When our family started the homeschooling journey about 25 years ago, I envisioned my comrades in the movement as the ideal examples of healthy marriage and parenting. I have learned much along the way about educating and nurturing my own ten children, and I am seeing this legacy continue with my six grandchildren. However, as the years have gone by, I have had to lay aside my cute little rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that there can also be a dark side. Abuse, whether it is against a child or a spouse, is a tragic reality in far too many homeschooling families. Because I write frequently on the topics of domestic violence and other forms of family dysfunction, HARO has asked me to share five things that homeschool moms should know about abusive marriages.
1. Homeschool moms are not immune from abusive marriages.
How many of us started out thinking that homeschooling would guarantee us harmonious families? Educating at home can help this effort in many ways, but it is not a magic potion. There are even facets of homeschooling, such as greater responsibility and stretched resources, which put families at increased risk of stress. We must never justify abuse due to these factors, but they can bring latent harmful tendencies to the surface and then compound them.
Worse yet, homeschooling often attracts fathers who already feel a high need for psychological control over others. (Yes, women can be this way too, but that is beyond the scope of this article.) Fathers may try to exert this control with intentions of raising superior children, but it backfires because good fruit does not come from the bad root of a domineering personality. Common homeschool movement teachings about authority, child training, and gender roles can enable these unhealthy control issues, which can in turn fuel abusive behavior. A man who craves power can easily become a tyrant and a bully against his wife and children, while justifying it by twisting Scripture.
A mother has the moral and legal obligation to shield her children from abuse. Though right and necessary, this puts her at risk of injury. He may shove her out of his way, which could bruise her or cause her to fall and break a bone. She may suffer joint or muscle damage while trying to pull him away from or off of a child. He may impulsively hurt her in retaliation without thinking much about what he is doing. These are forms of domestic violence against his wife, even if he is not intentionally beating her up, and even if she does not have noticeable or lasting injuries. Beyond that, a homeschool dad may purposely and maliciously hurt his wife – physically or emotionally – as a way of dominating her or “punishing” her for her supposed shortcomings.
If a homeschool mom feels she must defer to her husband in everything, or she is trying to protect her family’s Christian reputation, or if she has no financial resources or current job skills to support her family, then she can feel she has little recourse when the marriage turns toxic. If she protests or even offers an alternative opinion, she is often labeled as rebellious, told she will ruin her children, and intimidated with threats. This shaming and fear is often reinforced by her church leaders and homeschool friends who do not fully understand the dynamics of abusive relationships. If she has been conditioned to distrust or even fear government or community resources, she is at a further disadvantage.
I cannot even begin to tell you how many Christian homeschool moms I know who have been in abusive marriages for far too long, and feel like they have no choice but to put up with it. This has to stop. Even if you don’t think domestic violence personally affects you, please read these articles and the others I have linked later:
Physical violence is not the only way a man can abuse his wife.
Abuse also includes threats, ridicule, coercion, manipulation, intimidating body language, playing mind games like gaslighting, humiliating her in front of others, isolating her from friends and family, denying access to resources (finances, medical care, transportation, information, counseling), neglecting to follow through on promises and responsibilities, blocking her exit from a room, damaging her possessions, blaming her for the abuse, alienating her from her children, and more. You can see this by looking at the Power and Control Wheel.
Again, a wife is particularly susceptible to these forms of relational abuse if she believes that she must comply with her husband’s demands for authority. Because her husband has not physically injured her, she may not realize that he is still abusive. She may acknowledge that something is wrong, but think that she herself is the problem. She may attempt to work on marital intimacy, a more cheerful and submissive attitude, better child training, a cleaner house, and everything else she can think so that her husband will treat her better. What she needs to realize is that she is being abused, and that the necessary response is much different. The marriage is not just difficult or dysfunctional, but destructive and dangerous.
