He never hit me, not in 24 years. But for most of those years he hurt me. His abuse took on many different facets. When I called the family for prayer, he told me my prayers were a joke. When he was angry he yelled at me chest to chest and made my ear physically ache. After each blow up, he withheld affection and communication until I apologized. Most of the time he accused me of being the abusive partner. He chased me through town in his car when I ran away from a confrontation. One day he even threatened me with a handgun. The most frightening thing about that day is that it almost seemed normal. All of these “wounds” were inflicted while my husband professed his love for me and the gospel, held church callings, and attended the temple.

I can say it now, but would have never thought it then: I was a victim of domestic violence. It happened so gradually. My husband's behavior became more aggressive at the same time that we were discovering and grappling with his multiple and severe health conditions. A blood clotting genetic mutation coupled with a hole in his heart damaged his brain to the point that he lacked impulse control and could not easily manage anger. He could hold together in front of people he respected for short periods of time, but at home with the family he went from 0 to 10 in a matter of moments. His brain circled around the same four or five topics. He could not process multiple stimuli at the same time and all noise aggravated him. My children stopped inviting friends over to the house because my husband would yell at them for disturbing him. He could not remember where he last placed something and would wake all of us throughout the night demanding that we find the lost item immediately. Additionally, he suffered from clinical depression but could not take anti-depressants because of a severe reaction to medication that usually left him in the hospital ICU. His health and his moods made my husband a perpetual storm that all the rest of us were trying to wait out.

While I excused my husband's behavior because of health issues, I still struggled for years trying to reconcile his choices against his ability. In my mind, I could keep excusing the behavior if his mental ability diminished his accountability. My breakthrough moment was when I realized that ultimately the cause of the abuse was not the issue. Whatever the cause, the effect upon me and my children was the same, and it was time to leave.

My decision to leave was confirmed spiritually to me when I pondered 2 Nephi 4-5 in the Book of Mormon with enlightened eyes. Nephi suffered in an abusive relationship with his brothers for many years. Among other things, he was verbally and spiritually abused by his brothers when he started building a ship to cross to the promised land (1 Ne. 17:17); he was physically abused in the second attempt to obtain the brass plates from Laban (1 Ne. 3:28); and his very life was threatened by his brothers when he testified to them (1 Ne. 17:48). In 2 Nephi, he cries out in anguish of soul wondering "Why am I angry because of mine enemy?" (2 Ne 4:27), and pleads with God, "Wilt though deliver me out of the hands of mine enemies?" (vs. 31). The saga climaxes in chapter 5 as Nephi writes that his brothers' anger increased "insomuch that they did seek to take away my life" (vs. 2). At this point, Nephi is warned by the Lord to depart from his brethren and flee into the wilderness (vs. 5). Nephi obeyed and left with his family. But later in chapter 5 we see Nephi's earlier internal struggle between wanting to keep his family safe and wanting to fulfill the commandment of the Lord that he should rule over and teach his brethren. It appears that early on, Nephi saw the two needs as mutually exclusive. It wasn't until Nephi had some mental space away from his brothers that he realized his mission had been fulfilled and he actually had led his brethren "until the time they sought to take away my life. Wherefore the word of the Lord was fulfilled" (vs. 19-20). Nephi was released from his calling to teach and lead his brothers because they would no longer hearken to God. Likewise, I had my own internal struggle with trying to keep my temple covenants and at the same time provide a safe and nurturing home life for me and my children. Like Nephi, I also wanted to be faithful to my promises. In studying 2 Nephi, I came to understand that I always had and would continue to keep my covenants. But because of my husband's behavior, I, like Nephi, was released from my calling.

When I first came to my bishop for help after I left my husband his first question was “Did he ever hit you?” When I answered “No” my bishop assumed there was no abuse, even though I described to him all the other types of abuse we had suffered. I think that my strong personality did not fit his mental picture of an abuse victim. My Bishop had no background on what domestic violence can look like. In his mind, I had never been hit, so no abuse existed. Therefore, he didn’t need to call the bishop hotline. That pivotal decision set the course for a much harder and longer process for both of us. My bishop's walk with me through this journey involved many detours and delays as we fumbled forward without the expert counsel from the church hotline. Many months into the process, I was finally able to clearly state to him that my children and I were victims of domestic violence. At that point he seemed startled and wondered if he should call the hotline. I explained that I already had a permanent protective order in place and other legal things that had taken care of much of the original need. I never questioned my bishop's genuine care and love for me and my family. But, his ignorance of the basic definition of abuse left me in the defensive position most of the time, feeling like I had to defend my choices to him because, as he said, my husband "sounded so reasonable."

