Love does not...
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
1 Corinthians 13:4-5
Something I hear often is, “How do I know if this is abuse?”
First, let’s define abuse. Domestic abuse has two components. First, it seeks to gain power and control over the other. The relationship is no longer “we,” but “me.” Second, abuse is a pattern of behaviors that occur throughout the relationship. Whether the pattern is weekly or every two months, it is something that regularly happens.
For example: Recently, my husband found me to let me know he was ready to head out. I had been drinking coffee and asked if I could quick brush my teeth. Then I started gulping the rest of my coffee. His response was, “Brush teeth… or drink coffee?” To which I over-exaggeratedly stooped my shoulders and walked down the hall to brush my teeth. Both of us laughed. In a different relationship, that comment could have caused fear or anxiety.
So, how can you tell if something is abusive?
Let’s look at relationship abuse/violence in the context of 1 Corinthians 13. While it may seem strange to base this discussion on a passage about love, these verses are foundational to identifying ways a partner uses a pattern of behaviors to maintain control over the other.
Notice how most of the definitions of love are descriptions of what it is NOT.
Abusive relationships are not always visible. Sometimes the scars caused by abuse are hidden.
Love… is not self-seeking
Abuse has its foundation in selfishness. The abuser wants all the power in the relationship. He or she wants to be able to control their partner to fulfill their own desires, not out of love for the other person.
Paul is clear about this distinction when he writes, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) Love seeks to put the other person and their needs first.
Love… does not envy
Abuse is happening when one person manipulates or keeps the other from being with their friends or family. Someone who loves another is not jealous of their partner’s friendships. They understand that their partner needs other connections, and that having those outside relationships is healthy.
Love allows each person in a relationship the freedom to continue friendships and create new ones that may or may not include their partner.
Love… does not dishonor others
Sadly, this can come all too easily to us. Words become abusive when someone is frequently negative in their comments about their partner, with compliments being few and far between.
Name calling has no place in a loving relationship. Neither do insults or put downs.
Jesus made that clear in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:22) Love is the opposite. It means encouraging and building up the person you love by rejoicing in their strengths.
Love… is not easily angered
Abusers need control, and anger is often used to get and maintain it. When one person feels instant fear or anxiety when the other is near, anger is likely a constant companion in that relationship. This is a sign of an unhealthy or abusive relationship. And God hates anger: “Anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:22)
A healthy relationship means both partners feel comfortable and safe in the presence of the other. They do not live in fear that their partner will be angered by something they did. Rather, they trust that the other wants to see them happy and healthy.
As a friend, listening is one of the best things you can do to provide support to a survivor.
Love… keeps no record of wrongs
Abusive, or at the least unhealthy, relationships exhibit an elephant’s memory for past wrongs. Even in the presence of true repentance, the past is regularly brought up again and again.
Sometimes imagined injuries from the past are ‘remembered’ and used against a partner. However, love means that a past sin, when true repentance is made, is no longer used as a weapon in the relationship.
Note, however, that keeping no record of wrongs does not mean no consequences. For example, if a partner shows they are prone to gambling to the detriment of the family, the gambling partner understands they lost the privilege of unlimited use of the family’s money. He or she should agree and accept that money is best handled by the other.
Keeping no record of wrongs applies to true repentance, which means considerable effort is placed on not repeating the offense. I mention this because an abusive person will use passages like this to demand that their partner forgive and forget. In the absence of repentance, this is not possible.
So what does it look and sound like?
Survivors often hint at abuse long before they are willing to trust someone with the full truth. Sometimes they’ll even hint at abuse before they themselves are aware of the situation.
A survivor might make frequent excuses for why they can't leave the house. They might tense up when you talk about their partner. They might become much more quiet and reserved when their partner is around. And so on.
Knowing what to listen for is important. Understanding what love looks like, and does not look like, will help you in spotting potential abuse.
It gives you the opportunity to express empathy and listen, to build trust, and to provide the best possible care to a survivor.
Are you a pastor? Sign up to receive the recording of my webinar, How Do You Know?
We'll take a more in-depth look at how to spot abuse happening in your congregation and how you can build trust to provide meaningful support. Plus, along with the webinar you'll receive a screening tool along with instructions for using it.
Michelle Markgraf, community expert on survivor advocacy and safety, helped launch the Empowering Survivors of Relationship Violence program at Kingdom Workers. She previously worked as a volunteer advocate and later as the Executive Director of a rape and domestic abuse crisis center.