Recognizing abuse can be particularly confusing because it often occurs in unpredictable cycles of repeating phases: tension building (increased frustration, conflict, withdrawal, mood swings, pressure to comply), acute explosion (aggressive crisis incident that may either “come out of nowhere” or be intentionally escalated by the abuser), honeymoon (active attempts by the abuser to rebuild trust through apologies, compliments, promises, gifts, favors, spiritual activity, counseling, etc.), and calm (settling down, forgetting, minimizing, relief, normalcy). It is important to realize that even in the lull after an explosive incident, the husband is most likely still emotionally abusing her through other means, whether she realizes it or not. Again, it is important to recognize the many forms of abuse in order to realize the continued gravity of the situation.
Here are some more resources to read about recognizing the forms of marital abuse, and realizing why so many women stay.
3. Children are at risk of lasting damage when abuse is present in a marriage.
While you started homeschooling to nurture and care for your children, if your marriage is abusive, they are not in a safe and healthy environment. Most states consider it child abuse when children witness abuse between their parents. In extreme cases, you can be held liable and lose your children if you do not take appropriate action to protect them from the consequences of their other parent’s abuse. Think carefully about all of this if you are “staying together for the sake of the children.” You may be doing more harm than good.
At the most basic level, the stress of seeing abusive behavior in their parents’ marriage can create emotional disturbance which will also affect physical health. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bedwetting, self-harming, and defiance are common side effects. Children often internalize parental conflict and blame themselves. Or they can turn their anger and aggression against other people and become bullies themselves. If your children have been affected in any way by abuse in the home, please seek medical help and mental health therapy for them and yourself as soon as possible. If you don’t think you can afford this, call a community mental health or child protective organization for assistance.
A child is at additional risk for physical injury as an innocent bystander to domestic violence, especially if the child attempts to protect the mother, or if the father hurts the child as a way of causing extra distress to his wife. No child is safe if the father is throwing things, shoving his wife, slamming doors, or other manifestations of rage. In addition, a mother who is being abused can in turn blame her children, and then treat them in harsh and injurious ways.
While the mother is dealing with the distress in her marriage, she can easily be distracted from providing an adequate education for her children. They can also be too stressed out to focus on their assignments. While there are certainly times to lay aside formal academics to deal with family issues, if they cannot regularly attend to homeschooling because of this, then something needs to change.
Finally, marital abuse exposes children to a powerfully toxic example of a dysfunctional relationship which they may normalize (see as the usual) and then carry forward into their own romantic and parental relationships. Depending on how they process the experience, they may be more likely to tolerate or perpetrate abusive dating or marriage relationships, as well as perpetuate abusive practices with their own children. It is important for them to understand what is happening, know that it is wrong, and develop strategies to keep themselves safe for their present and future.
4. Decisive action is necessary, and sometimes it has to be drastic.
Unfortunately, abuse does not just go away on its own. A mother must take decisive action to ensure safety and sanity for herself and her children. Here are several things she might do, starting out with the basics and ramping it up as necessary:
assess the situation to acknowledge exactly what has happened in the past and what the current and future risk is
strengthen her confidence and resolve to move forward into a safe and healthy family life
educate herself on the dynamics of abuse, which will involve reading and focused research
break the silence and share her story with a supportive network of friends, family, and trustworthy on-line forums
seek appropriate professional help (more on that in the next section)
set and enforce firm boundaries with specific consequences
determine her optimal alternatives if those boundaries are not respected
make safety/exit/escape plans and preparations in case the situation escalates
separate from the abuser, which may entail persuading him to leave the home, having him removed from the home, or moving out with her children
go “no contact” to prevent harassment by phone, texts, messaging, e-mail
file a restraining order to keep the abuser away from the family and home
as necessary, file for divorce as an increased legal protection against continued abuse
Please note that while each of these steps can lead to more clarity and progress, none of them will guarantee an end to the abuse. In fact, the risk of retaliation can increase each time a woman takes initiative to distance herself further from her abuser. This should not dissuade her from taking action, but at all points she needs to be extra vigilant and not let her guard down as she moves forward to safety and dignity.
