An Inside Look at Domestic Discipline and Its Abuse of Power

The domestic discipline movement encourages wife-spanking as discipline. But many researchers argue that allowing husbands this type of authority in marriage represents spousal abuse and can destroy the self-esteem and dignity of the person being spanked.

Yet, it's not Biblically sound despite what supporters say. Here's a closer look at how the practice represents a form of domestic abuse.

Abusive man yelling at woman
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What Is Domestic Discipline?

Domestic discipline, or Christian domestic discipline as it is sometimes called, is a heterosexual marriage lifestyle that encourages husbands (who are considered the head of the household or HoH) to spank their wives for mistakes or misbehavior. 

While most of the discipline in this type of relationship involves spanking, people who engage in the practice may incorporate other forms of discipline as well. An example includes forcing a partner to stand in the corner in time out.

Sometimes the HoH requires them to ask permission to do simple things like drive the car or visit with friends. Additionally, they typically have complete control over all the decision-making and often controls the purse strings as well.

Most researchers assert that domestic discipline is nothing more than a justification for abuse in a relationship.

After all, the very nature of the practice gives the husband (or the HoH) all the power and control in the relationship while also justifying physical violence or spanking of the wife (or the TiH, "taken in hand").

What's more, spanking is not only painful, but it's also belittling, dehumanizing, and traumatizing. These things can impact the wife's self-esteem and identity—communicating that she is childlike and must be disciplined.

Likewise, domestic discipline communicates that she deserves to be punished for making mistakes or not living up to her husband's expectations. These beliefs are in line with what most abusive partners assert—that she deserves it or that she brought it upon herself.

Because domestic discipline is considered a deviant behavioral approach to relationships, most men and women turn to blogs, private community groups, and websites to gather information or to chronicle their experiences. Commonly, those who support the domestic discipline lifestyle cite a number of problematic reasons for engaging in the practice including a belief that it is a biblical practice and ordained by God.

But, these beliefs are often at odds with what research says about the practice. Here is an overview of the stark contrast between what those who practice domestic discipline claim and what the research actually says.

Domestic Discipline Claims
  • Supported by Scripture

  • Gives husband authority over entire household

  • Requires consent from both parties

  • Teaches wife to be submissive

  • Punishes wives' transgressions with physical discipline

What Research Actually Says
  • Based on misinterpretations of the Bible

  • Does not give life to relationships

  • Is controlling and abusive

  • Undermines mutuality in marriage

  • Contains negative consequences

Domestic Discipline and the Bible 

Although defenders of domestic discipline argue that their lifestyle is biblically-based, many Christian religious leaders disagree. For instance, those who practice domestic discipline often cite scripture that calls for wives to submit to their husbands. But according to religious leaders, they are taking the passage out of context to justify their beliefs and actions.

These arguments distort and misuse the concepts of headship and submission to keep women subservient to men. Simply put, they are using scripture to justify physical and emotional abuse of women by couching their actions in religious terms.

Consequently, it is important to point out that Jesus never physically punished anyone in the Bible. Likewise, the Bible never suggests that one spouse is more important than the other.

In fact, many Christian churches teach mutual submission or egalitarian relationships. Even churches that teach submission emphasize that husbands must be willing to lay down their lives for their wives just as Christ did for the church.

"My understanding of this scripture is that wives would follow their husband's leadership in Christ," says Dr. Lisa Bahar, a licensed marriage and family therapist and a psychology professor at Pepperdine University, a Christian University in California.

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

Domestic Abuse and Domestic Discipline

Dr. Bahar says domestic discipline is a form of abuse that's consistent with the three phases of abuse conceptualized in the late 1970s by psychologist Lenore Walker. These phases—sometimes called the cycle of violence— include:

  • Tension-building phase: the build-up to abuse
  • Acute battering episode: the spanking
  • Honeymoon phase: "after care" which may include remorse and making up

She adds that domestic discipline is a physical, mental, emotional, and sexual safety risk that impacts a person's health and well-being. What's more, it can be even more damaging if children observe these acts of violence.

Similarities Between Abuse and Domestic Discipline

It's important to recognize that domestic discipline is abusive. One person in the relationship has complete power and control over the other and uses physical violence to maintain that control.

Just like other abusive relationships, the abused has no say over what happens and can at times feel like they are walking on eggshells. The HoH controls everything from what their spouse can wear to who they can talk with.

