Sad topic today.
An abusive marriage is a major part of the plot in my second novel, The Strange Land.
I first introduced this problem with a very minor mention in The Long Guest. Wife abuse of some kind (not always the violent physical kind) could occur in a quarter to a half of all relationships, depending on the culture. In The Long Guest I portray a small founding group of not quite 100 people, which means fifteen or twenty families. Given that human nature has not changed throughout the ages, to have a group of this size with no abusive families in it would have been grossly unrealistic.
The Limits of the Options
Abuse within a family is always very difficult to respond to. This is true in every age, but in our modern age there are at least a few options that those who care about the victim can offer. As a last resort, breaking up the family in order to stop the abuse might not be ideal, but it’s at least possible. It is possible for a single mom in our society to survive economically. As for the abuser, it is possible to put him in jail, or failing that to put hundreds of miles between him and his victims.
There are fewer options available to a community when it’s tiny, isolated out in the wilderness, and consisting basically of one big extended family. In this situation, there is no jail, there is no other place to live and it’s much less possible for a woman, especially if she has young children, to physically survive without a man.
So, how can the community handle this? A case of abuse is essentially a case of a stubborn, very hard heart. Rebukes don’t work on such a heart. Threats or pressure might work for a while, but ultimately tend to make the abuse worse. In a small, isolated community with no police force and nowhere else to go, the community has very few options unless they are willing to kill the abuser. They are unlikely to be willing to do this, especially if he is related to them by blood. If they do choose to put him to death, in the best case they must now support his widow and children. In the worst case, it could tear the community apart, resulting in anything from more deaths to the complete end of the tribe.
When I included an abusive marriage purely for realism, I had little idea that I would be handing my community of characters a truly insoluble puzzle.
The Limits of the Law
These very questions, and others like them, are explored in the video below by the always articulate Alistair Roberts. Roberts is answering a question from a viewer about why consent (in cases of arranged marriage, concubinage, etc.) does not seem to feature as a concept in Old Testament law. How can we square this with the idea that the Law is in any sense good?
Roberts talks about the limits of any law to change the society it governs, and about the extremely limited reach of national-level laws to govern what goes on within a household. He mentions cases like that of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, whom Sarah “gives” to Abraham so that Hagar can have a son who will be considered his heir. The way the founding couple treated Hagar was normal in their society at the time, but was certainly exploitative and was arguably rape. Though Hagar’s case was not covered by the law, it is obvious from the story that God noticed the injustice and avenged it. I never noticed that God avenged what happened to Hagar and her son Ishmael until I heard Roberts point it out in other videos, and then it became blindingly obvious. He recaps that here, as well as giving proof that God took seriously King David’s treatment not only of Uriah, but of Bath-Sheba as well (another case that today would be considered at least sexual harassment and probably rape).
The bottom line is that we do what we can to right wrongs, but our varying circumstances constrain what are able to do. These topics, sadly, are relevant to everyone. If you spend long enough in a community of any kind (church, school, team, family) you will eventually be forced to deal with the question of how to confront abuse. This video isn’t going to to give you all the answers (because they don’t exist), but it could help clarify your thinking. If you have time, give it a listen.
Another excellent resource on this topic is the book Why Does He DO That? by Lundy Bancroft.