In the hopes of shedding light on this issue in general and helping both bishops and victims, I offer the following lessons learned from my own journey.


  1. Don’t expect validation. You might receive it from a bishop, and if you do, count it as a great blessing. It means you will have a common base on which to build with your bishop. But understand that validation is separate from choice. The choice to stay or leave the relationship, and all of the responsibility of that choice, is yours to make and carry. Bishops cannot counsel you divorce your spouse, though they may provide counsel concerning physical separation if he feels you and/or your children are in imminent danger. But they also do not make those choices for you; these are your choices to make. Stay close to the Spirit and trust yourself to hear his voice. The validation you will receive from the Holy Ghost is the more critical, pure, and powerful validation you will need to sustain you through the ensuing aftershocks you and your family feel as you pursue legal protection and possibly divorce.
  2. Request professional counseling. Your bishop is not a professional therapist, and should not be expected to carry that burden for you.
  3. Fill the vacuum. Your bishop cannot act in a vacuum of information. In my case, both my husband I and ended up in the same ward short term. This put the bishop in the awkward position of shepherding both of us, and trying to see both sides of a terrible situation. My husband spent many hours talking to our bishop and filling him with buckets of information. Early in the process, I took my efforts to be self-sufficient too far. The thought didn’t occur to me that I didn’t have to wait for the Bishop to make an appointment with me--I could request meetings to address current needs, update him on the progress of the divorce and protective order, and share my feelings. Later, I realized that this was a hard situation for the bishop to maneuver and he needed the information only I could give him. I needed to share information with him on a regular basis to inform the decisions he needed to make as to how to help each of us. I began to request meetings on a regular schedule.
  4. Make wise use of your face time with your bishop. There is so much information in these situations that a bishop can easily get overwhelmed. I chose to send more detailed information to my bishop by email for him to absorb at his own pace. I used the face time for over-arching direction and specific needs.
  5. Be proactive and specific. Elder Larry Wilson, General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recommends that we be proactive in finding our own solutions: “We might ask, ‘Lord, what do I need to do to be part of the solution?’ Instead of just listing our problems in prayer and asking the Lord to solve them, we ought to be seeking more proactive ways of receiving the Lord’s help and committing to act according to the Spirit’s guidance.”(Wilson, Take the Holy Spirit as Your Guide, April 2018) Similarly, we cannot just list our problems to the bishop and hope he will find solutions for us. I realized I needed extra emotional support and asked my bishop to organize several people beyond my ministering brothers and sisters to keep in contact with me. I requested a ministering couple who had experienced divorce and abuse previously to be my ministering helpers. I asked for help with covering the cost of therapy for me and my youngest son. I asked for support as I attended both civil and criminal court hearings.
    I also realized that I didn't have to always have the answer to a particular need. At those times I would come to my bishop and explain a need I had. My bishop would pray about the need and offer suggestions. For example, when I told my bishop that my son needed worthy priesthood holders to watch and model, my bishop had the idea to pair my son with him on ministering assignments. I am so thankful for that inspiration that allowed my son to see the bishop model leadership and service as his ministering partner.
  6. Allow your bishop room to grow. Although my bishop had served almost five years when I first came to him, he had never dealt with domestic violence in his calling. He had no family experience with abuse. My bishop had no practical experience on which to draw. At the same time, I couldn’t be clear about naming what I had experienced at first. It took me over six months to find my voice with my bishop. But I kept trying and so did he. This was a growing experience for both of us. Fortunately, my bishop was open to my counsel and insight as much as I was to his. Be patient with yourself and with your bishop.

