Is Domestic Discipline Loving Correction or Domestic Violence?

Abusive man yelling at woman
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The domestic discipline (DD) movement encourages wife-spanking as discipline and is condoned and supported by some religions and religious leaders. But it's been argued that giving husbands this type of authority in a marriage can lead to spousal abuse and can destroy the self-esteem of the person being spanked.

Here's a look at whether the practice borders on domestic abuse and constitutes violence, and whether it's scripture-based or sexually motivated.

What Is Domestic Discipline?

Domestic discipline, or Christian domestic discipline, is a submissive heterosexual marriage lifestyle that encourages husbands (who are considered the head of the household or HoH) to spank their wives for mistakes or misbehavior. There may be other methods of punishment used as well, including time-outs, loss of driving privileges, etc. Those who support the domestic discipline lifestyle give their reasons, which are often at odds with what research says about the practice.

What Supporters Say

  • It comes from the Bible.

  • It is not BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadomasochism).

  • It is discipline; it is non-erotic.

  • It is an essential part of the marital relationship.

  • It provides a physical correction with one who truly cares.

  • It is responsible authority.

  • It is appropriate punishment.

  • It requires total consent from both parties.

What Research Says

  • It is based on misinterpretations of the Bible.

  • It is a version of BDSM.

  • It is sexually erotic.

  • It is not life-giving to relationships.

  • It is a control issue and is potentially abusive.

  • Marriage calls a couple to mutuality, not superiority of one spouse over the other that involves punishment. 

Is Domestic Discipline Scripture-Based? 

Although defenders of domestic discipline believe that the DD lifestyle is based on Bible passages, some Christian religious leaders disagree. Those who practice domestic discipline often mention scripture texts that call for a woman to be submissive to her husband, but there are many who follow a submissive marriage belief without beating or striking their wives.

"The difficulty with the traditional view of headship is that it has been misused to keep women subservient and in some cases to justify the emotional and/or physical abuse of women within the couple relationship," The Convention of Atlantic Baptist Churches states in Harmony in the Home. "This is far from mutual submission and is not as God intended for the couple relationship." 

"I do not believe that there is one husband who is so perfect that he would be justified to use that kind of authority," said Reverend Al Blonigen, Chaplain for the metro-Detroit Retrouvaille, in reference to spanking. "Besides, nowhere in Scripture did Jesus use physical pain on anyone."

In the New Testament, Paul, the writer of Colossians, offers instructions for Christian households with a particular emphasis on wives submitting to their husband, notes Lisa Bahar, MA, CCJP, LMFT, LPCC, a licensed marriage and family therapist and professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, a Christian university in California. 

"My understanding of this scripture is that wives would follow their husband's leadership in Christ," says Dr. Bahar.

"Just as Christ served his disciples to the point of washing their feet, he is asking husbands to serve their wives. A wise and Christ-honoring husband will not abuse his wife, which would include a physical altercation like spanking."  

Why Do Some Women Agree to Domestic Discipline?

Some believe that women want or agree with domestic discipline due to guilt over past sexual behavior, or because they believe that God has deemed that disciplinarian is the proper role of a husband.

DD is may be appealing to women who want to be free from having to make decisions or taking responsibility in life. Some women may believe DD gives them free rein to do what they want and being spanked or losing driving privileges eliminates the wrong. But according to some anti-DD Christian groups, the woman is relegated to child status with little motivation to grow into a "mature woman of God."

Some women may deem these acts of discipline as acceptable or part of their subculture due to a history of sexual or physical abuse, notes Dr. Bahar.

Others may find spanking sexually exciting. "There may be an adrenaline rush combined with the sexual arousal and this chemical reaction can be addictive," explains Dr. Bahar.

Domestic Violence Within the Domestic Discipline Lifestyle

Dr. Bahar says DD can be considered a form of domestic violence or intimate partner violence, as it is consistent with the three phases of domestic abuse as conceptualized in the late 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker:

  • Tension-building phase (the build-up to domestic abuse)
  • Acute battering episode (the spanking)
  • Honeymoon phase (possible remorse, pursuit, and denial of the severity)

She adds that DD is a physical, mental, emotional, and possibly sexual safety risk of health and well-being. And it can be even more damaging if children observe these acts of violence.

A Word From Verywell

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three U.S. women has been the victim of domestic violence in an intimate relationship. Almost 20 people of any gender are abused by a partner every minute.

If you are in a domestic discipline marriage and are worried about the safety of yourself and your children, don't wait to get help. Turning to a marriage or mental health counselor can help you break the silence and make an informed, rational decision about the health of your relationship.

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