When a person is entangled in an abusive relationship, it is often a very confusing situation. Abusers use a variety of tactics, and emotional and psychological abuse can make a victim feel crazy. Women in an abusive marriage do not always see right away that they are being abused, especially if the abuse is not of a physical nature (and even then, it can be minimized in their minds).
A wife in an abusive marriage knows that something is not right and tries to do everything she can to make the marriage work. She prays for things to change and for her husband to experience breakthrough. She hopes he will go to marriage counseling or that a pastor will disciple him. There are glimmers of hope when he seems to be getting better, but then the old patterns continue. This can go on for many years.
Add to this equation another confusing component: false repentance. In my book Hypocrisy Exposed I wrote a whole chapter on this topic. False repentance is important to understand because it is a tactic used by many deceivers, abusers, and predators in order to enable their destructive behavior to continue. False repentance is when a person claims to be sorry or to have changed, only to continue on in the same harmful behaviors. (Check out this article for more insight: Don’t Be Duped by False Repentance)
When an abusive husband apologizes for destructive words and actions and claims to be repentant, a wife feels pressured to act as if the abuse never happened. Rather than setting and enforcing boundaries or escaping from the relationship, she ends up being pulled back into the swirl of abuse.
If an abuser apologizes but then continues to abuse, you have every right to question the validity of the supposed repentance. The Bible teaches that repentance has fruit (see Matthew 3:8). If the fruit is not there, the repentance is not true.
The story of Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus gives us a good picture of what genuine repentance looks like. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector who abused his position to extort money from others in order to get rich. When he encountered Jesus, he had a change of heart:
Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Luke 19:8-9)
Notice that Zacchaeus did not simply apologize, but quite literally he “put his money where his mouth was.” In other words, his repentance had fruit that verified that it was true. He made restitution for the damage he had done to others, giving back four times as much as he had stolen. And this came from an internal heart change, not external pressure or being forced by the law to return what he had stolen. You see, true repentance is a change of heart and mind that leads to a change in behavior.
In Hypocrisy Exposed, I outlined some of the characteristics of genuine repentance:
True repentance has the fruit of a changed life. Fruit takes time to produce, but eventually it will be clear. Here are some marks of genuine repentance:
Those who work in domestic abuse know that abusers very rarely truly change. This is why many wives have found that leaving is actually the best option. But if you are not at the place of leaving, how can you know if he has truly changed when he claims to be repentant? The above checklist can be helpful, but I want to share a few more thoughts.
1. He has not truly changed if the abuse continues, but only in a different mode
Remember that abuse is not simply about behaviors, but is rooted in deeply held beliefs and mindsets. Entitlement, extreme selfishness, and a need for power and control are driving forces of abusive behaviors. If he maintains these attitudes, repentance has not happened. Maybe he will change the tactics of abuse to something more “acceptable,” but the abuse will continue. For example, perhaps he will not use physical violence or aggressive intimidation, but will use verbal abuse and subtle manipulation. If this is the case, he has not repented but is simply using other modes in order to abuse.
2. He has not truly changed if he pressures you to move on as if it never happened
True reconciliation and the rebuilding of trust after a pattern of abuse takes time. If he expects full trust to be restored automatically or you to be warm and affectionate with him right away, there is a lack of understanding and genuine remorse. If he is truly repentant, he will give you as much time and space to heal and rebuild trust as you need.
3. He has not truly changed if he does not respect your boundaries
Healthy boundaries are a hallmark of respectful and loving relationships. Abusers do not respect the boundaries of others, and in a marriage context they often do not believe that their spouse is allowed to have boundaries. If he will not make progress in honoring your boundaries, true repentance has not occurred. (For more information about boundaries check out the audio from this Boundaries Workshop).
There is no place for abuse, and you do not have to tolerate it. And you do not have to accept promises of change if the fruit of repentance is not there. We obviously should never expect perfection from our spouse. But expecting a spouse to not be abusive is not asking too much! While marriage may not look like a fairy tale, it is certainly meant to be loving, godly, and healthy.
If you are living in the midst of an abusive relationship, know that God is for you and that He hates what you are experiencing. It is not His plan for you to be oppressed and abused. I pray that the Lord will bring clarity, healing, and wisdom to you!