long-time pastor, to do his job?

Naghmeh had been counseled by her pastor and her counselors that the “abuse must be dealt with first before any marriage counseling can occur.” But that is not the setup Franklin Graham devised. Naghmeh specifically noted that when Saeed came to the US, Franklin Graham first “wanted to put us in a cabin together” at Billy Graham’s training facility, The Cove.

You can find more information in Julie Anne’s post.

What becomes manifestly clear is that Franklin Graham has no understanding of how abuse functions. Let’s be clear about what happened here. Naghmeh alleged that Saeed was abusive. Franklin Graham decided the best course of action was to put them alone together in a cabin. If we had any remaining doubt about how terribly evangelical leaders deal with abuse allegations—and how utterly they fail to protect abuse victims—that doubt is no longer.

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