For Bishops:

  1. Allow agency. When my husband and I first met together with the bishop, the bishop offered a prayer. In that prayer he asked for God’s help for us to “save this marriage.” That sentence presupposed an ending for me and my husband. What I needed instead was confirmation of my agency and confidence in my ability to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. Later, my bishop sent me a message saying “You have obviously studied, pondered, and prayed about this, which is what we are asked to do.” I read that message multiple times when I needed comfort and confidence.
  2. Remember that equal is not fair. At times the victim may need more support and more opportunities to meet with you than the abuser, even if the abuser is demanding more attention. My bishop always wanted to offer equal time to each of us. But our needs were not equal. I had left my home one night with only a suitcase each for me and my sons. I had a missionary farewell planned for my other son that same weekend at the home we had just left. I needed my bishop to help with very pressing emotional, physical, and logistic needs. The amount of time those needs took to address was not equal but it was fair.
  3. Do NOT recommend couples marriage counseling. The proper professional protocol is separate counseling for each party and then letting the mental health providers decide if sessions together would be appropriate. I went to one couples session arranged by our bishop. My husband dominated the session to the point that the therapist cut the meeting short and said he would have to see each of us separately. As I rushed out to the car, my husband chased me down and stood outside my car and blocked me from leaving until he finished what he had to say. The situation was not safe emotionally or physically.
  4. Be careful not to let your agenda overrun the victim’s. Before I had left my husband, my choices were weighing heavy on my heart. I had not mentioned how I was feeling to anyone, including my bishop. One day he called me in for a meeting. I was hoping to speak to him about what was in my heart, but he had an agenda prepared and proceeded with other items. Had he simply asked me how I was doing and what I was feeling, we would have had a completely different conversation. I later wrote my bishop explaining this, and to his credit, he apologized. He was always careful from then on to ask what items I needed addressed in our meetings.
  5. Know your doctrine and handbook. Bishops need to be able to communicate with women knowledgeably about eternal covenants and temple marriage. We need information about how eternal sealings work and what effect they might have on our current and future decisions. We need to know what exactly our covenants are and what they are not. Mostly we need hope based in the doctrines of Christ. The fallout from domestic violence and divorce is far-reaching and so very complicated to navigate. A thoughtful scripture or short message of hope can go a long way toward easing that journey.

Each story of domestic violence is unique. But while each experience is unique, one common thread remains: abuse victims all need extra support, love and help as we travel these roads. Bishops can be such a powerful force for good in these situations if victims are willing to help them rise to the occasion and give them space to do so. It takes humility and a strong connection to the voice of the Holy Ghost for BOTH the victim and the bishop to overcome misconceptions, help us each see "things as they really are" (Jacob 4:13) and most importantly, help us on our path of healing.

Full Citation for this Article: Anonymous (2018) "My Story: Lessons Learned Counselling with My Bishop While Experiencing Domestic Violence," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 2 (Summer 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleAnonymousMyStory.html, accessed <give access date>.

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COMMENTS: 2 Comments

I. Jerrod Guddat

Anonymous, I can't thank you enough for your courage in posting your thoughts surrounding your domestic violence experience. My heart goes out to you and your children. I am currently serving as a bishop and the only reason I mention that is to profusely thank you for giving me guidance should the unfortunate circumstance you describe happen in my ward. My experience counseling with sisters is limited. I am sure that is for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is "he is a guy, how can he possibly understand what I am going through as a woman in the Church." But, in the limited setting where a sister has reached out for support I am learning that listening and offering validation first has been hugely supportive to them. Your post gives me extra information, resource, and courage to make a safe space for any member to approach me for help and support. Thank You! Thank You! God bless you as you continue to move forward. P.S. Your insights surrounding Nephi are remarkable. :-)


II. Anonymous

I think something else that is important concerns the interviews that higher ups have with men's wives before they call men to positions like bishop and stake president. I have a friend who is married to a man who has refused to have relations with her in ten years, who refuses to converse with her beyond what is necessary for the running of the household, and who basically treats her as a non-person. Even their children are curious why dad won't even hold mom's hand. Believe it or not, this man was recently called to be a stake president! The visiting authority interviewed my friend, asked her many questions about what kind of dad her husband was (he is a good dad). But the single solitary question he asked her about her husband's relationship with her was, "Has he ever hit you?" Of course she said no. Would he have been called if the authority had asked more questions about the marriage? I think those who interview wives should ask more than the "hitting" question. You can tell an awful lot about a man's spiritual state based on how he treats his wife beyond issues of physical abuse.