The abuser also likely controls the finances and limits their spouse to an allowance even if the spouse is the primary breadwinner. And the HoH uses physical violence and verbal abuse to maintain this control—and feels justified in doing so.

In fact, a comparison between the signs of abuse and the common practices in domestic discipline illustrate that they contain the same control tactics. Here is an overview of this comparison.

Signs of Abuse
  • May use physical violence as a control tactic

  • Isolates partner from family and friends

  • Displays a power imbalance in the relationship

  • Makes threats of physical violence to maintain control

  • Believes the abuse is justified or that the victim caused it

  • Engages in financial control

  • Denies abuse or violence happened and argues it was not as bad as victim claims

Domestic Discipline
  • Uses spanking to maintain order and control

  • Sets rules about wife's interactions with others

  • Provides all the power to the HoH

  • Threatens spanking if rules are not followed

  • Believes spanking is appropriate for mistakes or rule-breaking

  • Has control over all the finances

  • Denies that this lifestyle is abusive and argues that it is consensual and biblical

How Couples Become Entrenched

To outsiders, domestic discipline is confusing. It is hard to understand why people would support this practice. As a result, researchers have been studying what keeps people entrenched in this lifestyle.

In one study, researchers used anonymous testimonials and websites that were publicly available to study how male heads of households, their female partners, and the domestic discipline community uses techniques of neutralization to rationalize the practice of wife spanking.

Consequently, they discovered five techniques that are used to neutralize or justify their actions and behaviors. These five techniques included an appeal to higher loyalties, denial of responsibility (entitlement), denial of the victim (victim blaming), denial of injury (justification), and a condemnation of those who denounce the practice. Here is an overview of how they are used to rationalize this abusive practice.

Appeal to Higher Loyalties

This technique occurs when offenders claim that the spanking was committed because there is a bond that they consider to be more important than current social norms. For instance, this bond could be their religious beliefs, their belief about what God wants from them, or their belief that this is how God intended marriage.

Offenders argue that their behavior is mandated by God and that is more important than what society considers normal.

Entitlement

Supporters of this lifestyle argue that men are entitled to use physical violence, such as spanking, to discipline their wives because scripture gives them that authority. They claim that domestic discipline is the natural order of things and that the HoH has a responsibility to discipline his wife for the sake of the marriage.

Victim Blaming

This technique is used by offenders to neutralize guilt while feeling justified in using physical violence to punish their spouse. In these situations, the wife or victim is accused of deserving the violence. Common phrases used in the blaming are "You had it coming" or "You should have known better."

In these situations, the offender blames the victim for the punishment she receives. The focus is on what the victim did, how she broke the rules, or what she should be doing differently. Many domestic discipline relationships are so extreme that even the slightest infractions are an excuse for discipline.

Justification

Although the spankings or other forms of discipline that the wife endures are often painful and leave bruises or other injuries, these facts are often downplayed as insignificant or natural consequences for her bad behavior. Supporters argue that the bruising and lingering pain are necessary for the stability of the marriage as well as what God would want.

Condemnation

This technique occurs when offenders shift the blame from themselves to others who disapprove of their actions. They claim that society is corrupt and that any beliefs contrary to their own are the reasons why marriages are failing. They argue that this lifestyle saves marriages and that those who do not accept God's mandates for discipline are doomed.

Supporters of domestic discipline will go to great lengths to justify and rationalize their behaviors and deny they are abusive, but authorities like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) see it otherwise.

The CDC defines abuse, or intimate partner violence, as physical violence, sexual violence, stalking, and psychological aggression (or emotional and verbal abuse) perpetrated a current or former intimate partner. Consequently, regardless of what those who support domestic discipline say, spanking and other forms of physical violence is an abusive practice that harms women.

A Word From Verywell

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in three U.S. women has been the victim of physical violence in an intimate relationship. Meanwhile, almost 20 people of any gender are abused by a partner every minute. So, if you are in a domestic discipline marriage, you are not alone. But you do need to get help.

If you are worried about the safety of yourself or your children, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for assistance from a highly-trained advocate or use their online chat option for a more private conversation. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Turning to an advocate or a mental health counselor can help you break the silence about your situation. These professionals can help you make an informed, rational decision about your physical safety, the health of your relationship, and the well-being of your children.

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Article Sources
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