Depending on the severity of the situation, it may be necessary for the children to transition into other formats of education so that their mother can focus on the actions necessary to protect and provide for the family. This could involve homeschooling with outside assistance (hybrid school, co-op, online programs, grandparents) or enrolling some or all of the children in traditional full-time schools. This doesn’t have to happen immediately. A mother might set a goal of preparing her children for the change within a certain time period as she simultaneously works through her own future options. If a woman’s identity is wrapped around mothering and homeschooling, any of these transitions can be an uncomfortable sacrifice for her. She will appreciate compassionate understanding and support from her network of homeschool friends. She can know that she is doing her best to nurture her children, even if this was not part of her ideal plan.
Here are some other articles about taking action against abuse in marriage:
5. Help is available, but you have to know where to look.
Taking action in a domestic violence situation can be confusing and intimidating. A woman’s access to solid help in the form of reliable information and practical assistance can make a huge difference in how she is able to proceed.
Often, her first step is reaching out for advice and emotional support from family, friends, and religious leaders whom she already personally knows. How they respond is crucial. They can either move her toward safety and healing, or send her back into the lion’s den. Will they believe her story? Not always. Many domestic violence survivors are accused of misunderstanding, exaggerating, or worse yet, lying about their circumstances. Even if they are believed, they are often advised to forgive their offender, patch things up, and work on their own problems without setting appropriate boundaries or separating from the abuser. Yikes! At this point, a woman may give up trying to change the situation and just keep muddling and agonizing, questioning her own perception of reality. However, if she keeps talking about it or or finds someone else who will listen to her, she will hopefully find some support in her own personal network.
This facetious list by a domestic violence survivor and (former) homeschool mother of 12 can help others know how to best respond:
The reaction of a woman’s pastors and elders is also key, but this can get confusing, too. They may know and trust her husband, and be reluctant to acknowledge a serious problem if he seems like a normal, caring human being. Or they may be so fixated on preserving marriages in the congregation that they are unwilling to entertain the potential necessity of a separation or divorce. Or they may not have professional training in the area of domestic violence, and counsel the couple as if they had a difficult marriage instead of a dangerous and destructive one. If they use a nouthetic or so-called “Biblical” approach to counseling, they may blame the wife and tell her to deal with her own sins in the marriage. Or they may say something to the husband about the alleged abuse that embarrasses him, and he in turn takes it out on his wife. On the other hand, think of the good that would result if pastors sought professional level skills in crisis counseling, and took a broader and deeper view toward God’s heart for families. At the very least, a pastor should be able and willing to refer domestic violence victims to professional counselors in the community who are educated and experienced in this specialty, as well as gain a basic understanding of the issues. He or she can find out more at these links:
One very important thing to know is that couples counseling – whether pastoral or professional – is not at all recommended when the dynamics of abuse exist in a relationship. This is rarely (if ever) effective and puts a wife at additional risk of abuse and retaliation. Both parties do need counseling, but it should be individual. If they use the same counselor, there must be an absolute guarantee of confidentiality.
Beyond a woman’s existing personal circle of friends and family, there is much help available in the community. She can research information and participate in support groups on the Internet, check out books at the library, call a domestic violence crisis line, seek help at a women’s shelter, get professional counseling (can be faith-based and may be covered by insurance), apply for government financial and medical assistance, and find a referral for affordable (maybe subsidized) legal help. Here are some links for these community resources:
Behind the Hedge – a novel by Waneta Dawn about domestic violence in a Mennonite home
This is a lot of information to process right now. If you or someone you know is affected by domestic violence, please read more and come back to it again, even if it is just a little at a time. Let it sink in. Think about what you need to do next for yourself or someone else, and start taking steps in that direction. What you know, what you say, and what you do about domestic violence can make a difference not only now, but for generations to come. Let me know if you need help.
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